Review and photographs by Allyson Domanski
Saturday night’s Tasting Alley was practically perfect, with no shortage of glitz.
By shifting the gourmet highlight of the social event of the weekend to a gorgeous new venue—an ‘All New Ingredient’—the 2016 Ottawa Wine and Food Festival outdid itself.
Organizers went all-out to please patrons, even stepping up to shuttle attendees the one kilometre by taxi because the real shuttle was a bit delayed. They dished out the full meal deal and in so doing, distinguished this year’s VIP event from past years.
The Infinity Convention Centre—a short ride away from the EY Centre where most of the activities took place—gleamed with newness and chic understated style.
Sparkling crystal chandeliers, the floor-to- ceiling water wall and an ambient-lit, high-ceilinged banquet hall made an unequivocal statement about the organizers’ intent: Festival-goers should feel pampered.
While cooking has always been a science, it’s now a high-tech science demanding skills more specialized than ever…
The Festival’s first-ever Kitchen Soirée with Executive Chef Jason Peters offered a fascinating look inside an industrial-sized kitchen. To pull off meal prep and service for hundreds, the relaxed, unstressed and unflappable Chef Jason had every detail taken care of “by about two minutes to six,” 6pm being door-opening to Tasting Alley.
The homegrown talent—a perfectly bilingual native of Orléans—trained in Paris, travelled Europe and worked in Banff before returning to Ottawa “for some stability” to raise his family. The kid whose love of cooking began at age six by following recipes in TV Guide, of all things, now wears the white hat in Infinity’s kitchen.
The young Cordon Bleu graduate gladly toured us around his facility. Its stainless steel gleamed. Its floors were so spotless you could have eaten off them. Impeccably arranged racks of spices lined one wall, high-tech Rational ovens lined another and roll-in- rack refrigerators lined yet another, all of it impressive. While cooking has always been a science, it’s now a high-tech science demanding skills more specialized than ever.
As backdrop to two of the four tasting stations, the kitchen buzzed with eager foodies dipping into classic European fare: spaetzli crowned with three possibilities: beef stroganoff, Hungarian goulash or garlic shrimp, any or all finished with your choice of toppings—sautéed mushrooms, sharp cheddar, sour cream, bacon, parsley, lemon, you name it—all served by gloved and black-jacketed staff. A please-all mac-&-cheese tasting station bookended the far end of the counter.
Two other tasting stations within the hall offered mild delicacies from India on one side and on the other, flavours of the Orient with Thai and Korean fare featured, again with the appropriate condiments. Meanwhile, servers floated through the crowd with platters of savoury nibbles.
Between those two stations and taking centre-stage was table after table of wine to taste, along with port, sherry and dessert wines, too. The major wine regions the world over were represented, choices well beyond the local. From American, Argentine, Australian, Canadian, Chilean, French, German, Italian, New Zealand, Ontarian, Spanish to South African, you could get it poured into sample-sized portions included in the entry ticket.
Well-heeled (read, high-heeled) and fashionably turned-out women and men milled about, refilling plates and glasses, and noshed while seated at convivial round tables, large and small. People came as much for the liquids as the solids and seemed quite satisfied with both.
I said Tasting Alley was ‘practically perfect.’ What would it take to remove the qualifier? Two small additions for future years would do it.
One, servers to float through the crowd with platters of sweet nibbles to follow the savouries, at most a sweet table of wee somethings to satisfy one’s yen for a sugary/honeyed confection.
Two, a coffee tasting station dispensing one-ounce sips of good java both caffeinated and decaffeinated to fittingly cap all the pizazz.
Preceding Tasting Alley was the Cheese Vault ‘Lock-down’ at the EY Centre. Cheese Boutique maître fromager Afrim Pristine introduced a few new varieties including a triple-crème slathered with shaved truffles on top. A-mazing.
An adorable straw-hatted gentleman playing polkas and Italian classics on a squeezebox got toes tapping while wine flowed freely and crowd energy ran sky high. What wasn’t to love?
Like I said, organizers outdid themselves this year. Tough gig when they’ll be their own hard act to follow in 2017!
Allyson Domanski writes about travel, the arts and reviews theatre for Ottawa Tonite as well as for Newswest. She is currently completing a major work of creative non-fiction to be published in 2017. An avid traveller and not-quite year-round cyclist, she and her husband spent two and a half years bicycling around the world before she joined the territorial then the federal public service. The hockey and lacrosse mom, owner of a Husky and une cabane au Quebec hails from Winnipeg and has lived from India to Iqaluit but she and her family call Hintonburg home.