Seared ahi in one hand, braised short rib in the other, with a glass of chardonnay bouncing whimsically as it hangs around your neck. You’ve long since lost count of how many of Maggiano’s heavenly chocolate zuccotto cake balls you’ve indulged in. The clinking of glasses has become a natural symphony for the afternoon, a product of groups cheers-ing, vendors leaving patrons with a jubilant impression, or just those wine glass necklaces clanking against some fine Orange County jewelry. The clinking is briefly overshadowed by the commanding voice of Richard Blais as he creates an explosion of boiling water and liquid nitrogen, sparking a roar of applause. It’s an iconic moment at the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival, where food fans are living their best life.
After building up quite a reputation in its first five years, the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival continues to step up its game, providing a premiere experience for food fans, wine aficionados and starstruck audiences of celebrity chef cooking demonstrations. Three days of grand tastings and private events allowed guests to explore some of Orange County’s best culinary offerings.
Friday’s ‘Fire It Up’ kicked off the festival by setting a very high bar, whereby chefs showcased their grilling talents amidst an intimate shoreside setting. Taking place at the Balboa Bay Resort with some booths literally on the sand, this gourmet barbecue saw lavish displays of lamb, sausage, seafood and more ribs than you could imagine. Top Chef Celebrities Brooke Williamson and Casey Thompson’s gigantic shrimp and Chilean seabass were tastes for the memory books, as was Knife’s pork ribs, jalapeno cornbread and bacon jam. Patrons enjoyed Tackle Box’s Korean BBQ short ribs and Ms. Chi Café’s rack of lamb as well, alongside a myriad of wines and cocktails with live music performing in the foreground of a sunset ocean view in Southern California.
A seamless transition led to the first of the weekend’s two grand tastings, held at the Newport Beach Civic Center. Stretching across three massive tents, Saturday’s festivities boasted dozens of restaurants, bakeries, wineries and other drink purveyors. Five Crown’s chicken pies delivered savory, buttery sustenance, while Olea’s duck liver pate boasted the same traits in its own distinct way. Filomena’s Italian Kitchen served up a lovely penne alla vodka with sausage, and The Winery Restaurant’s lamb sandwiches were a smash hit. And then there was Bluegold and LXSO’s curry, which had people coming back for seconds, thirds and fourths.
The cooking stage was its own highlight, emceed by Orange County Local and veteran chef Jaime Gwen, whose energy and culinary knowledge pushed each demonstration to new heights. Brooke Williamson and fellow Top Chef Star Shirley Chung put on a wildly entertaining cooking demo that brought new life to vegan desserts, while Kelsey Barnard Clark led the audience in an alluring yet approachable way to cook up fried chicken and biscuits with Alabama style. The day belonged to Antonia Lofaso, however, who wowed the audience with simple and beautiful cooking techniques and a heck of a stage presence.
Sunday saw much of the same magic, with many new restaurants showcasing their own culinary novelties. Sprinkles cupcakes made its debut at Newport Food and Wine, doling out literally thousands of cupcakes to anyone with a sweet tooth. Crack Shack also came out for its first year, strategically steering away from its famous fried chicken (it’s nearly impossible to make fried chicken for the masses at a food festival) and instead showcasing some excellent grilled chicken ‘California Reubens.’
And with Crack Shack came Richard Blais, a long-time partner with the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival. As predicted, the vocal culinary gastronomist completely stole the show. Some spectacular cooking certainly took place, but it may have taken a back seat to the hilarious jokes and banter commanded by Blais’ larger-than-life personality. He finished things off by bringing back the homemade flamethrower, sealing a show perfected for entertainment.
Additional events took participants across the region, from a golf tournament and brunch at Pelican Hill to a cooking demo and wine tasting with Nobu Matsuhisa himself at Nobu Newport Beach. For more information, visit NewportWineAndFood.com.
