Two enchanted evenings at the Swan & Dolphin, Food & Wine Classic
For some, the kick-off to the Holiday Season is Halloween. For my family, it’s the start of the Food & Wine Festival and all of the events that come with it. As the Food & Wine Festival for 2017 comes to an end, no event says “Welcome to the Holiday Season” more than the Swan & Dolphin Food and Wine Classic. Taking place over two nights right before Halloween, this signature event of the Festival is a “must-do”. This year, I attend both nights along with my wife and our good friend Josh Brooks who also happens to be a card-carrying Sommelier; more from him later.
Now in its 8th year, this event features dishes inspired from the nine restaurants located on property along with a well curated selection of wines, beers, and even some spirits. The wine represents 10 different regions of the world and 11 different beer breweries were represented. The food offerings vary per night, and while some items are the same, the variety is substantial enough to make a trip to both evenings absolutely worth it, ask me how I know.
Every time I’ve attended this event in years past, the weather has been remarkably perfect; this year was the exception. A tropical weather system ran across southern Florida which brought steady rain and winds to the resort. Nothing substantial in terms of significant weather; but enough to cause the Saturday night event to be moved indoors to the Swan Convention Center. This made for what felt like two completely different events, both with their pros and cons; but notably different.
Friday Night – Outdoor
Held in the massive causeway separating the Swan from the Dolphin and down the Dolphin promenade, the event felt open and spacious. Being outside in the cool, crisp Florida Fall air, under a magnificent gibbous moon, and flanked on all sides by beautiful LED lighting was simply gorgeous. The smells from each booth were special and distinct. The lines moved quickly; but they were just long enough to let the smells from each booth waft by and build anticipation for consuming the delectable offerings.
However, in some places, the music from the live entertainment felt in conflict with the music down the somewhat crowded causeway. And I’m still a little confused by the placement of the Beer Garden. It just felt disconnected from the main event despite the food and beer being delicious. But speaking of disconnected, one of the highlights was the Bubble Lounge. Tucked away behind the main pool you had to present a piece of bubble gum to be “allowed” into the special room (you could get in anyway without the gum but that wasn’t the point). This “speakeasy” inspired area was fun and whimsical, and of course, Bubbles = Champagne, and it was good Champagne too. This was an absolute delight and I hope they keep it future years.
Saturday Night – Indoors
Held in the sprawling Swan Convention Center, the Saturday night event comprised both of the main ballrooms and the connecting hallway. This allowed for ample space between booths along with a giant dance floor area for folks to not dance on, prompting some chiding from the vocalist of the 501 Blues at one point during their set. Oh, and there were Zombies. Yup. I don’t get it either. There were about 8 to 10 folks walking around for the first hour of the event that I, at first, thought were just really drunk people in make-up; but no, they were zombies. I know it was Halloween and all; but this just didn’t fit. Moving on.
I know this venue was setup by necessity so I don’t want to be too critical. But so much of the elegance of the first night missing from the hastily arranged ballrooms that it just lost the pomp that this event always has. And, yet again, the Beer Garden was an afterthought. This time relegated to actually being behind the dance area. Since there were no printed menus this night you just kinda had to figure it out. Speaking of figuring it out, the Bubble Lounge wasn’t exactly the same experience either. They tried. They did; but it just didn’t click. There was still bubbles, and it was still delicious, but it was in a convention hall meeting room that was barely a fourth the size of the Friday night venue.
Overall, it’s not entirely fair to overly critique the venue. Yes, it was hastily arranged; but they could have just cancelled the event entirely and I don’t think a reasonable person could have argued given the weather. The fact that they moved that entire massive event in a day is not only impressive, it’s admirable. The key draw for this event, regardless of venue, is the food & wine, and neither night disappointed there. Oh, and leave the zombies in their graves next year please.
Oh boy. This is why we go. Well the wine too, but more on that in a bit. Nothing was bad. Sure, standouts and disappointments; but overall, everything is solid. Here is what stood out and what didn’t.
The Fountain, Friday Night – Kobe Beef Mini Burgers, Truffle Aioli, Applewood Smoked Bacon, and Roma Tomato Chutney. A soft, fresh baked roll envelops a 4oz patty of perfectly chared beefy goodness. Adorned with two pieces of thick cut chewy bacon, the truffle aioli and sweet chutney were perfect foils for the smoky, salty meats. This was so good I checked if I could actually get this at the Fountain. Spoiler, you can’t; and that makes me sad.
