Raleigh, N.C. — Two chefs… two ingredients…but only one spot left in the quarterfinals of Fire in the Triangle 2014. Chef Steve Zanini of Jimmy V’s Steak House & Tavern in Cary faced off with chef Regan Stachler of Little Hen in Apex in the kitchen of 1705 Prime, each trying to earn their way into the next round.
The Chef Refs presented them with quite a challenge in their secret ingredients: American Cooperative Prawns and Nature’s Pearl Muscadine Grape Juice. Event organizer Jimmy Crippen was excited about the pairing. “Don Ipock of American Prawn Cooperative has been trying to get his prawns into the competitions since year one, so I can’t wait to see what the chefs do with them,” he said.
The combination turned dinner into a learning experience, both for the chefs and for the diners. For example, I know I had never stopped to think about the difference between prawns and shrimp (once they land on your plate, it really is hard to tell, but in case you’re wondering, prawns are meatier). We also learned that the muscadine grape only grows in the southeastern United States, and the juice is part of a growing number of clinical trials. The things you learn by going out to eat!
What would a meal be without a North Carolina beverage? The state’s oldest microbrewery, Carolina Brewing Company of Holly Springs, provided the featured brews of the week. Wines paired with the evening’s courses came from Biltmore Winery, Laurel Gray Vineyards, Jones Von Drehle, Adams Vineyard, and Cellars 4201. Bread to accompany the meal was provided by La Farm Bakery in Cary.
Fire in the Triangle 2014 Coverage For tonight’s competition, the prawns had to make an appearance in two of the three courses, and the muscadine juice had to appear in two of the three courses. Each course is a blind tasting, so diners don’t know whose food they are scoring. Diners (the Joes) and local media foodies and professional chefs (the Pros) grade dishes on flavor, use of secret ingredients, appearance, execution, and the items made to accompany the featured ingredients. Scores listed below are based on a perfect score of 40.
Course 1: Lime Marinated American Prawn Cooperative Ceviche, Nature’s Pearl Muscadine Gelée, Toasted Peanut & Cilantro (Little Hen) (Score: 20.92)
When the first course arrived at our table, the presentation was beautiful. A single prawn, resting on a Muscadine Gelee. The lime and cilantro played beautifully together. My only request would have been for perhaps a pair of prawns. The portion size was appropriate for competition dining situation where you will eat five more plates in the evening, however, it was no match for the approximately 3-ounce pour of Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay. By the time I took another sip of wine to test the pairing, the prawn was history.
A tweet that appeared under the #CompDiningNC hashtag was the most unique observation about this course. Scot Pressley (@great_scot) tweeted: “I think the first course was a deconstructed pb&j with shrimp.”
Course 2: Butter Poached American Prawn Cooperative & Scallop, Nature’s Pearl Muscadine & Tomato Chutney, Roasted Sweet Potato, Muscadine Candied Bacon & Fennel with a Sweet Corn Jus (Jimmy V’s) (Score: 30.14)
This was the dish of the night; the plate that (if you will pardon the pun) had tongues wagging well after the final dessert was served. Prawn and scallop poached in butter, each taking on the creamy flavor and perfect texture. The candied bacon and sweet corn added the sweet and salty to the dish, and a roasted sweet potato complemented the textures.
As an indication of how popular this dish was, the Joes scored this a whopping 32.49 – their highest of the night. As I polled tables through the night, diners kept referring back to the combinations in this second course.
“It’s really hard to cook a scallop that perfectly,” said another diner, “and that was really nicely done. Then you add in the bacon and corn and, well, you really can’t go wrong at that point.”
“I’m not a prawn fan,” said Andrew Switala of Wake Forest, “but that second dish didn’t taste like prawn at all, and that’s saying a lot.”
“If we could keep repeating one course over and over again, this was the one,” said one diner.
Course 3: American Prawn Cooperative Fumé, Grilled Corn, Lobster, Snapper and Fennel (Little Hen) (Score: 18.98)
I found a number of first-time diners in the establishment last night, many who were just as willing to talk about the process as they were the food in front of them. Steve Henley of Fuquay-Varina said the voting forced him to evaluate each bite in a way he had never done before. “My favorite part, though, is the anticipation of what going to be next,” he said.
Henley and the rest of the room had plenty of time to anticipate what was coming next as we waited for Course 3 to come out of the kitchen. The food that finally arrived was beautiful to view, but was lacking in spices. The best part of that dish for me, were the bites of lobster and grilled corn. No one at my table finished the dish.
While it was a valiant effort, it fell flat with Joes across the room. Part of the problem for many with whom I spoke was the temperature. Dishes arrived lukewarm to cold, and many diners were not familiar enough with the ingredients to know if that were intentional or not. That reflected in the scores. This received the only score below 20 in the evening.
