When Zachary and I planned this article on the 2016 Busch Gardens Williamsburg Food & Wine Festival, we expected it to be no more than the second half of our normal food review. The first installment was intended to highlight each of the individual dishes, while this one was meant to look more broadly at the event.
Things, however, completely went sideways, when we decided to conduct an experiment last weekend and taste several key entrees and desserts a second time. The plan was really to re-validate our recommendations and further analyze some interesting trends we had been observing. Unfortunately, what ended up happening instead was that a disturbingly high percentage of our favorite dishes from Memorial Day Weekend were terrible the second time around.
After a long debate, we decided that the best thing to do was to proceed with the post as planned, as we couldn’t reasonably withhold our observations this late in the event. The unfortunate result is that we essentially have shoe-horned together two loosely associated posts. We will start with the recommended dishes we selected, during our first visit. We really do think people should try them, despite our subsequent experiences. We will follow, however, with a discussion of the trends we have seen, including very worrying evidence that there is a complete lack of consistency across the event.
We know that this article is an unusually long wall of words, but we really do hope that you read through to the end, because we think there is valuable information there for anyone who is planning a trip to Busch Gardens Williamsburg in June.
Anyway, to begin…
As you will recall from our previous post, five of us tasted all of the food and some of the drinks at the 2016 Food & Wine Festival. We each selected an entree and dessert that we would recommend people try. It is worth noting that no one was allowed to choose a dish that received Best in Booth; rather, these items supplement the entrees and desserts that we highlighted in last article.
We also discussed the booths, themselves, selecting a Best Overall and Most Improved. This decision was based on our impressions, after spending two days at the event. We simply sat in the Il Teatro di San Marco and discussed which stations we liked the best and which seemed to have improved the most over the past few years. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much disagreement.
The Caribbean booth was our favorite, easily winning its spot as Best Overall. The flavors were all interesting and delicious. The drinks were cool and fun. The Heart of Palm Salad and the Gamba Fritters were dishes that we would look forward to eating again. The Tres Leche was creamy and fruity, but not too sweet. The Caribbean Sunset was perfect for a hot day at the park.
The French booth was happily the Most Improved. Historically, we were disappointed by a cuisine that should have been a centerpiece of the event. For the first time, we loved everything we tried. While the Coq au Vin received Best in Booth, the Steak au Poivre was a close runner up. The Ratatouille Parfait and the Tartelette au Citron both made the recommended lists for their fresh and interesting flavors. We even enjoyed the Sparkling Raspberry cocktail. From our perspective, the French booth has finally lived up to it potential.
Best in Show
I need to recognize one final event winner: Best in Show. As we discussed the event at the end of day two, we realized that one dish stood out for all of as better than everything else we had tried that weekend: the Panna Cotta at the Italian booth. The texture was perfect, and the vanilla and strawberry provided a classic pairing. The best news is that because the F&WF no longer offers unique, Italian desserts, this creamy custard will still be available after the event ends.
Trends & Critiques
So, now that I have shared our thoughts on what to eat, I’d like to discuss the event more broadly. Over our two tasting trips, as discussed above, Zachary and I have noticed certain trends that we thought would be of interest.
The first is some fantastic news. In the past we disliked most of the chicken dishes, because they all tasted bland and rubbery, and the park used cheap drumsticks with little meat. This year, however, we were pleasantly surprised, when we discovered that a majority of the poultry was well cooked, fully-seasoned, tender, and fresh. The chicken entrees were significantly better across the board.
On the other hand, the park seems to have difficulty with their starch dishes. I’m not sure if it an artifact of how they have to prepare food at the kiosks, but most, if not all, cooked starches were bland and mushy. The Schinkennudel is, for me, the poster child for this problem, but it is hardly the only offender. The gumbo was mostly overcooked rice; the Banh Mi tasted mostly like stale bread; and the Spanish scallop was paired with more gummy rice. For context, I grew up with friends who always had a rice cooker going in their homes, so I love good, sticky rice. But the noodles and grains at the F&WF had the consistency of glue, and virtually no flavor at all.
Another trend I have noticed is that Busch Gardens Williamsburg seems unwilling to pair interesting flavors with other bold components. I guess this is based on their assessment of their guests palates? The Virginia Dips are amazing, but you have to eat them with something that approximates styrofoam. Conversely, the root vegetable chips at the Hawaiian booth have subtle flavors that are served with a generic dip. Presumably, the park has determined that most people wouldn’t be adventurous enough to dip an usual chip in an exotic sauce? Maybe they are right, but I know that I, personally, was disappointed.
