Judges’ Table: unleashing one’s inner food critic, part 2

This past Tuesday saw the second round of the WNC Magazine Chefs Challenge competitions, informally dubbed the “Presidential Battle.” Both restaurants going head to head in this particular challenge — the Corner Kitchen and the Sunset Terrace (Grove Park Inn) — had hosted Barack Obama on his recent trip to Asheville. To be sure, expectations were high. What’s more, the secret ingredient sounded killer; if nothing else, honey promised to be much less jangling to the nerves than the first secret ingredient — coffee.

Caffeine or no, the buzz remains quite high for these battles — the dining room of the Flying Frog Cafe was packed to the brim, with approximately 130 diners eager to test the cooking chops of these heavy hitters.

Even though the first heat of the series ran fairly smoothly, the second showed some improvement. For one, there was much less of a wait between courses. The secret? The chefs from each team, in an incredible show of camaraderie, helped their opponents plate each course. To me, that sounds like an invitation for sabotage, but with an approximate total of 780 total plates needing to go out to an increasingly tipsy and rowdy crowd, collaboration might just have been the only option.

So, what would these chefs who had cooked for the POTUS and FLOTUS serve us plebeians? Here’s the menu, with comments from folks around the media table who — likely to their everlasting relief — shall remain nameless.

Keep in mind that no one knows who cooked what until the winner is announced.

Course 1: Southern-fried seafood salad with oysters, calamari and shrimp.
This was served with a duo of sauces: honey-mustard sauce and what tasted like a pomegranate sauce. The diner to my left thought there was no honey flavor to this dish whatsoever, while I thought it was perfectly balanced and subtle — starting an interesting dialouge about differing palates. This was one of the better dishes of the night —  the next two would, to everyone’s astonishment, veer precipitously downhill.

Favorite overheard comment:
“I just made the mistake of cutting through an oyster. You don’t want to see what’s inside one of those.”

Course 2: Mushroom-dusted scallop with honey roasted beets, tourne potato, and orange supremes.
I’ll simply let the peanut gallery field this one:

“I just had an orange slice with a beet. I recommend not doing that.”
“Yeah, there’s a reason why they’re not touching on the plate.”
“Orange is just so unnecessary on this plate in the first place … and do you taste any honey?”
“No, but all I’m wondering is what they did to this poor, rubbery scallop.”
“Does tourne mean ‘uncooked potato’?”

Course 3: Pistachio-crusted turbot with honey/carrot sauce and ginger dahl.
To be fair, those of us that walked around to get others opinions on this dish received wildly different answers. Before I get into the comments, it’s important to point out that many people in the dining room apparently had a much better experience than those of us at the media table. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the peanut gallery:

“My god, what did they do to this fish? It’s mealy.”
“Mine fell apart when they set the plate down.”
“You know what they should have served on top of this dish? Some unopened dental floss.”
“Maybe they water-boarded it. Maybe Dick Cheney’s back there. It seems stressed and ready to confess to anything.”

Course 4: Smoked honey-brined duck with parsnip and truffled cheese mash, green beans and duck cracklins:
Though unannounced, there appeared to be some sort of shiitake mushroom and honey sauce on this fabulous plate of food. Everyone was so pleased after tasting this dish that the mood was positively giddy, especially after the last two. The duck was perfectly tender, the flavors nicely balanced — and who can argue with duck cracklins? This was, hands down, my favorite dish of the evening.

Peanut gallery:
“The honey was all up in that plate. I’d lick the plate if it was acceptable … is anyone looking?”
“Go ahead. And by the way? The duck is brined and smoked. Brined and smoked for the win.”
“This is slap-your-mom good.”
“Agreed. Mom slaps for everyone.”

Course 5: Pork belly and pork tenderloin skewers with a honey barbeque sauce and sweet potato salad.
Some said that this was their favorite dish of the night. My date, in fact, enthusiastically scored this plate a 28 out of 30 possible points. The diner to my left, who I nicknamed the bipolar judge after noticing that his scores ran the gamut from two to the high 20s, gave this one a 26.

There were, of course, a couple of snarky comments:

“How’s that wine? Is it helping you wash down ‘My Very First Barbecue Sauce?’”
“What is that, beurre blanc? What’s its purpose? Because everything needs butter? Yeah, that’s probably exactly it.”

Course 6: White chocolate gelato with honey crisp and raspberry coulis — or something.

Peanut gallery:
“I don’t know what happened here. Is this supposed to be gelato? I think I got a bowl of whipped cream.”
“Me too. And it’s delicious.”
“But — isn’t it supposed to be gelato?”
“Who cares. It’s delicious. Eat it.”
“Meh. That’s my professional opinion.”

So, who won?

By a very slim margin of only 387 points, the Grove Park Inn. That’s less than three points per diner. In a competition where each of the dishes can win a total of thirty points, that’s merely a hair’s breadth.

Here’s the breakdown of the dishes:
Course 1: Corner Kitchen
Course 2: Corner Kitchen
Course 3: Sunset Terrace
Course 4: Sunset Terrace
Course 5: Corner Kitchen
Course 6: Grove Park Inn

Kudos to the Corner Kitchen. If I were the sole judge, they would have taken this competition. But, as we learned this week, every palate is different. Once again, let me stress that part of the fun of the WNC Chefs Challenges is unleashing your inner food critic. Diners are given score sheets, and invited to rip the dishes apart or sing their praises as they sample and discuss the food with their table. It’s all great fun, and the chefs are exceptionally gracious, whether they win or lose.

