James was out of town, being the good son and taking his mother to visit friends but my daughter Abby was in town visiting us at the Carolina and as soon as she heard that there was another Chef’s Challenge meal coming up she was all over it. To be honest, I was a little hesitant. The previous two competitions that James and I had been fun and interesting in their own way but the food had been pretty lacking. To recap: round one the secret ingredient was eggs and should have been great but the dishes were mundane, cold by the time they got to the table and in need of seasoning. Round two was better both in the company at our table and in the food but the secret ingredient was mustard and no matter what you do to it, mustard tastes like mustard. On top of that, the most obvious accompaniments are pork and cabbage in all their forms–not my favorites, sorry.
From the beginning, however, Abby and I could see that this evening was going to be different. The table arrangements were different–gone were the large tables of ten where groups of strangers sat and mingled. Tables were now back in the more usual restaurant configuration of fours and twos. Abby and I were seated with a friendly couple (more about them later) who had just moved to Asheville from Spruce Pine, NC. Which just happened to be the town in which one of the competing chefs has his restaurants. According to our table-mates, Nate Allen, chef/owner of Knife and Fork in Spruce Pine used to be a private chef in Hollywood for Toby Maguire. If this is true, I am surprised Toby is so skinny–because this chef is good!. Just look at the menu at his restaurant! The other Chef was Stephen Sauer who used to cook at The Orchard at Broadmoor but is apparently now looking for another kitchen.
An “oh-oh” moment was when we learned of the secret ingredient: olives. Doesn’t seem like one could do much with olives but I was seriously wrong. Pictured above is the first course:Crispy Barramundi on an Olive base with Cerviche of Barramundi on the side accompanied by a fresh herb Salsa Verde in Olive Oil. The barramundi was perfectly cooked and resting on a tomato-olive base. For the first time, we had a dish which had an aroma: it smelled fabulous. And the color of the Salsa Verde made the plate visually attractive as well. As an indicator of how great this evening was, this was my third favorite of all the dishes of the evening.
The next offering was a Cerviche of Octopus (!) along with a Grilled Octopus Salad in an Olive Oil Vinaigrette. Certainly an unusual choice of fish if nothing else. And while it wasn’t bad, it had nothing on the dish before it.
I probably would not have put this picture in this blog post except for the fact that this was the best tasting dish of the entire evening. It’s a good example of how food is more than just flavor. The dish is sooooo brown, it just doesn’t look very appetizing, It’s the only place where the winning chef let us down. I almost wonder if there wasn’t something which didn’t work out as his other plates were so lovely. But let me tell you what this is: Quail Two Ways with an Olive Brulee and a Parmesan Nicoise Tuile. That Olive Brulee was to DIE for! I would drive an hour out of town for this dish. And I would never have thought of creating a savoury brulee to go with the quail. In spite of the lack of “plate appeal” this dish was the second best of the evening.
So what could be better? Dessert! This is a Crepe with Rhubarb Sauce on Strawberry Coulis with Candied Olives. However, this is not the winning dish. I did take a picture of the other dessert but it didn’t really turn out well and I felt it would be unfair to post it. The winning dessert was an Almond Croissant with Custard and Deep Fried Olives. Deep Fried Olives are curiously sweet and the crunch of the croissant was echoed by the olives. For me this dish was the winner because it tasted great, smelled wonderful and was visually very appealing. If the Quail had been better garnished, who knows which way it would have gone.
So it’s no surprise that the winning Chef was Nate Allen. All three of his dishes took the top three places in the evening’s competition. I hope he moves his restaurant to Asheville soon. And I immediately went home and bought tickets to the semi-final round in which he will be competing again.
I did say I would tell you more about the couple we were seated with so here goes: Zack is a metalworker and his wife is nine months pregnant. At least she was at the time of the meal. She told me at the end of the night that she had been in labor throughout dinner so her status may be mother of two by now. She and Zack have moved to a house on a street one block over from us so I intend to look out for her and find out. This was their first evening out since their first child had been born and they were ready to have fun. I am afraid our table of four was a little noisy. This is one of the things I love about this town: the people!
So that’s it for the quarter-finals. We are on to the semi-finals! I’ll keep you posted.