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Opening Night of LA Food & Wine Festival Is... Delicious!

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View of the festival street

View of the Festival Street

The long-awaited Red Carpet opening night of the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival, a four-day epicurean event, arrived on Thursday, and your reporter was there for the entire exhausting evening. Heralded as having 30 chefs and 200 wineries, it lived up to its billing in spades. The (for profit) event was masterfully produced by Coastal Luxury Management, the same guys (Rob Weakley and David Bernahl) who do the prestigious Pebble Beach festival, joining with dick clark productions and, of course, AEG. American Express Publishing and Lexus are important partners in the mix... And it was an impressive display of massive manpower and coordination. We have no idea how many people were involved, but it must have been hundreds, maybe a thousand or more. Imagine the sight... in Nokia Plaza LA Live, beside the Staples Center, a long city block of food booths and wine-dispensing tables... the lights were flashing, the music was blasting... it was an impressive and overwhelming moment.

Meals on Wheel's Sister Alice and Giade De Laurentiis

Sister Alice of Meals on Wheels, with Chef Guade De Laurentiis, at VIP Reception.

Boston's Lydia Shire slicing

Boston Chef Lydia Shire had the largest booth, here slicing a pork shoulder to go on her pizza bread.

Several hundred people payed $250 apiece to wander around, eat and drink in abundance, and enjoy the festive atmosphere. I do have one minor complaint for the organizers... the booths manned by all of the restaurateurs/chefs were not clearly marked with the name of the restaurant. Some of the more prestigious guys and gals had large posters with their pictures plastered to the rear wall, so you could identify them, but most of us were left in the dark as to whom was doing what until we worked our way up the line and asked or took a card on the table. And the wineries were identified with dark signs, hard to read, so I suggest that next time they make them brighter. Minor, but the success is in the details.

Susan Feniger & Mary Sue Milliken

Border Grill Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken served up healthy salad... not for me.

I arrived early (too early to pick up my press credentials), but worked my way into the VIP reception with the help of Rob, and had a chance to greet Sister Alice of St. Vincent's Meals on Wheels, who thanked me for my recent HuffPost article on her and the event; they greatly benefit from the festival. She was kissed by TV Chef Giade De Laurentiis, she of the ever-present smile and friendly demeanor, niece of my old friend Dino, the late emperor of the film world, and his lovely wife Martha. The champagne was flowing, the hor d'oevres were delicious (crab cakes, shrimp, steak) and I was soon stuffed before the evening even properly began. But I stoutly forged on to the event itself, and ate myself silly with samplings here and there, greeting old friends (Drew Nieporent from New York), chefs manning the booths and lots of guests. Since I was driving, I confined my drinking to a glass (or two) of Justin Vineyard's fabulous Cabernet Sauvignon and a sip of George Rosenthal's Chardonnay. (They just opened a beautiful tasting room in Malibu, well worthy of a visit.)

Sam Choy's Hawaiian Beef Stew

Sam Choy served up a hearty Hawaiian Beef Stew... a little went a long way.

At the entrance Hiro Sone and his wife were dispensing a delicious Japanese pancake, and I began my eating adventure. Josiah Citrin of Melisse offered me a taste of duck breast, and then I greeted Michael Mina, who embraced me with the comment, "I owe you money." (I had wagered him a hundred dollars that his strange menu option at XIV would not last three months, and of course I won.) David Myers was next, an old friend, and then I had one of my best tastes of the evening... from Kerry Simon of Simon's (Vegas and LA), a simple toast bit of steak tartare. I asked his lovely chef what was the seasoning, and she said just chopped shallots and a sprig of pepper. Boston's Lydia Shire had the biggest booth of the evening and she was slicing pork breast on a large machine, putting it atop a spicy pizza slice, and dispensing them to eager crowds. Honolulu's Sam Choy insisted I eat a cup of his hearty beef stew, and then WP 24's Sara Johannes asked to taste a new dim sum they had just introduced to diners at this, my favorite Chinese eatery in the world. It was a pork-filled bun, and utterly beguiling. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (Street, Border Grill) were dispensing healthy stuff; I love these girls but passed on the food. Providence's Michael Cimarusti did have a tangy seafood custard which was almost addictive. Daniel Boulud's guys from his Manhattan brasserie were passing out charcuterie.

street scene

Over 750 people crowded into the exciting street scene to taste and drink.

Justin Wine was served

I limited myself to a few sips of some wonderful wines, inckuding the Justin Vineyard's Cabernet.

Cheese was served!

Cheese was also on the menu, here from The Cheese Shop of Monterey. My weakness.

Sara Johannes of WP 24

Chef Sara Johannes of WP 24 tried out her new pork dim sum on me; it was a winner.

After about two hours of eating and greeting, I wearily dragged myself to my car and headed back to Beverly Hills. After all, tomorrow was another day... and I had Friday lunch at Wolfgang's Cut and then the dinner of the year honoring Daniel Boulud at Scott Conant's Scarpetta at the Montage Hotel. But I also knew I would be back here for the Saturday evening gala, and then there was Wolfgang Puck's benefit auction brunch at the newly-opened Hotel Bel Air on Sunday. And you thought the life of a food critic was easy... it's hard work. Yuk, yuk.

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net