The 15th Epcot International Food & Wine Festival officially kicks off today. But there was a new event added to the lineup that got things rolling last night: First Bites Opening Reception. Actually, the day before the opening has always been an unofficial preview day; many locals and EIF&WF aficionados know that they can get a head start on sampling from the country kiosks set up around the World Showcase. The day before is like a preview for a Broadway show, it’s a chance to work out the kinks before “opening night.”
But First Bites was different, an experiment of sorts. It was born out of a preview the Disney Culinears held for media last year. Then, a number of us were invited into the kitchen space deep in the bowels of the World Showplace venue to sample some of the new dishes and wines that were featured in 2009. Afterwards, the event planners thought it was the sort of thing that could be offered to the public. The paying public, to be precise.
So First Bites Opening Reception was planned to offer those same first bites and a lot more, including entertainment and sample culinary demonstrations and wine tastings. It’s a terrific idea, but it needed its own preview to work out a few kinks of its own.
First Bites was held in the Festival Center instead of the massive World Showplace, where the Parties for the Senses take place. The Center is a good choice for a couple of reasons. First, First Bites was meant to be a more intimate affair, with no more than 400 tickets available instead of the thousand-plus for the Parties. Even if the event sold out, there would be plenty of elbow room and at least the illusion of intimacy in the donut-shaped room.
Second, the center is where the demonstrations and seminars are held during the six weeks of the festival, and with the elaborate multi-media equipped stages, it would have been silly to try to set something up elsewhere.
The attendance at last night’s event wasn’t anywhere near capacity. In fact, only 150-175 people were expected to attend. And many of those purchased tickets that were discounted from the original $195 plus required admission to Epcot. (Disclosure: my ticket was provided to me.) Would it have been worth full price? Well, one person said to me at the end of the evening: “Those of us who paid $100 think it was worth $50.”
I wouldn’t go that far, but there needs to be an adjustment of price if the event is held again next year, or more will have to be done to bring it up to the asking price.
There were certainly some selling points. There were a number of food stations around the circular venue serving samples of foods that will be found in the kiosks, including offerings from the newest additions: South Korea, Belgium and Singapore, plus new stations featuring cheese and charcuterie and new dishes to represent the United States. And food was served on real plates and in real bowls, not the paper and foam found outside. (Napkins, from festival sponsor Vanity Fair, were still paper -- when they could be found; did someone forget to invite them?)
Food highlights included bison chili, one of the new U.S. additions, made with wild mushrooms and cabernet; and South Korean lettuce wraps with roast pork and something they’re choosing to identify as kimchi. The roast pork was delicious, and the cabbage that topped it added a textual element to the enjoyment. But that, sir, was not kimchi, and it’s a disservice to festival goers who are willing to try new things to tell them otherwise. It was much too mildly seasoned and under-pickled.
The plate of charcuterie, with cured duck, applewood smoked beef and ham, was also enjoyable (I wonder if the portion served in the park will be as generous). I liked the Singapore shrimp cake, served on a sugar cane skewer, but the noodles underneath were too salty (have a beer handy if you get them). The Puerto Rican asopao de pollo, a soup with shredded chicken and vegetables, plus a few green olives, served over rice, was also another one I liked quite a bit.
And last year’s favorite, the lobster & scallop fisherman’s pie from Ireland, was served too (here’s the recipe for that one). Belgium’s offerings included waffles, of course, and mussels in roasted garlic cream broth. The broth should get top billing. I actually discarded two mussels just so I could get to the buttery broth. Delicious.
The absolute best thing I tasted all evening, however, is something you won’t get a chance to try if you don’t get to the park this weekend -- unless you’re willing to travel to Brooklyn. It was a sweet and salty brownie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel. I’ve always prided myself with being able to take one bite of a dessert and set it aside. I couldn’t stop eating this one.
The brownie was the creation of Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito of BAKED in Red Hook. The pair are participating in the opening weekend’s Sweet Sundays event and will do a demonstration Saturday afternoon at 5 in the Festival Center. (I’m guessing they’ll also be at the first Party for the Senses, although I don’t have the complete lineup.)
Pumpkin confections, bonbons demonstrated by norman Love of Norman Love Confections in Fort Myers (along with Food Network’s Keegan Gerhard) were another hit with First Bite attendees.
The evening culminated with a performance by singer Taylor Dayne, who sang to a recorded soundtrack that was blasted at a decibel level not intended for that space. For Dayne fans it was like having a personal performance. (Dayne is the featured performer at the Eat to the Beat Concert this weekend.)
The Cirque du Soleil performers that were touted to appear turned out to be two characters who simply strutted about and pantomimed and had their pictures taken with guests. Might as well have been Mickey and Minnie.
I know the event planners were interested in feedback from last night’s first First Bites -- I heard several of them ask attendees what they thought. I hope they take the comments to improve it, rather than scrap it. It could become a must-have ticket if done right.
Oh, and they’ll need to serve better wines.
Click on this link to download the official Festival Brochure .