Friday, January 24, 2014

I Went to a Preview Event For Winnipeg Mardi Gras and Everything Was Delicious, So Here're Some Recommendations

Well, good evening, all you fine folks!

January has been flying right by, our fair city's events calendar is jam-packed, and it's finally warmed back up enough that we can all go outside without screaming. Busy times! In fact, I'm off to the (hashtag) Dave Shorr Comeback Party shortly after I've finished this post -- if you see this in time you should totally come down too, tickets available at the door 'n'all that -- but first let me tell you about a thing I went to about a week ago, because I know y'all love pictures of food and drinks.

Hark! Winnipeg Mardi Gras approaches!

I received an invitation to attend a Winnipeg Mardi Gras preview event -- comped, in full disclosure, though I think you know you can trust me if I tell you a thing is tasty -- and the Convention Centre's Pan Am Room was decked out accordingly.

Oh, and the room was festively decorated, too. (Sorry, distracted for a second there.) Festive lighting, bright colours, wild arrangements, and -- Jack Daniel's being one of the sponsoring products -- a full-size Jack Daniel statue.

Jack Daniel has seen some things, friend. Things man wun'nt meant to see.

The culinary attractions were the primary focus of this event preview -- give 'em the first taste for free, hook them on the shrimp to keep 'em coming back, fiendishly brilliant business model really -- so let me take you through my food and drink experiences that evening, in chronological order.

This is an older camera I'm working with, but you can see how fresh those look, right? I am a known shrimp enthusiast -- a devourer of shrimp worlds, the Galactus of seafood with diminutive names -- and these were plump and crisp and tasty and oh my and oh yes.

I am vastly less familiar with oysters, reason enough to eat 'em and build that experience base, so while I am not personally capable of weighing the oysters against similar oyster offerings, I can confirm that it was salty and squishy and its own kinda thing and basically what you'd expect when you picture an oyster. I dug it! I don't know oysters, but I know what I like.

I like wine, incidentally. (You are surprised, I'm sure.) The red to the left in that picture is a -- hang on --

-- the red in question is an Italian 2012 Pasqua Sangiovese, very robust floral nose, initially very fruity but with an impressively dry brick wall of an aftertaste. In a good way, of course! A good brick wall. You can tell I'm not normally a wine writer, the good wine writers probably have a really impressive Italian name for a brick wall. What I mean is that the fruit notes linger for a few seconds and then (wham!) a very pleasant tannic haze bursts in and makes itself comfortable.

And red wines are heart-healthy, so hey, double-bonus! I'm going to live forever. Next slide!

This dude was cranking out samples of the show's Bourbon Flamed Garlic Pepper Shrimp (you can see on the right that all of the tables had signs explaining the dishes, so no, I didn't just bust that name out off the top of my head), which sounded delicious; I had intended to swing back and try it later, since the samplers were disappearing as quickly as he could put them out, but -- spoiler alert -- I got full and forgot. Alas! It's probably mad tasty, though, given the name.

'Full', of course, only counts in food. The sampler shots from this table were served in novelty light-up Fireball shot glasses --

-- aaand I didn't get any pictures of the shots because I drank them at the booth while talking to the server. Y'know how it is. They're easy to describe, though, they both looked like Fireball whisky; one of them was straight Fireball whisky, as brazenly cinnamon-hearty as you remember it, and the other was a half-shot of Fireball whisky mixed with a half-shot of spiced rum. It is named a "Burt Reynolds", and it is very smooth -- like Burt Reynolds, right -- the spices mellowing the cinnamon and creating a more intricate taste palette. They're still whisky and rum mixed together, of course, so be careful with 'em.

Onward to pasta!

This is a "New Orleans Rosé Farfalle Pasta with Chicken, Spicy Sausage and Capicola", pan-fried in a white wine reduction with creamy tomato sauce. To give you some idea of how much I liked this dish, I went home the night after and attempted to recreate it from memory. I failed spectacularly, of course, but it was still pasta and meat and tomatoes and vegetables, so the outcome was triumphant nonetheless.

THIS DISH, THOUGH. Pictures don't really do its taste justice, and even live in person it kinda just looks like a turbocharged Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, but I assure you it is very dramatically tasty. The spices in the Italian sausage are what tie everything together, accentuated by the sauce combination and the sauteed onions, and the meat chunks they dole out in this bad boy are huge. You too will try to make it afterwards, is what I'm getting at. You will fail, but you will try, and the failure dishes will still be very good dishes.

Tomato and white wine sauces, man. There is powerful sorcery at work in that combination.

This is a Fried Oyster and Cheese Po'Boy, served on a baguette with lettuce, dill pickle, tomato, and whatever a "Mardi Gras dressing" is. It is the other of the two dishes that I got full and did not get around to eating, because each one was a very labour-intensive assembly effort and not a single one made it to the table proper before a patron could make off with it. Heck, this is a photograph of the display model! I suppose I could've swiped the display model, but really, at that same table:



I'm not a full-on expert on deep-fried things, because I recognize that there's a whole wide world of deep-fried experiments out there in the world, and I recognize that there are probably people who pride themselves on hunting and devouring them. But I'd rank myself squarely in a middle echelon of deep-fried experiences; I'm not a world authority, but I'm not against tryin' em, either. (Well, I mean, obviously. Here's a deep-fried pickle in a heavy Cajun cheese sauce, sitting on a plate.)

I attended the annual Canadian Library Association conference this year, right here in Winnipeg, which included a reception inside the Millennium Library; one of the hors d'oeuvres served at the event was deep-fried brie cheese bites, and they were amazing, and they tasted like they were more expensive than my car. They were also, and this is a rough estimate, probably about three hundred thousand calories each.

