I reported for duty at the Wachovia/Wells Fargo Atrium on Wednesday night for my semi-yearly stint as a judge for Taste of the Nation, the annual restaurant event that raises money to fight childhood hunger.
This year, I had a slightly different assignment: Besides eating and deciding which of two dozen restaurants got the six awards (2 for hot food, 2 for cold food, 2 for presentation), I also was attempting to Twitter live while taking pictures and notes for today's blog. That meant juggling clipboard, pen, forks, small plates, Blackberry and cohesive thoughts. When can I expect to evolve a couple more hands, Mr. Darwin?
I looked at it as a practice run for the May 2/3 James Beard Foundation Awards events in New York. My Raleigh News & Observer compatriot, Andrea Weigl, and I both are going, and we're both planning to Tweet live from two food-heavy food awards events.
How'd it go this time? I need to add my reading glasses to the above list of juggled items. Looking back over my Tweets this morning, I saw that I raved (justifiably so) about Mez' amazing miso-cured black cod, but dropped the word "cod." And my spelling of raspberry would have gotten me drummed out of third grade.
Anyway, here's a roundup of highlights. Overall, I have to say Charlotte chefs are pushing themselves hard. When the Taste of the Nation food is good, it is very good. The six judges had the longest debate we've ever had to settle on the winners.
I'm editing the dish names for brevity - chefs love to include every ingredient. We mere mortals just need the basic idea:
Cold dish: Gallery at Ballantyne, for duck confit with hazelnut brittle and pickled ramps, and Upstream for a tender ahi tuna wrap with hearts of palm.
Hot dish: Mez, for that amazing miso-marinated black cod, and Mimosa for a many-layered plate of seared diver scallop over a house-made agnolotti (like ravioli) filled with shredded pork belly and fava puree in a pool of lime-flavored sauce.
Presentation: Gallery (left), for a cool display of layered mango panna cottas and the duck confit served in eco-friendly bamboo, and 131 Main, for butter-poached lobster, seared tuna pops and accompanying sauces served in celled "boats" that looked like those paper cooty catchers we used to make as kids.
- That deft and sophisticated marinated black cod from Mez. It was marinated for 48 hours in mirin, soy sauce, sake, brown sugar and miso paste. If it had gone 49 hours, I think it would have been mush. But it was perfect, with a texture that was like fish made of silk.
- The pork belly lettuce wrap from Embers at the Westin. Hot, cold, sweet, spicy. Props for making their own kimchee and chile paste.
- The cute lineup from Art Institute (right): A choice of three tiny sandwiches (bacon, pulled pork or seared tuna) served with a small shooter of their own bitter ale. Everything was made by students, including curing the bacon, baking the breads and brewing the ale. Nice.
When French chef Jean-Pierre Marechal of Savannah Red was explaining his dessert, raspberry goat cheese ice cream on a black pepper tuille. "It is eunuch," he assured me. Come again? Oh - unique. That's a relief.
Restaurants that fall back on dishing up steam-table pastas with creamy sauces. Not only will it just be gummy pasta, people don't buy $60 tickets to eat something that tastes like it came from a bag labeled "Bertolli." It's an event - push yourself a little.