Feastival 2011: That’s A Wrap

It was the acrobats that screwed me up the most–the half-naked boys and girls literally swinging from the rafters at Pier 9 while Feastival was in full sprint. There were two of them right above the main bar, hanging low enough to snatch the top hat off a swell’s head or take the garnish off the top of my cocktail. A line of them danced in tutus along the side wall. There was a girl pouring upside-down glasses of champagne from her perch and others doing their Cirque du Soleil-style thing over the heads of the grazers working the tables of the 75 restaurants that showed up to feed everyone.

It was bizarre, disconcerting, intermittently magic when the music and the light and the smoke machines all hit some freak groove. But I never got accustomed to it. I mean, good for them. There’s probably not a lot of work for people whose one big skill is swinging around on a rope in their underpants (especially now that Barnes & Noble is closing, leaving so many dancers, artists, writers and liberal arts majors out of a job), so I’m glad that they made the scene, but still…

Airborne antics aside, the single most important thing I learned at Feastival last night? That Meme needs a full liquor license, and fast. The guys from David Katz’s wine-only Spruce Street operation showed up with nothing more than a simple (but delicious) salmon crudo to feed the masses, but also had a tub full of ice and a keg of custom, pre-mixed Dark and Stormies that were just beyond amazing. Home-brewed ginger beer, dark rum, secret ingredients–it was the kind of drink that sneaks up on you. You make a couple laps of the room, notice at a certain point that your circles are becoming smaller and smaller, and before you know it you’ve got seven little plastic empties stacked up in your hand and are wondering where you can borrow a tutu because all that rope-swinging nonsense doesn’t look that tough.

Seriously, if you ever hear that the guys from Meme have pulled out their Dark and Stormy keg again and you don’t immediately run to wherever they are, you deserve to be punched in the face. Because yes, the drinks were face-punching good. I would pay good money for a backpack version of that keg that I could wear on the train, at the office, to the DMV…

Away from Meme’s table, it was a big night everywhere–a capacity crowd of Philly’s richest and foodiest, all mingling and eating, getting liquored up and over-bidding on blind auction items for the benefit of the local art scene. Zahav was doing shots of chilled tomato soup with watermellon and feta lurking in the bottom and a float of reduced balsamic vin. R2L had paella with shellfish and chicken and a lace of mustard sauce that tasted not at all like paella, but more like a great risotto assembled from perfect leftovers. There were tuna tostadas (that food festival classic) from Square 1682, a King Crab gazpacho from Sampan that was like drinking fire, and  a custom Feastival roll from Zama that was just awful–the texture of water chestnut wrapped around a core of chilled Play-Doh–and hard to swallow without a glass of Jim Beam Devil’s Cut to chase it with.

Michael Solomonov’s Federal Donuts (due to open “in just a couple weeks,” according to the crew) made its public debut outside the doors of the venue, hand-making fresh, hot, cinnamon sugar and spice donuts for all comers. Best idea I heard out of them? That they were trying to get a root beer-glazed donut to work for the opening. I would stand in line for that even if there weren’t also the promise of fried chicken.

Jennifer Carroll was there doing a 10 Arts victory lap after announcing that she was going to be going her own way come October 5. Everyone who stopped to shake her hand, everyone who posed for a picture, asked her the same question: What’s next? And she gave the same smart answer to almost all of them: “Something downtown, you know? If I can find the right place, the right people…” She’s a woman whose learned her PR lessons and how to manage expectations, how to say nothing in a hundred different ways. The fact that she can also cook like a demon is why she’s rising as fast as she is.

Taking a break, I collapsed into one of the leather arm chairs with a drink and a notebook, trying to get my head right while the smoke machines billowed and bass-heavy funk echoed from the stage; while sweat poured down under my collar and the pretty girls flew through the air. I was taking notes–about the chicken liver eclairs with chocolate ganache from The Corner and the brisket sliders from Percy Street, the gleaming French pastries from Le Bec-Fin and how Georges Perrier spent the whole night glowering at anyone who came near his table like we were all trying to steal the sweets right out of his pockets. What I needed more than anything was a smoke, so eased my way out into the street where the chefs and the acrobats on break, the riggers and the roadies and the ambulance drivers all clustered in the fading sun, mopping their necks and pounding down cigarettes before plunging back into the scrum.The breath of fresh air was nice. The company was better. Everyone has a job to do at events like these and are appropriately bored, bitter, competent and exhausted. It’s just another day at the office. Another night on the job.

I ate tostadas and more tostadas, drank more Dark and Stormies, had a brilliant plate of pasta from Le Virtu and brie-stuffed figs with crispy ham and berry jam from Talula’s Garden which were rich and rustic at the same time. Buddakan was doing duck bahn mi with coriander and foie gras in a skinny sandwich. The Continental had pork belly steamed buns packed with vegetables. Both got abandoned after a fast bite–not bad, just too rich, too complicated for a 15th or 20th course.

For a bit, I accidentally found myself stalking Ed Rendell (Feastival’s guest of honor, so chosen just because he’s awesome) through the offerings of Union Trust and Sampan and Bistrot Le Minette–trailing in his wake as he shook hands and got his picture taken, not even realizing who it was until he turned to hungrily eye the tables he couldn’t quite reach. I felt bad for the guy and kinda wanted to break loose, gather him some soup and maybe a donut, but what would he think? Some strange and half-drunk Mick come a’runnin’ with plates of food and booze? That’s the kind of thing that gets you throat-punched by a bodyguard, bound up and frog-marched out the back door to answer lots of hard questions.

While I was thinking about all this, Ed made a break. Seeing a bit of daylight, he made for it like a running back and just ducked into the trench where the cooks were working, reaching over shoulders and around elbows to grab dinner from the wrong side of things. A straight VIP move, that. Made me like the guy even more.

But one thing even his Governor-ness missed (at least as far as I saw)? The fried chicken. The best single plate of the night–the cure to all the foie gras and figs and duck and fanciness that permeated the event–was fried chicken from ?uestlove Loves Food.

No lie: fucking ?uestlove kicked the ass of everyone with whole fried chicken drumsticks in a crisp, corn flake batter like god’s own, and served with a total lack of art or pretension. Just chicken, fried, wrapped in a little paper envelope, and perfect. Maybe not worth the $250 admission price all on its own, but still good as it got the whole night through. The ideal foil to the jewels being auctioned. The champagne and beautiful people. The flying dancers. The pork belly. the figs.

And the best part? It paired with another round of Dark and Stormies just perfectly as I made my way towards the door.