Friday, May 27, 2016

Got To Be NC Competition Dining: Battle Pheasant & Molasses

If you haven't been to a "Got To Be NC Competition Dining" battle yet, perhaps my recap of last night's finale will sell you on it. I am so proud of this program - North Carolina is flush with great restaurants and brilliant chefs. Competition Dining celebrates that, and all the fabulous produce, dairy and meat we have in our great state! Last night, tensions were high, as the final two Winston-Salem competing teams battled it out. Team Miller Time (from Graze in Winston-Salem) featured Richard Miller, last year's champ, and Team Vidalia Boom (from Vidalia in Boone) had Sam Ratchford, a longtime competitor who was never quite able to pull out the win. You could tell both teams wanted the victory, but only one was lucky enough to walk away with the title of "Champion."
Excited to be here!!
The Benton Convention Center is always a great location for the Winston-Salem battles. La Farm Bakery in Cary was kind enough to provide the bread for this dinner, and let me tell you - their White Chocolate Baguette is about the most fantastic thing I've ever tasted. Well worth the drive to Cary for one (or seven.) I got to reconnect with my food industry friends, and met some really wonderful people (including the owners of JD's Market and Deli in Statesville!)

Now for the most exciting part of the night. And the secret ingredient is...
It's not often that I get to enjoy Pheasant (let alone see it on menus in the Triad!) so I was very eager to see what they had in store for us. When the secret ingredient is a protein, the chefs have to think of new and creative ways to present it to us. Special thanks to Joyce Farms for their Heritage White Pheasant and Harrill Hill Farms for their Sorghum Syrup Molasses!

Course #1: Smoked Joyce Farms Pheasant Confit; HHF Sorghum Cider Vinegar BBQ Sauce; Wheatberry Corn Pone Cakes; Tobacco Onion Rings and Dill Flash Pickles

My first bite of pheasant was reminiscent of Eastern NC BBQ, something very near and dear to my heart. The vinegary sauce was made slightly sweet with a hint of sorghum, and the sweetness was echoed in the corn cake, which also served as a bed for that beautiful mound of pheasant confit. You can put dill pickles and fried onion rings on anything and I will be a happy girl, and both the tartness of the pickle and crunch of the onion ring were perfect accouterments to the dish. I was also pleasantly surprised with the drizzle of pesto! Off to a nice start!

Photo Courtesy Bolt PR
Course #2: JF Pheasant Confit; Sausage, Pheasant Liver & Cheddar Grits; Red Pepper Cucumber Relish; HHF Sorghum Juniper Berry Gravy; Mascarpone Cornbread; Charred Sorghum Vidalia Onion Petals

The flavor balance in this dish was fabulous. The sweetness of the grits matched the sweet creaminess of the cornbread (all cornbread should have mascarpone, by the way.) The umami flavor in the gravy made this dish extra rich, though it was more like a broth, or an au jus. The pheasant was extremely tender, and I appreciated the acid in the relish, too. This is soul food at it's finest, y'all. Serve me up another bowl.

Course #3: Southern Fried JF Pheasant & Waffles; Asiago Pimento Cheese & Cherrywood Bacon Gravy; HHF Sorghum & Bacon Vinaigrette-Dressed Pea Tendrils 

Ah, the chicken and waffles craze. I'm into it, big time (have y'all been to Dame's?) Pheasant and Waffles seemed like an obvious pairing, and I was impressed with how well the pheasant was cooked underneath that crunchy, crispy crust. The fluffy waffle was lovely, of course. The gravy was super decadent - a little went a long way. I could have used a bit more of the sorghum & bacon vinaigrette drizzle to cut through some of that richness. That pop of green from the pea tendril was so small, but actually brightened the dish! At this point, some of my table mates asked "how many more courses are there?" When I replied that we were halfway through, their eyes widened. Rule #1 of competition dining is to have fun, but rule #2 is to pace yourself!

Course #4: HHF Sorghum Lacquered JF Pheasant Breast; Black Lentil Country Ham Hoppin' John; Cabbage Kohlrabi Sorghum Kimchee; White Sweet Potato, Coconut, Sorghum Puree; Sorghum Nectarine Ponzu; Pheasant Cracklin'; Green Onion

This dish was my favorite (so far.) I was really digging the Asian influences, a nice change up from the Southern flavors seen in the first 3 courses. The pheasant was perfectly moist (how in the world did they manage that for 120 diners?!) I could go on for DAYS about how glorious and luxurious that white sweet potato/coconut/sorghum puree was. It was my first foodgasm of the night. And a perfect balance to the savory sorghum/nectarine ponzu. The kimchee was definitely spicy (yay for me!) and the scallions and pheasant cracklins totally rounded out the dish. It had all the necessary components: heat, sweet, crunch, sour, umami. A++.

Course #5:  HHF Sorghum Chocolate Cake; Chocolate Buttercream; Sorghum Nectarine Ice Cream; Blueberry Coulis; Sorghum Caramel; Alderwood Smoked JF Crispy Pheasant Skin

I thought I had found my favorite dish of the night until I dove into this dessert. Granted, I have a sweet tooth, but there were audible moans from everyone at my table, and I even broke into a round of applause. I really couldn't control my reaction to this - it was unbelievable - the best Competition Dining dessert I've ever had. I'm not a chocolate fan, but this wasn't too dark, and the crumb was light and moist. The buttercream was wonderful. The sorghum caramel has ruined regular caramel for me. The sorghum nectarine ice cream reminded me that real ice cream is the best thing in the world. The citrus in the ice cream went well with the chocolate - a flavor pairing I typically do not care for. The crispy pheasant skin was the perfect addition to this salty/sweet dessert. I almost scraped the enamel off the plate, trying to get every last bite.

Course #6: HHF Sorghum Chocolate Fudge Cake; Sorghum Ran-Lew Dairy Buttermilk Ice Cream; Outer Banks Sea Salt Honey Brittle; Blueberry Sorghum Reduction; White Chocolate; Marcona Almonds, Sorghum Chantilly

Photo Courtesy Bolt PR
The last two dishes were SO similar, which may or may not have been a good thing. It was very easy to compare the dishes and decide which chocolate cake was better; which ice cream was better; which fruit sauce was better, and course #5 just had slightly better everything. This fudge cake was too dense for me (I even had to use a knife to get through it!) and the blueberry sorghum reduction was a bit too sour, making me pucker. I adored the crunchy sea salt honey brittle and the velvety buttermilk ice cream, but the plate just didn't quite match the awesomeness of course #5.

The votes were in, the ballots were cast, and by a mere 2 points, Vidalia Boom edged out Miller Time for the win! Not to play favorites, but I admit I was secretly pulling for my hometown restaurant and friend Chef Richard Miller, but I have dined at Vidalia in Boone, and they certainly know what they're doing in the kitchen. Congratulations to everyone who competed, and I can't wait to see what the Greensboro battles have in store for us! See you at the next one!

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