On May 14th I was excited to once again be a judge and special guest at Competition Dining’s Fire in the Triad! This was no ordinary Fire in the Triad battle, but the quarterfinal battle between Chef Mark Grohman and team of Meridian Restaurant in Winston-Salem and Chef Chris Russell of B. Christopher’s restaurant in Greensboro (formerly of Burlington), NC.
Meridian Restaurant is a local favorite here in Winston-Salem, for good reason. Though I haven’t had a chance to visit B. Christopher’s restaurant in Greensboro yet, the samplings I’ve had of Chef Chris Russell at Fire in the Triad battles are great incentives to put it on the top of my list to visit next time I’m in town. A great bonus to these events is hearing the chefs’ backstories.
Secret Ingredient: Chestnut Flour
Most all of the North Carolina foods for Competition Dining are provided by Southern Foods. The secret ingredient for this battle was High Rock Farm chestnut flour. High Rock Farm is located in Gibsonville, NC. As one with family members with gluten allergies, I, for one, was excited to see the creative ways the chestnut flour would be used. However, neither chef seemed too thrilled about the chestnut flour challenge, as it was the first time for both using the flour, but they both stepped up for delicious and creative results in this “Iron Chef”-style competition.
First Course: Poached Lobster and Andouille Sausage, High Rock Chestnut & Cheese Grits, Chestnut Flour Tempura Asparagus (B. Christopher’s).
This savory Southern dish was a big hit at our table. You’ve never had cheese grits like this, but the chestnut flour made them a welcome and hearty compliment to the spicy Andouille sausage and the chestnut flour coated asparagus tempura was a delicious surprise.
Second Course: Little River Crab and Mascarpone High Rock Chestnut Pyramid, Red Oak Chestnut Battered Lobster Claw, Melted Leek Fonduta, Chive Oil (Meridian).
The “pyramid” dumpling was a creative use of the chestnut flour, and though tougher than your usual flour pasta, it had great flavor. But the use of the chestnut flour in the Red Oak beer batter for the lobster claw was a favorite and no one was complaining about a second course of lobster!
Third Course: Jamaican Jerk Style Pulled Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork, High Rock Chestnut Jalapeño Corn Fritter, Jicama, Fennel and Red Cabbage Slaw (B. Christopher’s).
Presentation was lacking in this dish, and I think the scores showed this, but the delicious savory-sweet jerk pulled pork made up for it. Although the description of the corn fritter sounded great, it was a little disappointing, while the red cabbage slaw added nice color and crunch.
Fourth Course: Grilled Herb-Marinated Venison Loin, High Rock Chestnut Spaetzle, Chestnut Roasted Carrots, Red Wine Coriander Reduction (Meridian).
Schlemiel, Schlimazel, Spaetzle & Venison Incorporated! What is spaetzle? Folks at my table wondered, even after tasting it. Literally, “spaetzle” means “little sparrow,” but “culinarily,” it is a type of egg noodle or dumpling found in German, Austrian, Hungarian and Swiss cuisine.
The chestnut flour spaetzle was a nice, hearty – though chewy – complement to the beautifully presented venison and roasted carrots, though the venison was the star of this dish. My venison was quite rare while another tablemate’s was quite well-done. Still, this dish was a favorite at my table, myself included. The red wine coriander reduction was a saucy cherry-on-top.
Fifth Course: Chocolate High Rock Chestnut Cake, Fresh Mint Ice Cream, Chestnut Whipped Cream, Bing Cherry Sauce (B. Christopher’s).
This dessert was like an upscale ice cream sandwich, complete with fresh minty ice cream between two slices of thin, firm slabs of chestnut flour “cake.” Everyone was impressed and I thought it would be hard to beat… until it was, in my opinion – despite the fact that this dessert received the higher score between the two.
Sixth Course: High Rock Chestnut Opera Cake, Bourbon Caramel, Cheerwine-Raspberry Coulis, Coffee Buttercream (Meridian).
Let’s talk nut cake. I was very impressed with the chestnut flour opera cake. I’ve made and had lots of cake made with gluten free flours, mostly almond. So, I’m very aware and accept that any cake made with nut flour is going to be denser and grainier, rather than the fluffy processed wheat flour versions to which we’re accustomed. Perhaps this is why I was more impressed than other guests at the great job Chef Mark Grohman did in making this cake as fluffy as he did, and preventing the dryness that usually comes with a nut flour cake, with the layers of coffee butter cream. The bourbon caramel was so good we discussed bottling it at my table and the only bad thing about the Cheerwine coulis was that we wished there was more. (I confess, I “sopped” my sauces up with my cake, a practice I usually strictly reserve for my biscuits alone.) Both desserts were wonderful, but I was surprised this one didn’t rank higher.
As our host, Jimmy Crippen, thundered, “It almost always comes down to the dessert!”
But this time, Chef Grohman and his crew from Meridian Restaurant still achieved sweet success and prevailed despite their dessert score. Congratulations to Chef Mark Grohman and Meridian on your delicious win!
Competition Dining Fire in the Triad runs through June 2nd. For tickets and more information, visit competitiondining.com.