I had the great fortune to be a media judge this week at the Fire in the Triangle Competition Dining Series quarterfinal battle (lucky, lucky, lucky me!) If you’re not familiar with this Iron Chef-style competition, it is part of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series, a statewide event that showcases emerging North Carolina culinary talent and celebrates North Carolina’s agricultural bounty in a fun, festive setting. And yes, I can attest that it was both fun and festive, and I had a great time with all of my tablemates!
This year’s Fire in the Triangle series features 16 prominent local chefs, each cooking three courses in bracketed, single-elimination dinner battles until a final winner emerges. Chefs must create their menu around a secret NC ingredient that is revealed to them only an hour before they start cooking, and dinner guests get to blindly judge the six-course meal to determine the winner. At stake in each series is a grand prize of $2,000 and the coveted “Red Chef Jacket.” Wilmington, Asheville, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Charlotte host this year’s high-pressure series. For more information and the complete rules, check out http://www.competitiondining.com/
In this battle, Chef Steve Zanini of Jimmy V’s Steak House & Tavern in Cary faced off with Chef Regan Stachler of Little Hen in Apex. The secret ingredients were interesting, to say the least: American Cooperative Prawns and Nature’s Pearl Muscadine Grape Juice. Oh my, I couldn’t wait to taste the dishes these two talented chefs would create.
Before the battle started, I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Zonin, one of the founders of Carolina Brewing Company of Holly Springs, and his delightful wife Donna. Carolina Brewing provided the featured brews of the week. Joe and Donna gave me a brief history of some of CBC’s beers, and I was happy when we were seated at the same table.
I opted to purchase a wine flight to go with the six courses, at only $20.00. The pours were decent and paired well with each dish. Wineries represented included Biltmore Winery, Laurel Gray Vineyards, Jones Von Drehle, Adams Vineyard and Cellars 4201.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the delicious bread that was served. It was provided by La Farm Bakery in Cary and, on the recommendation of one of my tablemates, I tried the white chocolate bread. Wow, I’m pretty sure this is the bread they serve in heaven — it is awesome!
Attendees were asked to download the Competition Dining app on their phones before the battle began in order to enter votes for each course. Series’ scores are weighted at 30% diners and 70% pro guest judges. This app made it easy to assess and vote for each course.
Okay, on to the battle.
Course 1: Lime Marinated American Prawn Cooperative Ceviche, Nature’s Pearl Muscadine Gelée, Toasted Peanut & Cilantro.
(Photo courtesy of Competition Dining’s Facebook page)
This appetizer was good, but it didn’t wow me. I was happy that the muscadine gelée was not as sweet as I had anticipated. I thought the Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay made a nice pairing, with its citrus and fruit highlights. Overall score: 20.92. Chef: Regan Stachler.
Course 2: Butter Poached American Prawn Cooperative & Scallop, Nature’s Pearl Muscadine & Tomato Chutney, Roasted Sweet Potato, Muscadine Candied Bacon & Fennel with a Sweet Corn Jus.
I loved this appetizer even though normally am not a fan of scallops. That is, until tonight. I was only going to take one bite of the scallop, but wound up wolfing it down – it was perfectly cooked, nice and buttery, and the texture (which is why I shy away from scallops) was perfect. Loved the candied bacon (who wouldn’t?), which complemented the roasted sweet potato nicely. This was a fantastic appetizer featuring prawns and muscadine juice. Also, I loved the Chateau Reserve Blanc de Blanc pairing from Biltmore, especially the tiny bubbles! Overall score: 30.41. Chef: Steve Zanini.
Course 3: American Prawn Cooperative Fumé, Grilled Corn, Lobster, Snapper and Fennel.
For those who follow my blog, you know that I love soup, so I was excited when this dish appeared before me. I had mixed reactions on this one and would have loved if the broth had been warmer and a bit spicier. And then there was this weird grilled corn piece, still on the cob, which had to be cut off (and not very successfully, at least on my part.) Fellow tablemates were also perplexed by this addition and we agreed that it would have been better not to include the cob. I did like the lobster and the fennel as well as the Laurel Gray Vineyards 2012 Estate Reserve Merlot, with blueberry and chocolate undertones. Overall score: 18.98. Chef: Regan Stachler.
Course 4: Roasted Nature’s Pearl Muscadine-Brined Venison Loin, American Prawn Cooperative Sausage, Seared Prawn, Purple & Yellow Cauliflower Puree, Pommes Rissolees, Muscadine & Red Wine Demi.
While this course wasn’t rated the highest, it was definitely my favorite. Prawns were presented seared and as a sausage (what a great idea that worked really well). My favorite was how the chef incorporated the venison, which was tender and perfectly cooked. The purees were excellent and I loved the tiny pommes. I hope this dish will appear as an entrée on Jimmy V’s menu — it would be a big hit! The Jones Von Drehle 2012 Rosa Dia complemented the dish quite well and was my favorite wine of the evening. Overall score: 29.49. Chef: Steve Zanini.
Course 5: Buttermilk Cake, Brûléed Nature’s Pearl Muscadine Meringue, Muscadine Compressed Melon.
I absolutely loved the presentation of this dish, and was happy that it wasn’t too sweet. Unfortunately, my buttermilk cake was a tad too dry. I thought the muscadine meringue as a great touch. When I saw the wine pairing as Adams Vineyard Blueberry, I was a little bit scared, but the wine was actually delightful and not as sweet as I had imagined. Overall score: 22.86. Chef: Regan Stachler.
Course 6: Peanut Sablé Cookie, Nature’s Pearl Muscadine Gelée, Peanut Butter Ganache, Muscadine Sorbet, Honey Roasted Peanut Croquant.
Wow! I loved the peanut cookie and the muscadine sorbet. This was much sweeter than the previous dessert, but oh so good! Again, I loved the wine pairing — Cellars 4201 Sangiovese 2012, a fruity red, perfect with chocolate. Overall score: 29.10. Chef: Steve Zanini.
Chef Zanini of Jimmy V’s won all three of his courses and will advance to the next round. I certainly agreed with the final results and my only wish is that I could be a judge for the rest of these competitions!
1705 Prime is a wonderful venue for this year’s Fire in the Triangle. Unfortunately, the remaining events sold out a while back, but you can put your name on a waiting list. And keep a lookout for when next year’s tickets go on sale — I know I will!
Eat, drink and be merry!
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