Food lovers and fans of Channel 8's most popular program crowded into downtown Phoenix's CityScape for the second annual Check, Please! Arizona Festival on Sunday. The event featured 30 local restaurants, wine and beer, food samples, and plenty of entertainment from some of Arizona's top chefs. The sold out festival was a definite success with plenty of food and booze (full disclosure: Chow Bella was a co-sponsor), though we do have a few suggestions for next year.
Unlike last year when the festival was held at the end of April, this year attendees enjoyed reasonably cool weather (at least by Arizona standards) on an overcast and breezy day. But due to the event's growth since its first year, this fest may have already outgrown the CityScape venue. Restaurants were lined up on both sides of Central Avenue between Washington and Jefferson but with tables placed in the center of the street, navigating the crowds -- particularly with food and drinks in hand -- was difficult.
Next year we'd love to see more space for lines and, if possible, even more seating. The guests lounging on the CityScape stairs and on the grass made for a charming photo op, but chairs and tables would also have been nice. Trash cans were hard to come by, too -- though perhaps we just couldn't find them due to the thick crowds of people.
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One of the good parts of the event was that the relatively small lineup of restaurants made tasting almost everything a more feasible achievement than at other culinary events. Some of the standouts we tried included The Salt Cellar's shrimp and mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and garlic. Served with a thick slice of ciabatta bread, this sample stood out not only because it tasted good but also because it did an excellent job of showcasing the restaurant's cuisine. We also liked Cowboy Ciao's slow roasted pork with Manchego grits and roasted hominy pico do gallo.
Sweets made a decent showing at the event and two of our favorite bites of the day fell into that category. We loved Citizen Public House's gluten-free coconut cashew and curry brownie, which made for a fudge-y little treat that offered a kick thanks to the curry. We were also fans of the peach cobbler from Flavors of Louisiana. The restaurant's shrimp creole didn't blow us away but the cobbler, with its buttery crumble topping and fresh fruit, was good enough to justify having two.
In comparison to other food and drink festivals (particularly the recent Devoured Phoenix Culinary Classic) we found the food offerings at this festival a little lackluster. About a quarter of the 20 restaurants present were serving sliders of some sort and though we loved the oysters from Tarbell's, the restaurant served the same dish last year.
The event's strongest offering was by far the programming, which included a jam packed lineup of cooking demos, presentations, and panel discussions. We weren't able to catch everything we wanted to see, but did work our way over to the SubZero Wolf Stage in time to catch most of chef Nobuo Fukuda's cooking demonstration. The chef prepared a dish with fried chicken and a slaw of colorful peppers and red onions. Fukuda kept the audience entertained and shared helpful tips including the suggestion to use white soy sauce when cooking with colorful produce. Fukuda told the audience you can find the product at most Japanese markets.
We then headed over to the Chow Bella stage to taste wine with chef Christopher Gross. The chef guided a large crowd though an informal taste test of Old World versus New World wines, while sharing facts about each varietal. Gross, who clearly favors Old World wines, called California chardonnays "Pamela Anderson," in comparison to their more "honest" flavored European counterparts and shared the story of how Robert Mondavi made sauvignon blanc trendy. In addition to sampling about a half dozen varietals, we walked away with a few new tidbits of wine-related knowledge.
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Of course we also hung around for the panel discussion of James Beard Award-winnging chefs. The event, led by Check, Please! Arizona host, chef Robert McGrath, brought together chefs Nobuo and Gross to answer questions from the audience. Topics of discussion included what it takes to become a James Beard Award winning chef and how the business has changed since they each started their careers. Each of the winners shared their stories, including chef McGrath who told the crowd he was nominated six times before actually taking home the Best Chef Southwest award. Nobuo, who was nominated twice before winning, told the crowd he felt "awkward" the first time he was nominated, while Gross expressed his unhappiness with a nomination process.
We asked the chefs if they thought Phoenix's chef Kevin Binkley might win the Best Chef Southwest award this year. McGrath said, "I think he's deserving," but Gross said this year's group of finalists, which includes several hotshot young guns from Texas, might be tough competition.
All in all, this year's Check, Please! festival was a success -- though it's not an event with universal appeal. Since restaurants must have appeared on the show in order to participate, you won't find any of the hottest, newest spots. And while we enjoyed the food and drink-related programming, not everyone will have the attention span for hour long presentations held outdoors and with limited seating. On the upside the event is a wonderful opportunity to try food from some of the Valley's classic restaurants, the ones that tend to be overlooked in favor of newer spots.