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.
“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.
“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