Raleigh, N.C. — With some extra-tasty secret ingredients at play, the fourth battle of this round of the Got To Be NC Competition Dining Series was packed in downtown Raleigh Monday night. Diners, or shall I say judges, started arriving to the event venue, 214 Martin Street, at 6 p.m., and everyone was seated by 6:45.
I sat beside a group of fellow foodies and nibbled on white chocolate and sourdough bread from LaFarm Bakery in Cary while we all waited for that evening's ingredients to be announced.
How it works
Battle 4: Ham & Jam was the fourth of seven battles that have taken place at the venue over the past week.
Each day, two local chefs - each armed with a team of other culinary experts of their choosing - compete against one another to qualify for the final competition and $2,000.
The catch? Right before each battle, the chefs are given two secret locally-sourced ingredients that they must somehow incorporate into their courses that night.
At the battle, they prepare the meals as the waiters serve them, and the diners rate each dish on their phones to determine the winning team.
This battle required chefs to use of elderberry jelly from Norm's Farms (Pittsboro) and thinly-sliced, dry-cured ham from Goodnight Brothers County Ham (Boone).
"Yum!," I thought when the ingredients were announced.
Ham and jam sounded a lot better to me than last week's tuna and olives battle.
Competition Dining courses are served blindly, with diners uninformed of who made which dish until the end of the night. For each course, diners and local chefs grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity, taste and other factors. All scores are out of a possible 40 points.
The scores shown below are the final weighted scores for each course.
Each and every one of the six courses had to incorporate ham, jam or both. Each chef prepared an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. Ham had to be in two of those dishes; jam in three.
COURSE 1: Goodnight Brothers Country Ham Draped Grilled NC peach, Boxcarr Campo Cheese Mornay, Norm's Farms Spiced Elderberry Blueberry Glaze and Blackwelder Farms Rosemary Roasted Pecans
This course was one of my "top 2," so it's odd that it received one of the lowest scores of the evening. In my opinion, though, you can't go wrong with peaches, and this grilled local peach was absolutely delicious. Sitting there like a sun, it was the centerpiece of the plate, and its salty/sweet toppings made it even better. Perhaps it received its low score because it wasn't extremely complex or creative, because I heard no one at my table complain about its taste.
The Goodnight Brothers ham, which is prosciutto-style thin, gave the dish a smoky flavor that paired well with the sweet elderberry concoction - which is also delicious and packed with vitamins. I loved this course, and it's something I intend to recreate at home.
COURSE 2: Goodnight Brothers Country Ham, Homemade RanLew Dairy Whole Milk Ricotta and Goat Horn Pepper Empanada, Norm's Farms Elderberry and Blueberry Salsa, Spiced RanLew Dairy Buttermilk Foam
Okay, based on the reactions at my table, many people thought this dish was better than the first. The empanada, which was perfectly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, was flavored with peppers and tiny bits of ham, and the sauces surrounding the dish in a beautiful design were absolutely delicious. I love anything sweet, so I was pleased that the delicious elderberry jam would continue to grace every dish of the night.
This dish was more complex than the first, which made it impressive, but my sweet tooth got the best of me, making course one still my first choice.
COURSE 3: Grilled Veal Tenderloin, NC Fingerling Potatoes Confit, Lusty Monk Chipotle Cream, Norm's Farm Elderberry Wellness Gastrique, Fresh Thyme, Crushed Marcona Almonds
This dish received the top score of the night, securing the team that prepared it as the winner, and it was not hard to tell why. The veal was absolutely perfect. Okay, I have to admit that this was my first time trying veal, but the foodies at my table couldn't stop raving about it. "It is so easy to slice, but it's not too rare," someone said. "Oh my gosh, it's perfect," another said. I learned from my neighbor that "confit" means "cooked in fat," so between the two of us we couldn't figure out what gave the long potato resting next to the meat its name.
It was delicious nonetheless, and of course, it paired perfectly with its sauces and toppings.
I noticed that this course didn't contain any ham, which meant that the team who prepared it would have to use meat in their dessert. In an age where maple bacon donuts and chocolate covered bacon are popular, I saw no problem with that!
COURSE 4: Goodnight Brothers Country Ham Polenta Cake, Grilled and Fried Norm's Farms Elderberry Extract Brined Quail, Goodnight Brothers Country Ham and Elderberry Jam and Charred Carrots
At Competition Dining, everything is good. Really. But this dish disappointed everyone at my table, and its score indicates that other tables didn't love it, either. Why? No one liked the quail. "It tastes too gamey," I heard my neighbors say over and over again. Another person said that it was hard to separate the meat from the bone.
I'm pretty adventurous with food these days, but I was a little nervous to try quail for the first time. Apparently, this was not the best time to try it.
After trying their other two courses, I have no doubt that the team that made this is a group of extremely talented chefs. Perhaps they were trying too hard to stand out, though, and their dish received the lowest score of the night - killing their winning chances - as a result. For what it's worth, the glaze atop the quail was one of the best sauces I'd tasted all night.
Unfortunately, that just wasn't enough.
COURSE 5: North Carolina Silver Queen Corn and Thyme Poundcake, Norm's Farms Elderberry Jelly Cream, Elderberry Extract and Lime Syrup, Goodnight Brothers Country Ham Tuilles and Country Ham Dust
Dessert is always my favorite part (perhaps you remember this from my last Competition Dining post), and this one did not disappoint me. The people at my table thought otherwise. Their problem with the dish was the saltiness of the ham placed on top of the cake - which I will say was just the right amount of rich and absolutely delicious. I loved the salty/sweet combo, but my neighbors just couldn't get over the salty meat.
"The ham dust is fine," someone said, "but this piece of ham is ruining an incredible dessert." Sure enough, when the waiters and waitresses cleared away our plates, a small piece of ham was left on each one. Personally, I ate the whole thing - the key was that you had to put the ham in your mouth at the same time as the cake, which had a moist quality from the corn used to make it. I gave this a "thumbs up" and was glad it got a good score.
COURSE 6: Elderberry Extract Pavlova, Elderberry Mascarpone, Local Blackberries, North Carolina Bruleed Figs
This was the dessert of the night, though, because judges at every table were impressed with the perfectly-prepared pavlova, which is a crispy-type pastry with a soft, meringue-like crust. This dish was unbelievable, because it dissolved in your mouth like cotton candy, and the fruit on top made it perfection.
Voting in the battles is incredibly easy, and everyone in the room had submitted their ballot 10 minutes after the meal. The chefs finally came out from their busy kitchens to a sea of applause, and we found out who made each dish as the scores went live on screen.
The winner of the battle (with a score of 27.786) was a group of chefs from Halifax and Wilson representing Halifax's The Hen & The Hog southern restaurant. They made the perfect veal dish that everyone loved along with my favorite, course one, and the cake topped with bacon.
The runners up (who weren't far behind at 25.471) were a group of chefs from right here in Raleigh representing Catering Works. They had made three wonderful courses - but it just wasn't enough to beat the other team's high-scoring veal entree.
The end of the battle was a proud moment for both sets of chefs, and diners around the room congratulated them, thanked them for the meal and shook hands. It's really a beautiful thing, Competition Dining, and it's much more than a six course meal. It's a celebration of eating locally and sustainably, and it's a way to celebrate and recognize the talented chefs in our area.
I even learned from the host of the battle that the extra food in the kitchen is brought to nearby homeless shelters after the event - something I wish restaurants did more often.
Upcoming Raleigh battles
Battle 5 continues Tuesday with a whole new set of chefs and secret ingredients, but you can review all the battles left in the Raleigh series and make your reservation online.