Raleigh, N.C. — Last night's Fire in the Triangle battle featured two secret ingredients that really allowed the chefs to get creative – the night saw fish and ice cream combos, fish glass and honey mustard caramel.
The ingredients were exciting not just for diners, but for those involved in choosing them too.
"We've used Lusty Monk before, and people are always happy with it," Jimmy Crippen, the creator of Competition Dining, said.
As for the fish, Jimmy said it's a risk to put it fresh in the truck pantry, because the chefs might not even use it, but diners are always thrilled when it shows up on the plate. Fire in the Triangle: Midtown Grille vs. The Oxford
Tasked with pairing beverages with the secret ingredients, Deborah Williams of Juice Wine and Thomas Vincent from Natty Greene's were on hand to help diners chose a drink that went well with the dishes. I think they did well, considering Deborah said they wouldn't even give her a hint about the night's secret ingredients!
Natty Greene's is the featured brewer for this week and brought along their Buckshot Amber Ale and Southern Pale Ale. Deborah ordered a bottle of Malbec for the table, which I felt was a strong red wine, not too bitter, that went well with many of the dishes.
Chefs prepared three dishes each featuring the night's secret ingredients, although the tile fish was only required to be in two out of three dishes.
Here's a rundown of each course, reviews and results. In each round and overall, diners (the Joes) and local media foodies (the Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity and other factors. All scores are out of a possible 30 points.
Course 1: Pan Seared Grey Tile Fish, Fire Roasted Sunburst Gazpacho, Honey Basil Ice Cream, Burn In Hell Chipolte Mustard Essence (The Oxford) (Score: 17.92)
When I saw that I was getting ice cream in my appetizer, I was pretty excited. Then I remembered fish was involved...but somehow it worked. The melted honey basil ice cream toned down the spiciness of the mustard.
Diners seemed to be divided on the dish – some loved the creativity and the melding of different flavors, others felt that the combination was too strange.
"I just hope the dishes get better tonight," one diner at table 14 said, who disagreed with her table about how well the ice cream/fish combination played out.
Course 2: Pecan Wood Smoked Original Sin Rubbed Grey Tile Fish, Apple-Fennel Salad, Summer Squash Fergola, Lusty Monk Beurre Noisette (Midtown Grille) (Score: 20.24)
This was another light, summery dish that featured perfectly-cooked fish. I loved the apple-fennel salad, which brought a lighter flavor to the dish.
"There's a really nice melding of flavors here," said one of my table mates, Colleen Minton of the TerraVita Food & Wine event.
Course 3: Original Sin Mustard Poached Grey Tile Fish, Tile Fish and Smoked Bacon Tortellacci, Grilled Fennel, Vanilla-Cabernet Butter (The Oxford) (Score: 17.12)
This dish was presented beautifully, and everyone seemed to think that the vanilla-cabernet butter was to die for! Unfortunately, there were mixed reviews about the tortellacci.
My table enjoyed the pasta, and I liked it more than the poached piece of fish, but Christine, Jill and Kathy at table 10 had a different opinion.
"The sauce was delicious but the tortellacci was a little dry," they said. We agreed though, that the poached fish was a little bland if you ate it without the sauce (although it was cooked very well).
Course 4: Roasted NC Grey Tile Fish, Charred Potato, Heirloom Tomato-Burn In Hell-Shrimp Vinaigrette, Baby Zucchini, Lusty Monk-Poblano Romesco (Midtown Grille) (Score: 21.48)
Another dish, more fish – and some people thought it was too much.
"I like fish, but I've had about as much fish as I can take," one diner at my table said.
The charred potato slice offered a respite from all the fishiness for some attendees.
"After so much fish, that bland potato was a good addition," diner Kristen Glass said.
The sauce on this dish was also delicious, and was another example of how well the chefs integrated different mustards into sauces.
Course 5: White Chocolate Brioche, Altar Boy Honey Mustard Caramel, Blackberries, Tile Fish Suspended In Glass (The Oxford) (Score: 19.24)
Wow. This dish was just stunning in its presentation because of the fish glass. However, the fish taste was somehow magnified in the glass and was extremely overpowering. My table agreed that the fish glass was not so good.
"The chef probably should have poached or boiled the fish before adding it to the glass, to tone down the flavor," one of the diners at my table said.
Out of the three sauces on the plate my favorite was the honey mustard caramel, which was a good balance of mellow caramel and hot mustard.
Course 6: Lusty Monk Key Lime Pie, Sesame Tahini Crust, Cabernet-Blackberry Coulis, Almond Laced Cookie (Midtown Grille) (Score: 22.69)
This was nearly everyone's favorite dish, and it showed in the scores; it was the highest-scoring dish of the night. Who knew mustard and key lime go well together?
After the battle Chef Scott James credited his pastry chef with perfectly balancing those flavors in his dessert.
In a battle with tough ingredients, the chefs took bold moves that sometimes didn't pay off.
James defeated Hill after managing to score over 20 points on every dish he produced. He'll move on to the semi-final round and face the winner of tonight's battle.
Even after competing in another dining competition in New Orleans this past weekend, James pulled off another win, although he said he probably should have gotten more rest!
"I thought it was going to be seafood soon," James said of the secret ingredients. "There was tile fish in the first Fire in the Triangle, so it wasn't too difficult for us."
James and Hill have worked together in the restaurant business since the mid-1990s and are good friends, so this battle was a bit of a challenge.
"I know Scott James' talent, and I knew what he was capable of. The Oxford had to do better than that," Hill said. "I am so happy for him though. He's a great guy."
Unlike James, Hill said the tile fish threw him for a loop.
"I went in thinking I knew that the secret ingredient was cantaloupe, so I think I tricked myself. The mustard is a great product and very versatile, so we were happy to get that," Hill said.
The Fire in the Triangle website has more information on how scores are calculated.
Future rounds are sold out, but check with WRAL's Out and About for recaps, exclusive content and more from each battle. We are the official bloggers this year!
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.