I think my favorite sport in the Olympics is the one in which you make your way through the snow, you stop, you shoot a gun, and then you continue on. In most of the world, this is known as the biathlon, except in New York City, where it is known as winter. -- Michael Ventre, L.A. Daily News
What Mr. Ventre doesn't mention is that you might want to point that gun at yourself. Once the magical wonderland that is Christmas in New York has packed up and left town, reality slides an icy-cold finger down the back of your neck: It's bitterly cold, the trees are bare, and you know it's just a matter of time before the slush arrives and you have to step into one of those black puddles that could be three inches deep, or three feet. There aren't even any good holidays to look forward to: Celebrating groundhogs and Abe Lincoln isn't nearly as much fun as celebrating gluttony and greed like we do on proper holidays.
To escape these winter doldrums, Angel and I like to head south. As we did last year around this time, we booked a trip to Key West, this time to coincide with the Key West Food & Wine Festival. (This is a real event, not just how I refer to every visit to Key West.) We ended up with VIP tickets, which entitle you to attend all of the scheduled events during the four-day festival, but sadly do not entitle you to the new liver that you will require at the end.
The festivities began on Thursday night with the Barefoot Beach Party, a wine-soaked event at Key West's South Beach at which no one is actually barefoot. That suited me just fine, since I was already wondering how I was ever going to find my sandals again if I had to bury them in the sand to prevent someone from stealing them. (You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the girl.) There we met up with some old friends, Donna and Greg, and some new friends, Claudia and Alden. Don't worry if you can't remember their names; by the end of the night, I couldn't either.
Angel gallantly volunteered to wear both VIP passes so that my necklace wouldn't get tangled up in the lanyard, and to carry the camera so my shoulder wouldn't get sore from the strap. Yes, he is a saint. Saint Sherpa.
Among the tasty nibbles at the Beach Party were carved roast beef, shrimp and fish tacos, assorted cheeses, and tropical fruit, all of which were very good considering that they weren't bacon double cheeseburgers.
Oh, and little rum cakes! Big rum cakes are good, too, but almost everything tastes better when it's miniaturized.
After the Not-So-Barefoot Beach Party, we all piled into one of the Old Town Trolleys that transported us to the next event, the Wine Around the Neighborhood Strolls. The word "stroll" implies nattily-dressed couples ambulating arm-in-arm, perhaps under a pointy ruffled umbrella, but trust me when I tell you: this was no stroll. This was a tipsy, giggly, Wine Around the Neighborhood Stumble.
Having chosen the Bight Stroll, which featured restaurants along Key West's historic seaport, we began at Conch Republic Seafood Company, where we were treated to bacon-wrapped scallops with pineapple chutney and Thai peanut sauce, which was paired with a Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc Viognier. (Kudos to anyone who can pronounce "Viognier" after two hours of wine tasting . . . or any time, really.)
Despite the presence of large barrels that would have made fine tables for balancing our wine glasses and the slippery scallops, in our clouded judgement we instead decided that we'd sit on some tree stumps and balance the tiny plates on our laps . . . which is how poor Donna ended up with a scallop-shaped bacon grease stain on her lovely white pants. As for me, I'd no sooner carefully balanced my plate on the tree strump stool when my scallop slid off and landed in a perfectly scallop-sized little cranny in the stump. Unable to decide whether I'd get more enjoyment out of digging the scallop out and eating it anyway, or waiting around to see if someone might sit on it, I did the only sensible thing I could: I wandered off in search of more wine.
Our next stop was the Commodore restaurant. I immediately tried to sober up a bit upon realizing that this was a classy joint, as was apparent from the fact that we could sit on bar stools instead of greasy tree stumps.
You see, while herds of wine-soused VIPs clambered off the trolley and into the various restaurants participating in the Stumble, the restaurants in question were actually open for business. And so, if you were in the midst of having an elegant meal at the Commodore or A&B Lobster House when we barged in and demanded, "More food! More wine! More Rolaids!" it's really your own fault. That's what you get for trying to have a fancy dinner in a town that boasts a shrunken torso at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium.
