Grand Tasting at NJWFF: A Decadent Night of Fabulous Food
By Julianne Clancy; Photos by Sean vonLembke
Having spent the day at the New Jersey Wine and Food Festival (NJWFF) and been utterly blown away by both the opulence of Crystal Springs and the quality of dishes, drinks, and education offered to the culinarily inclined crowd, I was unsure how the Grand Tasting could top the fantastic time we’d already had. But, from the moment I set foot inside the event, I realized that my expectations were going to be met, and surpassed, by the extravagant evening awaiting me. The Grand Tasting at the NJWFF brought together more than twenty-five of New Jersey and New York’s top chefs, along with wineries and distilleries from around the world. Each establishment showcased incredible tastes of food featuring a wide variety of cuisines, ingredients, techniques, and creativity. And all of it was absolutely incredible.
One of the most impressive things about the Grand Tasting is the sheer magnitude. The event sprawls through the entirety of the Clubhouse of Crystal Springs, filling the huge ballroom, two of the meeting rooms downstairs, the rotunda, and the tavern. Musicians play in various areas of the event, creating different moods in each room. Every single table in every single room drew a crowd, leaving us swimming through a mass of excited epicureans, as we moved from one incredible bite to the next. Tasting everything was a nearly impossible task, but we put our best foot forward, sampling as much of the evening as our stomachs would allow.
We didn’t delay in digging in, grabbing the first taste from the first table we passed by, which happened to be Pig and Prince of Montclair, NJ. This inventive gastropub offered up Gotchu Pork with Pickled Cabbage and Chilis. The meltingly tender meat had just a hint of spice that hit deep at the back of our throats, a delicious burn that was simultaneously cooled and accented by the acidity of the pickle.
Terre a Terre of Carlstadt is known for their farm-to-table food with an inventive twist. Their Aquavit Salmon on a Caraway Crisp mixed the fresh brininess of the fish with the watery crispness of cucumber, smooth and fatty creme fraiche, and the toastiness of the cracker, creating a blend of textures and tastes that was absolutely captivating.
The Smoked Duck Risotto with Pea Greens and Salsa Verde was an inventive and irresistible mash-up of cuisines. This creative cuisine from Hotel Du Village in New Hope, Pennsylvania (right across the Delaware from NJ) was both surprising and delicious. The smoky meatiness contrasted beautifully with the bright spice of the salsa verde, while the pea greens provided an excellent pop of freshness to the dish.
When anyone makes a list of the best New Jersey restaurants, Ninety Acres is almost always listed among the cream of the crop—and after tasting their Rabbit Taco with Fava Salad, I can see why. This dish was a delicate balance of flavors. The sweet meat was accented by the onions in the salad; the earthy greenness of the favas and the herbs made the dish feel light and fresh; and the feta gave the entire taco a nice salty kick.
Jersey wouldn’t be Jersey without pasta, but luckily Lu Nello of Montclair stepped up to the plate to make sure my carb quotient was fulfilled. Their Gnochetti with Brussels Sprouts, Favas, and Sausage was fabulously creamy with tons of fennel flavor from the sausage and a slight bitterness from the sprouts. The pasta was perfectly al dente, giving the dish exactly the chewy texture it needed to stand up to the unctuous sauce.
The award for most innovating plating for the night would have to go to The Orange Squirrel, Bloomfield’s quirky new American restaurant, which presented a Shrimp Toast with Wasabi Sriracha Eyes. This little fish-shaped bites were even more delicious than they were adorable, packed with huge chunks of shrimp and fried to a perfect crunchy texture.
Alice’s of Lake Hopatcong went for a clever take on a classic dish, offering a Beet-Infused Seared Scallop with Pea Puree, Chorizo Oil, and Wild Rice Salad. While I thought that the sweetness of the beets and the sweetness of the scallop would lead to the dish being cloying, the flavor was actually earthy and mild. The chorizo oil added a smoky spice which was absolutely irresistible and the perfect contrast to the scallops.
Sometimes the best dish can be about perfecting simplicity—something that the minds behind Mish Mish in Montclair definitely understood. Their Mediterranean Brisket with Pita Chips and Salsa Verde was unbelievably tender and incredibly well-seasoned without being showy. Paired with an amazingly decadent pita chip and a fabulously nutty tahini, this was the epitome of Mediterranean cuisine done impeccably.