Similarly, we have noticed that many of the dishes are blander than similar food we have eaten in ethnic restaurants. Most of the entrees at the American Southwest booth lack the heat we expected from Latin-inspired cuisine. Canada’s Cheddar & Lager Chowder tasted like gruel, not the advertised paprika, beer, and cheese. The dishes at both the Asian and French Quarter booths unaccountably lacked spice. Once again, I wonder if the park is attempting not to overwhelm its guests with unusually bold flavors.
As long as I am discussing the “dumbing down” of the flavors at the event, it seems appropriate to address the recent introduction of four US-themed booths (nearly a third of the kiosks). While the event has clearly evolved away from the initial concept of a European Food and Wine Festival with the addition of Caribbean and Asian food, eliminating Scotland, Scandinavia, Austria, and Belgium and not adding any new Continental cuisine is a choice that I find quite honestly mystifying. Moreover, the decision to pack the event with American options feels as if the park is simply pandering to the lowest common denominator. For me, the most egregious example of this is the new Virginia booth.
In its inaugural year, the F&WF offered exotic flavors that guests might not otherwise experience. It seemed targeted at “foodies.” Perhaps because the mac & cheese reportedly sold better than anything else at the event, the park appears to have decided to cater to less adventurous palates, rather than challenging its guests. While you could make the case that Cajun, Hawaiian and TexMex are not strictly “American” food, there is no way to justify adding a booth dedicated to serving dishes we could find a mile down the road.
I honestly believe the park is missing an opportunity to bring in a completely different demographic from their normal parkgoers. Like the Epcot event from which it is probably derived, the BGW F&WF could appeal to people who want to try exotic and foreign cuisines. Instead the park has inexplicably chosen to allow a bunch of people on Facebook, who probably won’t visit a single booth anyway, to determine the direction of what could have been an incredibly sophisticated event.
Finally, I need to address a trend that we have been tracking for a few years. Zachary and I went back to BGW last Sunday to try some the dishes again. We have noticed in the past problems with consistency, and we were curious if we would find the same issue this year. We decided the best course of action would be to try the Caribbean booth (Best Overall Booth), the French booth (Most Improved Booth), the Greek booth (hoping it would return to its old glory), the Recommended Entrees, and the Suggested Desserts. What we discovered was that everything we tried except the French booth changed dramatically since Memorial Day weekend.
The only thing we enjoyed on our second trip at the Caribbean booth was the frozen cocktail. The Fritters were doughy; the Heart of Palm salad heavy and overly spiced; and the Tres Leche was dry and flavorless.
The French booth, however, was fairly consistent. The dishes were not exactly the same, but we still enjoyed them as much as we had the first weekend. Although there was no Coq au Vin available to review, the steak remained good, possibly better with a more “bold and aggressive” sauce. The ratatouille was still fresh and delicious. The tart had less intense flavors, but was still lovely.
Sadly, overall the Greek booth was still beset by a variety of problems, although the Greek Dip Trio was the best we have ever tasted. For the second time, the cashier was unable to sell us the Ouzo, and the booth only had warm water, as they were completely out of ice on a day when the temperatures were expected to reach the upper 90s. One of the people preparing the food specifically called the Souvlaki Tzatziki a “salad.” I double-checked and it is still supposed to be essentially a kabob; there is no lettuce anywhere in the official description. The Halloumi, which we have always loved, was like shoe leather, and the baklava was frozen. On a positive note, the honey used throughout the event was fantastic, and saved the dessert for me.
Of the Recommended Entrees, only the ratatouille and the pork rinds were still worth eating. The tuna tasted fisher than the first time, and the seaweed salad was lukewarm. At the same booth, the SPAM slider suffered as well: the sauce was not as strong and the meat was small and burned. I’ve already shared our disappointment in the Caribbean booth’s fritters.
We had a similar experience tasting the Recommended Desserts. The lemongrass custard was heavier and eggy, but did have a stronger ginger flavor. The Guinness Mousse was so thick that it felt hard, and the alcohol overpowered the chocolate. As we already noted, the Tres Leche was dry and flavorless. On a more positive note, although both the Pecan Bar and the tart changed, we still enjoyed them immensely.
Overall, we still love the F&WF, but are concerned with some trends we have started observing. The Food & Wine Festival has always been one of my favorite events at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. I have rooted for its success, since its first year. We really hope the park can find a way to ensure consistency from day to day (hour to hour?). We also would love to see them alter their operations to improve how the food is prepared and served at the kiosks. We know it isn’t easy logistically, but other parks have found successful solutions. In the end, we still enjoy the event and absolutely encourage everyone to be adventurous and try something new, but we also have a few persistent concerns.