Scottsdale Culinary Festival's Wine Country Brunch: We Ate, We Drank, We Bid, We Judged

The Wine Country Brunch has been a super-popular event at the Scottsdale Culinary Festival for 25 years, and by the looks of things, Sunday's elaborate affair at the Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center was no exception.

See also: -- Eat, Drink (and Drink and Drink) and Be Pretty at Last Night's Scottsdale Culinary Festival -- Scottsdale Culinary Festival Burger Battle: The Results Are In!

By 11 a.m., a small herd of hungry, thirsty people started lining up to check in and receive their I-belong-here wristbands, and bravo to the brilliant person who suggested it made sense to pass out Champagne and mimosas while we all did that. The message was "let's get this party started," and it put everyone (okay, me) in a more relaxed frame of mind.

The first hour was spent outside in the courtyard, where brunch-ers could participate in a silent auction (movie posters, photos of famous people, and sports memorabilia were a few of the pricier options) or wander over to the cake-decorating competition, where insanely elaborate cakes, created by culinary students and pros, were on display. Most of them didn't look like cakes at all, and that was the cool part. Imagine a Tuscan villa, a Dutch windmill, an homage to Paris, and another to India -- all impressive, all anonymous so that voters (both pros and brunch participants) wouldn't be swayed by a name. Meanwhile, an artist on an outdoor stage painted four pictures of John, Paul, Ringo, and George upside down, meaning the images on the canvas were upside down as he painted them, not the guy.

At noon (and not a minute too soon), the doors to the ballroom were opened and brunch was officially under way. Although a few tables were reserved for whole parties (a law firm, for example), most were first come, first served. People grabbed tables first, then started cruising the stations to see what they wanted to eat, but it wasn't a stampede. Everybody seemed polite, happy, and eager to have a good time. There were four restaurant participants -- Amuse Bouche, The Oink Cafe, Tryst Cafe, and Village Tavern -- plus the resort, which provided the usual brunch-y stuff such as a carving station (ham and beef), roasted potatoes, veggies, lox and bagels, fruit and cheese. Meanwhile, a half-dozen boutique wineries (at least three from Napa and Sonoma) lined the perimeter of the room. Oddly enough, it seemed that far more people were interested in eating than drinking, even though they'd paid $65 per person for a ticket -- which should mean they plan to get their money's worth.

I was more than a little disappointed to find that three of the four restaurants were offering some version of Eggs Benedict. At this price, shouldn't there be more variety? Amuse Bouche served theirs on a biscuit with ham, salsa ranchera (a warm and slightly spicy assemblage of black beans and various chiles), poached egg and Hollandaise, and it was awesome -- the hands-down winner. Everything at this table was great, including moist carrot cake (like a quick bread) with creme fraiche and sugared pecans. But what knocked everybody out was AB's ultra-creamy, ultra-Gruyere-y quiche, baked in a perfect crust. No wonder this restaurant won best-in-show!

Tryst Cafe's rendition of Benedict bordered on the byzantine: capicola, spinach, poached egg, roasted tomato, buffalo mozzarella, and a gravy-ish Anaheim chile situation that surely was never meant to be Hollandaise. Awful. Ditto for freezer bag sweet potato tots. Who serves them at a swanky brunch anyway?

Kudos to The Oink Cafe for being playful, topping a biscuit with pork confit, poached egg, Hollandaise, and chicharrones. I liked the simple spinach, bacon, hard-cooked egg, onion and mushroom salad dressed with bacon vinaigrette too. Nothing ground-breaking, just good. To my mind, the bacon maple-glazed doughnut wasn't entirely successful texturally, even though the topping was great. Nevertheless, The Oink earned a very solid second place in my book.

Village Tavern showed up with one thing: bread pudding French toast topped with maple syrup, or fruit compote and pecan crumbles. Ho. Hum.

The wineries brought some great wines to try, but I wonder if anyone sat down and enjoyed their brunch with a glass of wine. Doubt it. This was more of a sipping and sampling arrangement, which wasn't quite what I'd expected.

Aside from everything produced by Amuse Bouche, the most fun part of the whole brunch was the resort's flamboyant, boozed-up, whipped cream-topped hot coffee drink made with Grand Marnier and Courvoisier. The two spirits are poured in a ladle, flamed on a burner, then trickled down a rope of orange peel, into the coffee glass. Quite a show! And wow! What a delicious drink!

So, despite my kvetching, overall, the event was a lot of fun: fun stuff to do and see, loud, lively music, nice wines and some (but just some) good food. For what it's worth, I think the food should be better. This is the Scottsdale Culinary Festival, for Pete's sake.

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