Raleigh, N.C. — Creamy delights created with ingredients from Maple View Farms Dairy were showcased Tuesday night in a Fire in the Triangle battle between Chef Scott James of Raleigh's Midtown Grille and Chef Lemar Farrington of La Residence in Chapel Hill.
I was lucky to be seated at a table with some true foodies, and we enjoyed sharing our insights on the dishes as they were presented and our other faves around the Triangle. Fellow judge Chris Harris, a Cary chef who has worked at Fork and Barrel and now for the Tribeca Group, provided some great insight, having been a competitor himself in last year's Competition Dining Series.
"I will say two words for the chefs," he said as we were seated, "It's very difficult."
Here's a rundown of each course, reviews and results. In each round and overall, diners (the Joes) and local media foodies including WRAL Out & About (the Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity and other factors. All scores are out of a possible 30 points.
Course 1: Milk Poached Mahi Mahi, Coconut Porridge, Sweet Potato Candy, Pomegranate Molasses, Carbonated Pomegranate Seeds (La Residence) (Score: 17.46)
The fish dish out of the kitchen was the favorite for the table of Triangle friends who identified themselves as "Desperate Housewives."
"I really like the creativity of forming the sweet potato into a candy wrapper," one diner said.
Course 2: Milk Poached NC Coast Golden Tile Fish, Lemon Grass Creamed Corn, Little River Crab, Ginger Tomato Confiture (Midtown Grille) (Score: 23.7)
A second course and a second fish dish, but one with more color and a stronger aroma, according to Katherine from Raleigh.
"This has a little bit of a Thai flavor," said diner Kristen Kroszewski, of Cary.
Course 3: Buttermilk Brined Veal, Smoked Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Yukon Parsnip Puree, Asparagus, CBC Summer Ale Jus, Chorizo Oil (La Res) (Score: 16.45)
Before course 3, the Carolina Brewing Company representative explained why we couldn't order the Summer Ale he had provided to pair with the evening's dishes – Farrington had used a full case to make his Summer Ale jus for this veal dish.
Diner Andy Teague, a partner in the @RaleighIsCool venture, was not impressed. He called it "very bland," but cleaned his plate.
This offering showed the difficulty of serving 140 dinners at once. The portion sizes varied greatly from plate to plate and table to table.
Course 4: Roasted Venison Tenderloin, Cremini Mushroom, Brussels Sprout Leaves, Buttermilk Black Garlic Spaetzle, Milk Mustard Gravy (Midtown) (Score: 23.33)
The clear winner of the evening both in conversation and in the resulting scores. Cameras flashed around the dining room as the dishes arrived.
Harris, the chef, paid it the ultimate compliment. "I'd order this one at a restaurant," he said.
Diners praised the texture of the venison, tender but not chewy, and the colorful layered presentation.
Course 5: Chocolate Milk Flan, Chocolate Torte, Smoked Coffee Ice Cream, Pink Peppercorn & Pistachio Salt (La Res) (Score: 18.65)
When servers brought coffee to accompany the dessert courses, the strong coffee flavor of the ice cream in this dish overpowered what was in the cup.
"The flan in this one could have stood alone," Kroszewski said.
Course 6: Banana Chocolate Milk Flan, Mascarpone, Spiced Cashew, Lime n’ the Coconut (Midtown) (Score 20.39)
The second dessert's spiced cashews were a highlight. I spied one diner snagging a spoonful off her neighbor's plate.
The only disappointment was the lack of variety. "Milk is the staple of every dessert possible and there are two flans," wondered Jessica Hartung of Durham.
James' final score – an impressive 25 out of 30 – put him into the next round, where he will face the winner of the July 17 battle between The Oxford and Bia. The Fire in the Triangle website has more information on how scores are calculated.
James credited last year's Fire in the Triangle experience with preparing him for the craziness that can happen in the competition kitchen. He and his sous chef were both Competition Dining veterans. Fire in the Triangle: Midtown Grille vs. La Residence
"The first time, the first two hours we were a mess," James said. "This year, we were focused."
James also revealed that he used Tuesday's audience as taste testers for a recipe he plans to use when he represents North Carolina in the Great American Seafood Cookoff in New Orleans. His tile fish preparation in course 2 was the second-highest rated dish of the night.
James's team did not break a sweat when the secret ingredient was announced. "Dairy is so versatile. It didn't pin us down," he said.
WRAL's Out and About is the official blogger for Fire in the Triangle, so look for exclusive content, interviews and more from each battle!
Fire in the Triangle is part of the Got to Be NC competition dining series. The winner from the Triangle will go on to compete against the winners of the Fire on the Rock, Fire on the Dock, Fire in the Triad and Fire in the City competitions. The last chef standing wins $2,000 and the coveted red chef’s jacket. The runner-up will get $500.