Bern's pours on the fun at annual Winefest

Chef Habteab Hamde chose choice ingredients for pan-roasted squab and chili braised duck

By Mary D. Scourtes

Braised  rabbit with green-lipped mussels and aji-braised venison are inspired choices at one table. Braised lamb with piquillo peppers and crispy oxtail fufu grace another. Duck, buffalo, squab and wild boar, oh my, were also offered at the 14th annual Bern’s Winefest last weekend. This food and wine extravaganza provides a huge rush of palate pleasure.

The Grand Tasting Event, one of four days of wining and dining experiences, showcases some 200  wines from the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Australia and more. My favorite night out is dining at Bern’s Steak House. Owner David Laxer says his idea of a big night is being home with his wife and daughters while watching Disney.

“Go slow, don’t drink a lot of wine right away, and pace yourself,’’ suggests David about Winefest.

Ha. Moderation is for monks.

Bern’s best and beautiful dishes start with creations from Chef de Cuisine Habteab Hamde, who oversees 85 sous chefs. These sous chefs put in 12-plus hour- days during the Winefest flurry of culinary activity. The chef is tasked with making each Winefest better than the last.

“I can order any ingredient I want,’’ says the native of Eritrea, South Africa, who was once an accounting major at USF.
Chef Hab cooked plenty of inventive teasers to the palate. He believes cooking is chemistry because you can experiment with textures, tastes and flavors.

My favorites included the baked oysters’ Boudin noir with pommes puree; volevent with escargot and cepes; ratatouille terrine; and a foie gras chicken liver éclair that looked like the pastry with its bittersweet chocolate glaze.

“The oysters were my hands-down favorite,’’ agrees Tammy Wallace of Tampa.

Yellow tail hamachi crudo with a rippled mustard garnish hit a home run for St. Petersburg Times’ food critic Tom Scherberger. His wife Kristy Andersen liked the Saffron Octopus Carpaccio.

Fresh mozzarella rocks, crooned singer Lisa Casalino, who recommends the classic combination of fresh tomato slices and balsamic vinegar. Wild boar was the ideal entrée for Tampa’s Jim Henning, who has nine years of Winefest experiences.

The sound of the person munching next to me was drowned out by the wine guys giving me plenty of vineyard chatter.
When Brian Koziol poured me a leggy, 2005 Penfolds Grange from Australia, he showed his experience and deep domain knowledge. The Grange is ripe, intensely-flavored with a rich texture from its oak casks.

My taste buds probably can’t distinguish this $417 bottle from the $61, 2006 Penfolds Shiraz I tasted the minute before. It’s OK cause I’ll never have an occasion to buy either.

These beauties are made from sugar.

Pastry chef artist Kim Yelvington (read my interview on Food Network boosts, boasts Bern’s Steak House) turned the event into a Willie Wonka adventure with a more than a  dozen Valrhona chocolate candies fragrant with brandied cherries, caramelized chocolate cream  framboise and café au lait, to name a few. A parade of sophisticated, one-bite  macaroons boasted such adds as  basil, kiwi, green tea, merlot and pistachio-apricot. The chocolate versions included spice, pistachio, malted hot chocolate and red velvet. After I downed the gooey, delicious jivara banana-ginger treat, I was over my calorie threshold for the week.

Many guests didn’t know that Chef Kim’s beautiful wine bottles on the dessert bar were in fact,  spun from  sugar.

Jeff Pacha of Winter Park, who loved the 2008 Darioush Shiraz, had no idea what his favorite food was; however, he swears he ate his way through every dish.

Fresh made mozzarella

Of course, you can’t please everyone. A few complained about the crowds. Tickets, at $135 each, sold out  in just 10 days, the fastest ever. Yes, it can get a tad sticky in tents although you could move to cool corners.

Many ducked into the  educational seminars (Luc Morlet Wineries and Louis Jadot) to get a little education (or to get off their Jimmy Choos).  A few gals pushed the fashion envelope with bold tangerines and emeralds with stilettos and platforms.

This wasn’t all a bacchanalia: A silent auction supported both the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg and the Bern Laxer Culinary Scholarship fund.

Pssst, next year’s event starts on April 20. Looks like I’m free.


Breakfast and brunch are favorite ways to entertain. Knowing how many alcoholic drinks to have on hand can stump most. Figure two drinks per person during the first hour, then one drink per person per hour for the rest of the party. If you invite my 12 best friends for five hours, have 24 drinks ready for the first hour  plus 48 drinks for the rest, for  72 servings.


For the third consecutive year, Evos Restaurants will celebrate Earth Day by offering low-fat, organic milkshakes to its customers on Earth Day, April 22. They are free, folks. Find several Evos around: at Westshore Mall, near USF; on Howard in South Tampa; and in St. Petersburg.


Easter baking turns back the clock to my childhood. I turned two round cakes into a sweet little bunny. Get out the jelly beans and hip hop into the kitchen to make this cute dessert.

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