After settling into some seats at the bar to enjoy our lobster cakes with roasted red pepper sauce, I immediately felt something strange and reached under my rear end, only to come up with this:
That's right: After mercilessly teasing Donna about her stained pants, I accidentally sat on a piece of frisee. Karma. It really is a bitch.
Other stops included A&B Lobster House, where we enjoyed a delicious puff pastry topped with Maine lobster, escargot, and wild mushrooms in lemon butter sauce, paired with a Louis Martini cabernet . . .
. . . and White Tarpon Wine Bar, where I immediately flung that roast beast aside to get at the delicious potato gratin underneath.
The final stop along the Neighborhood Stumble was the Blue Mojito bar at the Hyatt, where we were to gather around a campfire and make our own S'mores.
That is when I realized that the folks who run the Key West Food and Wine Festival are bunch of sick $&#%s. Why else would they wait until the very end of the night, when most of us could barely see straight, to equip us with long, pointy metal sticks and encourage us to play with fire? The fact that I still have both of my eyes and both of my eyebrows after this event proves the mantra of drunkards everywhere: When faced with imminent danger, one really can sober up in a hurry.
You might think the fact that the six of us escaped without third-degree burns or puncture wounds would have sent us scurrying home to count our blessings, but no. After four-and-a-half hours of never actually seeing the bottom of my glass, it was off to Grand Vin for a bottle of Champagne. Here's to cirrhosis!
Oh, I almost forgot: Earlier that day, we'd decided to bike over to El Siboney for lunch. Why would I down a huge platter of Cuban food right before an all-night food and wine event? If you have to ask, you must be new to this blog. Welcome!
Anyway, do not be put off by the fact that this looks like a dry cleaners in a bad neighborhood (an oxymoron if ever there was one). El Siboney attracts an extremely brisk lunch crowd, all of whom come for the hearty portions of well-prepared Cuban classics, which I usually wash down with sangria, but on this day was washed down with a cocktail of diet Coke, Advil, and Pepcid AC.
I went with the Ropa Vieja, which means "old clothes," while Angel settled on the Chuletas a la Plancha, or grilled pork chops. Both dishes, accompanied by a mound of yellow rice, a cup of black beans, and some fried plantains, were delicious and filling, and the total tab was well under $50. The fact that the eyes of two dozen cigar-store Indians are boring into you while you eat is a small price to pay for greatness.
The Food & Wine Festival events continued on Friday with a seminar, Tasting Everything Italian, in the garden at Blackfin Bistro.
We started off with some Prosecco and an olive oil tasting, which sounds exciting until you examine this roulette tasting wheel and realize that some of the flavors you might encounter include moldy hay, fetid milk, and baby vomit. Or your own vomit, depending.
After the olive oil came mortadella, prosciutto, and speck. All of it was fantastic, as might be expected from meats with a 50% fat content.
Next we got to try some Roma and San Marzano tomatoes. Even though San Marzanos are more expensive, and purportedly higher quality, nearly everyone at the tasting found the Romas to be much sweeter and more delicious.
In between tastings, Key West chef Alice Weingarten and a rep from Gordon Food Service spoke about prosciutto, olive oil, tomatoes, and other Italian eats.
Lastly, we were served this incredible risotto made with porcini mushrooms and mounds of parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Chef Alice, I'm not sure if you made this outstanding risotto, but if you did, then I take back everything I said about those chef pants/PJs you were wearing.
Overall I enjoyed this event, despite the unfavorable lecturing-to-eating ratio. If people are going to flap their gums at a foodie event, I prefer them to be chewing, not talking.
Angel enjoyed it, too, despite the murderous stares of strangers.
Later that evening was the Grand Tasting at the Key West Aquarium. By this time I'd already started having nightmares about being chased by giant wine bottles with skinny little legs, but I needn't have worried: Considering that it was approximately 112 degrees in the aquarium, the never-ending flow of wine pulled triple duty as ice-breaker, thirst-quencher, and forehead-chiller.
