Great idea: Bring together dozens of the Bay Area's top chefs, winemakers, and mixologists for a Dionysian dream date to spotlight San Francisco as the premier city of epicurean delights. Great causes: Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, the San Francisco Food Bank, and Project Open Hand, all standing to benefit from the inaugural four-day festival's pricey tickets. They range from $40 for late-night dessert and dancing ("Chocolate Enhancement") to $250 for a "Gala Dinner" at Union Square's posh St. Francis ("American Culinary Pioneer Awards"). The essential question: Is it worth it?
At the SF Chefs. Food. Wine. opening ceremony last night, Mayor Gavin Newsom lauded our one-of-a-kind city as a food and drink nirvana where "people come from all over the world" to intoxicate their palates with the city's "diversity, innovation, ... and entrepreneurial spirit." Of course, he was right. There was no shortage of exotic enticements in the spacious tent's various booths, which featured sufficient bite-sized tasties and classy adult beverages to satisfy sophisticated and ravenous gluttons alike.
Impressive appetizers included Vietnamese chicken and ginger noodle soup, rich with effervescent textures and flavors that warmed both heart and belly, by Robert Lam of Butterfly. There was a wild boar corn dog (yep, corn dog), a resilient sausage fancied up with a light polenta batter, flash-fried, and topped with a sumptuous dollop of something spicy, by ex-Ducca chef Richard Corbo of Pizzeria Zanna Bianca (a new venture set to open in Jack London Square in early 2010).
There was also an erotic, melt-in-your-mouth squid, corn relish, chili, tomato, and basil dish by Justin Simoneaux of the Moss Room; a fig, almond, olive, and Chinese long bean combo -- sweet like chocolate and with a lingering happiness, a smiley face for the tongue -- by Malachi Harland of the Chef's Table; and a Moroccan lamb chop (with pomegranate reduction and mint chimichiuri) so tender and sparkling it was like sucking down sunshine on a fog-drenched day, by Erik Hopfinger of Circa.
The chefs served up the vittles themselves, and most were friendly and fun to chat with. One exception was Marc Vogel of ChefMarc, who seemed put out by the foodies who supped on his Mushroom Madness, basically four kinds of 'shrooms in a heavy cream sauce with Granny Smith apple slice on a glorified crouton. Fine, simple food, served up by a chef who came off as surly.
With too many winemakers to choose from, we gave ourselves up to the city's award-winning bartenders. Three stood out for magical potions that packed both punch and multilayered flavors. Dominic Venegas (a true healer whose card reads "Spirits Counseling") shook up a heady brew he dubbed Pacifico. The party really started once your nose neared the rim of the glass. The scent was Christmas in Mexico, the taste cinnamon and golden, tequila to kill for. Marco Dionysos, who changed his name long before he realized his calling as a liquor-mixing god, concocted the Don Quijote, another South-of-the-Border agave pleasure with the distinction of vodka-diluted pepper spray on its shimmering surface. The sum effect was a tart, sharp tingle, a big bite without the bark, fascinating and addictive. Lastly, our favorite man behind the bar was Neyah White, who knocked us out with his refreshing Strawberry Shrub, a singularly fruity elixir, fermented colonial-style in his home cellar, doused with gin and candy-coated with absinthe.
Was this thrill ride of drinking and dining worth the price of admission? It was certainly a high time, and last night was only the first. Over the next three days, the festival serves up cooking classes, dinners, and altogether more goodies than the contents of a trick-or-treat bag. Last night's opening was only a tantalizing taste of the kind of emotional rush that comes from savoring world-class foodstuffs (and, okay, great sex). Should you spend the money? Sure, go for it. What's a few hundred dollars for a salacious night on the town?
Personal Bias: Wine is fine, but whiskey's quicker.
Random Detail: A salsa band was a festive touch, but the music was too loud and the tent's awful acoustics were aggravating.