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Choice Eats: The Village Voice’s Fourth Annual Tasting Event

Originally Posted: April 01, 2011

Edward Callaghan

Joann Spiegel and Todd Richman, Michael Collins Irish Whiskey. (John Wegorzewski)

New York City - Set amid the backdrop of the historic 69th Armory on Lexington Avenue, Choice Eats: the Village Voice's Fourth Annual Tasting event allowed some 1,700 guests to sample the cuisines of six continents - and if Antarctica had a culinary heritage - they would have included that too. Featuring food from over 35 nations, including Vietnamese, Italian, Uzbekistani, Brazilian, Cambodian, Russian, Tunisian, and Cajun/Creole among many others, Choice Eats stands out as a food event that highlights the hidden gems of New York City's diverse culinary landscape.

Initiated by respected Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema, author of "Food Lovers Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York," the food fest featured the top dishes from over 68 restaurants from all around the city - and the 'burbs. You would have to spend weeks on buses and subways to sample all of these eateries and here they were all under one roof - but Sietsema, who has a passion for uncovering the best ethnic eats in every nook and cranny, has done it all for you. All of the participating restaurants were personally selected and invited by the critic himself from the literally hundreds he has written about. Can't get much better validation than that!

5 and Diamond's Selene Martinez, David Martinez, Lia Sanfilippo. (John Wegorzewski)

Well not exactly all under one roof. This year in a nod to the increase of specialty food trucks cruising the city's most populous areas, Sietsema and his team created a new category - Choice Streets - and had a mini-fleet of trucks lined up on Lexington Avenue in front of the massive Armory. It was great for the folks on line - many of whom had been there for hours - as they were able to sample tasty treats - falafel and smoothies from The Taim Mobile; Belgian waffles topped with anything from Mascarpone and berries to Maple sausage and gray; Korean rib-eye from Korilla BBQ; specialty drinks and frozen yogurt from Joy Ride surprises and braised pork from Kimchee Taco probably the only food truck owned by a Masters of Hospitality management grad from Cornell - entrepreneur Phillip Lee. No greasy hot dogs in dirty water here! The success of these mobile restaurants is not surprising given how busy New Yorkers are, as well as the economy. Not everyone can dine leisurely at "21" - or afford it!

Inside the cavernous Main Hall, hungry foodies armed with their floor plan maps, dashed to their favorite spots first before starting to experiment with new dishes. One of the most heavily trafficked booths was that of Lia Sanfilippo and Selene Martinez's 5 and Diamond Restaurant, the jewel in the crown of Harlem's burgeoning restaurant scene located on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. 5 and Diamond (called that as the site was an old 5 & 10) chef David Martinez was dishing up exquisite Mussels Escobeche that had all the foodies and one well known food critic clamoring for seconds.

The Valencia, Spain born David, a French Culinary Institute grad who honed his culinary skills in the kitchens of Bouley and Aureole and in the private homes of several famed Hamptonites (his confidentiality agreements prevent disclosing - but he told us and we were impressed). Harlem is now our destination since we learned that a short ride from midtown on the M4 bus will get us there in a jiff! His contemporary American fare based on seasons and locally sourced products has a lovely Mediterranean flair. He is certainly a rising star on the dining scene. The fact that by 8 p.m. they had exhausted their supply of thousands of mussels is testament to his expertise.

Right next door to 5 and Diamond as Spain is to Portugal, Louis Novre and his family who have operated Sol-Mar in Newark for some 40 years were serving up Portuguese Chorizo the famous spicy Iberian sausage which they marinated in Grappa - what a kick.

On to Australia to chat with The Sun Burnt Calf owner Tim Harris who in his best Crocodile Dundee accent told us the origins of the Upper West Side restaurant's name - too sad to go into here. As we dried our eyes, we tucked into his chef's succulent spiced lamb sliders. The "Bet you can't eat just one" kind. We'll never go back to ground beef again.

Well maybe not ever, as we headed over to the king of meatballs, Brooklyn's justly praised Motorino. There manager Carlo Jerardi the staff were plopping classic red sauced fist- sized meatballs on the plates of the faithful lined up some 30 deep.

