Last Night at AZ Wine & Dine: Balsamic-Braised Short Ribs, Salted Caramel Chocolate Lollipops, and Much More

Are you the kind of person who rushes home from the grocery store to eat a tiny nibble of every single thing you bought? It's okay; I'm like that too.

If you are, you might think a tasting event featuring lots of bites from many restaurants is for you. But for me, the usual problem with tasting events is that most of the restaurants end up serving slight variations on the same general items: sliders, scallops, and for some reason, pork belly. While that can't be helped, last night's AZ Wine & Dine (previously Forks & Corks) did offer enough variety to please everyone, and overall, the quality level was respectably high.

Check out the full AZ Wine & Dine slideshow.

The wine and beer pairings that went with each dish -- or set of dishes, since most restaurants prepared three -- were really lost in the mix of the event. Sure, every attendee had a cute plastic wine glass that fit nicely into sturdy plates for easy carrying (ingenious), but it appeared that most people didn't bother to stop and get the beverage of choice at each restaurant's station. Of the few pairings I sampled, only one stood out: the New Age White served with ice and lime, which complemented Province's spiced offerings: Moroccan meatballs and roasted papaya cupcakes with coconut frosting.

There were a few standouts at AZ Wine & Dine. Tanzy, located in the Scottsdale Quarter where the event was held, served balsamic-braised short ribs that were so juicy and tender they were falling apart on the plate. Dessert was a strawberry chocolate cheesecake that had light flavors and a super soft texture. The strawberry wasn't very evident, but it rounded out the chocolate cheesecake in a helpful way, keeping it from being plain. It was messy to eat, but totally worth having to lick your fingers in public.

District American Kitchen was another restaurant that hit the bullseye with its smart, distinctive choices. Shreiner's bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chive cream cheese were a simple, incredibly delicious way to go. When it feels like you can only muster one last bite, that's a bite many will risk. Since most of the food at the event was heavy and there was a notable lack of vegetables, it was refreshing to have a light option: tepary bean hummus with lavosh chips and organic carrots. Lastly, they had bags of "cracker jack" caramel corn and cashews to take with. If only every dessert had been available to-go.

It's no surprise that T. Cook's also brought outstanding selections. The pork belly was good, although it didn't have as much flavor as expected from the za'taar seasoning. Most of the flavor came from the harissa and cauliflower. What really made T. Cook's shine was the milk chocolate panna cotta with caramel sauce. It had a very silky texture, was packed with flavor, and was simply addictive.

Deseo also served tender pork belly. It was very spicy, but the steamed yucca and garlic it was served with helped to tame the heat. Different Pointe of View had perfectly cooked scallops on top of quinoa, black avocado puree, and roasted piquillo pepper pesto. While I preferred the flavors of Doubletree Resort's scallop, which was slightly overcooked but came with a sweet pea puree and microgreens, making it bright and fresh. Both restaurants also served great desserts. Doubletree served signature chocolate chip cookies that were very crispy, and I want the recipe. Different Pointe of View had beautiful presentation on their dessert, a nutty chocolatey treat of some kind. The smooth texture made it indulgent and easy to eat, and the chocolate was well balanced.

As previously stated, there were quite a few sliders and small sandwiches. Bourbon Steak had the best one, a prime beef short rib slider with horseradish slaw, apple, and celery. The little sandwich was bursting with juicy flavor and represented a fancier version of a comfort food classic. Renaissance Phoenix Downtown served a Conchinita pibil slider. While delicious, it was hard to eat because the bolio rolls were too big compared to the amount of filling, which supposedly was Duroc pork cheeks with pickled cabbage. However, the most disappointing slider came from Relish Burger Bistro. The "cowboy style" Kobe beef sliders were overpowered by spicy horseradish, and that stole the show from the high quality meat. They also had salmon burgers with avocado and arugula, but I didn't snag one of those.

Much to my surprise and delight, almost every restaurant served dessert, and elements only served two desserts and no savory options. The PB Bomb was extremely rich, designed for serious peanut butter fanatics. It was good, but the thick layer of ganache on top made it tough to cut with a plastic fork, and the PB mousse squished out the sides. This also made it hard to reach the Nutella-flavored crust on the bottom. Arizona Grand Resort served a breathtaking banana mousse tower, but it didn't follow through with flavor. Another attendee told me she thought it was very bland, and that's the truth. The formed cake ring on the bottom was also made to be looked at, not eaten, as it had a weird texture and no taste. Salted caramel chocolate lollipops from Lon's stole the attention from the sausage-stuffed shrimp skewers, which were only so-so. The caramel, on the other hand, was thick and soft with rich, traditional flavor; it would perform really well at Caramelpalooza.

A few bites were a real let-down. Nothing was completely inedible, but it's always a shame to get excited about a favorite -- like crab cakes -- only to be disappointed. That's what happened with Relish Burger Bistro's sliders, and it also happened with Arizona Grand Resort. I rushed to their booth to get a (bland) banana mousse tower and was doubly excited when I heard that they also had crab cakes. Too bad they were a little cold and lacked flavor, and the texture was off. I expected to wolf down that crab cake, but I couldn't consider a second bite. And while Little America Hotel's Seven Seas Ceviche was good, it was really forgettable. The cream cheese blackberry brownies were a little better, but they were blown out of the water once I tasted cheesecake at Tanzy.

Of course, there were a few things I was unable to try. Two in particular that I wish I'd tasted were Prado's cioppino, which I noticed many people enjoying, and Talavera's Alaskan halibut. I overheard two women say, "Oh, that's the halibut someone told us we must try!" so it must have been worth waiting in line for (but by that time I was stuffed). Despite having too many options and not enough room in my stomach, and despite the few disappointing tastes, overall it was a successful event. There was plenty of standing room, and elbowing was kept to a minimum. The weather was perfect, there was enough food and drink to go around, and everyone looked to be enjoying themselves.

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