Two days. 89 purveyors of food and drink. 156 bites and sips.
That's a rough estimate, but it gives you some idea of the scale of this year's Devour Phoenix Culinary Classic, which took place this Saturday and Sunday at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Now in its eighth year, the Devour Culinary Classic, organized by Local First Arizona, has matured into arguably the best and most important annual culinary festival in metro Phoenix.
The two-day food and drink smorgasbord is the culmination of a whole week of Devour food and drink events, all of which are designed to showcase many of the region’s top restaurants, culinary talent, mixologists, local makers, brewers, and vintners.
At the heart of Devour Phoenix's week-long festivities is the Culinary Classic, which has become a perennial sell-out. This year was no different. Even with some minor tweaks (last year's "Local Foods Experience" marketplace, for instance, was absent this year), the event still offered a reliably heady mix of high quality food, drink, gorgeous spring weather, and big, boisterous crowds.
Big crowds are part of the reason Devour Phoenix has announced a major change for next year: the Devour Culinary Classic will be moving to the Desert Botanical Garden in 2018. Organizers say the move is an effort to accommodate the growth and popularity of the event.
I worked my way through every stall at this year's festival, and it was hard not to pick up on some common themes. Beets, seafood and pork were popular ingredients this year, often showing up in creative and unexpected configurations.
If you missed the event, here are some of the stand-out dishes and sips from the 2017 edition of the Devour Phoenix Culinary Classic.
20. Angus sliders from Aioli Gourmet Burgers.
Sliders are a food festival staple, but the ones at Aioli Gourmet Burgers stood out for their delicate layering of flavors and texture. The Angus beef patties, juicy and ultra-savory, played well against a smoked tomato jam, some lemon arugula and bits of applewood smoked bacon. You know a dish is good when you can't help but finish it, even if you're already stuffed to the proverbial gills.
19. Barbacoa de cabra with horchata shooter from Artizen, Crafted American Kitchen & Bar.
Chef Dushyant Singh and the team at Artizen offered an ambitious, cross-cultural mash-up of flavors with this dish. Mexican-style goat barbecue, earthy and slightly spicy, was presented on a sturdy, oregano-infused roti, which was paired with some cilantro chutney and pickled radish. Some cucumber raita, and a shot of milky horchata on the side, offered a refreshing cool-down.
18. Grilled cotechino sausage with Humboldt squid from Palo Verde at The Boulders Resort & Spa.
This dish paired Italian cotechino sausage, grilled to a juicy finish, with thick hunks of squid, to ingenious effect. A few measured notes of sprightly salsa verde and kohlrabi kimchi created a tangle of sweet, spicy and tangy flavors that helped cement the dish as one of the most memorable of the day.
17. Glazed beets from Culinary Dropout.
Who would've guessed that beets could be so light and sweet? Many chefs incorporated the humble root vegetable into their menus this year, including Culinary Dropout. The restaurant produced one of the most memorable beet-forward bites of the weekend. The small, golden beets were paired with a goat cheese panna cotta, and a lovely caraway honey crumble. The sweet, creamy, and texture-rich dish registered as both wholesome and delicious.
16. Crispy duck rillette with picked vegetables and citrus Anglaise from Hyatt Gainey Ranch.
This ultra-snackable take on a classic duck rillette was crispy, deeply flavorful, and as fun to eat as anything that has previously come out of a deep fryer. The marriage of crisp texture and lush flavor was complemented by a bright citrus Anglaise sauce. Some pickled veggies on the side helped cut through all that rich flavor.
15. Kauai shrimp ceviche from Lon's at the Hermosa Inn.
Lon's at the Hermosa Inn has made strong showings at the Devour Culinary Classic before, and this year was no different. The restaurant's culinary team delivered two very good dishes: smoked chicken wings that were in high demand all day, and a wonderful Kauai shrimp ceviche dish with an innovative flavor delivery system. The dish, a sort of deconstructed take on ceviche, featured a plump, well-cooked shrimp, paired with a small, plastic bubble pump filled with briny-sweet ceviche juice. The citrusy shrimp, washed down with a swift pull of the ceviche water, turned out to be one of the most memorable bites of the weekend.
14. Maine lobster with avocado, tomato, coriander and citrus from MATCH Cuisine & Cocktails.
MATCH Cuisine & Cocktails' delivered a refined and party-ready dish that was like a saucy, well-balanced seafood cocktail, condensed into a couple of small bites. The lobster was grilled and chilled, with a sweet and tangy sauce that played well with the accents of fresh citrus, and a few crunchy oyster crackers provided on the side. If there was a dish that came to party this weekend, this was it.
13. Ramona Farms Superfood Salad from Phoenix City Grille.
There was no shortage of salads and lighter dishes at this year's festival. One of the salads that packed the most flavor and texture into a small paper boat was the Ramona Farms Superfood Salad from Phoenix City Grille. The salad offered a dense, fragrant medley of tepary beans, Sonoran wheat berries, dried cranberries, chickpeas, roasted squash and arugula. The veggies were dressed lightly with a chiltepin-Dijon vinaigrette, and every bite was alternately crunchy and soft, and sweet and savory.
12. Blackened shrimp with rosemary-brie grits from Tavern Americana.
Everyone seems to have their own version of the perfect bowl of shrimp and grits. The one served by Tavern Americana this weekend offered a rendition as near to the Platonic ideal as you might find at any food festival. The well-cooked shrimp were bright and plump, and the grits were slightly chunky, buttery and liberally infused with brie and rosemary herbs. No complaints here.
