Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fire in the Triad: Green Valley Grill v. Emerywood Fine Foods

I had the extreme honor of serving as a judge at Tuesday’s Fire in the Triad event. This was a dream come true. Finally, all my hours of watching “Iron Chef,” “Top Chef” and “Chopped” had paid off. Jokes aside, I was thrilled to show off some of my culinary experience and expertise. Enjoying six courses, and thoughtfully giving my opinion on each dish was my idea of a perfect evening. As an image of Winnie the Pooh appeared on the TV screen, there was a collective “ah-ha!” among the diners in the room: the mystery ingredient was honey. Alongside my friend, colleague, and fellow judge John Batchelor, we prepared our palates for some incredibly unique dishes.

Chef Leigh Hesling of Green Valley Grill was up against Chef Jon Willis of Emerywood Fine Foods. The chefs were introduced to “Down Under” by Men at Work (perfect for Aussie Hesling) and “Kiss” by Prince. I scanned the QC code at my seat and logged in, ready to judge based on presentation, aroma, flavor, accompaniments, creativity and execution.

Photo Courtesy Diane Jackson

The first course was from Emerywood: Honey Glazed Roasted Shrimp, atop a bed of creamy Pancetta Risotto, surrounded by a silky Roasted Shrimp Bechamel, sprinkled with Fennel Dust. As I suspected, the fennel overwhelmed the shrimp, so it was difficult for me to detect the honey. The Pancetta Risotto and Shrimp Bechamel complemented each other perfectly.

Photo Courtesy Diane Jackson

I preferred Green Valley Grill’s first course: Pan Seared Breast of Quail, resting on a Fennel-Orange Slaw, surrounded by Honey Poached Cherries, with a light Honey-Ginger-Lime Vinaigrette. I didn’t mind the fresh fennel in this dish; in fact, it married well with the orange wedges. The cherries were saturated with honey, and the quail was cooked perfectly. This was a light and refreshing summer dish.

Photo Courtesy Diane Jackson

The entrée round was extremely close. Both chefs brought their A game. Emerywood hit a home run with Confit Breast of Chicken, Honey-Bacon Braised Collard Greens, Smoked White Cheddar Polenta, Honey Balsamic Gastrique, with a Bing Cherry Chutney. For a Southerner who doesn’t love collards (a sin, I know), I could have eaten an entire pot. The honey was very present, and was a delicious offset to the smokey, cheesy polenta. The dish looked like a piece of art and is Southern comfort food at its best. It should be added to their menu. 

An equally succulent entrée from Green Valley Grill presented a Honey Mocha Glazed Breast of Duck on a bed of Smoked Mushroom Farro, topped with Beet Cappelini, Crumbled Chevre, surrounded by a Honey-Blackberry Duck Jus. The Chevre was the perfect choice of cheese, and suggested a truffle flavor. Pairing honey and mocha was an unfamiliar flavor combination to me, but was executed exceptionally. This is a rich dish, perfect for a chilly fall evening, and I would pay big bucks to enjoy it again.

Photo Courtesy Diane Jackson
Oddly enough, I enjoyed the savory honey dishes more than the dessert courses. Chef Willis went for an “angels and demons” approach, with Lemon Basil Honey Sorbet Intermezzo with Crystallized Mint (angels) Blackberry Honey Couverture Chocolate Truffles (demons). Both were sinfully delicious. I was impressed with how noticeable the honey flavor came through in the chocolate, and appreciated the palate-cleansing freshness of the sorbet.

Photo Courtesy Diane Jackson

As Chef Hesling’s final dish left the kitchen, a dining companion remarked that the dessert looked “very Dr. Seuss.” A Honey Butter Cupcake was topped with Honey-Pomegranate Buttercream, filled with Vanilla Honey Mousse, sprinkled with Pine Nut Brittle, sitting on a swirl of Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce. The Dr. Seuss element was pine nut caramel “antennae” sticking out of the pink frosting – whimsical. I certainly detected the honey, but didn’t necessarily agree with the use of the chocolate – it seemed to weigh down the lightness of the dessert.


Green Valley Grill took home the win, though the battle was extremely close. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Chef Hesling after the competition. His charming personality, Australian accent and obvious passion for cooking make him a very likeable guy. I was elated to congratulate his team on their success. It was my pleasure to serve as a judge, and I would be thrilled to be asked to return.

Monday, August 20, 2012

To Rome With Love

Starring: Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, Alex Baldwin
Director: Woody Allen
Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Rating: R

I didn’t realize how huge of a Woody Allen fan I really am. After falling in love with “Match Point,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” and “Midnight in Paris,” I couldn’t resist another quirky romantic comedy, this time set in captivating Rome. In typical Allen fashion, the all-star cast and multiple storylines hold your attention and take you on a journey you definitely weren’t expecting. The relatable characters make this an interesting commentary on society, and it’s a film I’ll most likely add to my personal collection.

