SPAC kicks off this year's food and wine festival

Saratoga Performing Arts Center held this year's Fired Up! grill-off competition, the kickoff event of the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival, under the big tent on the Hall of Springs lawn Friday, Sept. 8. The event, which had about 250 people in attendance, featured chefs from the area's finest restaurants who battled it out for the People's Choice Award and the Judges Choice Award with Salt & Char and Druthers Brewing Company emerging victorious.

The air was cool but the atmosphere was hot, with two DJs spinning retro tunes, grills blazing and guests sampling a stunning array of dishes. Excitement also filled the air as guests awaited the appearance of special guest David Ortiz, whose Arias line of wines and Big Papi David Ortiz Cigar line are featured throughout the weekend’s events. Fired Up! raised $5,000 for the David Ortiz Children's Fund, a charity supporting pediatric services in New England and the Dominican Republic.

Just outside the colorfully lit tent, chefs from the restaurants Forged in Hudson Falls, Ama Cocina and 677 Prime in Albany, Brown’s Brewing Company in Troy and Max London’s, Morrissey’s Lounge, Salt & Char and Druthers in Saratoga manned smoldering embers, each producing a unique dish. In addition to the food offerings, Lunazul Tequila, Tito's Handmade Vodka, Santa Rita Wines and Woodford Reserve were serving up complimentary margaritas, mules, and other equally inventive cocktails. And for the beer drinkers, Stella Artois served ice-cold drafts from an Airstream trailer surrounded by fire pits and Adirondack chairs.

The food itself was appropriately smoked and charred, with all competitors serving beef except Salt & Char, which served pork. Some offered side dishes of fresh salads and grilled vegetables and others let their main dish shine. Let's start with the evening's winners.

Druthers Brewing Company: Known for bold flavors, big portions and crave-worthy offerings, it's no surprise that Druthers won the Stella Artois People's Choice Award. The chefs presented their dish on a black slate board with slices of 45-day dry-aged New York sirloin resting on top of a Béarnaise aioli, served with a side of dill and garlic pickle-brined french fries and a wood-fired heirloom tomato ketchup. This was steak and potatoes on steroids. In true Druthers style, each petite serving rested on a board that stated, “At first they will ask why you're doing it. Later they'll ask how you did it,” an appropriate ode to the brewery's boundary-pushing flavor combinations.

Salt & Char: The only restaurant to serve pork at the evening's competition was awarded for taking the road less traveled (and said restaurant is known for its high-end Wagyu steaks to boot). Salt & Char's chefs presented a mesquite roasted Berkshire Heritage pork shoulder served North Carolina barbeque style with a corn succotash, pickled Bing cherries and a side of blistered shishito peppers. The vinegar-based barbecue pork was tender and full of tangy flavor, studded by the texture of the cherries and succotash and finished off with the charred smokiness of the mild shishito peppers.

Other highlights included:

Ama Cocina: “Modern Mexican street food” is this Albany spot's calling card and it delivered just that. A fried corn masa sope was topped with citrus marinated tri-tip, heirloom tomato pico de gallo, queso fresco and avocado butter served alongside a “deconstructed” street corn, which basically took all the wonderful things about street corn (lime, cotija cheese, “street spices”) off the cob. This dish was beautiful and full of flavor, both bright and traditional.

677 Prime: Known as a premier fine-dining steakhouse in Albany, 677 Prime brought its grilling A-game to the event, serving up Korean barbecue served food-truck style. The Korean barbecue-style tri-tip was accompanied by jicama slaw, sesame garlic aioli, citrus jalapeno, jack cheese, sweet corn and sweet chili vinaigrette, all in a tender flour tortilla. What sealed the deal on this taco though, was the satisfying crunch element from a sprinkle of chicharrones (or pork cracklins) on top of each creation.

Max London's: a Saratoga staple, Max London's always brings a versatile and unique twist to Latin-inspired cuisine. The chef presented a Brazilian Sirloin Piri Piri, a fried croquette filled with top sirloin marinated in a traditional Portuguese Piri Piri pepper sauce with braised black bean puree mixed with scallions and cilantro. A dish of many cultures and flavors, this was a small bite with big flavor.

The Saratoga Wine and Food Festival continued through the weekend with the Grand Tasting and Concours D’Elegance on Saturday and the In The Groove Jazz Brunch on Sunday.

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