Navigating the NRA show was trickier this year—there seemed to be more bodies blocking the aisles and lining up at the booths for free samples. That was good news for the restaurant industry and those who supply it, but bad news for this intrepid taster. Nevertheless, I ruthlessly elbowed and shoulder-butted the crowd—a technique honed on New York City’s subways—to push my way in and try a gut-busting array of food and drink. What follows are some of the standouts and surprises (along with a vow to start a juice fast really soon)!
Great cup of coffee: First thing I do when I get to the Show floor is head to one of the coffee booths. Royal Cup is usually my go-to vendor, but this year I expanded my java experience with a cup of Joe from Farmer Brothers. A new “Artisan Collection by Farmer Brothers” featured small-batch, hand-roasted beans that were full of bold flavor and provided the wake-up jolt I needed.
Most irresistible dessert: Sticking to the old adage, “life is short, have dessert first,” I couldn’t resist the Vanilla Latte Cheesecake from Lawler’s—even though it was only 10:30 in the morning. It was creamy, not too sweet, and the layering of coffee and vanilla made for a winning combination.
New form for an old favorite: Original Philly Cheesesteak “Sliders” looked more like little egg rolls but had all the ingredients that make a cheesesteak a cheesesteak: thinly sliced griddled beef, creamy yellow-orange cheese and onions. They’re sized right for an appetizer menu, but why mess with a classic? I'd rather have the sandwich.
Tongue-tingling treat: Time to cleanse the palate with an icy gelato or sorbetto. The Pre-Gel booth offers the widest array of flavors, including a creamy pink grapefruit sorbetto that tasted like a cross between ice cream and sorbet. It was tangy, smooth and simply stellar.
Best iced tea: This cold drink is a hot category, and there were dozens of companies offering the latest and greatest. My favorite came from a surprising source: Coca-Cola. The soft drink giant recently purchased Honest Tea, and the brand’s Lemon Herb iced tea was deliciously refreshing with just a tad of sweetness. It’s made with tulsi leaves, a member of the basil family that Honest Tea imports from India.
Top pasta pick: In another category with dozens of vendors, the frozen pasta products from Pasta Mia hit all the right trend and taste buttons. The tortelloni was filled with braised Niman Ranch short rib, the ravioli with local asparagus and another filled pasta boasted Petaluma chicken—and all these topnotch ingredients were called out on the label. The tortelloni got my vote.
Most versatile baked good: Lantmannen Unibake offered a new line of well-crafted Savoury Pastries under the Schulstad brand. They can accompany soups and salads or serve as a satisfying snack on their own, crossing over several dayparts. My favorite was the Spinach Ricotta Braid; it was piping hot and homemade-tasting, going from freezer to oven to my mouth in 30 minutes.
Most clever line extension: Mfusions by Mighty Leaf Tea. Jumping on the customization trend, this innovative tea company blended whole leaf teas, fresh fruit, herbs and agave nectar to create a variety of refreshing iced teas. They taste terrific on their own but would also appeal to mixologists looking for a base for premium cocktails.
Yogurt-mania: Greek, tart, probiotic—the frozen yogurt category is exploding with choices and flavors. Some are too sweet, and some too chalky; I like the tart varieties best. Honey Hill’s Blueberry Tart frozen yogurt combined true fruit taste, smooth, creamy texture and a pleasingly tart flavor.
Tastiest healthy upgrade: A whole wheat croissant sounds like it couldn’t possibly be as buttery, flaky and fabulous as the classic, but French Gourmet created something that’s really close to the original with the added nutritional boost of whole grains.
Guiltiest indulgence: Lil’ Orbits Donuts come spewing out hot and fluffy from a contraption that never stops. Dusted with cinnamon-sugar and served warm, it’s impossible to eat just one. Lucky they’re tiny!
Skinniest indulgence: “Skinny” cocktails with lower calorie counts are all the rage at bars frequented by females, so why not slimmed-down wines? I “blind tasted” Skinny Vine wines in the Wine, Beer & Spirits Pavilion downstairs at McCormick Place. Sipping a conventional chardonnary (125 calories) vs. a Skinny Chardonnay (86 calories), it was hard to tell the difference.
Best multi-tasker: Heinz introduced its 3-in-1 Soup, Sauce and Dip platform under the Chef Francisco label. The base product can be reconstituted with water to make a soup; milk for a sauce; and sour cream for a dip. I sampled the Queso with Guajillo Chiles—a well-balanced blend of flavor and spice.
Not for kids only: An aisle of exhibitors touted products in conjunction with the NRA’s Kids Live Well initiative. Many were familiar foods under established brands, but a small company named Funley’s offered something different and delicious—snack packs of Superfood Crackers. Each variety was formulated to include a vitamin-rich veggie baked into the cracker. The Cornbread ‘n Stuff boasted sweet potatoes, but a kid would never know it! I’d enjoy munching on these along with a glass of wine or cocktail.
Not for kids at all: One cocktail getting a lot of attention in the Wine, Beer and Spirits Pavilion was the Old Smokey Buck, made with Old Smokey Moonshine, lemon juice and Bruce Cost ginger ale, garnished with blueberries. Goes down smooth and easy, and the moonshine lent interesting flavor notes that were not at all harsh or overpowering.
Sandwich spread star: Piquillo Pepper Artichoke Tapenade won high points for its bright color, zesty flavor and pleasing texture. At the Atalanta booth, I sampled it on bruschetta, but can just imagine spreading it on a turkey sandwich or panini for extra oomph.
New spirit on the block: You can’t enter a bar or restaurant in Peru or Chile without seeing Pisco Sours on the cocktail list. But Pisco—a spirit distilled from grapes—is not well known in the U.S. Pisco Porton is set to change that, and judging by the Spicy Strawberry Margarita I sipped, it’s not going to be difficult. Tasted just as good as tequila.
Best presentation: Cheese is my downfall, so it's impossible to pick a favorite. But one of the vendors at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board booth did an awesome job of presenting its Asiago and Parmesan for tasting. They scooped out a big wedge, cut up the contents into bite-sized nibbles and refilled the triangle-shaped container. The toothpicks were placed in their own "natural" holder at the top of the wedge.
Flavor of the day: Salted caramel. It showed up in pretzels, gelato, syrups, frozen yogurt and a host of other products. The sweet-salty pairing was first embraced by pastry chefs and upscale confectioners and is now on-trend with food and drink manufacturers.