We’re introduced to family man Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni, whom I have missed greatly since “Life is Beautiful”). He’s perhaps the most relatable character, until he becomes an overnight celebrity for no apparent reason. Paparazzi swarm him and ask personal details about his shaving habits and his undergarments – an interesting remark on society’s obsession with people who are famous for being famous. It’s suddenly all taken away from him, and he becomes a bit manic – which happens to so many jaded has-beens in Hollywood.

Alec Baldwin plays John, a successful architect and inspiration to young student, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg.) It’s not long before we realize that they’re the same person, and though it’s not clear as to who is living in present day, John tries desperately to prevent Jack from making all the mistakes that he inevitably will, like falling for his girlfriend’s pal Monica (brilliantly played by Ellen Page.) This is the most I’ve ever liked Page, and her portrayal of a “poser” is entirely too relatable – we all know people who remember just enough from their liberal arts education to appear hip and knowledgeable.

Penelope Cruz is smoking hot as Anna, a prostitute who mistakes virginal Antonio for her client. She ends up pretending to be his fiancé all day when his family surprises him – a nod to typical Allen absurdism. His real fiancé, Milly, lost on the way to a salon, stumbles upon a movie set and into the bed of Rome’s hottest celebrity, though perhaps the bad casting was supposed to be funny – this guy and his pinky ring were absolutely nast.

Are you lost yet? Finally, Allen himself graces the screen as the curmudgeonly, recently-retired father of Hayley (a likeable Alison Pill.) Hayley is engaged to Michelangelo (who I would have moved to Rome for as well), and upon the awkward first meeting of the parents, Allen finds a project in Michelangelo’s father: an opera singer, only when in the shower. Desperate to escape retirement, he creates a portable shower stall for this new star, so that he can perform to his best ability onstage. I don't know how he comes up with these plots, but I love them.

The combination of absurd yet pleasant characters, beautiful setting and quirky music make this film an instant Allen classic, and will inspire anyone to go to Rome for some self-discovery or a love affair.

To Rome With Love

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fire in the Triad: Noble's Grille v. Josephine's Bistro

Last night, I had the honor of pretending to be a judge on Iron Chef. For all you fellow Food Network junkies, you can be jealous. Fire in the Triad is one of four regional dining competitions in North Carolina’s Competition Dining Series. The Triad’s edition follows Fire on the Rock, Fire on the Dock and Fire in the Triangle, pairing renowned chefs from Greensboro and Winston-Salem to battle it out in the kitchen. 6 courses + 1 secret ingredient = a very entertaining and filling evening.

Each chef has a team of 3 sous chefs, and access to the same food truck. They must prepare 3 dishes each, using the secret ingredient. The diners do not know ahead of time which chef has prepared which dish. Tasters vote on their smart phones, and points are based on presentation, aroma, flavor, accompaniments, creativity and execution. As for the revealing of the secret ingredient, there was no lanky Asian man yelling “a la cuisine!” – instead, we were shown a very famous movie clip from “Fatal Attraction.” Movie buffs can already guess the secret ingredient: Rabbit. I was a rabbit virgin, but I will try anything once. I was thrilled.

Our first course of the evening was prepared by Noble’s Grille chef John Bobby. I know how to pace myself at these things: if you like something, eat it. If you don’t like it, leave it alone. The problem was that I didn’t dislike any of the dishes! Wild Mushroom Agnolotti with Rabbit Sausage, Goat Cheese and House Made Ricotta, Braised Rabbit, Pickled Shallots and Carrot Nage was a wonderful introduction to rabbit. (Don’t worry – I didn’t know what half of the terms meant either, and I consider myself a foodie.) The familiar flavor of sausage and the tangy goat cheese filled agnolotti noodles, and provided a nice flavor balance to the sweet carrot sauce. Things were off to a very good start.

The second course blew the first out of the water. Josephine’s Bistro's Chris Blackburn prepared House Made Rabbit Confit & Crawfish Raviolo, Pickled Summer Vegetables, Charred Pistachio, Coconut Masala Veloutte & House Made Ricotta. This was by far my favorite course of the night – one large, plump ravioli filled with tender rabbit meat, crawfish, floating in a sea of coconut sauce made for an incredibly unique and well-executed dish. The pistachios added a necessary crunch. This needs to be added to their year-round menu.