This is a less extravagant but vastly more balanced experience; it's the weirdest thing, the effect of an honest-to-goodness vegetable inside the breading and the cheese sauce, you actually feel healthy. It's an amazing trick of the brain. The pickle taste and the breading taste offset each other quite subtly -- it takes several seconds to even detect that signature buzz of brine -- and you're chewing, and you're chewing, and one fried spear is probably more calories than everything else you've eaten that day combined, but you feel healthier nonetheless because of that vegetable texture. It is a wild and potentially dangerous experience.

Speaking of wild and potentially dangerous:

Oyster Shot? Oyster Shot.

Oyster Shot. (You can tell this shot was taken on the fly. Do not attempt to aim directly at Oyster Shot. If cornered by Oyster Shot, play dead. Do not taunt Happy Fun Oyster Shot.)

An Oyster Shot turns out to be one ounce of vodka, an oyster (obviously), and a remainder of a glass' worth of tomato juice. You have the choice of spicy- or non-spicy tomato juice, so obviously I went with spicy, because there's no point in halfassing anything when you've already committed to shotgunning a vodka oyster.

So I shotgunned a vodka oyster in spicy tomato juice, and, my word, it's an experience. As mentioned earlier, oysters are largely unexplored territory for me -- uncharted waters, if y'will, haaaaa see what I did there -- and really, now that I think about it, I also don't remember the last time I drank tomato juice outside of a cocktail. Maybe I am not the target demographic, per se. I enjoyed doing it, though! It was definitely a singular creature, a concept all its own, and the spicy tomato juice did offer a smoother oyster introduction than an oyster-shy person might take from a standalone one.

I kinda like oysters, and I kinda like tomato juice, and I quite enjoyed trying this for trying's sakes. Fun textures in it! If you enjoy oysters and tomato juice, you will enjoy an Oyster Shot, and if you do not like either of those things I am very specifically telling you that they are both in an Oyster Shot.

If you're after something less daunting, this is a far easier sell:

This is a Love Potion. It is gin, lemon juice, pink champagne and grenadine. It is exactly as sweet and citrusy as that suggests, and yes, it is incredibly girly, but -- and I feel this very strongly, this is a message delivered with conviction -- dudes really should not let such things scare them away from tasty drinks. Flex while you drink it if you gotta, I don't care, just get this champagne-carbonated cuteness explosion into your mouth. You'll enjoy it, trust me, it's a thing you'll like.

Another drink that you'll enjoy, less specifically gendered but vastly more precarious:

This, friends, is an Agent Orange. It is Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, a full glass of orange juice, and a li'l decorative orange slice.

It is also borderline impossible to properly photograph on an orange tablecloth by orange candlelight. You should see the blooper reel I assembled in trying to capture this, it's mortifying.

A nearby wine server took pity on my cause, however, and:

Thank you, wine server! Oh, that's so much easier. Whew!

Anyway, this drink tastes the way it looks: it is very, very orange. Dangerously orange! The Southern Comfort adds its underlying spice and fruit notes, which obviously pair very well with a big glass of orange juice, and the Jack Daniels just whistles innocently and pretends it isn't there. But it's there, friends. Oh, it is there. And that is why this is a dangerous drink.

You have encountered similar delicious concoctions in the past, I am sure, and you have learned to be careful with such things. The benefits of experience! (This is quite obviously all code for me indicating "here is a fun drink that will get you bombed very smoothly", but Drink Responsibly, after all.)

Back to the food beat!

With the table very briefly unoccupied, I engrossed myself in photographing the ingredients spread and the cheat-sheet; the chef stationed at the jambalaya booth returned while I was taking this picture, and -- in a quintessentially Winnipeg fashion, wouldn't you know it -- it turns out we know each other from way back. I know, right? Winnipeg! Winnipeg.


Anyway, remember what I was saying earlier about exceptional foods that are impossible to properly flatter in photographs? That's jambalaya to a T. (Yes, I know there's no 'T' in 'jambalaya', it's an express--ahhh, never mind.) The chicken in this dish was incredible, fortified with every delicious swirling flavour around it, and the whole mixture -- pre-prepared, obviously, given how much effort the rice involved takes -- was pan-fried in a blended scotch, which feels like something I'm going to accidentally burn my place down trying.

Those crunchy accessories on top are probably intended to serve as a textural counterbalance to the softer main dish, but honestly after trying the jambalaya I came to regard them as speed bumps. They are there for the purpose of slowing one down, lest one cram jambalaya into oneself to the point of excess; it is not a food that you will want to stop eating, but it is necessary that at some point you must.

And, finally:

Wine to start, wine to finish. I like wine. (You are surprised, I'm sure.) This is a Californian blended white, a Chardonnay base with Pinot Grigio and Riesling additions, and while I am not its target market -- it's a little sweeter than I tend to aim for in wines -- it has a pleasant acidic tang of an aftertaste and goes about its business of being a sweet wine entirely admirably.

In conclusion, as you have probably already gleamed, I quite enjoyed the evening. Good show all around! I'll most definitely be going to the event proper, so mark your calendars -- Winnipeg Mardi Gras approaches! February 14th and 15th, Winnipeg right RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg, tickets now available.

(And before I forget: fellow blogger shoutouts! Whoo!)

Onward to adventure! I'll see you folks at #daveshorrcomebackparty, unless I don't, in which case I'll see you back here tomorrow for Manitoba Links Weekly.

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