For four glorious days at the end of March, the 2019 edition of Taste Washington will turn Seattle into the center of the epicurean universe. Now the nation’s largest single-region wine-and-food festival, the annual event seems to consistently bring new events and presenters into the fold, while retaining those that everybody loves. This year’s festivities begin with the Red & White Party (March 28) at Aqua by El Gaucho. The following evening, The New Vintage brings revelry downtown to The Sanctuary. On the same night, the all-new Lexus Late Night will turn chef Edouardo Jordan’s Ravenna-neighborhood Salare restaurant into The New Vintage’s after-party lounge. And one of Taste Washington’s coolest recent additions, the Best Bite contest, is also back. Those attending the two-day Grand Tasting (March 30–31) get to be judges, selecting the weekend’s best dish through a popular vote.

[Photo: Megan Swann Photography]

Rock the vote

When the Best Bite contest was introduced In 2016, chef Taylor Widrig of Swiftwater Cellars’ Hoist House Restaurant became the inaugural winner. And Josh Westcott, executive chef partner at The Capital Grille, received the most votes during each of the past two Grand Tastings. But any notions of a Capital three-peat were quashed earlier this year. Because Westcott’s team declined to sign up for this year’s event, due to time conflicts with other commitments.

“I didn’t strive for it either year,” Westcott says, of his back-to-back Best Bite victories. “But I was appreciative that people recognized what we were doing.” His winning bites were variations of mini–beef tenderloin sandwiches, on brioche buns. (The 2017 version was adorned with black-truffle mayonnaise. Last year’s winning bite was accompanied by smoked tomato aioli and micro basil.)

Raising the stakes

Wine-and-food tastings take place throughout the year, across the region and across the country. But the sheer size of the Grand Tasting separates it from other events. About 6,000 or more people are expected to attend each day. And the chance to interact with so many wine-and-food lovers is motivation enough for participating chefs to bring their A-games. But some say the public vote adds extra motivation.

“I think any opportunity for chefs to compete against each other, even if it’s just for bragging rights, is a huge factor,” says Daniel Mallahan, executive chef at Rider. (The restaurant is located in downtown’s Hotel Theodore.) “The competitive side is always fun. And I think it brings out better and more interesting foods.”

‘This will be the Rider team’s second year at Taste Washington (the restaurant opened in November 2017). In addition to serving two dishes in the Charles Smith Wines’ lounge, Mallahan will also lead a cooking demonstration. He’ll be sharing the secrets of Rider’s delicious pull-apart rolls with crab-fat butter. And the opportunity to learn how to distill crab-fat butter like a pro makes this a must-see presentation. (Mallahan is slated to appear on the Albert Lee Culinary Experience demonstration stage, on Sunday, at 5:15 p.m.)

Sensory overload

“There’s so much that goes into getting ready to serve a few thousand people each day,” says Derek Simcik, executive chef at the Thompson Seattle hotel. “But when people tasting your food say things like, “This is really amazing,’ that’s when you start getting into it. And you try to get them to vote for you.”

In all, nearly 240 wineries and 65 restaurants participate in the Grand Tasting. This makes it easy for attendees to feel like kids in that proverbial candy store. The sheer number of wines and foods to taste, not to mention displays and demonstrations, can overwhelm.

But if sensory overload and palate fatigue don’t get in the way, attendees vote for their favorite food item with the faux cork they receive when they enter the tasting hall. (Just put the cork in the jar at the station serving the dish you like best.) Simcik says his front-of-house manager or other staffers on hand often explain how the voting works. Because many attendees seem to forget about the voting or don’t realize that that cork is their ballot.

This will be Simcik’s fourth straight year at Taste Washington. And this year’s event coincides with the unveiling of the hotel’s new restaurant concept and menu. (The Thompson’s former restaurant, Scout, closed at the end of 2018.)

Spread the word

As far as direct-to-consumer marketing opportunities go for restaurants, they don’t get much bigger than the Grand Tasting.

“There’s no other event where you can reach that many people in that short a time,” says chef Nick Novello, who took over culinary operations at Miner’s Landing late last year. “It’s literally a ton of work. But I’ve watched Swiftwater and The Capital Grille really benefit from winning the Best Bite competition.”

At Miner’s Landing, Novello and his team are transforming the image of their restaurants, which include The Fisherman’s Restaurant & Bar and The Crab Pot. They want their restaurants to be seen as places where locals go, not just tourists.

To do so, they are adding more seasonal, ingredients-driven dishes to The Fisherman’s menu. The kitchen used to focus primarily on the type of seafood staples widely available up and down the coast. These items will still be available when the new menu launches in April. But so will a lot more.

For the Grand Tasting, Novello and his team will dish out meatballs crafted from 50-day dry-aged beef and a cioppino with crab legs and prawns, served in mini house-made sourdough bread bowls. In addition to serving fun foods with fresh, bold and complex flavors, he also wants to spread the word about his restaurant’s new approach. As he puts it, “We are going there to showcase ourselves as a new space.”

Fire & Vine goes big

Fire & Vine Hospitality takes things a step further and brings its own custom-made booth to the Grand Tasting. The group is a premier sponsor of Taste Washington. And its chefs and restaurants are involved in one way or another in just about every Taste Washington event.

At the Grand Tasting, Fire & Vine will have close to a dozen of its chefs on hand, in its booth and on demonstration stages. The crew includes chefs from its three new Walla Walla restaurants—Eritage Resort, Walla Walla Steak Co. and Crossbuck Brewing—and Seattle’s Aerlume. And their dishes will include El Gaucho’s beef tenderloin Diablo; Miller’s Guild’s smoked pastrami sliders; and Aerlume’s king salmon gravlax and roe, with tarragon crème fraiche and grapefruit mustard.

Clearly, there will be a lot to digest. Which makes this a great reason to break out the stretchy pants.

FYI: Other Taste Washington highlights include tours of area farms, including lunch with chefs and winemakers (March 29); seminars featuring tastings of wines related to each session’s topic (March 30–31); and more. At last check, tickets to three of the six seminars and one of the two farm tours were still available. Several Seattle hotels are offering Taste discounts and/or packages. Visit the Taste Washington website for tickets and more information.