Raleigh, N.C. — The competition was fierce in Friday night's Final Fire battle. Chef Adam Hayes, of the Red Stag Grill in Asheville, won soundly against Chef Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern in Battle Noble’s Hard Cider & Apple Wedge Cider.
"We were excited when we heard it was cider. It's such a universal ingredient," Hayes said. "My team was expecting Pepsi and shrimp."
The night was full of ambitious culinary creations and featured more than five kinds of meat, three forms of beets and many unusual accompaniments, such as arugula cider chimichurri, apple cider polenta and Fullsteam beer-cider sorbet.
Hayes and his team will now go on to face Chef John Bobby of Noble's Grille in Winston-Salem in the championship round of Final Fire Saturday evening.
"I wasn't nervous," said the wife of one of the Red Stag Grill team members. "I knew we had it the whole time."
Here’s the course-by-course breakdown of the meal, along with reviews and results. In each round, the diners (the Joes) and the professional judges (the Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity, use of the ingredients and other factors. The Pros and the Joes are then averaged together for a final score – each one out of a possible 30 points.
Course 1: Heritage Farms Country Patè with Apples and Pistachios, Cider-Pickled Beet Puree, Mystery Stout Mustard, Apple Cider Salad with Pine Nuts, Johnston County Ham Cheddar Biscuit (Red Stag Grill, 21.36)
Cider stood out strongly in this dish, something I missed in a few of the later courses. The apple cider salad with pine nuts gave a needed crunch to the pate and biscuit. However, some diners weren't too impressed.
"The salad felt kind of one-dimensional to me," a diner named Emily said. "I'm only getting vinegar with the salad."
One thing our table was in consensus on was how great the Mystery Brewing stout mustard was. The richness of it paired well with the pate in a classic combination.
Course 2: Spiced Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast over Noble’s Hard Cider Braised Beets, Shiitake Mushroom Duxelle, Noble’s Apple Cider, Big Bing Cherry Compote (Persimmons, 18.65)
This was a dish that left people divided. I overheard someone at my table saying "Beets again? I hate beets," while another diner exclaimed that this plate had all her favorite things on it.
I preferred these beets to Course 1's beets, and the sauce was slightly spicy, which I liked, but the duck was cold and some of my table-mates were missing cherries.
While Course 2 had elements of a great dish, I felt that perhaps time or volume got the better of the Persimmons team on this one.
Course 3: Cider Sous Vide Mountain River Venison, Blueberry Cider Jus, Apple Beet Puree, Arugula Cider Chimichurri, Cider-Braised Cippolini Onions, Noble Salt (Red Stag Grill, 21.69)
This was a "sous vide success," according to WRAL producer Stephanie Beck on Twitter. The venison was tender and cooked perfectly, and the salt was a nice touch. I preferred it with the chimichurri, but the apple beet puree was a sweeter, milder option.
"That onion..." a diner at my table, Timothy, said. "It's delicious."
Unfortunately, my onion was not the beautiful accent I was expecting, based on the picture I saw on Twitter. It was one little slice, so I didn't get the full cider-braised onion experience like some of the other diners.
Course 4: Noble’s Apple Trio: Herb and Apple Cider Marinated Lamb Tenderloin, Sweet Potato au Gratin, Applewood Bacon Collards; Noble’s Apple Cider Brined Heritage Pork Tenderloin, Brussels Sprouts, Noble’s Apple Bacon Gravy; Slow Braised Certified Angus Beef Petite Tenderloin, Noble’s Apple Cider Polenta, Crispy Sweet Potatoes (Persimmons, 19.79)
"Wow. There is a lot going on here," said a diner at my table. "I bet the Pros aren't going to like that."
Unfortunately for Fong, that turned out to be true. This was a heavy dish with sides like potatoes au gratin and polenta, presented in a very busy manner. With many elements on the plate, people were able to pick and choose what they liked to eat, but I don't know if anyone ate the entire thing.
I was a fan of the beef, which was seasoned well and flavorful with the cider polenta. The sweet potato au gratin was addicting too, and wasn't overly cheesy. However, I also felt that the cider, the star ingredient, was lost in this dish. It was ambitious for sure, though!
Course 5: Apple Cider Rosemary Crepe, Caramel Jam, Fullsteam Carver and Noble’s Cider Sorbet, Candied Pecans, Julian Goat Ribbons, Noble’s Sabayon (Red Stag Grill, 20.53)
Desserts are typically the highest-scoring dishes, so I was excited to see what this round would bring. The crepe was plated beautifully, but by the time I got my plate, the caramel jam had sort of stuck onto the plate and was difficult to eat.
The Fullsteam-cider sorbet was another dividing point at our table.
"I don't like the sorbet at all," said one diner. "It kind of leaves a weird taste in your mouth."
Anastasia, another diner at my table, said she really liked the sorbet. "It was the first thing today that I can really taste the cider in."
Course 6: Southern Pie Trio: Apple Pie: Apple and Cranberry Compote, Noble’s Cider Anglaise; Pecan Pie: Spiced Pecan Pie, Goat Cheese Cheesecake, Noble’s Brown Sugar Glaze; Chocolate Pie: Noble’s Apple Cider Flourless Apple Chocolate Cake, Cinnamon Pot de Crème, Apple Caramel, Sugar Lava (Persimmons, 19.24)
Now this was a trio I loved! Based on the description, we were expecting another huge plate, but it was thankfully small and plated neatly.
The pot de creme with chocolate cake was my favorite dish of the night – and possibly my life. It was that good! It was well balanced, without too much cinnamon or sweet cider, and the sugar lava cube was a fun touch.
I also enjoyed the pecan pie, which was like a cheescake-pecan pie hybrid. It wasn't too heavy and the other diners loved it as well.
"Ok now my diabetes is rocking. I love the #trio desserts," said diner Ben Bynum via Twitter.
Again, the Pros deducted major points for Fong on Course 6, something I was honestly surprised at.
This battle had some big voting discrepancies between the Joes and the Pros, sometime as much as five points.
"It just goes to show how the Joes and the Pros think differently," Jimmy Crippen, the creator of Competition Dining, said.
In the end, those crucial deductions brought down Fong's score, and Red Stag Grill walked away with a win by nearly two weighted points. Even after coming up short, Fong was all smiles and gave Hayes a congratulatory hug even before the scores were officially announced.
"Adam and his team are really good guys, and I had a great time," he said.
Tickets to the championship round Saturday are sold out, but WRAL Out & About, an official blogger of the Final Fire competition, will be live Tweeting the event and have a recap afterward.