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Russell Meyer

Third Annual Food & Wine Festival Debuts at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Published: May 28, 2015 at 7:43 PM

They say wine gets better with age, and now in its third year, the Busch Gardens Williamsburg Food & Wine Festival has matured into a must-experience event at the Virginia park. Executive Chef Justin Watson has once again upped the ante with tweaked menus, improved favorites, and two new kiosks. As in previous years, the Food & Wine Festival runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from now through the end of June, and features kiosks scattered throughout the park themed to a specific country or cuisine. Each of the kiosks feature three to five dishes between $3 to $7 dollars and a number of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages representative of the kiosk's theme. There are also a number of "Art of Food" exhibition areas where talented artists display their talents by making impressive displays with food items as their palette.

As a Theme Park Insider contributor and Busch Gardens Williamsburg Ambassador Blogger, I was invited to the media event launching the 2015 version of the event. As a member of the Busch Gardens Ambassador Blogger team, I receive special access and perks at the park, such as this event, but my opinions presented on Theme Park Insider are my own. This year's media event started with a Scotch Tasting, which is new to this year's festival. The flight of Scotch featured Glenmorangie Lasanta, Highland Park, and McCallan (all 12-year olds) with some tasting notes provided by a cast member. The tasting is a bit pricy at $24.99 (includes a glass), but features some quality products.

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Next, we were escorted by Chef Justin to one of the park's newest kiosks, Asia, which is located between Festa Italia and Italy.

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The Asia kiosk features a number of dishes that were tested during last fall's season passholder appreciation day. The first dish we got to try was a lettuce wrap filled with tofu and vegetables drizzled with a sweet chili sauce. This dish is one of the few at the festival that is completely vegan, and the cubed tofu had a pleasant, soft texture that contrasted well with the crispy vegetables and crunchy almonds.

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The next new dish was a bahn mi made with marinated shredded pork on a house-made baguette with a side of slaw. The pork in this dish was right on the edge of tasting like a traditional pork BBQ sandwich, but had enough Asian notes to differentiate it, particularly from the slaw, prepared with distinctive fish sauce. Personally, I prefer bahn mi with steamed buns, but this more Americanized version should be more approachable for the average park guest.

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Next up was easily one of my favorite Asian dishes. Those who frequent dim sum restaurants will love the mushi-gyoza, which are steamed dumplings made with chicken and served with a delectable citrus ponzu sauce. When this dish was tested last fall, it was served with a traditional ponzu sauce, which is typically very thin. However, Chef Justin added cornstarch to this revised dish which created a thicker sauce that now sticks to the dumplings, intensifying the taste.

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Our final dish of the day was a ginger-lemongrass custard that was a perfect way to end the progression. The custard was light and fluffy with a distinctive, but not overpowering ginger flavor. The flavor profile reminded me a lot of many traditional rice puddings I have had, but the texture obviously was different. Chef Justin noted that he's been wanting to do a crème brulee, but their kitchens lack the equipment to effectively pull off the dish, so for the time being this custard is as close he can get.

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We also had a chance to taste the Thai tea, which featured coconut cream. Chef Justin mentioned that they had considered attempting to make this offering a "bubble tea," but would have required the park to purchase wider straws, which for a single beverage would have been cost prohibitive.

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Following our experience at the Asia kiosk, we had a chance to walk around the park and see the rest of the festival. I took the opportunity to sample some of the other new offerings this year from the park's other new kiosk for 2015, the French Quarter. Replacing the Belgium kiosk in near the Royal Palace Theater, the French Quarter features New Orleans-style dishes. I tried the chicken andouille gumbo, which is served on a bed of rice. The gumbo itself is not as spicy as I would have expected, but the sausage does have some zip.

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The other dish I tried at the French Quarter kiosk was a muffaletta. This version of the famous sandwich is served like a panini, and was simply amazing. I'm typically not a huge fan of olives, particularly black olives, but the olive spread accentuated the mortadella, salami, and thick-sliced ham. The melted provolone brought everything together for a near perfect dish. Served with a side of Cajun coleslaw that had quite a kick, this dish is a real winner.

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I also tried a new dish to the Scottish kiosk, Rumbledethumps, which is a traditional casserole of potatoes, turnips, and cabbage topped with cheddar cheese. At first glance, this looks like scalloped potatoes, but is far more complex. The chunky turnips and creamy cheese work to make this dish unique.

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Chef Justin Watson is to be applauded for initiating and continuing to expand this amazing event. The Busch Gardens Williamsburg Food & Wine Festival offers guests a wide range of new dishes and beverages to sample throughout the park. For a park that already has an excellent and diverse lineup of food offerings, the event gives guests a chance to expand their palates, and explore tastes they might not otherwise try. In its third year, the Food & Wine Festival continues to expand and improve, and only the sky is the limit of what this impressive event can become as Chef Justin perfects this now proven model.

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