After Hours – Travel Tips and Extraordinary Finds at the Fancy Food Show

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research , and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

Travel Tips

New York Wines and Dines: The Empire State’s foods and wines take center stage at more than 50 NYC restaurants during the month of October. The participating restaurants, which include Café Boulud, Gramercy Tavern, Home Restaurant and Union Square Cafe, have crafted menus (some prix fixe) around local products and pourings from 28 New York wineries. Some 15 wine shops in and around Manhattan are spotlighting the wineries throughout the month as well. For this year’s participants and a cook booklet’s worth of recipes, visit New York Wines and Dines website .

Looking for a change of pace? , a city guide/calendar with a twist, may have something for you. The subscription service, which debuted September 1, scouts out six new things a month in each of 70 locations in the US, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The “things” are a smorgasboard of things to do and places to visit, stay or eat, from events, exhibits and performances to hotels, restaurants and spas. Choices are light-hearted and eclectic and the writing is lively and often fun. (One of the creators is a former classmate and editor of mine, whose appreciation of Esquire’s “Dubious Achievement Awards” shines through some of the site’s headlines.) Each location’s banner includes an unusual piece of local trivia (Did you know that Denver’s Colfax Avenue is the longest continuous street in America?) and a quote that may well prompt a smile. Don’t let the subscription aspect deter you from a reconnaissance mission: A standard subscription costs only 2.00 a month; for $1.50 more you can access a year’s worth of listings, as they accumulate.

Extraordinary Finds at the Fancy Food Show

Great food is a given at the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade Fancy Food Show , but this year’s had a higher than normal prevalence of the extraordinary. The same phrase of astonishment fell from my lips so frequently that I established a new research category: foods that gave me a religious experience (a slight paraphrase, in deference to polite company.)

The very first product I sampled set the tone for my experience of this year’s show: ginger-infused whitefish caviar from Tsar Nicoulai Caviar , which erupted with fresh, arresting flavors. Next to it was another happy surprise, sturgeon jerky with a honey and pepper glaze that elevates what is normally a humble snack into the realm of delicacy. Part of the impetus behind the jerky is Tsai Nicoulai’s interest in environmental responsibility (the company has won renown for sustainable sturgeon production, not to mention California Estate Osetra caviar of world-class quality), which has led it to make use of more of its fish than just the roe, but this jerky has far greater merits than economy.

Basic pantry products had the wow factor in abundance as well. Purely Organic , which imports organic and biodynamic products from small producers in Italy, featured Saba grape syrup, a baking sweetener with a taste like liquid sun, and a gentle, sweet grape vinegar from Guerzoni, the vintner behind the wine-quality (but non-alcoholic) grape juice called Mosto D’Uva. Sharper but just as stunning was Porto, a port wine vinegar derived from a Napa Valley cabernet turned port, from O Olive Oil .

A grilling rub stopped me in my tracks at Cugino’s booth. The star of Cugino’s new line of rubs, called RUBZ, was garlic butter bud buster, which has an indulgent richness that should work wonders with even a timid cut of meat. I lingered over Francis Copppola Brands’ Mammarella pasta sauces , which are based on recipes from the director’s mother. Arrabiata, pomodoro-basilica and a garlicky puttanesca impressed with fresh and balanced flavors, but the knockout was an intense organic porcini marsala, made from tomatoes from the region around Naples.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que was introducing sauces of quite a different nature: a vibrant Creole honey mustard sauce, which begs to be slathered on all manner of meat, and one-of-a-kind Bar-B-Bleu, in which barbecue sauce meets French dressing (and bleu cheese) and waits for someone to have the sense to bring buffalo wings. The true danger at the booth, however, took the form of potato chips with the flavor of the Dinosaur’s signature barbecue sauce and white corn chips with its Mojito flavorings. The chips are produced by Terrell’s Potato Chips (315-437-2786) and distributed, so far, in the Northeast. (Dino-fans outside upstate New York, take heart: the low-smoking blues joint is coming to Manhattan — at last! — this fall, near the Fairway at 125th and 12th Ave. Call 888-476-1662 for updates on the opening.)

Another surprise among the crunchy snack offerings were hand-fried, preservative-free Thai 7 Spice potato chips (heavy on lemongrass and coriander), imported from Britain-based Jack and Ollie’s Crisps by Chelsea Market Baskets . Jack and Ollie’s red onion and gorgonzola crisps were a close second in appeal. Also inspring repeat visits to the serving bowl were olive fennel black pepper biscuits from Salem Baking Co. , which deliver a great savory bite with an exotic hint of fennel.

Packaging in the form of paint cans with a cheerily retro baker on the label prompted a close inspection of Flathau’s Fine Foods’ line of cookies, called snaps. The butterscotch variety snared me with a rolling butter flavor that made me gasp, turn around and walk back for seconds.

Another sweet that warranted savoring was Canadian ice wine chocolate from René Rey Chocolates , pairing semi-sweet chocolate (made from scratch, in the company president’s Swiss family tradition) with a semi-liquid ice wine and brandy filling.

Not new to the show, but to me, were two extraordinary confections from Seattle-based Fran’s Chocolates : Dark Gray Salt Caramels, which won the NASFT Outstanding Confection award in 2003, coat soft caramel with dark chocolate sprinkled with French sea salt. Milk Smoked Salt Caramels dip the same center into a blend of dark and milk chocolate dotted with smoked sea salt from Wales.

Cocoa’s cornucopia of dark, milk and white chocolate bark was uniformly charming, with two dazzlers: white chocolate bark speckled with bits of old fashioned hard candy, called Betsey Bark, and a dark chocolate laden with ginger and pistachios.

And the best of all? To my taste, the medallions of foie gras from D’Artagnan . Coincidence or not, they went home with the Outstanding New Product trophy. And were part of a most amazing breakfast – about which more in the next issue.

ã Kathy Biehl 2004

Posted in: Food