“Being handicapped is much better than being dead” is not a statement one expects from a celebrity chef, especially under the towering banyan trees of North Straub Park in historic St. Petersburg, Florida. But watching Chef Edurado Garcia at Saturday’s inaugural St. Pete Wine and Food Festival Grand Tasting use his prosthetic arm to effortlessly prepare a tapa of chile bacon, cabbage & apple slaw, habanero ginger sauce and baby cilantro on fried plantain was inspiring. At the age of 30, chef Garcia had lost his left arm in an accident and while in hospital was diagnosed with cancer. Recovering from both, chef Garcia has gone on to create his food company, Montana Mex, and inspire others that everything is possible.
Set against the backdrop of sun dappled Tampa Bay, the inaugural St. Pete Wine and Food Festival Grand Tasting entertained and, in chef Garcia’s demo, humbled a well-heeled crowd of food enthusiasts. With a rapidly recovering economy after the 2008 downturn, St. Petersburg, Florida has established itself as an art and restaurant destination on the Gulf of Mexico coast. From stunning restorations of historic hotels to vibrant arts districts and such new restaurants as Sea Salt offering 130 artisan salts to stimulate one’s palate, St. Petersburg is a world class city content that it will be on everyone’s travel and food list.
Lest one thinks St. Petersburg is an example of the old joke that Florida is ‘God’s little waiting room,’ the attendees at Saturday’s Grand Tasting were well under the age of this seasoned culinary journalist. St. Petersburg is attracting residents from a vibrant cross section of educated world citizens that thrive on the arts, sun, beach, boating and fine food. An explosion of fascinating venues more than satisfies all of these eclectic tastes.
One does not normally think of a supermarket chain and fine food in the same sentence. Yet Publix was not only a major festival sponsor, it has positioned itself as a choice equal to its amiable competitors Trader Joes and Whole Foods. The surprises don’t end there because a significant percentage of the festival’s profits went to the St. Petersburg Arts Council. Sixteen of St. Petersburg’s best restaurants out of the area’s hundreds, over 40 wine merchants and a half dozen chef demonstrations kept attendees lingering until closing time. The following list will show why you need to attend in 2016.
Award winning Italian restaurant Il Ritorno offered a taste explosion with short rib mezzaluna, concentrated tomatoes, pecorino and garlic chives topped with truffles from Alba, Italy.
Park Shore Grill
Park Shore Grill’s Chef Tyson Grant has been won the Best Chef of the Tampa Bay area three years in a row. He presented a refreshing lump crab salad, avocado, mango chutney garnished with micro cilantro accented with bright red peppers.
Tryst Gastro Lounge
Tryst Gastro Lounge had an imaginative tapa of red beet cured wild salmon, whipped lemon basil ricotta, hothouse cucumber, heirloom tomato relish, pickled cherry pepper hot sauce topping an everything bagel crisp.
Merchand’s Bar and Grill
Merchand’s Bar and Grill, the historic 1925 Vinoy Hotel’s premiere restaurant, offered savory duck rillettes on raisin bread with house relish and whole grain mustard.
Souzou Asian Fusion
Chef Viet Vo freely borrowed from the cuisines of China, Japan and Thailand when he created the menu for Souzou Asian Fusion. At the Grand Tasting he served savory pulled pork in light as air steamed buns with kimchi and spicy edamame with sriracha sauce.
The Birch & Vine
The Birch & Vine, which overlooks beautiful Tampa Bay in downtown St. Petersburg, presented two dishes. A cold corn and crab bisque with hearts of palm salsa, truffle oil and Scottish salmon and orzo pasta with olive and tomato butter and eggplant caviar.
Council Oak Steaks & Seafood
Seminole Hard Rock Casino Tampa’s premiere restaurant, Council Oak Steaks & Seafood, specializes in 21 to 28 day dry aged beef. St the St. Pete Wine & Food Festival they made a flavorful thinly sliced pastrami spiced prime rib eye on mini bun.
Bonefish Grill, yes the national chain, pleased the crowd with a Greek inspired shrimp, kalamata olives and sundried tomato dish and a ceviche of scallops, shrimp and pineapple served in a mini martini glass.
Cru Cellers is Tampa’s premiere wine bar offering over 25 vintages by the glass. Its small plate menu is designed to pair with their extensive wine collection. A rich Cabernet Sauvignon went well with simple yet satisfying pork belly reuben tapa.
The venerable 1925 pink palace Loews Don Cesar Hotel on St. Pete Beach had to impress with its signature restaurant Maritana Grill with olive oil poached cobia fillet topping red quinoa with herbs and minced vegetables garnished with citrus foam.
The Mill is another new addition to the downtown St. Petersburg restaurant scene having just opened this summer. The watermelon bruschetta (tomato, cucumber, whipped feta, smoked pistachio and anejo agave syrup) and sweet pea hummus on endive with pear chutney were as tasty as they were attractive
Publix Apron, the supermarket chain’s in-house cooking school with a large permanent staff of chefs, demonstrated their talents with a cold green curried corn soup with rock shrimp and crispy onions.
Rumfish Grill has a well deserved reputation for its fish and seafood, but the 33,500 gallon fish tank that dominates an entire wall of the dining room is as major an attraction as its menu. At the Grand Tasting Rumfish offered a sumptuous lobster ravioli on a bed of seasoned roasted corn garnished with more lobster.
Sea Salt, this six-month-old restaurant, continues to surprise St. Petersburg with its imaginative menu and over 130 artisan salts. At the festival Sea Salt presented crab cornbread paired with a creamy gazpacho. If you wanted to, you could garnish it with merlot seasoned salt among the half dozen offered.
Florida may not be the best climate for vineyards but that does not mean its residents don’t appreciate fine wine. Among the wines at the St. Pete Wine and Food Festival, Cantina Tramin, a collection of 250 mostly organic north Italian growers, offered a Sauvignon Blanc with a nose of summer wheat fields and a dry mouth of lime, wheat and slight aftertastes of tar. Their Pinot Noir was full of red currents.
The growing interest in dry rosé wines was well represented at the St. Pete Wine and Food Festival. Domaine de La Fruitiere rosé had both a nose and mouth of dry red currants. Australia’s Tournon Winery had a rosé with a nose of cranberries and a mouth of light crisp red currants. Both were perfect for a hot St. Petersburg day.
Wines of Argentina
Argentine wines were a decided favorite, rightly so, at the festival. O. Fournier Winery’s Urban Uco malbec tempranillo blend had a nose of rich summer berries and a mouth of blueberries with balanced tannins and a smooth finish – perfect with an Argentine steak. Zolo Winery’s red blend was a nice balance of ripe mixed berries with a slightly sweet aftertaste.
Orin Swift Locations
Orin Swift Locations offers a wide variety of wines from Argentina and France with standouts being a Corse Corsican white with a nose of smoky grapefruit finishing in the mouth with dry grapefruit. The Argentine Malbec Tannat blend was a standout with a nose and mouth of ripe blueberries with a dry finish.
Angeline Vineyards and Winery
Angeline Vineyards and Winery presented a superb California Cabernet Sauvignon with a nose full of summer berries and a mouth feel of satisfying tannins leaving the mouth dry and clean.
Bodega Cantena Zapata
Bodega Cantena Zapata continued the large Argentine wine presence at the festival with an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon equal in every way to California’s finest – full berry taste with a dry clean finish.
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