>A few weeks ago, James, Emily and I went to the first match-up of this year’s WNC Chef’s Challenge in Asheville, North Carolina. While it was an interesting evening, the food seriously let us down and we were left wondering whether this was true of the whole series or just a result of being seated outside of the main area and receiving our food last (and cold!). So when I received an email at the Carolina Bed & Breakfast reporting that seats still remained for this week’s match-up between Posana and the Lobster Trap, James and I decided to give it another go.
The secret ingredient at the first match we went to had been eggs, a seemingly simple challenge. This time around the secret ingredient was mustard, a much harder challenge. Mustard has a strong and pervasive flavor that is difficult to blend into a dish. This is leaving aside the question of whether mustard is an ingredient or a condiment–an issue our table discussed in depth.
The first course arrived and proved to be a reasonable harbinger of the rest. Mustard seed bratwurst sausage was coupled with a red cabbage slaw with a Lusty Monk mustard sauce. The sausage was extremely dry with a sandy consistency, the cabbage slaw was excellent,and the mustard sauce? It was a lot like mustard on a plate. The plate was garnished with some type of “pearls” which were essentially tasteless and seemed to be asked to function as the “haute” part of the “haute cuisine”.
As the evening went on we found that the plates were often muddled in this same manner: inconsistent quality, coupled with a lack of cohesiveness. Ingredients seemed to be on the plate just to have them there. Our next dish is example of this: a bread encrusted scallop and grilled beef heart accompanied by a sweet pea puree and fava bean salad, with mustard jus. Here we gave the chef credit for using beef heart in an unusual manner. It was very tender and if the server hadn’t told us it was beef heart I would never have known it. The question for this course was: did the mustard make a difference or was the “mustard jus” just a means of getting the mustard the plate?
It was time for a pause while the chefs prepared their next offerings. Meet Suzi, the Chef Referee. She was in the kitchen to make sure that everything went smoothly but she came out to tell us about a really exciting program here in Asheville this summer: the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts is hosting two two-week intensive cooking courses here in July. The first session is titled “Cooking the Rainbow”. It will experiment with all the colors of the rainbow as applied to the palate. The second session is “Cooking with Wine” concentrating on local wine use in everything from appetizer to dessert. For those who want to take both series there is a special bridge session at the Biltmore. I love the idea of the rainbow and if it weren’t in July, right in the middle of our busy summer, I would be seriously considering joining them!
Back to the food. Dish #3: Olive oil poached salmon, seared scallop on a watercress, fennel and radish salad. The scallop was the best bite of the night in my opinion but it was not supported by the rest of the dish.
Dish #4 was the most controversial at our table: Brussels sprouts with a braised ham hock, arugula and radish salad. Let me be right upfront, I am not a huge fan of brussels sprouts or pork. I will eat them but I seldom order them (in the case of sprouts–never!). By this time in the meal I was starting to feel like the chefs had misunderstood and thought that pork and cabbage were the secret ingredient. So to me, this course was unimaginative and not well executed. The sprout was undercooked and the ham hock was fatty. The mustard tasted like mustard. I was seriously out-voted by the rest of the table!
They all loved it, go figure.
If you have been keeping count, you will be aware that we are down to the last two courses which are traditionally dessert. Of course, the chefs don’t have to make a dessert but it was clear the room was looking forward to seeing what might be created. And in that atmosphere the next dish probably suffered because it wasn’t a dessert. Sous-vide pork loin with a black garlic chipotle sauce coupled with a black bean and potato salad. The potato salad was overwhelmed by mustard but the pork was melt in your mouth tender. Placed differently in the order, I am sure the dish would have been more appreciated.
Dessert at last! And it was the show-stopper of the evening. Of course, I forgot to take a picture of it until we had already eaten…
Mustard infused panna cotta, silky smooth with just a hint of mustard flavor, caramel sauce and a pistachio tarte filled with a mustard mascapone creme. Yumm.
Here’s the outcome:
The Lobster Trap was responsible for the dishes #1, 3 and 5. Posana made dishes # 2, 4, and 6. And the winner? Posana.
My verdict on the evening? I have to admit, I kind of want to go back for more. The meals are so full of possibility. We never know with whom we might be sitting but they are always interesting and the food demands attention, good or bad!