Over Memorial Day weekend my friend Renee and ParkFans Forum members Tony, Username, Zachary, and I (Nicole) went to Busch Gardens Williamsburg for the 2016 Food & Wine Festival. As has become our custom, we tried all of the food items and a limited sampling of the drinks.
This year we have decided to split our report into two parts: (1) an overview of the booths and (2) a review of the festival as a whole. The former will include our favorite dishes from each kiosk, while the latter, which we will publish next week, will highlight other recommended entrees and our selections for best dessert. We once again elected to rate the sweets against each other, rather than comparing them to the savory options at each kiosk, and as a result, each has its own “Best in Booth.” We did not select a favorite entree or dessert, when there was only one available; first place was not given by default.
A few notes on the math. All of the ratings below are out of a possible five points. So, the Panna Cotta received our only perfect 5/5. Additionally, since there were only five of us in the tasting party, a single person could dramatically alter the composite number. As a result, the dish voted “Best in Booth” did not necessarily receive the highest grade. For example, although the Asian Lettuce Wrap scored higher than the Mushi-Gyoza (because the wrap received one outlying, high score), four of us voted for the dumpling.
With all of that in mind, here is a summary of our experiences at each booth, listed in alphabetical order:
I will begin with the event’s Latin-inspired cuisine. Both the Chicken Adobo with Mole Sauce and the Chocolate Lava Cake improved this year. Most of us found the Fish Tacos and the Sonoran Spice Pork unmemorable, however. We agreed that the Mole Chicken was the best entree at this kiosk.
The Ginger-Lemongrass Custard stood out as the best dish at this booth. Despite lacking any discernible ginger flavors, the lemongrass taste was lovely and the texture was perfectly creamy. Although we expected to encounter a variety of exotic spices at this Southeast Asian-inspired kiosk, we found all three of the entrees bland and frankly disappointing. Regrettably, the Thai Tea neither looked nor tasted like the iced tea I regularly order in my local Thai-run restaurants. We ultimately determined that the Mushi-Gyoza was the best savory option at this booth.
The most improved dish at this kiosk, the Mac & Cheese with Peameal Bacon, took the honor of Best in Booth, because we could taste the bacon and enjoyed the combined creamy and crunchy textures. The other two savory options were both visually unappealing and lacking in flavor. The Pumpkin Caramel Mousse, a perennial favorite, was a fairly well-balanced and eggy custard. We also loved the crisp and refreshing Bold Rock Pear Cider.
Always one of our favorite stations, the Caribbean booth, did not disappoint. We selected the Shrimp & Heart of Palm Salad for Best in Booth because we believe it to be the perfect dish for the summer with its unusual vegetables and sweet and refreshing dressing. That said, we still love the perfectly fried Gamba Fritters as well. In fact, we prefer them to Virginia’s Best in Booth winner, the Bacon & Cheddar Hushpuppies. We enjoyed both the Caribbean Sunset and the Bushwacker; the former was a fruity frozen concoction, and the latter tasted just like Mozart Chocolate Liqueur. Finally, do not miss the creamy and cool Tres Leche con Mermelada de Piña, which was lightly fruity without being overly sweet.
This booth is rarely worth the wait. None of the components in the crepes were balanced. There was virtually no Swiss cheese in the Poulet Cordon Bleu Crepe; the marmalade overwhelmed the brie in the Brie et Marmelade d’Orange Crepe; the Cherries Jubilee Crepe needed more creme fraiche and brandy; and the banana dominated the Choco-noisette et Banane Crepe. We did decide that the brie and marmalade pairing was the best, however.
We enjoyed everything at the French booth, scoring each dish between 4/5 and 5/5. Although we selected the Coq au Vin as the best entree, we would recommend trying the entire menu, including the peppery steak, the cool and crunchy Ratatouille Parfait, the tart tart, and the sweet and refreshing Sparkling Raspberry cocktail.
When I think of New Orleans, I think of spicy gumbos, fruity cocktails, and sweet desserts. While both the Beignets (our favorite) and the Bananas Foster Cheesecake were fairly good; the entrees lacked flavor and had unpleasant textures. The Chicken & Andouille Gumbo was mushy and bland, and the Muffaletta tasted only of olives. Ultimately, the gumbo proved to be better than the sandwich. We were disappointed in the beer flight, as well. The four brews looked interesting, but they only had three, one of which tasted like Budweiser and the other two of which tasted like soap.
Both the Schnitzelwich and the Currywurst noticeably improved this year, with the former taking Best in Booth. The Schinkennudel, however, remained a gluey, flavorless, beige blob of starch. The new dessert was moist, but didn’t exactly taste like German Chocolate Cake.
Oh Greece, what happened to you? This booth was always one of our favorites with its interesting flavors and perfectly prepared dishes. Last weekend, however, we encountered unmotivated staff and disappointing food. Our favorite entree, the Greek Dip Trio, while tasty, was missing the hummus. The Halloumi was salty and rubbery. We initially mistook the Souvlaki Tzatziki for a salad, because the sparse and poorly-seasoned kabob components were mysteriously buried in lettuce leaves and completely lacking any sauce. We were not able to try the Ouzo, because the cashier was too young to sell it to me. Happily, we can recommend the sweet and flakey baklava: the honey and filo dough were both excellent.
This new booth boasts some of the most flavorful and controversial dishes at the event. We tried both SPAM and raw tuna and violently disagreed about how to score both. The chicken dish took top honors, with delicious ingredients that work well together; and the sweet and salty chips and dip were surprisingly subtle. Both the Blue Hawaiian and the Hibiscus Lemonade were too sweet for our tastes, but they did remind me of drinks I had in Waikiki. Our Haupia Tart was served with a slice of pineapple, which does not appear in the official description. The soggy fruit ruined the Almond Joy-like dessert.
Historically a fairly forgettable booth, Ireland stood out this year with three excellent dishes. The Bangers with Colcannon was our favorite of the two savory options. The tasty sausage paired well with the slightly sweet sauce, and the mash had a great texture. The Sage Derby once again was a favorite among the cheeses, all of which we enjoyed, especially when paired with the chutney. The dry and thick crackers were the only disappointment; we would have preferred water crackers. The Guinness Mousse, one of our highest-scoring desserts, was cleverly presented and tasted rich and chocolatey.
We were surprised when we discovered that everything at the Italian booth is available at the dessert counter at Marco Polo’s Marketplace, which we reviewed earlier this season. That said, the Panna Cotta was fantastic, scoring a perfect five out of five and being selected as the Best in Booth. The Limoncello tasted exactly like the lemon liqueur I had from Italy.
The Spanish booth offered two of our favorite dishes: the Gazpacho con Ceviche and the Chorizo Empanada. The cold vegetable soup was selected as Best in Booth, because of its fresh, bright flavors. The meat filling in the empanadas was spicy, and the sauce paired with the pastry perfectly. We were disappointed in the Venera con Jamon, however: The scallop was flavorless, despite the strong fish smell, and the rice was mushy and bland. The Red Sangria was nice, but the White tasted a bit bitter.
Virginia, one of the two new booths, was our first stop at the event. We rated the Bacon & Cheddar Hushpuppies highest, but thought the Virginia Dips that were paired with pork rinds were the most interesting items at the kiosk. We found both the Smithfield Ham Tasting and the She-Crab Soup to be inoffensive. The biscuit was doughy and only one of three ham samples was interesting. The soup was creamy, but tasted too strongly of sherry. We would not recommend the wine flight. I tried two different pieces of the very good dessert and discovered I preferred the batch with less bacon.
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