Spring Roll

So many events, so little time, my party companion laments, digging through the stacks of announcements crowding my desk. It's April again, and it seems that everywhere we turn, there's another tempting fund raiser, festival or feast demanding our attention.

The Valley's reservations-required dining season is drawing to a close, but our chefs cannot relax yet, and so neither can we. Spring has sprung, and as with every year, it brings with it a flurry of worthy, restaurant-related activities. This month alone we've had Taste 2000, catered by 30 metro Phoenix eateries to benefit the Boys and Girls Clubs; and the Flavor of Phoenix, featuring some two dozen Valley restaurants helping out the American Liver Foundation.

And then there's the season's big-ticket gourmet gathering, the Scottsdale Culinary Festival, with five days straight of cooking competitions, awards dinners, food and wine demonstrations, a beer festival and, by trolley, a progressive dining tour of several of our finer restaurants.

Celebrating its 22nd year, the Scottsdale Culinary Festival raises funds for the Scottsdale League for the Arts, helping underwrite arts and education programs for elementary and high school students. Last year, the league distributed almost $100,000 to further these programs.

One of the festival's most popular centerpieces is the Great Arizona Picnic, a two-day pig-out at Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza. About 60 restaurants, beverage distributors, caterers and specialty food boutiques set up booths for our uninhibited sampling pleasure. It's a fun, albeit crowded, way to wile away an afternoon, sprawled on the grass, unabashedly people-watching as live music plays on two stages.

It's also a lot more expensive than it used to be. Part of the picnic's appeal is its admission fee (none) and flexible pricing policy: Guests purchase $1 sampling tickets to eat as much, or as little, as they like. It's a great way to test unfamiliar restaurant offerings without a full meal commitment. In years past, the exchange rate has been one ticket per sample, a more than fair trade, I think, for a couple bites of burrito, burger or what have you.

This year, my jaw drops as I pass booth after booth demanding three, four, five, even six tickets per taste. Portions remain sample-size, served on napkins or paper cocktail plates. Yet a few booths post signs with single-ticket tariffs blatantly crossed out, and two or three tickets written in. Even charity, it seems, is affected by whatever the market will bear.

The Arizona Bread Company has the right idea, proudly announcing that all its samples are just one ticket (including a yummy, gooey chocolate brownie). Sam's Cafe gets points for its single-ticket spring roll, a huge serving stuffed with chicken and spicy corn. Honey Baked Ham pleases with practically full size ham and turkey sandwiches for two tickets. The most creative value we find, though, is Wildflower Bread Company's innovative handmade gingerbread ice cream sandwich, plump with Jack Daniel's toasted pecan vanilla ice cream (just two tickets).

I love the sampling concept -- it lets foodies like me try new things and learn about new places (I've never heard of Mystic Chicken in Phoenix, yet thoroughly enjoy its peanut-garlic-cilantro-marinated breast in plum sauce). But I hope that next year, this fine picnic won't be picking our pockets with overpricing again.

I'd rather save up 125 tickets anyway, and splurge on the festival's culminating Best of the Fest, a sumptuous five-course dinner and wine pairing prepared by eight prominent Valley chefs. Each chef prepares signature menus for two tables of 10; who will be our host is decided on luck of the draw as we arrive at the champagne reception held in the gardens of the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale.

It's an impressive roster of cooking talent: Chef Anton Brunbauer (Hyatt), Chef Michael DeMaria (Michael's at the Citadel), Chef Franco Fazzuoli (Franco's Trattoria), Chef Michael Hoobler (T. Cook's), Chef Erasmo Kamnitzer (Razz's), Chef Robert McGrath (Roaring Fork) and Chef Mary Nearn (The Boulders).

My party companion and I are enormously pleased to find ourselves assigned to Chef Reed Groban's table, he of the wonderful Marquesa and La Hacienda restaurants at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. While the always ebullient Chef Razz guarantees entertainment, and it would be a kick to be served by Chef Franco's apprentice, ex-governor Fife Symington (yes, he's there, cheerfully working the prep table), it's Groban's fine Mediterranean menu that excites me.

How often do Valley diners get to indulge in bouillabaisse, stocked with lobster, mussel, briny razor clam and rascasse (scorpion fish)? And Groban's main course is a knockout charbroiled beef tenderloin dressed with sun-dried cherry and cabrales cheese sauce alongside charmoula-rubbed red mullet in golden beet sauce. The fish and its spicy Moroccan marinade is a little weird, but everything else works quite nicely. A finale of "confectionery apocalypse" is edible art, including cakes and a truly pretty blown sugar apple hiding a dollop of homemade apple sorbet.

As the evening draws to a close, the chefs are publicly thanked by the party's emcee for their many contributions. Chef Nearn, just recovered from a previous day's Cooks & Corks demonstration, is asked what her favorite part of the festival has been.

"I got the food on the tables," she says, nodding to her troop of 20 well-fed guests. "And it's finally all over."

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