Raleigh, N.C. — Diners got a meal and an education Tuesday night at the Fire in the Triangle battle between chefs from Raleigh's Mandolin and Jimmy V's in Cary.
"We have dined both long and well," said a friend of Mandolin chef/owner Sean Fowler before the votes were tallied.
Fowler matched talents with Steve Zanini and a team from Jimmy V's in preparing dishes with a new variety from Goat Lady Dairy called Gray's Chapel Goat Cheese.
In introducing the night's featured ingredient, a Goat Lady representative shared with diners how the cheese represents that particular terroir of the caves where it is aged.
"I was thrilled at the detail we got from the Goat Lady cheesemonger," said Jimmy Crippen, master of ceremonies for the Competition Dining Series. Fire in the Triangle: Mandolin vs. Jimmy V's
In addition to the cheesy chefs' creations, diners enjoyed selections from Gizmo Brew Works and Juice Wine Purveyors. Gizmo head brewer Tyler Cox thanked the crowd for keeping him employed, emphasizing the economic payoffs of eating and drinking local products.
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: Butter Poached Shrimp, Corn Gnocchi, Chow Chow, Gray’s Chapel Goat Cheese and Beekeeper Wheat Sousbise - Mandolin (Score 20.06)
Hungry diners were immediately drawn in by the aroma of this dish. "What an inviting smell," said Elizabeth of Raleigh.
Colleen Minton (@TerraVITAfoodie), of Chapel Hill, praised the combination of tangy and smooth. "I was impressed with the chow chow," she said. "Not everyone shared that opinion, but it was really good."
Course 2: Lobster Napoleon, Fennel Puree, Wonton, Housemade Gray’s Chapel Boursin with Crab, Roasted Pepper, Lobster, Basil Pesto, Sweet & Sour Sauce - Jimmy V's (Score 19.47)
At Table 1, they cleaned their plates quickly on Course 2. "This one had more – different tastes, different textures, and the lobster took it to a whole different level," one diner said.
Course 3: Pan Seared Certified Angus Beef® Beef Shoulder Petite Tender, Gray’s Chapel-Crab-Potato Gratin, Gizmo Black Stiletto Stout Poached Cipollini Onions, Fennel & Apple Slaw - Mandolin (Score 17.31)
The potato gratin side got more attention than the steak in this dish. Judge Benjamin Guaman, visiting from Governor's Club in Chapel Hill, found the crab a bit too overwhelming for the cheese.
As a past Fire competitor, Guaman observed, "You try to put as much as you can into each dish without jeopardizing the overall quality."
Course 4: Coffee & Dark Chili Crusted Venison Tenderloin, Gray’s Chapel Dauphinois Potato, Goat Cheese-Wild Mushroom-Japanese Eggplant Blintz, Rosemary Demi - Jimmy V's (Score 22.07)
At the end of the evening, Zanini said venison may not be a staple on North Carolina tables, but he chose it to suit the Gray's Chapel Goat Cheese. "There are not too many proteins to choose from with goat cheese," he said. So he decided to vary from the expected to produce the spicy/tender dish.
Elizabeth was impressed. She shared her steak, noting that she doesn't often eat red meat, but she dug in with delight to the venison, which she called "remarkably tender."
Course 5: Lemon Buttermilk Tart, Gray’s Chapel Crust, Blueberry Mousse - Mandolin (Score 17.61)
The reviews of the first dessert ranged from raves to complaints. Several diners called this their favorite dish of the night and awarded it 29 out of 30 points.
Steve from Raleigh was dissatisfied with the crust's texture. "It's bad when they have to bring you a steak knife for dessert," he said.
Course 6: Gray’s Chapel Goat Cheesecake, Basil Graham Crust, Crema Pastelera, Fig & Blueberry Compote, Almond Tuile - Jimmy V's (Score 18.89)
We wrapped up with the most photogenic dish of the night. "There's your photo op," diner Shannon of Chapel Hill said, calling it "architectural" and "creative."
But the mixture didn't quite meld for her.
"It's not necessarily something I would order," she said.
"I think he got carried away with technique," said diner Steve of Raleigh.
Crippen got creative with the seating for Battle: Goat Lady Cheese, seating parents of both chefs together at a table. After all six courses were cleared, none of them claimed to have an idea of who would be the winner.
"They were so equal. Either of these guys can cook for me any time," Fowler's father said.
The scores demonstrate how closely matched Fowler and Zanini were throughout the evening. My tour of the dining room revealed a different favorite dish at four different tables.
In the end, Zanini came out the winner for Jimmy V's. He will face chef Chad McIntyre of Market Aug. 6.
Both men agreed that time management was the key to Competition Dining.
"Time is huge," Zanini said. Given more time to think, plan and prepare, "I would have liked to have more components on the plate," he said.
Fowler noted that dishes he prepared in hours Tuesday might have taken days of work at Mandolin. "The beef could have used more sauce," he said.
"But we learned a lot about the process, and we had fun."
Crippen, too, noted the quiet, focused competition between two chefs new to Fire in the Triangle. "It was heads-down, working hard and quiet all afternoon in that kitchen," he 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.