Autumn Food & Wine Fest a carnival of bites and sips

The smoke from the Rim Fire had lifted (mostly), leaving crystal-blue skies at Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort near Truckee this past weekend. Which was a break for the 2,000-plus foodies who gathered there for the 28th annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival. On Sunday, they sipped fine wines and sampled delectable small-plate dishes at tents and kiosks set up on and above the Northstar ice-skating rink. As usual, it was a classy affair.

The multi-day fest featured food- and wine-related events around the lake, at Northstar and at the ultra-luxurious Ritz Carlton hotel, situated a gondola ride above Northstar. It culminated with Sunday's Grand Tasting, which featured 23 area restaurants teamed with 20 wineries and three distilleries to vie for gold, silver and bronze medals in several various categories. The biggest question: Which food-and-wine pairings would be the most compatible?

For the first time, I was included among the judges for the Grand Tasting, as well as for Saturday’s annual Blazing Pans Mountain Chef Cook Off. That “Iron Chef”-style competition pits two top chefs who must cook four restaurant-quality courses in an hour, in front of a crowd of hundreds of cheering foodies. The “secret ingredient” this year was baby goat (last year it was crawfish from Lake Tahoe).

Last year’s winner was Elsa Corrigan, executive chef-owner of Mamasake at the Village at Squaw Valley. This time out, she went up against Mark Estee, executive chef-owner of Campo in Reno. He’s the winner of the inaugural throw-down held in 2004. After we judges sampled the eight dishes and tallied the scores, Estee walked away with the plaque and bragging rights. Celebrity chef Nathan Lyon emceed.

From the judges’ perspective, Blazing Plans was a stroll in the park compared to sitting at tables in a conference room at Northstar on Sunday, tasting, ranking and discussing 23 dishes matched with 20 wines, one sparkling sake, one beer and a tequila-based Charbay cocktail from the Charbay Distillery in St. Helena. All on deadline.

The panel of judges was made up of some very heavy-hitters, and I learned a lot. At the table were Mike Dunne, former Sacramento Bee restaurant critic and now Sacramento freelance writer, blogger and contributing wine columnist for the Bee. Douglas Dale is the executive chef-owner of Wolfdale’s fine-dining restaurant in Tahoe City. Bill Ryan is a wine-industry expert, retired from Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena. Kim Caffery is the tasting room manager for Silver Oak-Twomey wineries in the Napa Valley. Lara Ritchie is the culinary director of the Nothing To It Culinary Center in Reno.

At the judging table, behind closed doors, we tasted a cornucopia of dishes that ranged from the mundane to the superb, paired with good to great white and red wines. The Harushika sparkling sake was refreshing but sweet; the Chambray margarita was a like a blend of lemonade and tequila; and the Schubros Fest Bier had flavor and depth.

Some of the best entries we tasted were basic and simply prepared, such as a meatball in marinara sauce. Others were so complex and involved so many ingredients that they figuratively fell apart. Surprisingly, many of those lacked the “wow!” factor.

In the past few years, pork belly and short rib have dominated the tasting, reflecting the coming fall season. This year, one of the two pork-belly dishes was a smoked pork belly “taco” with sweet potato puree and dried-cherry jam. The other was grilled pork belly with peach sauce. The lone short-rib entry was a smoked pastrami short-rib slider with cabbage slaw.

Several dishes were served in spoons (one dish came to the table with a baked cracker resembling a spoon) or on top of a chip of one sort or another.

Duck showed up four ways — topped with five-spice sauce, grilled, sou vede (encased in a plastic bag and slow-cooked in hot water) and in a tart with mushrooms and truffle oil.

Seafood was there, too, as bluefin tuna sashimi, octopus soppressata (thinly sliced octopus “salami”), beet-cured rainbow trout with avocado-mascarpone cheese puree, baked oyster with Mornay sauce, and shrimp in gazpacho.

Among other dishes: Moroccan-spiced chicken korma, rabbit and wild boar roulade, smoked elk, braised lamb shoulder, lamb-and-beef meatballs, beef carpaccio, and an outstanding roasted-beet canape with honey- and herb-infused goat cheese and candied walnuts.

By the time we were done sampling, no one wanted to look at another plate of food or glass of wine ever again. Or at least until later in the day.

The winners in all the categories were announced to the lively crowd sipping and tasting outside, who applauded and hooted and made quick dashes to the winners’ tents for seconds (or thirds).

For the record, the top three best pairings were:

Gold: meatball with marinara sauce from the Village Pizzeria in Truckee, with Kenwood 2010 zinfandel.

Silver: rabbit and wild boar roulade from Moody’s Bistro in Truckee, with Paul Hobbs 2011 pinot noir.

Bronze: duck and mushroom tart from Jake’s On the Lake in Tahoe City, with Handley Cellars 2009 pinot noir.

The complete list of festival winners is coming to today.