The Washington Times - May 25, 2008, 10:58PM

By Lisa M. Ruth

Associate Editor, Donne Tempo Magazine

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[18 May 2008, Tampa, Florida]…  Gently combine one part fabulous food, one part outstanding spirits, and one part tropical paradise.  Layer with exciting chefs and innovative sommeliers and vintners, exquisite and whimsical displays, and top with interested, informed crowds. 

The result:  The 2008 Tampa Bay Food & Wine Festival - Unleash Your Palate.

Southern Wine and Spirits and The Abilities Foundation produced an outstanding culinary event in Tampa Bay, May 15 –17th 2008.  The second annual event, subtitled, “Unleash Your Palate,” wowed visitors with its quality and pageantry. 

The amazing setting – the divine Don CeSar’s on stunning St. Pete’s beach – perfectly framed the event and offered varied venues, from informal barefoot-on-the-beach to black tie ballroom, to showcase the regionally available food and wine.

Diverse exhibitors and vendors like provided plentiful, varied samples spanning the culinary spectrum.

Chefs and sommeliers were accessible and friendly, further heightening what was both an entertaining and educational experience.

The opening food event for the festival was The OSI Party for the Senses & Sergio Mendes Concert, located on the lawn outside the bay front Mahaffey Theatre. 

Party for the Senses (Photo by Lisa Ruth)

This party showcased food and beverages from Outback Steakhouse International’s five restaurants, Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse, and A La Carte Event Pavilion.

Soulful vocal entertainment by Sharon Little added the polish to an event filled with wonderful food and beverages, themed models and performers. 

Of course, there are always those things that stand out, and for us that was the Bonefish Grille’s Ocean Trust Martini (Absolute Citron, mango, sour mix, orange juice, and a splash of soda).

Carrabba’s lobster ravioli in a vermouth cream sauce, and Outback’s pan seared lobster crab cake were also outstanding.

The true hallmark of a great food and wine festival is the festive daytime atmosphere which centered around the Grand Tasting Village.

The Village was set upon The Don CeSar’s white sand beach creating a 20,000 square foot epicurean bonanza. 

Exhibitors include some of Tampa’s finest restaurants and chefs, as well as world-known wine makers and distillers. 

Entering The Village, Guests might feel overwhelmed, because of the huge array of displays, but they quickly acclimate as they receive a wine glass and are enticed by resplendent displays. 

Again, the spirits are outstanding and food is tremendous.  We particularly enjoyed Tampa Island Flavors authentic Caribbean cuisine [islandflavorsandtings.com], individual desserts from Annie’s Pies, and vodka from T&W Winery & Distillery

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Henry Kasprow of Empire Winery and Distillery (Photo by Lisa Ruth)

The casual atmosphere encourages communication with vintners, chefs, and restaurant owners, all who are happy to answer questions of just talk to guests.

Kudos to State of Florida Culinary Ambassador, Executive Chef Justin Patrick Timineri, who offered not only excellent seafood dishes but also information on seafood conservation.  Sustainable seafood practices are important to the industry and those of use who love to eat it.

If you came to not just eat, but also learn, The Festival offered numerous seminars in the Village, including Bring Sexy Back (exotic spices and herbs-based signature drinks, by Master Mixologist Francesco Lafranconi), Come Out of Your Shell (tricks of the trade, by Doug Bebell, Proprietor of Mystic Fish Restaurant), Mediterranean Delights (Chef Jim Nuetzi and Executive Chef Dan Tenderous, Capital Grille), Please, Make Me Blush (National Fine Wine Director Paul Chevalier), The Naked Native (native seafood, Chef Justin Timineri), Taste Wine Like a Master Sommelier, and Rubb Me Down (steak rubs).

The Friday evening event, the Titanium Chef Challenge, was a rollicking competition between exciting young chef Joshua Adam Garcia (AKA JAG) and world-renowned executive chef and international celebrity chef Jason Roberts. 

The festive competition challenged the chefs to create a dish using the “secret ingredients,” chocolate and mahi mahi.  The Abilities Foundation auctioned off two seats to judge the competition – raising more than $15,000– and winners joined judges celebrity Lorraine Bracco (The Sopranos) and culinary rocker/celebrity chef Johnny Ciao. 

The set up allowed excellent viewing of the chef’s, sous chefs (Jason Timineri for Chef JAG and Robert Masson for Chef Roberts) and their “kitchen’s.”  Local television personality and comedian Tim Wilkins hosted the event, keeping the audience involved and informed of happenings on the floor.  Lack of seating was a small problem, which many guests overcame by sitting on the floor or steps.


JAG and Justin Timineri at the Titanium Challenge (Photo by Lisa Ruth)

All good things come to an end and The Festival culminated with a black tie gala and auction benefiting the Abilities Foundation in the Grande Ballroom of the Don Cesar.  Local chefs joined international celebrity chefs to create a six-course gastronomic panoply.  Exceptional wines and spirits complemented the food, creating a dazzling finale to the festival.  

We grant sincere compliments to the Abilities Foundation, Southern Wine & Spirits, and the chefs, sommeliers, and exhibitors for an all-around stellar event.  We can’t wait to see what they come up with next year. 

Overall Rating:  Outstanding

The Tampa Bay Food & Wine Festival is hosted by Southern Wine & Spirits and this year benefited the Abilities Foundation.

 

Lisa Ruth is an Editor and Writer for Donne Tempo Magazine. A world traveler, Lisa work as an Analyst with The Federal Government allowed her to observe elections in Haiti And Nicaragua, investigate Human Rights abuses in Suriname, and participate in the Guatemalan Peace Process.  She states that covering a rousing Food & Wine Event can be harder!