11. The "Love & Squalor" cocktail from Welcome Diner.
If you were fortunate enough to make your way into the VIP Lounge on Saturday, you probably got a taste of the cocktail that won this year's Devour Phoenix Bartending Competition. Connor Mansager of Welcome Diner captured the prize with "Love & Squalor," a refreshing and harmonious cocktail made using O.H.S.O. Distillery’s Horseradish Vodka, Iconic Cocktail Company’s Meyer Lemon Balm, lemon juice, rose petal jam, beet syrup, and a lemon twist. A ginger sugar rim made a sip feel as richly indulgent as any dessert, yet the drink itself was nicely earthy and refreshing.
10. Hawaiian swordfish ceviche from Joyride Taco House.
Ceviche made several appearances at this year's festival. Joyride Taco House offered its own very credible, ultra-fresh version, which featured citrus-sluiced swordfish layered with Abbey's tomatoes, avocado and pickled sweet corn. A blue corn chip added pleasing crunch, and the ceviche itself was a well-executed balancing act of acidity and pure, refreshing flavor.
9. Banana Split On a Stick from Churn.
One of the most visually appealing and purely charming dishes at this year's event was the Banana Split On a Stick from Churn. Sure, you won't accuse this of being a gourmet offering. But what could have been a cloyingly sweet, poorly executed, state fair-inspired dish, turned out instead to be an ingeniously tricked-out dessert that was ready made for easy handling. This chocolate-dipped invention tasted something like a banana- and cherry-flavored ice cream cake - one that seemed ostensibly immune from melting or making a mess, even on a moderately warm spring day in Arizona. Oh, and it tasted pretty great, too.
8. Risotto from Federal Pizza.
Risotto seems like a dish that might be impossible to pull off at a food festival. But the rendition offered by Federal Pizza seemed to defy all rules of logic. It was served buttery and hot, and its deep, rich flavor could not be accused of falling into too-salty territory. A small dappling of fresh microgreens and squash blossoms offered a fresh counterpoint to the dish's buttery core.
7. Grilled cheese with smoked tomato soup from House of Tricks.
Sure, grilled cheese may not seem like an overly ambitious offering. But the grilled cheese served by Tempe's House of Tricks this weekend was as perfect as grilled cheese gets. A generous motley of artisanal cheeses were beautifully melded between two thick, crusty slices of Noble bread. And the smoked tomato soup on the side? It was smooth and bright, with a dappling of fresh herb oil that added an extra pull of rich flavor.
6. Seared spring lamb noisette from Different Pointe of View.
Even cooking and plating amid the chaos of a crowded, open-air food festival, the culinary team at Different Pointe of View pulled off this fine dining dish without a hitch. The seared spring lamb noisette was served on a creamy, buttery lentil-Parmesan puree, and the dish was embellished with pea tendrils and topped with a crunchy garlic chip. The lamb reduction was rich and meaty, and the hunk of seared lamb was soft enough to eat with or without a plastic fork.
5. Banana pudding from Worth Takeaway.
Worth Takeaway, the craft sandwich restaurant in downtown Mesa, brought their signature banana pudding to this year's festival. Even if you aren't exceptionally fond of banana pudding, you might fall in love with this one. The pudding is dense with an airy, creamy finish. It's not too sweet at all, and bears a subtle salt element that keeps every spoonful in gorgeous balance.
4. Wagyu braised short ribs with blackberry goat cheese polenta and pickled salad from Litchfield's at The Wigwam.
Litchfield's, the farm-to-table restaurant at The Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park, was another resort restaurant that brought its fine dining game to the white tents this weekend. Take some ultra-rich Wagyu beef short ribs, then braise them until they seem to melt into a soft muddle of flavor. Pair it with some rich, creamy blackberry goat cheese polenta, and a bright pickled salad. The results turn out to be pretty irresistible, a plate overflowing with lush, deep flavor. It would almost be too much, if not for the modest portion size.
3. Smoked Arizona wild boar from District American Kitchen and Wine Bar.
District American Kitchen and Wine Bar pulled out all the stops for this year's Devour Culinary Classic. The restaurant's elaborate display included nothing less than four distinct dishes, including its "Whatever Floats" root beer float; a foie gras parfait served in small glass jars; and fresh brewed iced tea sweetened with prickly pear syrup. But it was its Smoked Arizona wild boar, paired with Fresno peppers and pureed rapini atop a grilled slice of ciabatta, that offered the most satisfying mouthfuls of deep, earthy flavor.
2. Pork short rib with black garlic miso from Roka Akor.
The crowds lining up around the Roka Akor stall at the festival this Sunday were no accident. The upscale Japanese restaurant delivered the goods with its pork short rib with black garlic miso, which was served with pickled grapes and a small dappling of sesame seeds. The short rib was cooked to perfection: juicy, lush and buoyed by the deep, seemingly endless flavor of that black garlic miso.
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1. Pork belly with chicharrón de camaron from Deseo at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa.
In Peru, anticuchos are popular grilled skewered meats. At this year's Devour Phoenix Culinary Classic, the house anticucho came courtesy of Deseo, the tony Latin-American restaurant at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale. The lush hunk of Kurobuta pork belly was one of the single best bites of the day - so soft, melty and rich, you could almost skip the chewing part altogether. It was carefully seasoned with some Ají Panca peppers, and beautifully encrusted with flavor-rich crystals of chicharrón de camaron.