Wednesday, June 27, 2018

BUSCH GARDENS: Taking a Bite out of the Food & Wine Festival

So, despite living in Newport News and despite being a freelancer who works from home, I've never yet had the chance to try out the Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival. I like food. I like wine. I like Busch Gardens. So it seems like a no-brainer. But when your plan is to go on weekdays to avoid crowds and the event only goes on weekends... you have a problem.

With Ginger in town, we decided to make two days of it: the Festival on Sunday, followed by hitting all the coasters on Monday. And considering a Fun Pass has the whole "pay for a day, go all summer" thing going for it, that meant Ginger got a twofer and I can go back for some casual shopping and show-seeing.

I can't speak for other years, but I assume that as this is a relatively new event, there's some evolution each year. So bear in mind as I go through things that I'm speaking as a noob, and I may well have missed "the time they tried that," if you get what I'm saying.

Nonetheless, onward... with thoughts tasty and otherwise.

The Layout

The first I heard of the Festival was a few years ago, and what was described to me was a single-location event. What we got this year was several booths spread out all through the park, each themed to a region and with 3-5 representative foods and drinks each.

There were a few booths in each "country," meaning that you didn't have to walk huge distances to get to the next thing if that was your primary reason for being there. The park itself is a fair hike to get from one thing to another, even if you know the layout, so having nearby "stepping stones" is nice.

Too, the styles of food were mixed up enough (to a degree, but I'll explain more in a bit) that if one booth didn't appeal to you, there was almost certainly something very different at the next one ahead.

The Variety

Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a primarily European-themed park (with the exception of "New France," which is essentially Canada), but the organizers opted to not let that limit what came in for the Festival. And that was, frankly, an excellent choice.

For the most part, what was on offer was stuff you couldn't get normally at the park. There were absolutely French and French Quarter booths in the France area of the park, but they were offering wine and crepes and beignets.

The majority of the Festival, though, was devoted to things outside of what you'd see in Busch Gardens on the regular anyway: Korean, Brazilian, Japanese, Greek, and the like. There was even (but of course there was) a "Best of Virginia" booth right up front.

I appreciated the fact that it was more of a "world tour" than sticking to either solely Virginia food or park themes. There were a few more regions I would love to have tried (Nigerian food, for example), but the existing variety was good.

The Portions

I'm of a pair of minds on the portions.

On the one hand, let's consider that we'll be walking through the park, stopping occasionally, buying a plate of something, and eating. I don't want a literal meal in front of me. So something that's enough to take the edge off and give me a sense of how the food tastes is perfect.

On the other, it was awkward when Ginger and I paid the same amount of money at the same booth for different things, and one of us sat down with half a lunch while the other sat down with two bites. For the most part I saw balanced pricing and portions, but there were a couple of times when it was just... notably iffy.

Personally I'd rather err on the side of small, for the reasons mentioned above. I don't want to throw food away, and we're here to sample and learn, not to fill up and go. I also understand that preparation and ingredients may skew some pricing.

But... when you're in a group and you both pay the same and you sit down to two vastly different gets, there's a level of awkward that takes away from the moment. Even if there was a little more of a note on the signs of what you're getting, that would at least let you know what to expect.

Speaking of signage...

The Signage

For the most part, this was really good. The font was easy to read, it matched each booth, and I liked the trivia from region to region. I may not have Ginger's designer eye, but what I saw got me around and looked nice.

There were a few iffy moments of the food on display obviously not being the food on sale in the park. This isn't a crime or a sin, as everything is detailed on the menu. And I'm in no way expecting the park to rig up this entire event and get food photographers in to make photogenic versions of these hundred-something separate offerings. And it's such a small thing that I feel weird for even bringing it up. But the fact that I'm bringing up small, weird things means there are no big problems to bring up. If that makes sense.

Really, all I'd want to see is either the designers using food that more readily approximates what's on offer (just for consistency's sake) or going the route of ingredient flat lays or some such other thing. Again, it's random and small, but a bored foodie in line waiting on their bacon and cheddar hush puppies and seeing a big photo of coconut shrimp hush puppies will have their eyes drawn when they could be elsewhere.

The Food Itself

"Kara shut up and talk about the actual food at the food festival" yes hush I'm getting there.

Short answer: the food was rad.

Obviously I didn't go to every booth. I don't have the time, money, or stomach to try utterly everything. But we went to several, and we largely liked what we had.

A quick run-down:


Bacon and Cheddar Hush Puppies: More bacon than cheddar, served with honey butter. I'm not a big hush puppy fan (probably because living in Hampton Roads I've been overexposed to them) but these were fantastic.

Strawberry Lemonade: Good, but very much on the sour side. The strawberries used as garnish were really sweet, but if you're going for the lemonade itself, be ready for it to be strong.

Crepes and Coffee

Strawberry Cheesecake Crepe: Very nice. I don't have much experience with crepes, though, so I may have been easily impressed. Served very warm and melty, but folded nicely so that I did not lose any of the good cheesecake filling.

Bieler Pere et Fils Rosé: I'm not a huge wine drinker (as in I like it but I can't keep track of them all), but I do like a good rosé when I can find it. This was light and clean and went really well with the crepes.

Chocolate Crepe with Nutella and Strawberries: Had by Ginger. Apparently having Nutella on anything makes her "basic" but she really enjoyed hers. Had with a glass of Brut, which she also liked.


Soba Noodle Bowl: Actual literal buckwheat soba noodles, not spaghetti that has been prepared like soba. It was a little heavy on the dashi (which was good, but heavier on the soba might have been better), but the edamame was a nice touch.

Bubble Tea: This was... interesting. It used popping boba rather than tapioca boba like I'm used to. But the drink itself tasted a little odd. I think it was kombucha with milk, but there was something slightly "off" about it. Still not sure what.

Mushi Gyoza: Had by Ginger. Apparently they were "okay," but this was one of those surprisingly small portions. She got two. She said "even just three would have made more sense."


Lamb Burger Slider: This was kind of a cheat, since this is as close to "home cooking" as the festival as going to get for me and I was probably going to like it no matter what. The feta spread was spicier than I expected, but other than that it was good. I liked the little olive and orzo side.

Spanakopita: Had by Ginger. Like the mushi gyoza, another case of being okay but surprisingly scant.

Overall? I'd love to do more weekends, try more things, and maybe even try a couple booths that "don't have anything that appeals to me." I doubt I'll have time to fit in another trip before it ends this weekend, but next year I may break it up into a few go's.

We had fun, we got to try new things, and the staff were extremely nice -- especially considering the park shut down briefly while some rain passed through. The only less-than-good things were small, many of them negligible or just things I personally noticed. Certainly not enough that I wouldn't send anyone looking for a variety of dishes to try there in a heartbeat.

If you have time this coming weekend, before the festival closes out for another year, I highly encourage you to go. And I especially encourage you to check out their non-European booths, so you can get an idea of the park's full range when they really get going.

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