Raleigh, N.C. — Two area chefs battled it out on Wednesday with six courses that took gave some everyday foods an unexpected twist.
The featured chefs at the March 1 Cooking for a Classic competition included Jonathan Ballard from Sassool -- a Mediterranean restaurant with locations in Cary and Raleigh -- and Tom Havrish, who represents Lugano's and Academy Street Bistro in downtown Cary.
Each chef was required to prepare one appetizer, one entree and one dessert -- each paired with a drink or cocktail -- on-site at 1705 Prime, the event venue. Chefs could prepare whatever dishes they desired, but their ingredients were limited to a well-stocked pantry -- and their time to plan and prepare was limited to just one day.
Like the other 160 voters in the dining room, I had no clue which chef had prepared which course until the end of my meal. After each appetizer, entree and dessert pairing, I used my smartphone to rate the dishes based on appearance, taste, creativity and quality of the drink that accompanied them.
The winning chefs from this dinner would compete at future dinners and, in late March, one winner is crowned. That lucky chef gets a vintage, classic car -- hence the event's name.
With tickets priced at only $50 per person, each Cooking for a Classic dinner is an incredible value -- and, even better than that, proceeds from each event go directly to the Lucy Daniels Center, a school and program that helps children experiencing emotional, mental and social challenges. I've spent time with representatives from Lucy Daniels before and seen how their programs really make a difference, so I was thrilled at the high turn-out at this dinner.
Although we enjoyed conversation in the elegant setting, everyone at my table was hungry by the time the first appetizer -- probably the most exotic meal of the evening -- arrived.
I'll be honest -- when I saw the dish's description, I was not convinced that I'd like what was put in front of me. Beets and mint foam hardly sounded appetizing. But, much to my surprise, the zucchini feta roll with microgreens and golden beet coulis floating in a pool of blackberry champagne vinaigrette and mint foam was absolutely delicious.
It was rolled up a lot like sushi, and the flavors were mild yet interesting.
My tablemates -- including a food blogger and the head chef of a restaurant in Raleigh's Lafayette Village -- and I were all impressed with the creativity of this dish, which was paired with a ginger and cucumber infused vodka fizz straight from TOPO Distillery. The drink was amazing too, and it might have been my favorite part of the whole evening.
I loved the second appetizer, but the others at my table did not. The dish -- egg ravioli with oyster mushrooms, truffle basil cream and confit tomatoes -- had a wonderful flavor, but, likely due to stress and time constraints, the pasta was still a little doughy. I still rated this dish highly, as I thought the taste was incredible. In my opinion, you can't go wrong with mushrooms.
This dish was paired with a delicious basil and whiskey cocktail.
Both of the main courses that followed were delicious and of high quality, but they were also somewhat similar. First, I tried a red wine braised short rib bordelaise with crispy onions, truffled fingerling potatoes, ginger carrots and truffle oil powder. This entree was elegantly paired with a strong red wine that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Although the first entree was impressive, the second was my favorite. A port braised veal short rib was topped with gnocchi, fontina fonduata and charred radichio. Translation? The tender, somewhat sweet meat was delicious with the garlicky cream sauce and potato pasta. I gave this dish, and the wine that accompanied it, a 5 out of 5.
Everyone is usually most excited about the desserts at these dinners, and these didn't disappoint. We enjoyed a chocolate "sin" cake (it was very, very rich) topped with strawberry mousse and vanilla tulle and a serving of "spicy chocolate mousse" served with cherry jam.
Both were delicious, but the cake was too rich for many of us to finish it, and I saw waiters carry away much of the craft beer that was brought out with the desserts. A common conversation at my table was that "coffee -- or even milk -- would have made a better pairing."
Celebrity judges (mostly local chefs) and attendees gave the final win to Chef Jonathan Ballard. It was likely the egg ravioli that skewed the score of Chef Tom Havrish, because, like Ballard, his dishes were creative, flavorful and delicious. As tradition goes, diners were invited to mingle with the chefs after dinner and to stick around to see who won two raffle prizes.
Tickets are still available for the nine remaining dinners.
I know that, no matter which dinner you attend, you're guaranteed a wonderful fine dining experience -- and you can feel good about where the money goes.