The long walk up the driveway of the famous Laurabelle A. Robinson House already encompasses more real estate than most people will own in their lifetime. Experiencing many of Pasadena’s finest restaurants serving up signature dishes across this breathtaking property, however, takes food festivals to a whole new level. There’s sometime truly special about biting into braised short rib whilst looking out over a private infinity pool and onto the sun setting behind the canyon.
This sense of allure has allowed the annual Festival of Fall to go 45 years strong, bringing together some of Pasadena’s finest for an evening of extravagant food and drink in the historic Laurabelle A. Robinson House (read: one of the grandest mansions you will ever see). This fundraiser event, which begins with a food festival and leads into a live auction, benefited AbilityFirst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to programming and support for children and adults with disabilities.
Circling around the mansion’s front entrance were Mi Piace, with decadent truffle mac ‘n’ cheese, Sushi Roku, with an intriguing tuna hand roll that incorporated fresh arugula and Parmesan, Celestino Ristorante with excellent Bolognese and Bone Kettle, serving impeccable fried rice. Walk through the mansion’s vast garden, which includes a blissfully fitting pumpkin patch, and arrive at a built-in outdoor bar taken over by Golden Road Brewing. Serving alongside them were Lawry’s and Tam O’Shanter, serving their iconic cuts, as well as NOOR with melt-in-your-mouth ravioli.
Another stroll took you to the basketball court, occupied by the likes of Roy’s Restaurant, El Cholo Café, Julienne Fine Foods & Celebrations, Gale’s Restaurant, and one of the night’s true standouts, Bacchus’ Kitchen, whose fried chicken tacos were truly something else.
A nature walk past the putting green and over a manmade stream took you to the main stage, where tables for 500 were set up amidst one of the grandest views in Pasadena. After a fun liquid nitrogen demonstration by SuperCool Creamery, emcee Jeff Michael of CBS2News took the mic for the live auction to begin. An opening donation of $15,000 kicked off strong support for AbilityFirst that continued through the night’s end, raising more than $260,000 in total.
The event honored LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger with the AbilityFirst Champion Awared, and included testimonials from numerous AbilityFirst participants and their families. Auction items included everything from experiences with the night’s participating restaurants to Tuscan getaways and yes, even a live puppy.
Festival of Fall will undoubtedly continue its momentum to 2020. For more information, visit AbilityFirst.org/events/festival-of-fall.
Old Town Pasadena put on a clever spin on food events, melding together the city’s restaurants together with its boutique retail shops for an intriguing walking food tour. WinePas was designed to showcase some of the town’s quaint and tasteful (in more ways than one) highlights while raising money for the Pasadena Educational Foundation, which supports grants for the city’s teachers.
Some of those local teachers doubled as guides for this special evening, donning pastel-orange shirts and leading small groups through narrow corridors just off the Old Town’s iconic Colorado Boulevard. It was a new discovery of the area, even for the most seasoned Pasadena locals.
While most food tours lead groups through restaurants, WinePas took a different approach by bringing restaurants and guests alike into local retail shops. The first stop took people into Gold Bug, a specialty trinket store with exotic merchandise sourced from across the world, where amidst gemstones and faux cow skulls stood a booth for Bone Kettle, who served their papaya salad and steak tartare.
The process repeated five times, where patrons got a new tandem dining and shopping experience each step of the way. Maestro’s ceviche and take on Mexican street corn, The Pan’s everything pizza, and Fish Wives’ crab cakes were some of the additional culinary highlights, hosted in retail shops Finn + Willow, Fresh and Sugarfina respectively.
The tour ended at The Celler, an alluring ‘hidden’ wine room in the heart of Old Town. Michael Calderon, regionally acclaimed as “Mr. Pasadena,” served as the event’s Title Host and Sponsor and was present to spread jubilance throughout the experience. Calderon played a large role in planning the event as well as funding it, and spoke to combining retail and food as a means to expose patrons to the community in a new way.
All proceeds from WinePas go directly to the Pasadena Educational Foundation. Whether this becomes an annual festivity is to be determined, but it was undoubtedly met with great enjoyment for all who participated. For more information, visit WinePas.com.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.