Pairings 2011: How Was It?

This morning started with a red eye after a decadent night of eating and drinking at last night's fourth-annual New Times Pairings. It was my first South Florida gastronomic event, and I was impressed at how smoothly things ran, the absence of lines, and plenty of food to the end. I think I managed to try 22 dishes and countless drinks, or so it seems this morning.

Scenes from the night included a lass with a whip wearing thigh-highs for photo ops at one corner, while hunks of raw meat over at the K&G Brothers table served as a deliciously disturbing "before" reminder of many of the dishes we were about to consume. In the courtyard, the posse eating lobster corn dogs was nonplussed -- hair flying and dresses going all Marilyn -- by the wind tunnel next to the Rok:Brgr table. By the night's end, women traipsed around barefoot, heels in hand. On to the food after the jump.

Honest bites were my favorites. Tarpon Bend's crawfish gumbo was a delightful surprise: a well-seasoned balance of rice, veggies, herbs, and fresh crawfish. I was also enamored of Sette Bello's escarole, white beans, and cervelatta. Sure it's a simple dish I could whip up at home, if I had the motivation to source terrific sausage, make my own stock, soak white beans overnight, and hit the farmers' market for escarole. I also liked the dish chef Franco Filippone used as a stand-in for the stove.

Seafood dominated the lower levels of the venue with (overfished, gussied-up) tuna as the most represented. Trying to eat SAIA's

scallop and tuna sushi bite was a show. Ignoring the chef's chopstick

suggestion, I popped the whole thing in my mouth -- it barely fit -- just

as I saw former New Times food critic John Linn. He watched mildly horrified as I doused myself in orange and green roe: a fun mess, albeit embarrassing.

Later in the evening, I asked executive chef Jason Smith from Steak 954 why he opted for wahoo crudo on a plantain chip rather than steak. "We want people to know what else we have to offer," he said. Dressed with poblano, it was the cleanest and most elegant bite of the evening for me.

Upstairs on the Broward Center for the Performing Arts Waste Management Mezzanine (Who thought that's a good idea for a name?), my friends and colleagues liked the pumpkin soup from

3030 Ocean -- served as a shot -- garnished with rock shrimp. I thought it was a tad sweet and did not love the texture contrast of shooting a purée and solid combo. My friends also

loved Alibi's decadent coffee-braised lamb cheek, served with a big, hot Bookmaker Parlay from 2009. Dude food, indeed.

Project Paso Sauvignon Blanc with seafood stew from Old Fort Lauderdale Breakfast House was my favorite pairing: delicate white fish, tomato and shellfish broth, and fresh vegetables were complemented by citrus and flint notes from the Paso Robles wine.

El Jefe Luchador's crispy pork taco with bright cilantro, creamy quesa, a tumble of corn, and a kick of salsa was my favorite bite of the night. It was the only plate that my four dining pals all blissed out over. I found the carnitas pairing with Twisted Pine's Billy's Chile spicy beer compelling, though I liked it more for the novelty than to swill.

Of the drinks I remember: Cha Cha Cha was cheesy but delightful (and local!) as were the cherry red vodka infusions from West Palm Beach Marriott. (I'm trying to make myself like vodka lately). I returned for several rounds of the unlikely placement of Graville Lacoste from Kermit Lynch at Brick House Tavern + Tap's table. My colleague Reed Fisher was especially pleased with gluten-free beer from New Planet. By the time I was drunk enough, I let myself become enthralled with Issac Grillo's cocktail from Haven in Miami. Dry ice in a glass is a guilty pleasure, though I wasn't quite as enthusiastic when the effects were over, as pellets resembled cottage cheese in a cocktail.

I do wish desserts were housed in one room, since I failed to make my way back for much besides a Guinness gelato from the Gelato Shoppe.

What were your favorite bites of the night? Tell us in the comments. And don't forget to check out last night's slide show.

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Food Critic
Contact: Melissa McCart