In the five years that we have owned the Carolina Bed & Breakfast, our Asheville North Carolina Inn, the Asheville Food & Wine Chef’s Challenge Dinners have been a one of our favorite events to attend. Last night was the final qualifying round for the Grand Tasting on August 23 and a chance to win the 2014 title of Best Chef In Western North Carolina. So James, Abby and I headed over to Pack’s Tavern to watch Chef Eden Roorda from the Hotel Indigo go up against Chef Brian Ross from Dough Market.
Both Chefs have a large following in Asheville so the room was crowded when we got there but the three of us were lucky enough to snag a table with Sienna, the 9 month old baby of Ali Caulfield (pastry chef at Dough) and Sienna’s father, George Rhine. I’ve actually never seen a baby at the dinner before but, hey, when your mom’s competing you need to be there! She was a charmer and made our dinner all the more enjoyable with her smiles!
But on to dinner. We knew from the minute they introduced the secret ingredient that this was going to be a real Southern style meal. It might be because the sweet potato (or as we like to call it, the sweet patatah) is the number 1 crop of North Carolina. It is a part of so many dishes and a much loved food in Asheville and the South. To add to the evening, Mary Rich of Spirit Savvy Cocktails brought along some Sweet Potato Vodka to offer as a tasting to the diners. I am in general not very much of a vodka fan but I liked this one. It was a much smoother, sweeter vodka without the burn or medicinal aftertaste which are present in many vodkas.
Our first course, from Chef Roorda was a Sweet Potato Strangolapreti of Pimento Goat Cheese in a Spiced Brown Butter. Strangolapreti literally means “priest choker” but these fried gnocchi were not in the least bit hard to force down! The second dish of the first course offerings was in my opinion the best dish I have ever had at a Chef”s Challenge Dinner: Roasted Sweet Potato Soup with Smoked Trout and Shaved Brussel Sprout Salad. Chef Ross created a soup that was silky and rich and combined it with the crunch of the brussel sprouts and the salt of the smoked trout to make one perfect spoonful after another. For the first time ever, I award the full 30 points to a dish. It’s moments like these that keep us coming back!
Chicken Fried Beef Short Ribs with Roasted Corn Sweet Potato Spoon Bread and Sweet Potato Bourbon Demi-glace was the first of the two main course offerings. While the short ribs were not entirely successful the spoon bread and Bourbon demi-glace packed a powerful amount of flavor! And it was a lovely and imaginative play by the chef from the Hotel Indigo on the Southern Classic of Chicken Fried Steak with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy. This was followed by Sweet Potato Dumplings with Chicken Sausage, Peas and Corn in a Creamy Parmesan Sauce from the Chefs at Dough. The sausages had been made using a French forcemeat technique which creates a lighter dish. I think that it probably not something many of the diners had experienced before and I wish the Chef had included something in the description of the dish to alert us to the fact that this was not your typical chicken sausage.
Dessert is always a crowd favorite and sweet potatoes with their hint of pumpkin and squash flavor lend themselves well to sweet dishes. From the Indigo came a Sweet Potato “S’more” Brownie with Burnt Marshmallow and Sweet Potato Creme Anglaise. The brownie was nice and moist (probably from the sweet potato) but the best part was some kind of crunchy “sugar rocks” on top of the marshmallow and in the Creme Anglais. The final dish of the evening was from baby Sienna’s mother (although we didn’t know it at the time). She paired a Sweet Potato Bavarois ( kind of pastry cream) with a dark chocolate Amoretti bark, the flavors of which played off each other to great success.
In the end, while both Chefs performed admirably, neither one had scores high enough to continue to the final round on August 23.
(And I would like to give a final shout-out to Woody and the Asheville Car and Taxi Company who arrived promptly on time to take us home when it started to rain!)