Once again over Memorial Day weekend, BGWFans braved the crowds and the weather to taste and review everything at Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s annual culinary extravaganza. This year Zachary and I (Nicole) were joined by Renee, Thomas, and Tony.
Despite the forces of nature and a Code Purple at the park, we successfully tried, scored, and discussed all of the food items at this year’s event. We decided against reviewing the new Island (“Icelands?”) Freeze booth, because we didn’t want to have to try all of the frozen cocktails throughout the event.
Like last year, we have opted to split our review into two parts:
- This article scores each dish and provides our thoughts on each booth.
- Our second piece will look more broadly at the trends we identified this year, as well as our individual recommendations.
As in the past, we decided to score desserts against desserts and savory dishes against other savory items. Thus, we have identified both savory and sweet “Best in Booth” winners for each kiosk. A dish will not win Best in Booth by default. So, for example, when there is only one sweet option, it will not be selected for Best in Booth (Sweet), but can compete for Best Dessert overall.
Before proceeding, I’d like to note that one of the few things the entire group agreed on was how improved the event was as a whole. We would strongly recommend that everyone try a few dishes, even if you were disappointed in the past.
So, without further ado, presented in alphabetical order, here is our review of the 2017 Busch Gardens Williamsburg Food & Wine Festival.
The new Sonoran Spice Pork Taco took Best in Booth. It was filling, yet light, with plenty of well-seasoned meat. The lime juice contrasted well with the spices, resulting in an interesting and satisfying dish.
The Fish Taco was also fresh and flavorful, with crunchy slaw. We also enjoyed the Ghost Pepper Guacamole, although most of the heat seemed to come from the seasoning on the chips, as opposed to the dip, itself. We liked the texture and the slow burn of the guacamole, but be warned: the dish was only medium hot; do not expect a super-spicy appetizer, despite its name.
Though it was a good chocolate cake, the Chocolate Lava Cake was again a bit of a letdown. There simply isn’t enough of the chili filling in the middle. That said it was warm and moist with (very) subtle hints of spice.
Based on the lines we saw all day, the Asian fusion kiosk was very popular last weekend.
The Ginger-Lemongrass Custard was a standout dessert across the entire event, receiving the title of Best Dessert. The flavors were subtle and the custard was the perfect, smooth, and creamy consistency.
The Mushi-Gyoza was our group’s favorite savory dish and Best in Booth. The dumplings were well made and came with a tangy sauce that we really enjoyed.
The Banh Mi was improved over past year, mostly because the bread did not overwhelm the meat. Those of us who like pickles really enjoyed the vegetables, as well. While the Lettuce Wrap remains somewhat difficult to eat, the sauce was tangy and the dish was cool and fresh.
Despite being too salty, the Mac & Cheese with Peameal Bacon was grudgingly named Best in Booth. It was not the creamy cheese dish we were hoping for, and the ham tasted cheap, but we could not select the one item from this kiosk that we love: The Pumpkin Caramel Mousse. The pumpkin and maple flavors pair delightfully in that creamy dessert.
The most noticeable components of the Venison Sausage & Corn Porridge were the grease and salt. After much effort we did discover some strong venison flavors, and the polenta wasn’t bad. The Cheddar & Lager Chowder has not changed at all over the years. It remains an oily bowl of flavorless goo.
The Caribbean booth in 2017 gave us feelings of both delight and disappointment. While the food at the Caribbean station was still enjoyable. It was no longer good enough to hold on to the title of Best Booth.
The Gamba Fritters were once again the perfectly fried, warm, and crispy balls of goodness that we have come to expect. The sauce was still tangy and the perfect match to these, our pick for Best in Booth.
Sadly, two of our favorite F&WF dishes were renamed and modified, and not in an entirely good way. I consistently found the Heart of Palm Salad to be refreshing and light, and Zachary always looked forward to the Tres Leche Cake. Their doppelgangers – Mojo Shrimp and a Pineapple Rum Upside-down Cake – were not able to fill their “shoes,” however.
