Raleigh, N.C. — The Cha-Chocolate theme caught on like wildfire at Fire in the Triangle Monday night.
The secret ingredients were TW Garner’s Texas Pete® Cha! Sriracha and Hendersonville’s Mona Lisa Chocolate in three flavors: milk, dark and white. The menu items allowed for some creative flexibility and met with thoroughly agreeable applause from diners.
The chefs tasked with battling it out with these two secret ingredients were Sean Fowler of Mandolin in Raleigh and Steve Zanini of Jimmy V's Steakhouse and Tavern in Cary.
Everyone at our table anticipated the various interpretations of these two fun ingredients that might lie in store. Alan Mason of Big Boss Brewing was present, as they provided the beer tasting flights of the evening with Angry Angel, War Hawk, Bad Penny and Helle’s Belle. Several North Carolina vineyards provided the six wine tasting flights for the night. Joyce Adams of Adam’s Vineyards was on hand to greet the crowd. They provided the blueberry wine served with course five. It was moderately sweet with some complexity and surprising subtlety. Pate Dawson Southern Foods is the main sponsor of the event, among other North Carolina companies and producers.
One couple at our table, Joan and Michael Kaufman, were celebrating their anniversary for the evening. They received a Got To Be NC goodie bag with wine glasses and a full-size bottle of Texas Pete® Cha! Sriracha sauce. That is a lot of Cha-ching!
We had a lively bunch discussing the varied flavors and favorites of the night! It took some time for things to heat up, course-wise. Fire in the Triangle 2014
Though it originally hails from Si Racha, Thailand, the bright red fermented chili sauce we know as Sriracha now has different personalities. All have a degree of heat, but some are more garlic heavy, and others are more chili pure. In keeping with their tradition, the Texas Pete Cha! version is balanced with heat and flavor. Most of the diners I talked to were very excited to get that Sriracha kick in the palate for the evening and expectations were high among pro-judges as well for a spiced-up night! The Mona Lisa chocolate element added some sweet richness to the menu, as each team skillfully brought out different layers of flavor.
Each chef had to create three dishes using both secret ingredients. It was a blind tasting, so no diners knew who made what. 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. The scores listed are the final scores for each dish. Scores are out of 40 points.
Course 1 - Pan-Seared Scallop, Texas Pete® Cha!-Gingered Corn, Mona Lisa White Chocolate NC Sweet Potato Purée, White Chocolate Scallop Noodle, Cha! Brown Butter (Jimmy V’s) (Score: 28.787)
This dish was very creative, especially with the white chocolate sous vide scallop ‘noodle.' Most of the diners I talked with loved the Texas Pete® Cha!-gingered corn and other components of this dish. However, many of us were not as agreeable over the scallop. It was seared on the top only, and while the texture was okay, this was much like a steak, in which tastes will vary. I preferred mine seared on both sides for texture, and quite a few voters were nonplussed over this.
However, as Pro judge Luca Annunziata of Charlotte's Passion8 realized, with the crush of preparation, double searing could have been less possible, and not all prepare them in the same manner. The ‘Joes’ were a bit more forgiving than the ‘Pros’, and this was the first of four dishes during the evening with a larger than 4 point discrepancy of opinion between the two groups per dish. The discrepancy widened as the night progressed.
Course 2 - Roasted Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Tenderloin, Texas Pete® Cha! Mole, Stone Ground Old Mill of Guilford Grits, Wilted Swiss Chard
(Mandolin) (Score: 26.210)
Once again the house was divided, this time concerning the doneness of the pork. After the scallop, I was relieved. Mine was just pink in the middle, not runny or reddish, and very tender. Up to this point, the majority of the diners I talked with preferred the pork dish, but the scores tell a different story! I was most looking forward to the mole and grits together! What a perfect concept! I was so excited!
This one hurt my feelings a bit. Mole, such as mole poblano or mole negro, originated in Mexico and is a roasted and ground chili and seasoning mixture with anywhere from 20-30 ingredients of different taste categories with chocolate added, usually at the end. It is not usually an overtly sweet sauce, and is certainly not a gravy. A true mole can take up to 24 hours to prepare! One would not expect that with their time constraints. However, this had a strong flavor of bacon drippings which seemed odd and out of place. While the Texas Pete® Cha! cut some of the heavy richness nicely, it could not replace roasted and ground spices. A good mole is a wonderful thing.The grits were roundly delicious and the mole did not overpower the pork. The wilted chard was under the dish, and was also quite good.
Pro judges Chef Kristen Miller of Vittles Food Truck and Lesley Stracks Mullem of Taste Carolina Tours each noted that “more spice” and “more seasoning” was expected early on this evening. Note this is not necessarily more heat! But with Sriracha and chocolate as secret ingredients, our taste buds were prepared for an adventure! Olé!
