NOWFE Turns 30

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris June 23, 2022 11:00 in Dining Diary

The New Orleans Food And Wine Experience, or NOWFE, is a local non-profit event that has been a fixture in the New Orleans food world for now 30 years. I have been critical of it for a few years because it seemed too crowded at each event, lessening the pleasure for attendees.

It has changed venues a few times from the halcyon days at the convention center, settling at the Sugar Mill in the Warehouse District. 

So much has changed in the world since COVID, affecting restaurants in so many ways, I was curious to see how this cataclysmic global event would affect the local celebration of our culinary culture.

They seem to have tweaked it in ways to improve the experience for all. There used to be more food than wine, which worked for me because I am not a drinker. This most recent event was heavier on the wine, and lighter in the food offerings, both in number and in substance. 

There were a considerable number of raw seafood items at this year’s event. I remember that being an aberration in the old days, but the raw offerings amounted to about 30 or so percent of food tastings this time. That’s not a bad thing, but I don’t eat crudo and ceviche, so I can’t report on it.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of great things to eat. We went both days, which offered different things. The weather on Friday was terrifying, so we didn’t leave the Northshore until the event was well underway. 

We arrived to see a friendly and wonderful face as a greeter. Tina, the receptionist from the old station was there to welcome us. (And everyone else.) It was delightful to visit with her. It’s been two years since we have connected, and the world was much different then.

The first place we tried as we walked in was Y Comida, featuring a tiny portion of smoked brisket to be scooped with a little chip. As we arrived at the booth, someone on the way out was gushing that this little morsel was the best thing he had that night. It was indeed very tasty.

Shaya had already closed shop by the time we arrived, which was disappointing. We ran into Nathaniel Zimmet, who had a nice conversation with Tom that stretched long enough for me to sample some of his fried chicken brats. Sounds odd but it was good.

One of the prize winners in kind of a sweep was the Hyatt Regency. These entries were heavy on Thai flavors, probably because Chef Chosita Palakawong is from that part of the world. They won for two things, both complex but very good. And quite spicy.

The first was Curried Local Shrimp with Mini Roti, Carrots, Kabocha Squash, and Tofu. This was a lot of ingredients but it was very polished. Another winning dish came from the Hyatt, this time from Chef Rakshit Kadam, who did a dish that could have won for sheer number of ingredients as well. It was 24k Butter Chicken, featuring Yogurt-Marinated and Coconut-Charcoal-Smoked Chicken served with Pomegranate Raita, Mint Coriander Chutney, and Saffron Caviar. This was a great little plate of food. The butter chicken was tender and well-seasoned, and the other ingredients combined nicely for a mild explosion of flavors.

Dorignac’s was a big sponsor of the event and had a booth each day of the Grand Tastings. On Friday night it was a Sweet Potato Bisque with Housemade Andouille. This was smooth and very spicy and quite good, though I preferred the next day’s entry from Dorginac’s, which was an Artichoke Casserole with toasty breadcrumbs on top. This was really delicious.

Tom and I each had a favorite that evening. Mine was the ravioli from Rizzuto’s, which was a large single dumpling covered in cream sauce with bits of nuts and chopped green things like parsley and scallion on top as garnish.

For Tom the favorite was dessert. He was absolutely gaga over the Pavlova by Pastry Chef Eka Soenarko from Jack Rose. This was set into a meringue shell with Louisiana strawberries and whipped cream on top.

We sat with a group of three, parents from Pennsylvania and their daughter from Florida, all of whom have been coming to NOWFE for about ten years. I took the opportunity to query them about the changes I have observed.

They still enjoy it, but noted that there was far less food than in past years, and fewer restaurants of “note.” They are big wine drinkers and were happy to see how much more wine there was, before lamenting that “all the good wines” were gone within the first half-hour. Not having any real idea which wines were the best, this was valuable information. In turn I explained that there were restaurants of “note”, just not the ones of “note” from ten years before. We had a very enjoyable conversation with them before making our way out the door.

On Saturday we returned, this time arriving as the doors opened. It was montrously hot on this mid-June Saturday, and we wanted to get in and out before too many people crowded into these indoor-outdoor spaces.

The entrance is outdoors with a white tent over it. This was not air-conditioned, but there were fans in certain places that made those places the places to be. Moving between fans was painful. The most comfortable spot in the entire event was the point where one moved from outside to inside. For some reason the air-conditioning was concentrated there. I wanted to stand in the doorway. Unfortunately, there was nothing there but a big doorway, and a threshold that wanted to trip Tom.

Inside we made our way toward the Trenasse space. I was dying to try the dishes our friend-of-the-show and Wednesday guest Stan Meadows told us had won medals. They win every year. And with good reason. It’s delicious at Trenasse. Everything. Their dishes are always really creative, but not creative-weird or creative-silly. These dishes are creative-divine. 

Today Chef Todd Misener and Chef Michael Shelton served shrimp and blue crab gumbo with popcorn rice and crab toast. This was as great as it sounds. Robust, with the perfect thickness and an assertive-but-not-too-much spice level. The crab toast was the ideal finishing touch. I loved this as much as I expected to. 

The other dish was complicated and hard to understand. But the flavors came together to get your attention. It was smoky braised beef belly in a spicy sauce over a grilled peach with kohlrabi shreds on top and pomegranate seeds scattered about. They call this chili bacon, and it is spectacular. Worth a trip to the restaurants all by itself to try it when it hits the menu. I am never a fan of grilled fruit, but this was outstanding.

Tom spied some steak tartare rounds at a nearby booth, and we made our way there next. This entry was from a catering company from Baton Rouge called Elvie’s. He certainly seemed to like these little bites, but I don’t think he’s ever met a steak tartare he didn’t love. 

From there we moved to the Rib Room which had a wonderful-sounding dish. It was sort of a study in duck, featuring a gigantic duck ravioli on top of sliced duck breast. This didn’t work at all, and that made me sad because I love duck. There was a mound of braised duck inside a dumpling that was too large and too pasty to eat and difficult to break into. Great idea, disappointing execution. The duck had a nice flavor in both interpretations. Too bad it was so cumbersome.

The Dorignac booth was next to this one, and we hit that one so many times it was embarrassing. Good thing Nicole Dorignac is another good friend of the Food Show (airs weekdays 2-4 990 AM.) The house french bread at Dorignac’s, called St. Joe, is utterly unique in French bread world and really excellent. It also makes terrific breadcrumbs, which further elevated this already-sensational artichoke casserole.

Kerrygold was a sponsor of NOWFE, and their booth was simple and wonderful. Little paper boats held a slice of baguette and two chunks of their extra-sharp white cheddar.

Evangeline, the little bar and restaurant keeping a low profile in the French Quarter, offered two separate dishes. One was a Cajun Bouillabaisse and the other Crawfish and Grits. Neither of these moved us very much, which was a surprise.

For liquid refreshment we vacillated between bottles of ice cold water from Mountain Valley Spring Water, and an occasional glass of Cab.

The crowd was not overwhelming, and everyone was polite and well-mannered. It was a lovely two days of grazing. We left each day when I could feel droplets of sweat rolling down my back. This was the unspoken cue that it was time to go.

Heading out the door we got a chance to get the dish from Palm & Pine, which we noticed walking in. It was Sticky Rib Tips with Steen’s Syrup and Chow Chow. This was a terrific example of sweet heat. The meat was tender but firm at the same time, and the pickled vegetables offset the sticky syrup nicely. This was one of our favorites, ending the event on a great note.