Iron Chef Asheville Style!

Filed under: Restaurants, Things to Do

One of the wonderful things about Asheville, North Carolina is the exciting restaurant scene.  Couple that with a sense of fun and community and you have the makings of a great evening…almost! This past Monday James and I, and our daughter, Emily, were excited to have scored three tickets to the WNC Chef’s Challenge, hosted by WNC Magazine. Every Monday in March and April chefs from two area restaurants compete in an Iron Chef style cook-off.  At noon they are giving the “secret” ingredient and they have until 6PM to complete three courses for 100 guests to try and judge. The dinners take place at one of our favorite restaurants here in town:  Cucina24, just a short walk from the Carolina Bed & Breakfast. (Cucina24 will be providing food at our inn during the Asheville Bed and  Breakfast Association Spring Tour of Inns on April 16th).    The two restaurants competing were  Flight Wood Grill and Wine Bar from Hendersonville, NC and LAB (Lexington Avenue Brewery) from here in Asheville.

So Monday night at 6:30 we presented ourselves at the restaurant.  The first disappointment of the evening was our seating.  We were at a booth set off to the side where we were unable to see/hear the presenter.  It wasn’t awful by any means but it probably did detract from some of the fun for us as we weren’t part of the action. We did have some interesting table mates:  a caterer from a neighboring town and a gentleman who has an antique stall at  Sweeten Creek Antiques and Collectibles (which was awesome because I didn’t even know the place existed and now we have a new antique area to explore).

On to the food.  As I mentioned above, the chefs were given their secret ingredient at noon.  In this case the secret ingredient was…EGGS! Quail eggs, duck eggs, chicken eggs, I was even hoping for a little caviar!  And at the same time I was thinking that I might get something I could use out of the evening as there is one thing I cook a lot of and that is eggs.

Lentils topped by a Fried Quail Egg in a Salami Cup

We were given a score card with five categories on which to score the food.  Each course could be given up to five points in four categories and up to ten in the last.  A perfect dish would score 30 points.  The categories were
1) Presentation–was the dish attractive and appetizing?
2) Aroma–did it appeal to the sense of smell?
3) Condiments and enhancements–did the other ingredients augment the dish and add flavor?
4) Originality
5) Use of the secret ingredient (this was the 10 point category).

Scotch Duck Egg in Duck Sausage on Smoked Duck Breast

Do you notice anything missing?  Neither did we until we started scoring the first dish. 

Our first dish arrived and it looked great.  It was a green ravioli with an egg inside accompanied by pretzel croustini topped with crab salad.  I thought they missed a great chance to make a playful “green eggs and ham” dish and was puzzled by the green ravioli.  Sadly the dish was cold. As we talked about it we realized that cooking and plating for 100 people all at once is very different from sending out plates to tables in a staggered manner as one does in a restaurant.  The egg inside the ravioli was nicely cooked, the yolk still runny but the pasta was thick and not cooked at all.  And the whole thing needed salt.  It just didn’t taste like much.And this was when we noticed there was no place to give points for taste! Not a great beginning.

The next plate made up for it.  This is the first dish pictured above (Sidebar confession: in the fun of tasting and talking, I kept forgetting to take a picture first!).  This dish was a bowl of lentils topped by a lightly fried quail egg in a salami “cup”.  If you ate the egg, the salami, and some of the lentils in one bite it was excellent.  Of course then you were left with a bowl of lentils. But it was a step up from the first dish.

Main courses came up next.  We were first given a breaded pork fillet in a ginger soy cream sauce on a bed of mushrooms.  This was when we decided that if the dish was one which usually included egg then it should lose points for use of the secret ingredient.  It was a pity because this was a really good tasting dish.  But using an egg when breading a piece of meat is hardly original.

The best dish of the night came up next.  This was a Scotch Egg made with a duck egg wrapped in duck sausage with smoked duck breast in a duck jus.  When we lived in England I often saw Scotch Eggs in the supermarket and in the grab-and-go refrigerated sections of Convenience Stores and Petrol Stations.  I have to admit that I never tried one.  A hard boiled egg wrapped in sausage just didn’t appeal to me.  This Scotch Egg was excellent.  It was one of the few dishes which came to our table warm.  All of the flavors complemented each other well and it was a clever use of the egg and the duck.  This was the favorite dish at our table and the winning dish of the night in the opinion of the diners overall.

By now we were getting pretty full.  A really stellar dessert would be needed for our tired pallets.  Once again we felt that the imagination of the chefs let us down.  The first dessert was a ginger cake with coconut ice cream (actually coconut soup by the time it got to our table).  The cake was topped with a light meringue which showed that the chef was at least thinking about highlighting the egg ingredient.  It tasted good but it was just such an ehh dessert to me.  The last dish was a chocolate bread pudding which was dry (in my opinion) and once again was a dish which called for eggs anyway–no points!

That was the meal.  Our cards were whipped away and taken to a back room where a team of CPA’s tallied the scores.  Based on taste, we had thought the first, third and fifth dishes probably came from one team and the second, fourth and sixth dishes from the other.  It actually turned out that LAB made the egg ravioli, the scotch egg and the gingercake (1, 4 and 5).  In retrospect this made sense because these were the dishes which best highlighted the secret ingredient in each course.

And the winner?  Lexington Avenue Brewery by a small margin.  They will go on to the semi-finals in May and the Grand Finale will take place at the Asheville Wine and Food Festival in August.

And our verdict on the evening?  We have a renewed respect for the chefs who compete.  There are many factors which can change the outcome which they need to be aware of, above and beyond the food:  difficulty of serving so many people at once, plating on unfamiliar dishes (they aren’t allowed to bring anything other than knives), working in a strange kitchen under pressure all come into play.  While we were disappointed that the food wasn’t better, we are planning on attending another round to see whether a better table, and different restaurants, will change the experience for the better.  You should think about joining us.


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