Tahoe, tastefully

A longtime food festival and a new restaurant week make the mountains flavorful this weekend

By Johnathan L. Wright, September 8, 2010 – Reno Gazette-Journal

It all started 25 years ago in a campground in Tahoe City. A small group of food and wine enthusiasts had gathered in a tent to sample the objects of their affection. They shivered as it began to snow.

Cut to 2010. The tent is long gone. The Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival, running Sept. 10 through 12, now sprawls across the Village at Northstar and, this year for the first time, up Northstar Mountain to the new Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe.

Add in the inaugural Lake Tahoe Restaurant Week, with places offering $20, $30 and $40 prix fixe menus through Sept. 12, and the result, officials hope, is a mix that draws locals while also giving visitors a reason to come to Tahoe beyond Labor Day, the traditional end of the summer season.

“Fall is our third season in Tahoe, and we think this helps anchor the season,” said Judy Laverty, the festival’s director, who was one of the original shivering few in the tent a quarter century ago.

“Tahoe has so many delicious dishes, so many talented chefs, that were ready to be showcased,” added Pettit Gilwee, president of Pettit Gilwee Public Relations and the organizer of Restaurant Week. “With Restaurant Week, with the festival, we’re saying, ‘Fall is the cuisine time of the year. Fall, go to Tahoe, and you dine.'”

Chef partners

Leading Tahoe chefs are participating in both events. Reylon Agustin for one, chef de cuisine of Manzanita in the Ritz-Carlton, is sending out a black tiger prawn salad at Sunday’s “Grand Tasting,” the festival wrap-up that features food from dozens of area restaurants paired with wines from regional and international wineries.

Restaurant Week diners, on the other hand, might try his wild-caught salmon with haricots verts and pillowy shrimp and artichoke ravioli. Both dishes, the chef said, “speak to the bounty of the local farm. It’s about using three or four perfect ingredients.”

Agustin should be especially busy this weekend. The Ritz-Carlton, which opened in December, is a festival venue for the first time, and three noteworthy events are being held at Manzanita.

On Friday evening, the festival kicks off on the restaurant’s terrace with a party sponsored by Corzo tequila. Inside, folks will sit down to a five-course menu prepared by Traci Des Jardins, the James Beard Award-winning San Francisco chef who also is the executive chef of Manzanita. And on Saturday, Des Jardins and Agustin will present a three-course lunch with wine pairings.

Roll, then taste

A gondola connects the Ritz-Carlton to the Village at Northstar, the festival’s main venue and the site of Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar. For the Grand Tasting, Mikuni chef Robert Turner is building scores of “train wreck” rolls from ebi, panko shrimp, crab and avocado. For Restaurant Week, there’s a “black and white” composition featuring strips of albacore belly that are slightly torched, then topped with hillocks of black tobiko. “Torching is one of our newer techniques,” Turner said. “It gives a really interesting flavor.” On Saturday, Mikuni is playing host to a hands-on “sushiology” class — rolling, then tasting — led by chef Chris Jackson.

Watch and learn

Saturday’s festival schedule, in fact, brims with classes and demonstrations in the Village.

Think sweet and spicy chocolate pairings at the Chocolate Bar, chef and winemaker pairings in Baxter’s Bistro & Lounge, and Asian inspirations on the main stage with chef Douglas Dale of Wolfdale’s Cuisine Unique.

Cork dorks are covered with a seminar on wines from Suisun Valley, a new California appellation; a wine (and beer) tasting in the festival market; and a vertical tasting of Silver Oak Cellars Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon led by Kim Caffrey, Silver Oak’s senior wine educator.

There’s also:
-Free hands-on pizza grilling with chef Lara Ritchie of Nothing to It! Culinary Center (part of the festival’s family-friendly outreach);
-The “Blazing Pans Mountain Chef Cook-off,” a festival mainstay; and for those still in need of lubrication,
-The traditionally bibulous annual release party presented by Charbay Winery & Distillery.

“Bringing seminars and discussions that I hope will really keep our guests engaged is still my biggest passion,” said Laverty, the festival organizer.

‘Great bite’

The festival or Restaurant Week are drawing chefs who work all over Tahoe — from Edgewood Tahoe Restaurant and Gi Fu Loh in Stateline to Lone Eagle Grille in Incline Village, from Soule Domain in Kings Beach to Cottonwood Restaurant in Truckee to Six Peaks Grille and PlumpJack Café in Squaw Valley.

For Restaurant Week, look for heirloom tomatoes splashed with Banyuls vinaigrette from Chad Shrewsbury, chef de cuisine of Six Peaks Grille in the Resort at Squaw Creek. Banyuls is a fortified, sweetly acidic dessert wine from southern France.

“It’s light, and the flavor is all there,” the chef said of his dish. “I’ve been working with Banyuls for the last year.”

At the Grand Tasting, Shrewsbury is doing twisted tortilla chips stuffed with espresso braised lamb and cherry mole — “a great bite!” he said.

Scaled down

Ben “Wyatt” Dufresne, Shrewsbury’s Squaw Valley colleague, was until recently the chef de cuisine at LuLou’s. He now leads the PlumpJack Café kitchen, his first executive chef gig.

Restaurant Week? He’s feeling kurobuta pork tenderloin atop braised mustard greens, with swipes of black mission fig gastrique.

Grand Tasting? Get this: Canapé’s fashioned from mini steamed Chinese buns, braised pork belly, plum sauce, pickled cucumbers, triangles of watermelon radish, and spiky chili threads from HK Market in Sparks.

“It’s crisp and spicy and colorful,” the chef said of his offering, a larger version of which he once served at LuLou’s.

Dufresne said he’s looking forward to the food-filled weekend.

“I like getting together with local chefs, having some wine, hanging out, checking out everyone’s food.”

Come to think of it, that’s probably what diners would say, too.

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