Aussie Tim Harris and his lamb sliders. (John Wegorzewski)

Staying on the Italian line, the next visit was to see the folks from Greenwich Village Italian wine bar Gottino where Chef Angel Guaman with the help of two jauntily bow-tied staffers Jeremy Mustakas and Martin Markaj was serving walnut pesto and big chunks of aged parmigiano Reggiano.

Down the row, we spied Resto owner Christian Pappanicholas and his talented chef/partner Bobby Hellen. The pair who know how to cook every part of a pig from tail to snout have been packing them in at their Murray Hill shrine to all things porcine. They were serving up chopped pig and folks were drooling and dribbling the tasty juices and washing it all down with the pints of free Stella Artois Beer. Just as famous as his French-ified pork dishes, Hellen is famed for his Belgian Hangover Pasta - pasta with ham chunks, Gruyere cheese and coarse black pepper. Their Sunday Night Suppers are legendary and each week they take on another slice of Europe. We hear they may soon be opening a retail outlet where you can get the marvelous meats and charcuterie they serve up nightly.

Just a short stroll away - not a plane ride - you're in Norway, Land of the Lingonberry for a stop at Smorgas Chef where the pleasant staff served up heaping plates of Swedish Meatballs, mashed potatoes with a dollop of Lingonberry, dilled cucumber salad and housed cured gravlax roll-ups. The perfect accompaniment was UV Vodka, the award winning new organic spirit from Phillips Distilling which made one feel as if they had really traveled to the land of frosty slopes and sexy blonds.

The brainchild of Norwegian chef and entrepreneur Morten Sohlberg, Smorgas Chef has two outposts in the Wall Street area and one in Greenwich Village, but it is its outpost at the famed Scandinavia House that seals its authenticity for serious foodies.

But it wasn't all about food. Spirits played an important role in the evening which was a no children/ 21 or over event. Most fun sighting - and tasting - of the evening was Howard Jackowitz with his "Wines That Rock." Yes, like Woodstock Chardonnay 2008 or The Rolling Stones Forty Licks Merlot 2007. How about a glass of Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon Cabernet Sauvignon 2006?

These and other wines come from the creative genius of winemaker Mark Beaman who blasts the music all day. Seriously, the Mendocino wines drew great praise from lofty Wine Enthusiast. Maybe it was the labels which replicate classic rock album covers that won them over. Nonetheless the wines are superior - indeed rockin'.

The hungry crowd at the Armory. (John Wegorzewski)

The smoothest nightcap of all was at the Sidney Frank Importing Company - a leader in ultra-premium spirits. The company's Corporate Mixologist (now that's a real job) Todd Richman aided by restaurateur Joann Spiegel were pouring the loveliest spirit of all, Michael Collins Irish Whiskey which only last week received top honors and accolades at the 2011 San Francisco Spirits Competition for its 10 year old Single Malt. Not only did the newly introduced Single Malt win a Double Gold medal, but swept the category and earned the title of "Best Irish Whiskey."

You couldn't leave without even more temptation in the Lobby as exiting guests were treated to a dessert-aholics dream with a dizzying array of treats to satisfy every sweet tooth in the city. Laying on their fiercest cupcakes, cookie, brownies, cakes and pies were Alice's Tea Cup, Babycakes, Baked, Bee Desserts & Café, The Blue Stove, Dallas Bros. Coffee, Del Posto, Fatty Crab, Liddabit Sweets, Robicelli's Whimsy & Spice and Madame Rose.

With 69 restaurants, 15 bakers, five food trucks, 15 breweries, 10 wine and spirits vendors and all for a pittance! With ticket prices as low as $35, Choice Eats is the bargain of the year and best of all it benefits one of our favorite causes. This year's charitable partner of Choice Eats was Slow Food NYC, the local chapter of a national association that is part of an international movement. Slow Food USA, with over 200 chapters in the USA, is dedicated to achieving a good, clean, and fair food system, where good means food that is real and culturally rooted, clean means food that is produced sustainably and humanely, and fair means that those who produce our food are treated fairly and that everyone has access to good, clean food.

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