The Date: Nov. 5, 2007
The Venue: The Puck Building, New York
The Crowd: The first hour welcomed VIP foodies, media buyers and press, while the public trickled in around 7. But a constant flow of food and drink left little distinction between the groups. The Sponsors: Whole Foods sponsored the VIP Lounge, where cheese wasn't just the main course, it was the decor too. Entire blocks of brie adorned bookshelves and tables as guests shoveled chunks of multiple varieties onto crackers. Amstel Light and Finlandia Vodka were the night's alcohol partners, each owning their own mini-bars. Additional beverages were provided by promotional partners Fragoli, La Crema, Natuzzi, St. Germain, Trapiche Wines and Evian, a bottle of which Freeloader needed after our hefty food and wine intake. Best of all was the Virgin Atlantic lounge, which held free demos of the uber-comfy seats aboard the airline -- premium economy, no less. We're glad Virgin stepped up its contributions as the event's first-ever presenting sponsor.
The Food: Yeah, we'll get to that.
The Drinks: Ditto.
So big deal, you ran the marathon, or at least stood on the sidewalk and cheered someone who ran it. Freeloader had our own grueling endurance test this week: New York Magazine's annual "Taste of New York" event.
Few events define Freeloader's purpose more than "Taste of New York," in which foodies and regular folks alike get to spend three hours cruising a cornucopia of culinary treats prepared just for them by New York's top chefs. Given that it takes up two full showrooms in New York's famed Puck Building, the whole event comes off like an edible art gallery. Added bonus: You don't even have to brush up on your brushstrokes to provide intelligent commentary.
Freeloader also enjoys challenges, and 42 booths furnished with food and drink is quite the tall order -- particularly when the haul is divided geographically. A buffet with such a labyrinthine path meant our strategy had to be simple: grab whatever's in sight and throw away what you don't like. There were plenty of other samples to be had.
We started out in the front room, which was more compact and therefore far more crowded than its more sprawling counterpart. But we also arrived with time to spare during the hour-long "VIP" session, so in theory, the lines for food and drink shouldn't have been longer than three people. This proved to be generally true -- even for the most popular items such as popcorn soup from Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 (tastier than you'd think) and tuna tartare spring rolls from Laon Symensma's Buddakan. (Seriously, how does one pack so much flavor into a thimble-sized roll?)
The only problem: Once you procured your food from the chef's table, the constantly-moving throngs of foodies made it hard for you to go elsewhere to consume it. Luckily, most of the dishes were easy to master in one bite, provided you had little inhibitions about not savoring your morsels for the sake of efficiency and crowd control. Freeloader has no such hang-ups, so it was down-the-hatch, onto-the-next-one for us.
Another major challenge was mastering the art of food-and-drink double-fisting. Any dish rich in "olive tapenade" or a "confit with tahini and harissa" needs a good palette cleanser, but handling a super-pungent champagne cocktail from St. Germain and a lamb chop from Butter was easier said than done. The trick was to eat near a trash can so you could dispose of your plastic plate and fork before someone's specialty drink became a part of your wardrobe (thankfully, napkins were also in full supply).
Freeloader's fave dish from the front room was arguably the least refined: the "cevape" from Borough Food & Drink. The ingredients: Sarajevo beef sausage wrapped in a Pita Express Bakery pita and garnished with kajmak cheese, onion and ajvar chili sauce. Basically, it was just a fancy take on street food. But really, really good street food at that.
Comfort food calls for comfort booze, so we grabbed a refreshing Amstel Light to carry us into the second room, where even more selections awaited us. Since it was still early in the evening, not all the revelers had made it to this half of the event. Nothing like a little elbow room to make you feel compelled to pig out.
We made a bee-line to the landmark booth, where Marc Murphy's braised lamb sandwiches were the main attraction. Lamb seemed to be the hot meat of the night, as no less than three other chefs chose it for their dishes. While we're sure Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's lamb carpaccio promised all sorts of complex flavors, you can't go wrong with braised lamb on a biscuit with a honey mustard-esque glaze and pickle on top. We'll try the swanky stuff when we visit Morimoto's namesake restaurant.
Having tried our fifth meat-based dish at this point (did we mention we also sampled sardines?) Freeloader was ready to shift to dessert. Deciding on just one gourmet morsel to wrap up our meal proved to be more difficult than selecting our most wine-resistant shirt. The first snack to catch our eye: churros from Los Dados. Make that churro -- the folks at Sue Torres' restaurant only gave out one at a time. We saw no harm in indulging in just one cinnamon-glazed delicacy dipped in dulce de leche sauce. So we grabbed one while en route to our real dessert: chocolate soup dumplings from Rickshaw Dumpling Bar.
This is where the lines were most intense, because each dumpling ball came with a bib. And for very good reason -- once you bit into the nut-encrusted spheres, the warm chocolate started oozing out uncontrollably. Freeloader was feeling daring after making it through the trek with only a minor wine spill, so we braved our soup dumpling sans bib. Our verdict? Deeply satisfying, with a rich quality that we wouldn't normally indulge in on a regular basis. Kind of like the event itself. So it was one more raspberry champagne from Fragoli before Freeloader called it a night. It's amazing how tuckered out one gets after sampling 42 dishes and drinks in a 90-minute period. But it's nights like this that Freeloader has been training for, after all.