Course 4: Roasted Nature’s Pearl Muscadine-Brined Venison Loin, American Prawn Cooperative Sausage, Seared Prawn, Purple & Yellow Cauliflower Puree, Pommes Rissolees, Muscadine & Red Wine Demi (Jimmy V’s) (Score: 29.49)
This dish was pleasing to the palate and the eye. The prawns were prepared two ways, and both were delicious. The idea to use the prawns in a sausage was novel, and the end result was also moist and flavorful. The two shades of puree added a visual depth to the plate, and the venison added a contrast in both texture and flavor.
The choice to pair prawns with venison drew cheers from Matt Gardner of Smithfield. “As a hunter, I appreciated the venison on the plate instead of chefs playing it safe and sticking to beef or chicken,” he said.
In surveying diners around the room, this was the second favorite dish of the night, albeit a distant second to the prawn and scallop dish also prepared by Chef Zanini.
Course 5: Buttermilk Cake, Brûléed Nature’s Pearl Muscadine Meringue, Muscadine Compressed Melon (Little Hen) (Score: 22.86)
The buttermilk cake was a touch of sweet without going overboard, a combination that I, for one, appreciated. Some diners were looking for something a little sweeter. For me, it paired well with the muscadine meringue atop the cake, as well as the blueberry wine from Adams Vineyard that was paired with this course for the wine flight.
Service began to pick up as the dessert courses came out of the kitchen, trying to make up time for the delays earlier in the evening. That plate had barely been cleared before the rival dessert arrived in front of us.
Course 6: Peanut Sablé Cookie, Nature’s Pearl Muscadine Gelée, Peanut Butter Ganache, Muscadine Sorbet, Honey Roasted Peanut Croquant (Jimmy V’s) (Score: 29.10)
Chocolate…peanut butter…honey…muscadine…all the elements that most diners were seeking in their dessert plate helped boost this course over the top.
Diners had nothing bad to say about either dessert, but the numerous elements in Course 6 seemed to inspire them. A first-time diner told me that her table was engrossed in a discussion of what it takes to make a sorbet and made plans to try it this weekend. A diner at another table said the peanut cookie made him think of cookies his mom used to make, and that he planned to go home and look for the recipe. Proof positive that memories are indeed sugar-coated.
The usual fanfare that comes with the introduction of the chefs and unveiling of results moved much faster than normal. Competition Dining organizer Jimmy Crippen said he had to speed it up. “We were 18 minutes behind by the end of the night. Chefs added lots of components to a number of these meals, and lots of components can slow things down. People give us their evenings, but they also want to get home, so those were some of the fastest interviews ever,” he joked after the meal.
Diners I spoke with didn’t notice, however. Matt Gardner of Smithfield called it a well-produced evening. “Whenever you get people and technology and food in the same place, there are so many places for things to go wrong, and tonight, we didn’t see a flaw,” he said. Two more diners at another table said they would stay even longer if they could get more of that second course.
That course helped make Chef Steve Zanini of Jimmy V’s the winner. Cooking with Zanini were Kathryn Overton and Brad Marsteller. Their team will now advance to take on Chef Serge Falcoz-Vigne of 518 West in a sold-out matchup on July 29.
After the announcement, I had to ask about that pivotal second course. It was hard to get a word in edgewise, though, because everyone else in the room had the same idea. Zanini was very quick to defer the praise for that dish to chef Brad Marsteller. “It was all him,” Zanini said. “That really made people happy. We overextended ourselves by putting too much on the plates in some courses, but the flavor and effort from my team made it all work."
The Next Step
When the dining room emptied and event organizer Jimmy Crippen had a moment to breathe, I asked him to give me his impressions on the four chefs who will square off in the semi-finals.
“We have four chefs competing next week,” Crippen said, “and it raises a few questions."
“First, we have three chefs who have been here before – Dean Thompson of Flights, Serge Falcoz-Vigne of 518 West, and Steve Zanini of Jimmy V’s. We have one newcomer - chef Younes Sabouh of City Kitchen. He’s keeping up so far – can he keep going?”
“Second, it takes scores consistently in the 30s to win at this level. Chef Dean Thompson has done it consistently this year. Tonight, we saw Chef Steve Zanini score in the 30s with two of his three dishes. Can he do it again, and can the other chefs reach that bar?”
“Third, Chef Dean Thompson is the reigning Fire in the Triangle Champion. Can he become the first chef in Competition Dining history to win two red jackets in a row? I can’t wait to see.”
The semi-finals begin Monday at 1705 Prime. The events are sold out, but you can find live tweets of the meals by following @WRALOutandAbout on twitter.
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.
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!