Some restaurants chose to stand out by preparing dishes that were totally unexpected, either in their ingredients or in making food that would generally be considered to pedestrian for such a high-class event. Mistral of Princeton prizes themselves on focusing on inventive, local ingredients, so for the Grand Tasting, they presented a Sweetbread Cannelloni with an Artichoke Barigoule. The sweetbreads were quite a daring choice, but the result was worth the risk. The unctuous stuffed pasta was like an elevated chicken and dumplings, accented with bits of salty serrano ham, sweet root vegetables, and acidic broth.
Monclair’s funky Mexican joint, Villalobos, opted to serve up a street-food dish of Esquites: Roasted Corn with Black Garlic, Mayo, Cotija, and Chipotle Morita. This deceivingly simple featured sweet pops of corn with a funky fermented flavor from the black garlic, a touch of brininess from the cotija, and heat from the chipotle, all scooped up by fabulously crunchy tortilla chips. It was one of the most down-and-dirty meals of the night but also one of the most incredible.
Burgers are no what you’d expect to find at a food festival, but Burg, Newark’s homage to the famous sandwich, had one of the standout samples of the night with their Chipotle Burger, served with Guacamole, Tortilla Crisps, Tomatillo Relish, and Chipotle Sauce. Part burger, part taco, and 100% fabulous, this was a carefully crafted balance of umami, salt, sweetness, and spice that lead the table to be one of the first of the night to run out of food.
Restaurants weren’t the only food establishments represented in the evening. D’Artagnan, a meat wholesaler from Union, stood out from the crowd by serving Mangelica Ham, carved directly off the leg, and Fois Gras Cream Puffs. The ham was like a milder, fresher Jamon Iberico—slightly salty, slightly sweet, and pleasantly dried. The cream puffs were so packed with umami flavor that they almost tasted like a truffle.
Bobolink Dairy of Milford decided to show the Grand Tasting patrons how intense cheese can be with a trio of funky, homemade cheeses: the Jean Louis, a raw milk cheese that was so sour and pungent it was almost like a fine vinegar; the Baudolino, which was rich and smooth like a fine triple creme; and Drumm, which had a sweet creaminess at the front and a powerful funkiness as it melted into your palate. All three were incredible, unique, and exemplary. My only regret is that I couldn’t steal a whole wheel to take home with me.
Dessert is a must-have after such a feast, which is why the Montclair Bread Company stepped up with some inventive baked goods. Their fresh Donuts, served up with your choice of maple, chocolate, or vanilla sauces, with a self-serve station of sprinkles, cookie crumbles, and even bacon, were a perfect way to finish off the night. Airy, light, and sweet, with a touch of whimsy that felt like it summed up the flavor of the entire night.
Stuffed, happily tired from the drinks we tasted, and ready to sleep off our incredible day, we mustered up the last of our energy to take a quick look at the fantastic After Party to the Grand Tasting. This event, which started as a way for vendors and chefs to let off steam after a job well done, has become an over-the-top celebration of dancing, music, and fun to be the perfect nightcap for a perfect night. This year’s theme was Rio, and the fun of Brazil was everywhere in sight—from the feathery fans that we got walking in, to the incredible stilt dancers, to the vibrant music blasting from the DJ booth, it felt like the Crystal Springs had turned into Carnival. Of course, food and drink had to be involved in any NJWFF fest, and the Grand Tasting After party didn’t disappoint. If anyone had room left, there were fantastic smoked meats and barbecue, the same cuts we’d seen being prepared in the Chef’s Garden restaurant earlier that day. There were also fabulous Brazilian desserts like Beijinho (coconut kisses), as well as Mango, Guava, Papaya, and Passion Fruit Cream Puffs and Truffles. The drinks even fit the theme, featuring various blends of Cachaça (a sugar cane liquor that has almost a coconut water taste to it) mixed with tangerines or cucumbers in refreshing light cocktails.
The New Jersey Wine and Food Festival is one of the most amazing food experiences I have ever had. It was educational and diverse, teaching me things I’d never known about wines, salamis, olive oils, and more through seminars like The Taste of Italy and the Creation of an Award Winning Winery. It was light and fun, with free flowing wine and fanciful events like Pancakes and Prosecco and Rose and Sorbet. And it was absolutely delicious, from my first bites of Ancient Grain Pancakes, to the overwhelming spread at the Marketplace Lunch, to the Grand Tasting itself. Every foodie in the Tri-State area should make a point to head to Crystal Springs next spring for the NJWFF. It’s a great weekend escape to a beautiful area of Jersey where you will eat and drink to your hedonist or shedonist heart’s content.