Cib’s Smokehouse, Friday Night – Hand Crafted Pork Belly, Confit Fennel, Compressed Green Apple, Spicy Pear BBQ Sauce. A strong contender for “best of the night” in our book, this pork belly didn’t need a knife. This was melt-in-your-mouth lusciousness accompanied by sweet, tangy, and herb notes played like a fine musical instrument.
Il Mulino, Saturday Night – Corzetti Stampati, Lamb Bolognese, Roasted Eggplant, and Castelventrano Olives. A single bite of perfection. Succulent, tender lamb on top of an al dente pasta disc and topped with a lively interplay between the Bolognese, smoky eggplant, and briny olive.
Honorable Mention goes to Carnival Corner, Mac & Cheese, both nights – White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese, Roasted Wild Mushrooms, and Winter Truffle. Earthy mushrooms and truffles give a delightful balance to the creamy, salty cheese. Warm, comforting, and memorable.
Shula’s Steakhouse, Both Nights – Oven Roasted Beef Rib Eye, Silky Mashed Potatoes, and Sauce Bordelaise. This is SUCH a shame to put this in the disappointments category because you WANT to love this; but it was blah. The rib sadly was cut too quickly so it was dry and the mashed potatoes were gummy, not silky. This doesn’t represent the incredible steak you can get at Shula’s. I hope they get it right next year.
Carnival Corner, Nitro Kettle Corn, Both Nights – Popcorn, Caramel Foam, Honey Roasted Peanuts, Sea Salt, and Liquid Nitrogen. Again you just WANT to like this. Visually stunning I have to say. Watching them make it was a treat. It’s a shame the kettle corn wasn’t a treat at all. It was cold popcorn. The foam didn’t work, it just ended up as an unappealing slick on the popcorn when it warmed back up.
Picabu, Authentic Chicken Tinga Tostadas, Saturday Night – Chicken, charred tomato & Chipotle Salsa, and Crema Fresca. Once you got past the nearly inedible tostada, the ingredients themselves were tasty. But man that rock-like tostada robbed the otherwise brilliant dish of its chance to be a success.
I was quite privileged to attend this event with my good friend Josh Brooks who is a card-carrying sommelier. I asked him to write this section of the review to lend some perspective and background to the stand-out wines of the event.
Hello! My name is Josh Brooks an Introductory Sommelier, Wine Educator, and long-time wine lover. I consider myself supremely lucky to be able to attend this year’s Food and Wine Classic and luckier still to be able to share some of my thoughts and impressions.
It’s important to remember as you try wines, you might have different tastes than I, which is awesome! The most important thing, is to enjoy what you drink. Try to push boundaries when the occasion arises, and this event affords you just that opportunity.
Here are the two major hits:
Susana Balbo, Malbec, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina – This wine took me completely by surprise. The sign noted that it was a Mendoza Malbec by a producer I recognized but hadn’t tried. I didn’t look at the bottle, so I didn’t notice that it was specifically from Valle de Uco (arguably the best region in Argentina). This wine strikes the most perfect balance of fruitiness and secondary flavors that I’ve had in recent memory. Sweet pipe tobacco, blackberry, cacao nibs, bing cherry, all backed up by a balanced acidity and a supple tannic backbone. All of these elements existed harmoniously, not outshining the other. The oak influence was masterfully done and perfectly integrated. All cards on the table, I don’t usually like Malbec. Usually. This wine was magnificent.
Torres, Salmos, Priorat, Spain – There are two areas in Spain that qualify for DOCa status (the highest quality level awarded by the Spanish government); Rioja and the lesser-known Priorat. In my experience, Priorat wines are intense, wonderfully balanced, fantastic with food and not well-known, living under the shadow of the more common Rioja Gran Reservas. Generally, what bottles of Priorat lack in familiarity they make up in intensity. Everything about this wine was turned up to 11; powerful smoke, blackberry, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, licorice and an intense graphite minerality that the unique llicorella soil of the region delivers.
Overall, the Food and Wine Classic offered a delicious value. We had an amazing time, tried some tremendous wine, and I can’t wait for next year to get my wine on!
As of this writing the dates for the 9th Food & Wine Classic in 2018 have not been announced. However, be sure to stay tuned to swandolphinfoodandwineclassic.com for details. You can also review every wine and food offering from this year along with details on costs and additional experiences you can enjoy before, during, and after The Classic. Dates for the event are typically announced in early Spring which is right around the 7-month booking window of the nearby Yacht & Beach Club and Boardwalk DVC properties. Here’s to the Holiday Season!
**UPDATE 12/11** Next year’s event will be held October 26-27, 2018 and tickets are now on sale here: https://swandolphinfoodandwineclassic.com/tickets/index.html