The Chefs Challenges are held in heats every Tuesday through the summer downstairs at the Flying Frog Cafe on the corner of Haywood and Battery Park in downtown Asheville. Cost is only $39 per person, not including tax, beverages and gratuity. Reservations are required, and are going quickly. For more information, fill out WNC Magazine’s online form, or call the Flying Frog directly at 254-9411.

Next week: Pomodoro’s vs. the Admiral


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One thought on “Judges’ Table: unleashing one’s inner food critic, part 2

  1. chefmikenc

    My name is Michael,
    I am writing to share my impressions of the July 13th battle, A Movable Feast vs.Nico’s Cafe.
    Before I go further let me mention that besides the fact that I am a lover of all things food, I also am a semi retired Award Winning Chef and a want to be food writer. I mention the before stated to add credence to my observations and to hopefully evoke thought and conversation into the scoring process.
    My wife and I happened across the event quite by chance, we were in town seeking luncheon after a humbling (maybe that would be redundant?) round of golf. When told of a chef’s battle to commence that very evening, our only logical choice was to happily make a reservation.
    We sped down the interstate to our home in Hendersonville, showered (a wise choice after a round of golf) and dressed for the evening before retracing our flight from Asheville. Arriving at the restaurant, ever so slightly post prompt we were seated and as if magically choreographed almost immediately food, glorious food was presented to us.
    Please forgive me while I digress momentarily.
    When the two competing teams were announced there was an almost polite splattering of applause for the Moveable feast team, at which time embarrassed for them I clapped a little louder. The moment of silence was followed by a thunderous ovation for the Nikos’ bunch. I chalked this seemingly biased greeting up to an enthusiastic crowd and an obvious home town favorite. I respect loyalty, yet felt sure that as the evening unfolded this audience would set aside allegiance and let the best food rule the day.
    Back to the important stuff.
    A fresh and inviting salad was placed before us, the secret ingredient “onion” was well represented, and I ate all of mine and helped my wife clear her plate. I was admonished by my waitress for my display of appetite and warned to save room as there was much more food to come. I was enjoying the moment and almost hated to stop and address my scorecard. I put on my critic hat and momentary became serious. The salad had been good, not life changing…I applied the formula set forth in the instructions and awarded 19 points.
    A second dish arrived; my senses were immediately awakened to a “rock my world” aroma of Sweet Scallop and an artistically pleasing presentation, would the taste be there to back it up as well?
    This dish of Scallop, sauce and onion was much greater than the sum of its ingredients, wow is all that I can utter! Shame on me if I don’t mention the Risotto, once again wows! This was a competition quality offering.
    Points awarded 29.

    Next came a Duck breast dish, and it was tasty, yet as an accomplished Chef I could see the flaws.
    I don’t want to be critical, I just feel compelled to report my thoughts at the time…The duck breast was cooked a perfect medium rare which made me feel hopeful, I noted that the plate was an oblong yet the presentation was circular? The slices of meat were thick, were they thin and fanned the length of the plate this would have pleased my sense of décor. The glaze and sauce read better than they tasted. The slaw on top of the duck seemed an afterthought and I chose not to describe the Risotto for it is not my desire to demean.
    I offered a liberal 17 points for this dish.
    I had been wondering what purpose the serrated knife at my side would serve, and was soon to find out.
    An eye appealing display of steak art and host of other supporting characters arrived and once again we were experiencing competition worthy fare. What can I say? I could only hope that my own dishes might one day bring others pleasure as this one did now for me! The meat was expertly seasoned and cooked, it melted in my mouth, and the depth of the Demi was most impressive, the onion and mashed potatoes made me smile and my favorite taste sensation was the cured tomato. This food had been prepared by a master.
    Points 29 (I am tight and would probably only selfishly award the full 30 point maximum to myself).
    Now things took a turn for the worst …
    We were served a dessert (difficult to conger up with onion as an ingredient, granted) but damn, this one just didn’t work. A froth of egg, polluted with savory onion and not sweet strawberry. The inventor had tried; I will give them that, it wasn’t terrible it just wasn’t good.
    Later when I found out this came from the kitchen of the Scallop King and Steak God, I was appalled!
    Points awarded, I don’t remember, but let’s say not many, maybe for the sake of total score let’s say 12.
    Relief came in the form of a second dessert offering, a cobbler that somehow incorporated the onion happily and was really good and a great finish to this memorable evening, my complements to the Chef.
    29 points awarded for this masterpiece.
    The Chef’s with crew in tow joined us in the dining room and allowed us to put a face and a name to each dish we had been served.
    The most popular dish we were told was the cobbler, its popularity boosted no doubt by the offering that came before it. The next two favorites were as should be: The Scallop and The Steak dishes.
    Now this is where I muddy the water, if one team wins two out of three dishes and wins them by a good margin, granted they also lost one dish and by a good margin as well, you see where I’m going with this…
    On my scorecard I had Team Movable Feast winning going away 70 to 65.
    I found their first two dishes to be very professional, tasty and of winning character. They were a cut above; if I were a gambling man I would have lost the house on the outcome…
    They lost because Nikos’ made a better dessert? Without the dessert debacle the (no disrespect intended) score would not have even been close.
    This is not me presenting sour grapes, and I hope I have not offended anyone. I just wonder if everyone in the room was following the same scoring instructions and if this system served proper justice. I’m a Chef not a math major, I just can’t help but to think that there is a more accurate algorithm for measuring the efforts of such an event.
    This was the honest opinion of one person, me.
    All in all my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the event and eagerly await the July 27th event!
    We have already made reservations and are bringing another (Chef) couple with us.
    What a wonderful event, we intent to throw our full support behind this endeavor.
    Thank you for hearing me out.

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