It all starts innocent enough. Cheese and wine at a pre-event VIP reception in the Riverside Hotel overlooking the seaside of Fort Lauderdale. Some mingling, some chatting. I see old friends being reacquainted. Business friends trying to come up with something witty to say to impress their coworkers. Men with cameras were snapping away with aplomb at every plate of food, every interesting piece of event-related swag adorned with the Las Olas Wine and Food Festival brand.
Hell, we were there to do the the same thing. After all, this foodie-forward event is in its 20th year, and is all built around a great cause: benefiting the American Lung Association.
By the time we arrived at this pre-event eighth floor soiree, the cheese had been picked over, but luckily a few waves of wandering servers were at hand to supply ample warm finger foods, such as marinated chicken skewers that used lemongrass stalk as their structure. It was only meant to be a quick reception before those that purchased the upgraded ticket flowed downstairs and poured out onto Las Olas like a freshly popped bottle of Graham Beck Cuvée Clive.
By 7 p.m., it was time to move downstairs, and that is where things got interesting, at least for a short minute.
Activists from groups Dream Defenders and Food Not Bombs were making their way down Las Olas with a message that yes, black lives matter, hunger is not a crime, and that we should end police brutality. As some festival-goers stood off to the side raising their cell phones, others bolted quickly towards parts unknown. As I was about to pick up a sample of the house smoked fish dip from 3030 Ocean, the drumming of the marchers drew close and the couple who had been standing next to me seemingly disappeared into thin air.
It was a decidedly brief interruption, however. The marchers processed peacefully, with an entourage of Fort Lauderdale's police department keeping pace behind, and continued on through the streets. And, like a knife cutting through the curds, the festival patrons returned, unfazed, with wine glass in hand.
There was much to sample, and the LOWFF (acronyms are so much easier) provided a showcase of local restaurateur talent. Sea Level, for instance, provided sample of an edamame hummus, green and all, topped with jumbo lump crab, a fun take on the traditional dish. Wild Sea Oyster Bar and Grill went to the depths to bring out a monkfish loin with grits, smoked gouda, and sweet corn succotash, proving that the 'poor man's lobster' can be a fantastic fish to utilize in the kitchen.
Big City Tavern aimed to impress with a braised beef short rib accompanied with truffle polenta, and although the beef was tender and flavorful, the polenta ended up mediocre by comparison.
Of note in the area of simple yet impressively delicious food items was the stone crab bisque and coconut shrimp of Mango's Restaurant and Lounge. Each was an expertly straightforward, unassuming, and well made bite.
Wines were staggered appropriately among the food tents, with the volunteers and reps being fairly educated about the wines being sampled. I learned of and sampled a wine called Octopussy from Sea Monster Wines out of California, a young white blend that had surprisingly ample structure and minerality.
There were many more restaurants, wineries, and even breweries in attendance that would be ridiculous to list. But I will say that the food outshone the wine in an overwhelming way.
South Florida's chefs have their shit together, and that's a benefit for every foodie, tourist, and local alike. Even if you're all three at once.
Doug Fairall is a craft beer blogger who focuses on Florida beers, and has been a homebrewer since 2010. For beer things in your Twitter feed, follow him @DougFairall and find the latest beer pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.