Raleigh, N.C. — The Fire in the Triangle competition dining series came to a close Monday night with an epic finale involving steak and beer.
Fullsteam was the featured brewery for the night, and owner Sean Lilly Wilson had just finished filling us in on the beverage selections for diners – the Hickory smoked Hogwash, El Toro classic cream ale and Cackalacky ginger pale ale.
Chefs were given Fullsteam's Hogwash and El Toro to work with.
The night's second ingredient wasn't much of a surprise. Small brochures about Angus Beef were siting at each place-setting alongside four steak knives. Now, steak knives have been the norm at each meal regardless of the secret ingredient, but they lead to a few diners guessing steak is on the menu.
Specifically, chefs were tasked with using Certified Angus Beef Coulotte Steak in at least two of their three dishes. The beer had to be used in all three.
After the announcement of the ingredients, food blogger Jack Nales (@JackNales) declared it a "perfect night."
Both chefs said expected red meat to be coming up soon in the competition, so they planned accordingly.
Host Jimmy Crippen said the kitchen was the quietest it has ever been during this battle. Both chefs were focused and working.
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: Hogwash & Cackalacky Hot Sauce Braised Certified Angus Beef® Coulotte Steak, Herb Goat Cheese Grits, Mushroom Ragout, Mushroom Essence Cream, El Toro Drunken Bing Cherries
(Flights) (Score: 21.51)
Professional judge for the night Scott Howell, chef and owner of Nana's in Durham, said this dish was "out of sight." He really enjoyed the flavors.
Wilson called this a "fun dish" and really enjoyed the use of Cackalacky. "It was almost like a barbecue take on the steak," he said.
The 2012 Final Fire winner Ryan Payne of Weathervane commended the dish for its simplicity and "letting the ingredients speak for themselves."
The drunken cherry got a lot of attention from diners, many of whom loved its tart kick in contrast to the goat cheese grits.
Overall, the first course was a solid hit with diners, but table one's diner wanted to taste more beer.
Course 2: Smoky Hogwash Marinated Certified Angus Beef® Coulotte Steak,
El Toro Balsamic Onions, Andouille El Toro Creamed Corn, Tomato Jam, Potato Leek Hash, Hogwash Ashe County Herbed Cheese Demi (Flights) (Score: 22.10)
"There is too much going on on the plate for me personally," Payne said.
Diners really enjoyed the tomato jam on this one. Another nice element - the kick from the Andouille El Toro creamed corn.
Table 20 really enjoyed it, with diner Laura Visokas saying she really tasted the beer in it.
Course 3: Hogwash & Garlic Grilled Certified Angus Beef® Coulotte Steak, Hogwash Grits Dumpling, Buttered Field Peas, Beer Stewed Heirloom Tomato, Parsley Nage (Midtown) (Score: 15.86)
This course was polarizing for many diners. Howell pointed out that the peas weren't done and should have been creamy. He also found the beef to be tough and not cut properly.
Payne and other diners agreed with Howell's assessment, adding that the tomato flavor overpowered the entire dish.
Another puzzling element about this one - the dumpling was more like a grit cake and a dried out one at that.
Course 4: Full Steam El Toro Braised Certified Angus Beef® Coulotte Steak, Roasted Carolina Sweet Potato, Poblano Butter, Smoked Cipollini Puree, Beer Gravy (Midtown) (Score: 21.44)
The flavors in this course delighted diners, but couldn't outdo the first two courses, which diners were still talking about.
The sweet potato was just too much for one diner, who tasted more of that in the dish than the secret ingredients.
The execution of this dish was also an issue with Payne who noted the technical mistake of leaving the skin on the potato.
Course 5: “Homer Simpson” Beer, Coffee & Doughnuts, Beef Cake & El Toro Tiramisu, Banana Ice Cream, Hogwash Caramel, Chocolate Glazed Krispy Doughnut, Beef & Wonton Sprinkles (Flights) (Score: 20.24)
When the first dessert course arrived, diner Kevin at table one exclaimed, "This is like Christmas."
The sight of ice cream, a doughnut and cake was definitely needed after the beef-heavy evening. And it was nice to have the beef still make a brief appearance.
Thompson said he wanted to have a variety of items in this course in order to increase its appeal with diners.
Diners loved the banana ice cream, but some were disappointed by the doughnut, which they called bland.
For Donna at table one, it was all about the caramel, which she described as "crazy good."
Others thought the dish was too sweet.
Payne wasn't a fan of the complexity of it, saying he would have rather seen something more simple, but applauded its creativity. At this stage of the game, he said, you have to get creative.
Course 6: El Toro Cream Ale Crème Brulee, Pistachio Crusted Pistachio, White Chocolate Stuffed Strawberry Marshmallow, Shortbread Cookie (Midtown) (Score: 20.30)
"The pistachios are insane," said table one diner Donna.
Another favorite element of this dish was the beautiful mound of marshmallow and white chocolate covering the strawberry.
Again, tasty but not the secret ingredient
Payne felt the chef played this dish "too safe."
Many diners found that both desserts didn't have as much beer flavor as they would have liked.
On this particular dessert, Wilson said he would have loved for the chefs to have had access to the brewery's Cackalacky beer and its ginger tones.
"It's the finals, there isn't going to be a bad dish," Dean Thompson's wife, Ashley, said. Overall the night was a success for diners with only one dish failing to score 20 or above.
In the end, Thompson, a former basketball player, defeated James for the title.
Thompson and his teammates Anthony Zinani and Matt Thompson were each awarded the champion red jackets, a $2,000 check and a handmade chef knife by Ironman Forge in Charlotte.
This wasn't James' first battle involving steak. He faced off against eventual Final Fire winner Ryan Payne of Weathervane last year in a battle involving Certified Angus Beef. During that match-up, Payne's team created the highest-scoring dish of the night - a dessert involving a doughnut.
"For the second year in a row, I lost to a doughnut," James said with a smile.
James joked if he sees another doughnut next year, he might just leave.
For host Jimmy Crippen, the night and the series was a success.
"We had two valiant warriors and it was anyone's game," Crippen said. "This is what it is about - great food, great sportsmanship."
Fire in the Triangle is part of the Got to Be NC competition dining series. In November, Thompson will 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 Final Fire takes place at the Renaissance at North Hills, which houses Flights. That means Thompson will have a home kitchen advantage.