Course 3 - Pan-Seared Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast, Texas Pete® Cha! Wine Sweet & Sour, Mona Lisa Dark Chocolate Forbidden Rice, Grilled Scallions (Mandolin) (Score: 22.433)
Here again, the concepts originated were wonderful. As we read the dish description off the screens, a buzz went through the room and I turned to one of my table mates, Alan Mason, to describe that Forbidden Rice was black rice, which is delicious, and the idea of adding dark chocolate was phenomenal. We all kept our seats as the plates were handed out. Plus, all one must do is mention the word, ‘duck’ to a diner and feet become grounded and napkins are tucked under chins.
The presentation was stacked with the meat on top and rice on the bottom, and in my excitement I dug into the rice first. The rice had that filling texture and nutty flavor, but the chocolate and seasoning gave it an unpleasant bitterness. I tried each element together, and still Joan Kaufman and I agreed that the dish was not what we expected flavor-wise. Also the flesh of the duck was lacking seasoning.
For the sauce, a more Asian take with a cornstarch-based sweet and sour would have killed with those flavors of Sriracha and wine. It would also have thickened nicely and held onto the meat instead of leaching into the rice and running on the plate. I don’t think it had time to reduce. I got a grilled scallion in between the two and it had a nice flavor. As host Jimmy Crippen declared at the end, it was really a shame, because “one dish can make or break you." This dish had so much potential, and unfortunately voters and judges agreed closely that it was not a favorite. It got the lowest score of the night, but it was such a great idea though!
Course 4 - Texas Pete® Cha! Peppercorn Seared Elk Loin, Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork and Elk Sausage, Himalayan Red Rice, Yellow Beet Purée, Shiitake & Mona Lisa Dark Chocolate Demi-Glace (Jimmy V’s) (Score: 29.442)
The aromas coming from this plate were divine. Every element on the plate harmonized: meaty, savory, umami, sweet, sour, and salty…in short, even though the elk loin was slightly underdone, it didn’t detract. It was truly good. The red rice was absolutely delicious. One diner commented the beet purée added an “earthy component” and such was the case. Also at our table another question mushroomed. There may have been shiitake influence in the demi-glace. Nevertheless, the thin, light-yellow, slightly pickled variety that was placed on the dish was enoki, and they were delightful.
Course 5 - Brown Butter and Mona Lisa Chocolate Marble Cake, White Chocolate and Sweet Corn Ice Cream, Texas Pete® Cha! Fudge Sauce, Big Boss Angry Angel Macerated Blueberries, Roasted Peanut & Oreo Bark (Jimmy V’s) (Score: 29.691)
This was another favorite of the night. The components harmonized so well. We could smell the brown butter in the cake, and the chocolate flavor was not overdone. The white chocolate and sweet corn ice cream was incredible and subtle. The macerated blueberries were not too strong with the flavor of beer. The only caveat here was the unexpected chocolate bark under the ice cream, but this thoughtful bonus kept it from melting into the cake and prevented sogginess.
Course 6 - Mona Lisa Chocolate Tart, White Chocolate Passion Fruit Mascarpone, Blood Orange and Pine Nut Brittle (Mandolin) (Score: 25.507)
This dish was delicious. The chocolate flavor of the tart was pure and rich. The mascarpone had a nice hint of fruit and was refreshing and light. The nut brittle had an odd flavor, but broke well, suggesting the sugar content was not too high and it was not overcooked. The chocolate was actually so strong and rich in this tart, that most diners did not finish it.
As I polled the room I checked in with Triad Foodies Kristi and Mark Maier, pro judges, as well as various voter tables around the room, and one thing became clear. Dishes 1, 4, and 5 were crowd favorites. The most consistent were 4 and 5, or the elk and the brown butter and chocolate cake.
The table next to us had a special reason to be excited! Bootsie Harris, the mother of Katherine Overby was thrilled to support her daughter at Jimmy V’s. When they came out to huge applause (before score announcements were made) Overby stopped to hug Mom. She made Mom proud as Chef Steve Zanini of Jimmy V’s in Cary was announced the winner, and the thrill turned to euphoria.
Congratulations to the team at Jimmy V’s Steakhouse and Tavern, and to all who participated and made this a memorable night! Talking with Jimmy Crippen, he was empathetic with Chef Sean Fowler, as this was the Chef’s second Competition Dining participation year and his third time facing Chef Zanini competitively. The team made a great effort and had some beautifully inspired ideas. As for the events themselves, Crippen brought out that it will take time to grow and reach his ultimate goals. But the friendly battles push the best in the state to achieve, and elevate culinary expectations of diners. Honk if you see them on the road!
Team Jimmy V's Steakhouse will take on the winner of Tuesday night's battle - Coquette or Little Hen - during a sold-out battle on July 22.
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!