Taste of success: Once again, the Taste of Vail, which took over the ritzy resort April 9-11, was a well-organized, food-and-wine-filled, fun-packed event. This year--the Taste's ninth--the whole place was abuzz not with the latest innovations in plastic surgery, but with the prior week's announcement that local chef James Mazzio, of Alicante (705 West Lionshead Circle in Vail) and 15 Degrees (1965 15th Street in Boulder), had just won a coveted Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs Award.
There was quite a bit of grumbling--although it sounded like sour grapes in a pinot noir reduction to me--that Mazzio wasn't worthy, but I admire the man's spunk. For a winemaker dinner during the Taste of Vail--a meal that was attended by a multitude of media folks, including me, who were all eager to see what he was about--Mazzio decided to send out souffles for sixty using a recipe that had never been tested, according to Alicante and 15 Degrees part-owner Bryan Wachs. "Okay, the people in the kitchen were going to kill him," Wachs says, able to laugh about it later. "But more importantly, I was going to kill him."
Lucky for Mazzio, the pear-and-Pecorino-cheese souffles turned out perfectly, and the next course, sturgeon glazed with plum and port pumped up with smoky lardons (read: bacon), was well-executed, too. And the pancetta-wrapped figs he passed around as hors d'oeuvres before the meal were drop-dead exquisite. As a starter, he also served excellent breaded shrimp on a skewer, which were much better hot than the lukewarm they turned out to be at the Grand Tasting. But Mazzio wasn't around to keep an eye on them then; he'd driven to Boulder to get some late-night work done at 15 Degrees before heading back to Vail the next day. Tough gig.
Over the years, the Taste of Vail has learned some new tricks. The smartest change at this year's event was moving the mountaintop picnic from Saturday to Friday. Since the Grand Tasting food-and-wine orgy has always been Saturday night, a Saturday picnic meant we had to stuff ourselves at the top of Vail mountain from noon to 3 p.m., then participate in a food-and-wine seminar in the afternoon and still somehow find room to stash the culinary wares of sixty wineries and dozens of restaurants in the evening. The only problem with Friday's picnic was that by 2 p.m., only three or four restaurants still had food left. But, hey, at least there was wine. And I got to try the fabulous tempura shrimp with poached baby octopus and root vegetables from Alfredo's (1300 Westhaven Drive). It was a particularly welcome contrast to the tempura I'd tried at Pacific Star (see review on the previous page); the batter was much lighter and had soaked up less grease.
Of all of the participants at the next evening's Grand Tasting, two stood way out. Perennial Vail favorite Wildflower (174 Gore Creek Drive) served pan-seared scallops over foie-gras-flavored potato puree in a red-wine butter sauce, a dish so good I went back not just for seconds but thirds, which I've never done before at this event because there's always so much to try. The other hit was the Harlan Estate vineyard from Oakville, California, which produces fewer than 1,000 cases annually and opened several of its pricey bottles of incredible Cabernets. The 1993 ($85) was a smooth blend that included 18 percent merlot grapes and 7 percent Cabernet Franc, and the 1994 ($100) had a little more of those grapes and a smokier taste. The beautifully mellow 1995 hasn't been priced yet, but it's to be released in May, and I'd say it's well worth tracking down.
Sorry you couldn't make it up to Vail this year; as a consolation prize, I'm serving up Alfredo's tempura recipe. While it calls for quite a few ingredients, the execution is very doable in a home kitchen--even if the scenery won't be as stunning.
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Alfredo's Tempura Shrimp With Root Vegetables
2 cups rice wine vinegar, plus 1 teaspoon
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons salt
3 ounces white daikon radish, julienned
3 ounces sugar beets, julienned
3 ounces carrots, julienned
2 cups chicken stock
1 lotus root, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons salad oil
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tablespoon peanut oil, plus more for deep-frying
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3/4 cup seltzer water
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup chestnut flour
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 sheet roasted nori paper, julienned
In medium-sized pot, simmer rice wine vinegar, sugar, cilantro and salt for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add daikon, sugar beets and carrots. Keep in warm liquid for about 2 minutes, then drain and refrigerate. Meanwhile, bring chicken stock to a boil in medium-sized pot, add saffron and lotus-root slices, reduce heat to simmer and poach for about 10 minutes. Drain and cool lotus root. Toss cooked vegetables and lotus root in 1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar, salad oil and light soy sauce. Refrigerate.
To prepare shrimp batter, mix together eggs, 1 tablespoon peanut oil, soy sauce, seltzer water, ginger, cornstarch, chestnut flour, sesame oil and nori. Heat oil to 375 degrees. Coat shrimp in batter and fry for approximately one and a half minutes. To serve, spoon root-vegetable salad onto plates and top with shrimp. Serves four to six.