One of the many highlights of this event were these little key lime tarts in a chocolate crust.
Since I'm not much of a chocolate fan, I stayed classy by sucking out the key lime guts instead.
Outside, cooler temperatures brought great joy to the sweaty masses.
Despite some truly fantastic wines at the Grand Tasting, one of my favorites wasn't wine at all, but the Kai coconut and lychee vodkas served at this booth. The reps were mixing the Coconut Pandan vodka with pineapple juice, and the vodka was so smooth that you'd have sworn you were drinking a virgin pina colada . . . until it was too late. Which explains why I think Donna and I might have mud-wrestled for the last serving, but I honestly can't be sure.
After two hours of wine and other tastings, our group of six piled into a taxi and headed off to Pisces, where we ordered a multi-course dinner . . . and two more bottles of wine. the excellent Cakebread Chardonnay, to be exact, which means we weren't wasting a drop, even if we had to waterboard someone to get it down their throat.
Our table at Pisces was perfect, right in the front near the window, which is one of the perks of getting engaged here (as Donna and Greg recently did - congrats!) and then come back with a bunch of friends who won't leave until they've tried everything on the menu or have to have their stomachs pumped, whichever comes first.
We started off with a fantastic salmon mousse delivered by our Southern-gentleman waiter, whose accent was thick as molasses and demeanor sweet as honey.
Post-mousse, we enjoyed a host of appetizers: the lobster bisque special for me, grilled shrimp with curry-mango ice cream for Angel, and the Pisces Aphrodite -- a sinful puff pastry filled with lobster, shrimp, and scallops and topped with lemon-tarragon butter -- for Donna and Greg. Unfortunately I've forgotten what Claudia and Alden had, but if it could beat a lobster, shrimp, and scallop pot pie, I'm sure I'd remember it.
Next up was a refreshing lime sorbet palate cleanser, which was no match for a table full of people whose palates had spent the last two hours being bombarded by wine, rum, coconut vodka, and key lime cannolis.
Shortly after, our entrees arrived. Angel went with the hogfish special, which was served with scallops and a creamy lobster sauce, while I couldn't resist a filet mignon with bordelaise sauce and shallot confit. I know, I know, Pisces is a seafood restaurant. But the heart wants what it wants, and mine apparently likes the challenge of continuing to tick in the face of repeated abuse.
It boggles the mind to think what Angel could have found so offensive as to lick his plate clean, yet refuse to touch these two. I guess he didn't want to look like a pig.
Surely we didn't order dessert after all this? Surely you jest.
Donna and Greg had raved about the prune-and-Armagnac ice cream, but just to hedge our bets in case we didn't like it, Angel and I shared that and the raspberry ice cream, while Claudia and Alden shared some chocolate thing that they wisely kept to themselves. I think after I ate every single part of Claudia's entree that she wasn't interested in -- including a zucchini gratin, fingerling potatoes, and a mushroom-stuffed tomato, plus Donna's basmati rice and her stuffed tomato -- she was starting to understand why Angel likes to build a little fort around his dinner plate.
In addition to giving me free food, I also liked Claudia because she was willing to pose contemplatively with this Warhol depicting Tony Soprano's shrink.
The prune-and-Armagnac ice cream was good, although the French brandy was a little overpowering for my taste. But the raspberry? How I do love thee, oh raspberry ice cream. You are almost as good as a seafood pot pie.
After dinner, Claudia and Alden decided to go back to their hotel to detox relax, but Donna, Greg, Angel, and I weren't finished yet. Back we went to Grand Vin, where we had yet another bottle of Champagne. At this point it occurred to me that trying to keep up with two Key West locals was a little like trying to go a few rounds with Mike Tyson: You might be able to fake it for a round or two, but eventually you're going to end up flat on your back, covered in bruises, and wondering who the hell bit off your ear.
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