The tomato: seductively red with sensuous curves and flesh bursting with juice. What better gift of summertime to have for a muse? On Sunday July 17,2011 hundreds of fanciers converged at JCT Kitchen to taste and toast the heirloom jewels from local gardens on a dazzling summer day.
I look forward to Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival each year. Along with Field of Greens, it is my favorite gathering of chefs, mixologists, farmers and the food community. Not only is it an homage to the mighty mater but proceeds benefit Georgia Organics, a non profit close to my heart. Sunday's event raised nearly $40,000!
The tomato has come a long way from being banned by the Church of Rome as "the devil's fruit" to being the "benign majesty" it is today. I re-read Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Tomatoes" in preparation for Sunday's fete. In the poem he writes, "at the midpoint of summer, the tomato, star of the earth, recurrent and fertile star..." I thought of that line all day as people discussed the beauty, flavor and totality of the tomato. I wasn't the only one feeling poetic about the tomato.
Aside from a few different chefs and mixologists this year's fest was much the same as last year's festivities. I loved how the bridge was utilized this year to give more space to stations and spread out the crowd. I didn't follow a route on my way. I probably crossed the bridge 4 or 5 times as I flitted about, occasionally stopping to listen to The Spazmatics and Five Bone Rack, composed of chefs Ford Fry, gary Mennie, Jamie Adams, Zeb Stevenson and Justin Brogdon.
I didn't take many photos this year which made the experience all the more enjoyable. I immersed myself in the moment. Besides, I can just look at Savory Exposure's gorgeous photos here.
My first bite came from Chris Neff of Sprig who was inspired by French lore of the tomato's aphrodisiac qualities. Chef Neff filled different heirloom "love apples" from Noring Farms with summer heirloom tomato salad and red snapper ceviche. This was the only station where you could catch festival goers feeding one another their pomme d' amour. This delicate bite made with a watermelon-looking varietal was one of my favorites of the day-gorgeous, delicious, fresh and fun.
And we were off! A roasted tomato galette with bacon horseradish creme fraiche from Jessica Hanners of Souper Jenny, incredible heritage breed pork trotters and sungold tomato salad with guanciale vinaigrette from Matt Palmerlee of Farm 255 and a killer pimento cheese sandwich with sliced tomatoes, pickled green tomato relish and bacon from Farm Burger. It was great fun watching chef Terry Koval toast the bread while we nibbled.
Craig Richards of La Tavola had the most amazing octopus salad with heirloom tomatoes, Thai basil and chili melon with tomatoes from Yoder Family Farm. It was bright, fresh, colorful and the octopus was super soft and tender. Craig explained a Mediterranean tenderizing technique that involves simmering the octopus along with wine corks. Truth or old wives tale; who knows? It works for Craig. The octopus was perfect.
I loved Drew Van Leuvan's dish- a tomato ceviche (Dillwood Farms) with lemon verbena, white chocolate and horseradish granita. Tasting it was one of those rare instances when the flavor combination was something never before experienced. It was graceful and dainty, savory and robust. Pretty sure I grabbed Drew's hand and said "this is so good" to which he replied "I know!" He always surprises and delights me at One Midtown Kitchen. Another I really loved with similar lightness was Empire State South's tomatoes with flowering basil, shoyu-tomato vinaigrette and fromage blanc. Lush flavors and local ingredients are just what I expected of chefs Hugh Acheson and Ryan Smith. Hugs and big smiles were great bonuses.
Two of my favorites that I could eat as an entree: Miller Union's Steven Satterfield served up shrimp, tomato (Love is Love Farm), okra and hot pepper over rice grits. Hot and Hot Fish Club's Chris Hastings had the most beautiful head-on Florida hoppers with heirloom tomatoes, grilled Vidalia onion, avocados and a basil lime vinaigrette. Holy smokes, they were lobster-like in flavor.
My votes for best booths would be Linton Hopkins' of Holeman and Finch and Restaurant Eugene and Hector Santiago of Pura Vida. Behind the H&F/Eugene area were perfect logos from the restaurants created out of toothpicks and cherry tomatoes. Ingenious. Pura Vida's booth had house cured meat hanging alongside a pig face complete with earring and tomato in it's mouth. The best part, besides his amazing "Montadtod de Tomates", was the display holder he made the night before. He laughed about hammering out the the metal late at night after I complimented him on it. He went into incredible detail about the tomato creama inside his beautiful bite. As he always says, "heart and balls." He never phones it in.
My three favorite creative (and delicious) bites:
- Pimento Cheese profiterole with tomato jam- Patric Bell of West Egg. Exquisite and delectable.
- Tomato and charred watermelon pop- Matt Adolfi of Floataway Cafe. Sweet, savory, cool.
- Heirloom salsa gelee with shrimp ceviche, tortilla powder and micro cilantro- Cooper Miller of The Feed Store Restaurant. Colorful and amazing in texture and taste. Putting all the bits together tasted like a bite of chips and salsa. Yum-my.
Soup on a hot day? Yes, please. I loved Shaun Doty of YEAH! Burger's smokes tomato soup with mussels even on such a warm afternoon. Tomatoes go very well with the salt of the sea. Jay Swift of 4th and Swift cooled my palate after a spicy dish. His tomato melon gazpacho was velvety, soft and delightfully topped with a slice of crisp radish. Cooler still was Ron Eyester's chilled bloody Mary soup with Celia's cherry tomatoes and crumbled farm egg which could be enjoyed inside JCT. I love the green tomato bloody Mary that is seasonal at his restaurant, Rosebud as much as I adored the tomato lemonade champagne he served in The Family Dog cups at the festival. He said it was inspired by Kat Kinsman's tomato lemonade mocktail recipe found here in Food and Wine.
Speaking of cocktails, the mixologists of The Attack of the Killer Tomato were extremely inventive. I liked all but one. Stand outs:
- Tomatina Punch- Kellie Thorn of Empire State South. Loved the tomato foam from Woodland Gardens tomatoes and the lavender bitters.
- Rio Rosa Swizzle- Paul Calvert & Raul Aparcana of Pura Vida
- The Pineapple Express- Brian Stanger of Top Flr
- Scoundrel's Waltz- Kevin Bragg of 4th and Swift
Here are the winners as judged by the people and the celebrity judges, including Kate Krader (a senior editor of Food and Wine Magazine), Andrew Knowlton (restaurant editor of Bon Appetit magazine, Carolyn O'Neil (registered dietitian and columnist for the AJC), and Cybil Wallace (features editor at CNN.com):
- Best Booth: Linton Hopkins of restaurant Eugene & Holeman and Finch Public House
- Best Presentation: Hector Santiago of Pura vida
- Best taste: Andy Carson of Bacchanalia
- Best Cocktail: Miles MacqQuarrie of Leon's Full Service
- Special mention: Donald Sargent of Morelli's Gourmet Ice Cream and Desserts
- Best Dish: Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol
- Best cocktail: Paul Calvert and Raul Aparcana of Pura Vida
I can't wait for next year!