By Jim Gladstone
On a glorious April Fool’s weekend, I made my way down the Northern California coast from San Francisco to accept an invitation that would have been truly foolish to turn down: Passport was asked to check out the spectacular Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, sponsored by Lexus. The ninth annual edition of the gastronomic extravaganza featured more than 100 celebrity chefs at demos, dinners, and hands-on workshops and more than 250 wineries—including a dozen-plus different French Champagne makers—pouring at the weekends culminating event, the Lexus Grand Tasting.
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Pebble Beach is, of course, home to several high-end resorts as well as one of the world’s most scenic golf courses, with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean from the tees. It’s located at the southern end of the breathtaking 17 mile drive from Monterey toward Carmel. Winding along the route, with its stands of redwoods and cypress and its stately mansions’ landscaping fresh abloom with spring’s first flowers whet the appetite for the richness to follow.
On Friday afternoon, I joined a convivial crowd of about 200 for the Chef’s Table Lunch with Lexus Culinary Masters Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, co-owners of buzzy, award-winning Los Angeles restaurants including Animal, Son of a Gun, and Trois Mec (Chef Ludo Lefebvre is the troisieme to their duo). The culinary masters team—which also includes the likes of Michael Chiarello and Dean Fearing—is one of several Lexus-branded offerings that the automaker has developed to extend its reputation for providing extraordinary experiences, whether while driving, dining, or traveling.
At Pebble Beach, Shook and Dotolo offered an ample introduction to the refined take on homestyle Italian-American cuisine dished up at their newest outpost, the rather mundanely monikered Jon & Vinny’s Italian, located in the heart of LA’s Fairfax Avenue.
Any lack of pizzazz in that name is more than compensated for in the pair’s
remarkably elevated renditions of old fashioned red sauce favorites: Rustic earthenware bowls of pudding-smooth polenta topped with a six hour Bolognese sauce—vivid red over yellow, inviting the swirling of spoons; light, spicy eggplant Parmesan that belied the dish’s gloppy reputation; schnitzel-thin chicken cutlets with a crust that crackled like chips; and deceptively homey looking cannoli, cheesecake, and peanut butter cookies—each the nee-plus-ultra of their kind.
Saturday’s Grand Tasting took place within a sprawling, climate-controlled Cirque du Soleil-style tent covering the ground of more than two football fields.
(The event was offered a second time on Sunday to keep crowds manageable and goodies easily accessible to everyone in attendance). Anchored by Lexus’ colorfully tiled pavilion, evocative of Old Havana with its free-flowing Cuba Libres, strolling musicians and custom-blended edible chocolate ‘cigars’, the Tasting would prove a challenge for even the most aggressive of gourmands:
Care for a crab cake personally served to you by esteemed Seattle chef Tom Douglas? A mole-sauced barbecue shrimp proffered by Aaron Sanchez, of the Food Network’s Chopped? A healthy pour of California red? Pink Prosecco? Walla Walla white? Another foie gras lollipop, sir? Perhaps a short-rib slider? A salted caramel donut hot from the fryer? Fresh-made burrata aswim in strawberry gazpacho?
It was as if the one percent—well, the Cooper-Vanderbilt element, not the Trumpian sort—were sampling their way through the world’s ritziest Whole Foods Market. I burped diamond dust for days.
The Pebble Beach events are all open to the public, and though tickets are pricey, the Grand Tasting makes a worthy splurge, especially for oenophiles—its a rare opportunity to sample so many high quality vintages in a single place.
The next Pebble Beach Food & Wine event takes place April 20-23, 2017. If you’re hungry for a similar experience in the meanwhile, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, also sponsored by Lexus, takes place June 17-19.