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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Food, Wine and Micro-Brew Fest...

The other night I volunteered at the Food, Wine and Micro-Brew Fest at South Coast Plaza. Signing up to be a volunteer not only helped a good cause (The Second Harvest Food Bank), but it also gave me some serious dinner perks for the night.

After checking in with the volunteer coordinator, I was told I had thirty minutes before I started my assignment at 6:30 pm. The event was already in full swing, and I knew that I had to make these 30 minutes count. Naturally, I signed up for the earliest shift that I could possibly make as I rushed to the food fest from work. I didn't want to miss this...

As the name of the event suggests, the "fest" features many different wineries, micro-breweries, and restaurants, all of which had tasty treats to offer those in attendance. The best part is that you pay for everything before you attend ($37.50/ea for a group of 10, or $55 per person otherwise) so there is no dealing with pesky scrip cards, cash, or other forms of payment. The theme is simply to eat, enjoy, and frolic around the mall in wonderful culinary excess. (Though it's better if you're a volunteer, because then you get a free ride through the fest. If you don't mind working the event, this is definitely the way to go.)

There was a check-in table for guests, where you could claim your wine glass and tray, but I decided to opt out of standing in line for this so I could make sure to check out the whole event in record time. I was limited to beer as far as the beverages went, since the beer vendors had empty cups there for the taking (the Icelandic one was the best!).

After quickly stopping to say hello to a good friend of mine who was also working the event, I started to make my way through the hustle and bustle of people and sampled away. There was a Godiva chocolate stand, where I was able to sample three wonderful truffles. I just barely swallowed my last candy in time to get a hunk of cheese from the only cheese vendors I spotted (Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, based in Northern CA). There was a delicious chicken and rice sampler from an Indian restaurant, mini sourdough bread bowls full of clam chowder from Boudin, scoops of Haagen Daas, pastries from Vie de France, ravioli, breweries, fondu, oh my! There was hardly any time to think as I stuffed samples in my mouth haphazardly and tried not to run into people as I dashed from booth to booth. There was no turning back. Thank god for the escalators, which made it much more efficient as I rushed from floor to floor (the entire event consumed a whopping three floors of the mall).

I was infatuated with all of the delicious morsels, and as I dashed in and out of lines and in between crowds of people, trying to balance my food and drink (s), I realized that it was probably better for my health that there was a time limit to all of this madness. My whirlwind romance with each of the vendors could only last for so long-- I was about to turn into a volunteer pumpkin.

Since I also recently worked at the 'Taste of Newport' food festival, I knew that the volunteers might get a few perks. But the truth is, I really enjoyed having a part in the event as a volunteer as much as I enjoyed being a guest for my whirlwind 30 minute adventure. As much as I enjoy partaking in good food and drink, I'm quite happy to sit by the sidelines and watch others having a good time at shindigs like this, especially if it is going towards a good cause-- I have a serious soft spot for the nonprofit organization! I ended up volunteering alongside another local, who gave me the rundown on the raffle ticket booth where I was stationed.

We were raffling off all kinds of things for the event, including a BBQ feast for 15 in your backyard, a glamorous hotel stay, a few foursomes of golf (imagine the comments I received from some of the more "thirsty" guests about winning a foursome), and a $250 shopping spree for South Coast Plaza. I think I did a pretty good job pushing the tickets, but most of all I was glad to have the opportunity to talk with so many people as they passed by the booth. Not only did I make bank for the food bank, but I also got an insider's perspective on how people were liking different foods at the event. A few overall hits that I can recall include the paninis (possibly from Chat Noir, but shamefully I cannot remember), and the chocolate lava cake from another French sounding vendor.

The paninis were definitely a standout hit with me, they were full of garlic jam and goat cheese! But my favorite morsels were the chocolate cups with Trader Joe's raspberry wine inside. These only get my top vote for sentimental reasons, since they reminded me of the many chocolate cups full of liquor and topped with whipped cream that I gobbled down while visiting a charming little bar in Seville, Spain.

There was the custard pastry from Pacific Whey Cafe, which was excellent. After I complimented them on the pastry, they pointed downstairs to the floor below. This is where their new location will be, and they wanted to direct my attention to it. I responded to this with: "OH, i already know ALL about it. I definitely know when a bakery opens in the area". They seemed pleased with that, but also appeared a bit puzzled by my self-declaration. They were possibly thinking to themselves that I was some sort of secret agent baking industry insider. I really should have told them about the hunt, but I thought it more enjoyable to act mysterious. (At the end of the event, we collapsed by California Pizza Kitchen so we could recover. It was a happy coincidence that the pastry booty from Pacific Whey was being transported right past our table as all of the different vendors were packing up. One of the employees stopped when he saw my eyes light up, and offered one to my friend and me. And that really sums up the spirit of the whole evening. Giving food, loving food, eating food, and doing it all with a lively jazz band playing in the background).

Perhaps one of the funniest moments of the evening came when I went to grab a last minute wine taste from one of the wineries present. The fest was winding down, but we had a few post-volunteering shift minutes to check everything out one last time before everyone packed up. As I approached the table, I noticed two individuals serving the wine- a man and a woman, probably in their 20's, with the most Danish looking features I had seen in quite awhile. I thought I was probably imagining things, but something made me blurt out: "Wow-- you look really Danish". And then there was a pause. I was expecting laughter, confusion, bewilderment maybe-- after all, it was a random thing for me to say. The man responded first: "We look really Danish? That's probably because we are Danish". I couldn't believe it. They were probably the only two genuine Danes in the building, and I found them. My friend was there to witness it, and we have since established a theory that I have "Dane-ar", Dane radar that is. We learned that these friendly Danes are only here for a few months, and that they are doing an internship with their family friend, the owner of the wine shop. I guess I have a talent for spotting the ones fresh off the boat from Denmark, after my time as an exchange student there.

After everything was over, my friend and I considered what move we should make next. Ironically, I felt pretty hungry at the end of it all. Though we had been surrounded by food all night, I never actually ate a substantial meal, so it only seemed logical that I had a ham and cheese croissant craving. Luckily, I had the best 24 hour ham and cheese croissant joint only 15 minutes away. We ended up at that great donut/croissant shop down by the Balboa pier, eating those legendary ham and cheese croissants that are the love of many a Orange County local. I don't know the name or the address, all I know if that I am eternally grateful to my older brother for introducing me to this place. I was excited to finally have a chance to chat with my friend after our night as sample junkie volunteer superpowers. He is an old friend from high school and one of the greats, the very best company when enjoying a good croissant or taking a food festival by storm!

While standing in line for croissants, we ran into the usual Newport Beach characters from the partying crowd. Tonight it was a bunch of visiting Europeans (British?), who were being introduced to the croissants by their local buddy. They were all drunk, and the local proceeded to get way closer to our faces than necessary and tell us about how this place made him think of this little cafe he eats at when he visits France (??). His eyes were wide as he described his favorite sandwiches around the world. He was a kindred spirit, even if he was a little too drunk to be making much sense. He invited us back to party out on his yacht-- the existence of said yacht is questionable, but we declined the friendly offer respectfully, with a grateful "thanks but no thanks". We opted to stick our toes in the sand and head back home.

And that was our night. A little excess, some hard work, a charity event, and the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean- all the makings for a typical evening in Orange County.
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