The Scottsdale Culinary Festival officially began all 2014 festivities last night at Casablanca Lounge. As you walked up the stairs, you were met with a group of faux paparazzi blinding you with flash photos and screaming compliments at you in 40s accents. Some people would smile when they realized what was happening, others would wince uncomfortably, but either way, the festival started in a truly Scottsdale way.
Casablanca Lounge, which operates in what used to be the Estate House, is obviously going for that oh so popular vintage lounge aesthetic bars can't get enough of nowadays. Complete with a live jazz band, that at one point covered Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," the second floor joint at South Bridge quickly packed full of people crowding the bar for cocktails.
Dressed to the nines, attendees sampled food and drink from Casablanca, as well as a few options from Cowboy Ciao. Offerings like chicken wings, gnocchi, and bruschetta were passed around by servers in cocktail dresses, although if you didn't snag a seat in the crowded restaurant, it was difficult to catch their attention.
While the chicken wings promised a "Belgium Beer" rub and slow smoking, along with a full list of other descriptors like "Non-GMO," "Free Range," and "Pesticide free feed," the flavor was bland at best, though the meat itself was admittedly tender. The gnocchi was pleasantly firm, but its green chili beer cheese sauce was all over the place with bitter and sour flavors.
While the menu promised us Berkshire bacon and amaro crème brulee, we didn't see a single serving of it. However, Cowboy Ciao's chopped salad was a satisfying finish to our culinary indulgences with plump pearl cous cous, peppery arugula, smoked salmon, dried sweet corn, and more. This salad is a must try if you haven't had it at the restaurant already.
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As far as drinks were concerned, four cocktails were on the menu, though the event's ticket only allowed for three drinks. The Summer Garden, an eight ingredient cocktail, tasted like mildly alcoholic and effervescent fruit punch.
Next up to bat was the barrel-aged Kentucky Backwoods, which featured bourbon, Kentucky cheroot bitters, and Ancho chili infused vermouth. Overall, the drink was surprisingly acidic -- not at all what we expected from a barrel-aged cocktail which is typically more smooth, smoky, and sweet by comparison. The TeqCasa, with Espolon, fruit juices, and more chili infusion, suffered from similar balance issues.
All in all, the festival's opening night wasn't a knock out showing in any of its culinary aspects, except maybe Cowboy Ciao's salad. But, really? A salad wins best in show for the night? We'll just have to stay tuned for what's in store the rest of the week and let you know how it goes.