The weeklong Scottsdale Culinary Festival is always a whirlwind of events ranging from champagne-fueled parties to casual meat-centric competitions. The weekend brings the two-day Great Arizona Picnic to the Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza for a blowout celebration of food and drinks and music and fun.
But if you can only go to one event during the festival, you'd do well to invest in the festival's grand finale, The Best of The Fest.
See also: Scottsdale Culinary Festival's Best of the Fest 2015 at the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale (SLIDESHOW) Every year the festival ends with this upscale dinner event, hosted at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch. The event features a handful of the Valley's top chefs, who each prepare dinner for one or two tables of diners. This year, we were invited to dine at chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's table.
The evening began with champagne and passed hors d'oeuvres, allowing guests time to mingle under the setting Arizona sun. This was also our chance to meander the courtyard to "ooh" and "ahh" over the stunning tablescapes. From the long wooden table and chairs brought by chef Mel Mecinas and Talavera at the Four Seasons, to the elaborate floral arrangements and intricately folded napkins from Josh Hebert and Posh restaurant, each chef created a table that reflected his or her own style and cuisine.
Chef Esparza's table featured handmade Mexican magnets (take-home gifts for the guests) and a centerpiece made from colorful paper flowers. Mexican votive candles rounded out the setting.
"They put you in the corner because you're in the barrio now," Esparza joked, welcoming the table of diners and explaining the secret to making great guacamole (not smashing the avocado), which was the dinner's first course.
The chef's signature guacamole -- available at both her original restaurant, Barrio Café, and the more recently opened Barrio Urbano -- featured pomegranate seeds, tomato, red onion, lime, and jalapeno, making for a salty, sour, and spicy start to the meal. Oak Creek Vineyard's bold grenache blanc stood up perfectly to the flavors.
She followed the starter with another Barrio Café favorite, a diver scallop and goat cheese quesadilla. At the restaurant, the dish usually features shrimp, but the combination of tender scallop and salty goat cheese works just as well. In any case, it's the blanco tequila reduction (the chef's Mexican take on a classic French white wine sauce) that truly makes the dish sing.
The wine pairing, an unfiltered fume blanc, underscored the sweetness of the scallops.
Next came a nice intermezzo, and by far the most unexpected pairing of the night. Chef Esparza put out a palate cleansing sorbet of strawberry, jalapeno, Cruz reposado tequila, and lime, which was paired with Oak Creek Vineyard's Arizona Cream Sherry dessert wine. The combination actually worked quite well, with the sweet wine (an Oloroso made from chardonnay and fortified with brandy) drawing out the subtle flavors of jalapeno and lime.
Following the intermission Esparza started diners on the first of two meat courses, the first of which she called a "deconstructed take on an aguas frescas." The stunning plate featured perfectly cooked pieces of duck and jicama, in a rich jamaica and tamarind sauce. Oak Creek Winery's bold, medium bodied syrah, balanced well with one of the night's heaviest courses.
A seafood course came next, perhaps our favorite of the night, in the form of a flaky filet of halibut covered in green mole. While rounding the table to offer diners more sauce, Esparza explained the green mole made from pumpkin seeds and spinach is one of hundreds of traditional moles that aren't common to many American diners. Blending excellent technique and traditional (if uncommon) Mexican flavors, this dish best represented Esparza's unique style of cuisine, or at least our understanding of it.
The savory courses ended with a fork-tender short rib served in a port wine reduction sauce with peppers and chiles. A garlic and chiltapin (a tiny pepper native to the US) crust provided depth and heat, though Esparza offered more of the small, smoky peppers to diners who wanted even more spice.
For dessert, the table enjoyed a thick, caramel-scented flan with cups of strong coffee sourced from Mexico.
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Between the food and the atmosphere, there are few events that can compare to Best of The Fest. With such up-close-and-personal interactions between diners and the chef, attendees gain a real understanding of the food -- something that can't be said of all dining experiences. Representatives from each featured winery are also on hand, giving attendees information about the wines and the pairings throughout the meal. The combination makes for an evening that's both enjoyable and educational.
Not all of the events during the Scottsdale Culinary Festival seem organized with food lovers in mind. But this event achieves what the rest of the festivals aims to do: Bring together talented chefs and enthusiastic diners to raise money for a good cause.