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.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.