Noble’s won my vote for the entrée round, with Grilled Rabbit Loin, Old Mill of Guilford Stone Ground Grits, Rabbit Braised Collards, Cherry Mustarda, and Rabbit Jus. Three tender rabbit loin slices lay atop creamy, luscious gouda-enhanced grits, with a bite from the cherry mustarda and unfortunately an almost too-potent vinegar flavor from the braised collards. 

Chef Blackburn must have known I’ve been missing my German food, and created this dish especially for me. Mustard Rabbit Schnitzel was served on Charred Carrot Andouille Dirty Lentils (almost too smoky for me), underneath a creamy Smoked NC Tomato & Corn Bechamel Sauce. Crispy Sweet Potato flakes were an interesting choice to sprinkle on top, perhaps not the best, but the Truffled Honey would have been delicious on anything (I assume this was a nod to classic fried chicken and honey.)

The chefs are told that dessert courses are not required, especially when the secret ingredient is a protein. They decided to accept the challenge. Half of Chef Bobby’s dessert was successful. Roasted Rabbit & Peach Glaze soaked through a Yellow Sponge Cake, topped with Diplomat Cream, served alongside Rabbit Jam and a Honey Cashew Tuile. I could not detect the rabbit in the peach glaze, which is perhaps why I enjoyed the cake so much. The cream was superb. The Honey Cashew Tuile (cookie) was a delicate accompaniment, but the Rabbit Jam was unnecessary, and (apologies), when served cold, tasted like canned pet food. Not that I’ve ever tried that.

As if that weren’t insane enough, Josephine’s tried their hand at a rabbit dessert, and in my opinion, failed miserably. Candied Leg of Rabbit sat atop Pan de Huevo, much like a bread pudding, topped with Smoked Sweet Tea Mousse, Pomegranate Molasses and Pink Peppercorn Blueberries. An RC Cola Mole Granita spiked with a ridiculous amount of cayenne was served in a chocolate bowl. These two thoughts did not merry well together at all, and I think they attempted entirely too much with all of the ingredients – pink peppercorns have a totally different type of heat than cayenne, and the RC Cola Mole Granita really hurt the flavors of the Smoked Sweet Tea Mousse. At this point, I was stuffed anyway, so I was somewhat glad to not have a mouth-watering temptation in front of me.

An evening of adventurous food and good friends made this a very special treat. As for the winner, Josephine’s edged out Noble’s in the end. This event is open to the public, but I felt very privileged and grateful to be able to give my opinion  and cannot wait for another opportunity like this.

Fire in the Triad

Friday, August 10, 2012

Print Works Bistro

The Proximity Hotel in Greensboro is a modest size (only 147 rooms!) but swanky as heck. It was the first hotel in American to achieve LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), by using 30% less water and 40% less energy than traditional hotels. As if being one of the greenest establishments in the US weren’t awesome enough, the Proximity’s restaurant, Print Works Bistro, is just as green. The ambiance, ethereal; the cuisine, divine.

A lush garden surrounds the restaurant, and inside drapes, dim lighting, and fabric-covered chairs allow you to feel you’re among royalty at tea time. The aesthetically pleasing sand and crème de menthe colors are relaxing and alluring. An inviting bar will keep you there until the wee hours of the morning. I’m on a mojito kick since having the best one of my life in Barcelona. Print Works’ mojito features a bright, natural mint syrup – a nice way to cool off from this ridiculous summer heat. Half a garlic bulb is oven-roasted, and brought to the table alongside warm sliced bread and butter. I’ve never seen this done in a restaurant, and it was a very welcome change! I went garlic crazy and let the roasted cloves infuse their potency on every bite of my bread. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – garlic does wonders for your health, but make sure both of you enjoy it before the goodnight kiss.
After discovering my love for duck about a year ago, it was hard to resist the Duck Confit Sliders. Three perfectly-sized gougere buns are topped with confit (dark meat of the leg), Emmentaler Cheese (similar to Swiss) and a shallot sauce, called a rouille. The duck was slightly sweet and plenty juicy, which is perhaps why I didn’t notice the rouille. Truffle fries are served alongside in a metal cup, atop a shmear of mashed potatoes to keep the cup from sliding all over the plate – clever. The fries were addicting (anything with truffle is).

Summer Vegetable Tart is an obvious seasonal choice, and features a buttery, flaky puff pastry filled with roasted squash, zucchini, red peppers, tomato, basil and smoked chevre cheese. The cheese provided a smoky echo to the roasted vegetables, and this dish could be classified as a healthier version of a pizza. The tart is served on a wooden plank, alongside unfortunately under-seasoned spinach.

I’m told the dessert sampler is a must, so I look forward to returning to this lovely establishment – perfect for a ladies’ luncheon, rehearsal dinner, or sexy nightcap.