The Jamaican Jerk Chicken may have had some delicate seasoning, but it was overwhelmed by the barbeque sauce, and ended up tasting nothing like any version of that spicy dish any of us have ever tried.
Crêpes & Coffee
An easy contender for “most improved,” this French-influenced option introduced two new and well-conceived dishes. Perhaps more importantly, the crepes, themselves, were fresh and not chewy, a distinct improvement over past years.
The Spinach, Strawberry, & Goat Cheese Crepes took Best in Booth with layered flavors – tangy, sweet, earthy, and bitter – and a variety of textures – soft, crunchy, and crisp. Especially as the only remaining balsamic dish (a real weakness of mine), this was a great addition to the menu.
The BLT Crepe was also popular, despite being so very “un-French.” This sophisticated take on the classic American sandwich worked well, especially because the components were skillfully prepared.
Sadly, the filling of Poulet Cordon Bleu Crepe was not noticeably improved. It still lacked chicken and the sauce continued to overwhelm the rest of the dish.
The only remaining dessert crepe, Choco-noisette et Banane, was very well made, and was thankfully crowned with Reddi Whip, rather than the usual BGW Cool Whip-like topping. All of the flavors came through, and worked exceptionally well together in this rich dessert.
The Chicken & Andouille Gumbo was our favorite offering at this largely mediocre kiosk. It was certainly better than last year, but it needed more chicken, and the sausage seemed more like hot dogs than andouille. Regardless, the spicy flavor and well-cooked rice made this hearty option Best in Booth (Savory).
The Muffaletta was also improved. There was noticeably more meat, and the olives did not overwhelm the sandwich. The Beignets were not bad, but they tasted more like funnel cake and needed more caramel and sugar.
Perhaps the most disappointing dish was the Bananas Foster Cheesecake. We could not detect any of the advertised elements other than cheesecake and banana. Nevertheless, it took the honor of Best in Booth (Sweet).
I was, personally, pleasantly surprised by this mainstay of the F&WF. Everything has much more flavor than I remember from past years.
The historically bland and gluey Schinkennudel won Best in Booth with its creamy center, crunchy top, and tasty ham pieces.
Similarly, the Currywurst was spicier than ever before and the roasted potatoes had a great texture. The Schnitzelwich, unfortunately, was dry and so hard that we had trouble cutting and chewing it. The German Chocolate Cake was a good, if generic, chocolate cake. Interestingly, our chocolate-hater enjoyed it, probably because there was so much coconut in the frosting.
Once again the Hawaiian booth proved to be very controversial among the tasting team members.
Everyone did manage to agree on the Huli Huli Chicken, naming it Best in Booth. The flavors were pleasant, if a bit mild.
There was strong disagreement, however, about the Spam Slider, the Tuna Poke, and the Haupia. The spam was juicy and flavorful and the bun was sweet. The Sriracha sauce, however, dominated the sandwich and the slaw didn’t seem to contain either pineapple or coconut. The tuna was well prepared and the seaweed was interesting. People either loved or hated the strong flavors and textures. The Haupia had a disturbing consistency and some of us didn’t like the pairing of the coconut and coffee flavors. Others thought it was one of the best desserts at the event.
While the Tandoori Chicken technically won “Best in Booth” by a hair, there was nothing we did not love at this beautiful, new kiosk. Admittedly, a few of us have voted to add an Indian booth to the event for multiple years, and we are all fans of South Asian cuisine; but I believe that the food was fantastic regardless of our group’s bias.
Our Samosas lover selected these spicy meat pockets as his favorite dish at the event, especially because the sweet mango sauce paired so perfectly with them. The Spicy Potato Curry had a slow, lingering heat; and the Mango Murfi was the perfect cool and sweet finish to the meal.
The milder Tandoori Chicken had complex flavors, and the warm meat juxtaposed with the cool yogurt sauce added interest. Additionally, it was prepared very well: The chicken was not rubbery, and the temperatures were right, even by the time we made our way back to the Festhaus.
