Where to eat: Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Food and Wine Festival (perhaps coming to another SeaWorld park near you?)
Written by Russell Meyer
A little over a month ago, I was invited to a sneak preview of the Busch Gardens Williamsburg inaugural Food and Wine Festival. My initial impression was positive, despite the similarities to Epcot's exceedingly popular annual fall event. As I am composing this review, Busch Gardens' first attempt at a large scale food and wine event is over, but based on what I saw and tasted during the penultimate weekend of the festival, not only will guests see the event return next season, but the event may be exported to other SeaWorld parks around the country in the not-so-distant future.
During May's media preview, I was able to sample five dishes, and talk with Resident Chef Justin Watson about his vision for the festival and some of the logistical hurdles that he and his team would need to overcome to ensure a successful event. When I returned to the park on Father's Day, I was able to experience the full vision for the festival, and even had a chance to chat with Chef Justin as I spotted him in the park, checking on food quality and guest satisfaction.
My first impression about experiencing the festival following the media preview was that the event looked very much as I expected, and perhaps even more impressive for an inaugural event. The most impressive things I noticed were the actual booths. Not only are the booths far more spacious than the ones typically erected for industry rival Epcot's festival, but the design is very clever with kitchen tools and food doubling as decorative elements on the exteriors.
Busch Gardens also strategically located some of the booths in areas where they could take advantage of unused or underutilized interior space inside the park. For instance, the old Bistro 205 restaurant near Griffon was used for the France booth, while the relatively slow Pigs in a Kilt stand near the Clydesdale Stables was used for the Scotland booth. I visited the park with my wife, our three-year old, and my sister-in-law, her husband, and their two young children (5 and 1 1/2). The large group of us was able to sample two items from each booth, and while not everything we tasted was a huge hit, there weren't a lot of clunkers. In order to make paying easier for guests, Busch Gardens introduced a bar-coded wristband linked to a credit card or cash pre-payment. The wristband could also be linked to a guest's season pass, so any guest purchasing items at the booths could just walk up, show their wristband, and pick up their item without having to fumble around with cards, cash, or change. [Editor's note: OMG, it's SeaWorld's version of a MagicBand!] The system was a little more low-tech than Epcot's system, but was a nice luxury nonetheless. However, I did have a minor issue when one of the cashiers processed my order prior to my season pass discount, which resulted in a double charge. I was able to get the situation rectified, but it was a bit annoying that I had to continuously tell cashiers that they had to scan the barcode for the season pass discount and then a second time to pay for the order.
We made one full circuit around the park, and sampled a few items from just about every booth. We started at the Spain booth, where I had already tried the Tapas Platter during the media preview, so we got 2 orders of empanadas.
The dish was good, with a nice cilantro cream sauce accompanying the two fried pies. The filling had a bit of heat, but was not anything exceptional.
At the German beer booth, I sampled the German beer flight. The flight included four-ounce pours of Spaten Oktoberfest, Franziskaner Hefeweisse, Bitburger, and Kostritzer. Similar to Epcot, the beer flights are served in a four-cup holding tray, but with a clever improvement: Stickers were affixed to the trays identifying each slot with a number, and guests are handed a small slip of paper that provided a description of each beer matching the number on the tray. Last fall in Epcot, I recalled getting a Sam Adams beer flight from the Hops and Barley Market, and the cast member was hand writing letters on the trays to help guests figure out which beer was which. One simple sticker and a small slip of paper, and Busch Gardens had solved a pretty significant problem.
We also sampled the Currywurst and Rahmgulasch from the nearby Germany booth.
The Currywurst was very flavorful, and a neat spin on a relatively humble dish. The Ramgulasch was a very elevated version of a peasant dish, and oozed with deliciousness. As we noticed throughout the day, the braised, stew-like dishes were by far the best of the bunch.
Next up was the Austria booth, where we tried the Tafelspitz mit Apfelkrin and couldn't help but pick up another taste of the Paprikash, which I had sampled during the media preview.
The Paprikash was executed just as wonderfully as it was when I tasted it at the preview, with tender chunks of chicken soaking in a delectable complex sauce. Meanwhile, the Tefelspitz was probably my least favorite of the dishes we tried. The beef was lacking flavor, while the apple horseradish cream sauce was just a bit strange.
The next booth we reached was the Canada booth, where we sampled the Cheddar and Lager Chowder and Venison Sausage and Corn Porridge.
The chowder was a bit thick for me to consider it chowder, but the flavors were all great. The smoked paprika oil really rang through adding a nice bit of spice to the soup. The sausage was awesome with a nice gaminess to the meat, and the porridge was a perfect compliment.
Next up were the Belgium and France booths. We chose to just get the beer flight from the Belgium booth, passing on the food pairing featuring chocolate, hazelnuts, and cheese. At the France booth, we sampled the Coq au Vin.
As with the other braised, stew-like dishes, the Coq au Vin was loaded with flavor. The red wine flavor was definitely present, and balanced well with succulent chicken. This was quite possibly the best dish of the day.
Before leaving Aquitane, we made a stop at the Crepes and Coffee stand to try a banana Nutella crepe along with a strawberry crepe.
Both crepes were excellent, but the banana Nutella combination was pretty amazing.
We then grabbed an order of Bangers with Colcannon from the Ireland booth.
On first sight, the dish looked like a simple sausage on top of mashed potatoes and gravy. However, the tart cabbage and Guinness-laced gravy took this simple-looking plate to another level.
Further along at the Scotland booth, we picked up an order of Shepherd's Pie and some Scottish Toffee.
The Shepherd's Pie was on par with other restaurant quality dishes I've had before, and had plenty of lamb chunks beneath the fluffy mashed potato top. The toffee came following a recommendation from one of the sous chefs, and did not disappoint. The sweet caramel combined with chunks of chocolate and almonds disappeared from the plate in an instant.
Our final dishes of the day came from the Greece booth with a serving of Baklava and Halloumi.
The Baklava was literally swimming in honey, but surprisingly not overly sweet. The Halloumi was one of the surprises of the day. A dish that is as simple as some grilled cheese drizzled with honey and pistachios could not have been more interesting. The saltiness of the cheese contrasting the sweetness of the honey was a perfect pairing, providing a nice end to our culinary adventure.
In talking with Chef Justin during our visit, I asked him how the festival was going along with the prospects of it returning in the future. Not only did he seem confident that the event would return to Busch Gardens Williamsburg in future years, but the chain was exploring the possibilities of trying a similar event at other SeaWorld parks. I think trying the event at SeaWorld Orlando right up against Epcot's Food and Wine Festival in the fall would be a big mistake, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them try the event at one of the Florida parks (SeaWorld or Busch Gardens Tampa) in the spring/early summer. I could also see a similar event finding an audience at SeaWorld San Diego. Chef Justin noted that it was a difficult event to pull off, and there was a big learning curve attempting such an expansive festival in its first year, but he was very confident that the feedback they were getting from guests and management was very positive.
Based on what I experienced, I would definitely plan a return visit to the festival next season. The staff still has a few issues to work out (most notable that there were few pictures or sample plates of the dishes for guests to see before ordering), but I would commend Busch Gardens for executing an excellent event in its first attempt. Guests can expect that future events will only get better, and I would hope that this event will eventually rival what Epcot has put on every fall for the past 17 years.
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