Check, Please! Arizona Festival at CityScape Was a Hot Hit; Celeb Chefs Informed and Entertained

Channel 8 hosted its first-ever Check, Please! Arizona Festival at CityScape on Sunday and despite the ridiculous temperatures (100 degrees, but it felt hotter), everybody seemed to have a good time.

See also: -- Check, Please! Arizona Festival at CityScape, 04/28/13 (Slideshow) -- Chef Kevin Binkley a Finalist for James Beard Award -- Chris Bianco Opens Full-Blown Pizzeria Bianco at Town & Country

Hosted by Chef Robert McGrath, Check, Please!, which debuted in 2010 and features local restaurants reviewed by citizen critics, is Channel 8's most popular program. So why not build a food festival around the Arizona restaurants featured on the show? It could've been such a dud (cynical me worried it would be) but miraculously the event came off remarkably well -- although I'd definitely recommend a few changes for next year.

Most of the festival took place right on the street. Central Avenue -- which bisects the two monolithic sections of CityScape -- was blocked off between Washington and Jefferson, and food booths lined both sides of the street from one end to the other. Twenty-two restaurants participated, including America's Taco Shop, Cornish Pasty Co., Coup Des Tartes, Durant's, Four Peaks (who came with beer! Yay!), MacAlpine's Soda Fountain, and Thee Pitt's Again. Chef-driven restaurants were represented by Amuse Bouche, Eddie's House, Lon's at the Hermosa, Petite Maison, Tarbell's, and Vogue Bistro.

It was an interesting and unusual mash-up -- nothing like the inbred exclusivity of Devoured (populated by air-kissing foodies who know each other) and nothing like the generic, for-the-masses boredom of the Great Arizona Picnic at the Scottsdale Culinary Festival. I was surprised to find that I loved splitting my time and taste buds between oysters on the half shell at Tarbell's and a hot dog at Pittsburgh Willy's.

I didn't try everything (being way more interested in the seminars, and I'll get to that in a minute), but I can tell you what I liked of the eight or nine things I did eat: the juicy-spicy barbecued hot link at Mrs. White's, the meat loaf slider on a brioche bun with smoked bacon, onion aioli and roasted tomato glaze at Amuse Bouche and the buttermilk pie (a crunchy-creamy perfect-size bite) at Phoenix City Grille. Everything I tried was good, but I wanted seconds of these three.

But there were plenty of opportunities to feed your head as well as your belly via chef demos, wine tastings and a panel discussion featuring four of Arizona's James Beard Award-winning chefs: Chris Gross (winner in 1995), panel moderator Robert McGrath (winner in 2001), Chris Bianco (winner in 2003), and Nobuo Fukuda (winner in 2005).

I caught a portion of Robert McGrath's chef demo at 12:30, and I'm telling you, the man is smooth. He talked and cracked jokes, seamlessly moving between cooking tips and funny asides with the ease that comes from years of experience. And he laid on the Texas drawl for fans who'd come to see the cowboy chef.

At 1 p.m., Chris Gross conducted a wine-tasting seminar exclusive to VIPs who'd paid $100 for admission instead of the general admission price of $60. The day was heating up, and about 20 poor little VIPs were lined up at two tables facing directly into the sun. It was brutal. The lucky folks who'd found tables with umbrellas had shade but probably couldn't hear what was going on very well. A cluster of people shared a shade tree.

If Gross had not been so incredibly good, I don't think I'd have made it five minutes. He talked for 40, and like McGrath, peppered his erudite discussion with war stories and hilarious analogies. At one point he said, "California Chardonnay is like Pamela Anderson with the enhancements and injections. You might want to put it in your mouth but you wouldn't want to cuddle with it in the morning. While French Chardonnay is like Catherine DeNeuve. It's got a little age on it (okay, maybe a lot of age on it), but it's elegant and refined." Perfect! He shared a boatload of info and not a single person took notes. Maybe half were even listening. "Pearls before swine," I thought to myself, but in their defense, it was nearly impossible to pay attention when it was so freaking hot. Meanwhile, Nobuo Fukuda made his yummy pork belly buns, passed out at Gross' talk.

The panel of James Beard Award-winners took the Chow Bella stage (yes, we were a sponsor) a bit after 2 p.m., and by then, the crowd was already thinning out. This was supposed to be an exclusive VIP event, but it was held smack in the middle of the festival and I don't think anyone was checking wristbands. Not that I care.

It was a great discussion, covering topics such as fine dining and the economy, buying sustainable fish (do they or don't they?), seasonality, the economics of food trends (when once-inexpensive items become popular, their price jumps astronomically) and how winning the Beard affected each of them. What struck me (and probably everyone else in the audience) was how humble these guys were. Bianco said, "I try not to let anyone down in this club." And when Fukuda talked about being part of a circle, saying, "I'm going to do something good with that chicken because that chicken gave up its life," the audience applauded. It happened more than once.

Poor Mark Tarbell was scheduled for 3, when the sun was at its hottest and most people were more than ready to go home and jump in a bathtub of ice. His wine tasting was inspired: three wines that people may think they don't like -- Chardonnay (based on the old ABC school of thought), Merlot (remember Sideways?) and sweet wines such as Eiswein (because people think you must drink something "dry" to be sophisticated). He poured terrific wines (thank you, Southern Wine & Spirits) and got super-geeky, giving lots of great info while keeping it light. Another pro in action and he deserved a better time slot and a hell of a lot better venue.

Why on earth weren't the seminars held indoors? Maybe in the cool-in-more-ways-than-one Palomar? I enjoyed the event, thanks to the mixed-up mix of restaurants and to the super-knowledgeable and entertaining chefs who showed up. But somebody had better get the shade situation worked out or move the date to early April or hold the event at 7 in the morning -- which might put a damper on my wine-tasting, but I doubt it.

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