The most interesting thing about this new booth was how well all of the dishes worked together. They complimented each other, and seemed to be designed as a single meal, meant to eaten together.
Ireland provided another unexpected experience. In the past this booth has been inoffensive, but hardly noteworthy. That changed in 2017.
I honestly don’t know what was different about the Irish Cheese Sampling this year. Perhaps the quality of the cheeses; maybe just the recipe for the chutney; possibly both? Regardless, despite being a simple cheese plate, this dish was selected as Best in Booth. Honestly, it may be the best cheese sampler I have ever enjoyed at BGW. The chutney was delicious and paired perfectly with the subtly-flavored cheeses.
Similarly, the Bangers and Colcannon was the best I have tried, since the event first opened. The herbs on both the sausage and the mash were perfect, and the hint of brown sugar balanced everything out nicely.
Turning to the cleverly-packaged dessert, while we were a bit disappointed in the heavy, flavorless, fake whipped cream, the Guinness Mousse, itself, was as rich and chocolately as we remembered.
There are no longer any savory items at the Italian booth, but the three desserts were considered for both the Best in Booth and Best Desserts category.
While I’ll admit I have advocated eliminating this booth, and was surprised to see the French, Scottish, Scandinavian, and Austrian stations go first, I also always look forward to trying the Panna Cotta. In fact, in 2016 it won Best in Show with a perfect score of 5/5. Sadly, this year it was not even selected as Best Dessert. It was, however, still the Best in Booth winner. Previously, it provided the only strong vanilla flavor at the event. This time, however, we received our custard drenched in strawberry syrup, which overwhelmed the very taste that had made it stand out among its peers.
On the other hand, both the Cannoli Trio and the Tiramisu improved. We discovered real strawberries in the cannoli, and the filling was not too sweet. The tiramisu boasted strong flavors and reminded me of desserts I have ordered at expensive restaurants.
While technically this is a new booth, it is essentially an expansion of the old Greek kiosk, which we always enjoyed. In addition to old favorites (Baklava and Halloumi) the park has added Falafel and a Lamb Burger Slider this year.
While the Baklava was as good as ever with sweet and cinnamony layers of sticky filo dough; the Halloumi, a perennial favorite, was too salty. We thought the Falafel was a great addition, although it was not strictly like similar dishes we have tried in restaurants.
The Lamb Slider was rated Best in Booth. It had a ton of flavor and was paired with a light and creamy sauce.
This year the Chorizo Empanadas were our favorite dish at the Spanish booth, and selected as Best in Booth. They were well-spiced, and the sauce paired perfectly with the meat.
We also enjoyed the Venera con Jamon, which had nice heat and was served over fluffy rice. The scallop had a fairly good texture, and the ham was excellent. The Gazpacho was refreshing with fresh tomato and basil flavors, although oyster was difficult to find. The Tapas was typically unremarkable, except for the hair that we found on the Membrillo-quince paste.
Maybe it is because I am a Virginian and I expect more from our “native” dishes, but I never come away from this stand wanting more.
The She-Crab Soup won Best in Booth with its smooth texture and pleasant sherry flavor.
The Smithfield Ham Tasting was mixed. While the Applewood carved ham was enjoyable, there was something off with either the Red Eye country ham or the apple butter served on top of it. Bizarrely, the ham pate tasted of tuna, and the biscuit was rock hard.
While we loved the honey butter, the Bacon and Cheddar Hushpuppies, themselves, fell short: We could not detect any cheese, but there was plenty of grease. The Pecan, Bacon, and Chocolate Bars seem to have more crust than last year, which didn’t work for us, but might please other guests.
Zachary and I would like to thank Renee, Thomas, and Tony for their participation and invaluable insights. By bringing a wide array of experiences and preferences to the table their inputs lend credibility to our recommendations and observations.
Next week we plan to publish our thoughts about the event as a whole, as well as the specific recommendations for both savory and sweet dishes from our tasting team. So, be on the lookout; follow BGWFans on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; and join the discussion on the ParkFans Forum.