|The Field of Battle||Dominic Armato|
It should be fairly well-established at this point that I loves me a good food battle. So when two food-obsessed friends throw down the gauntlet and challenge each other to a no-holds-barred cookoff to the death, not only am I obligated to attend, I'm obligated to do everything in my power to ensure their fate is in my hands.
But let's back up a bit. After a little bit of internet mudslinging, Joel LaTondress of One For Dinner and Ty Largo of UP Agency, both folks I'm pleased to call pals, made it official. They'd be facing off, each wielding three courses and a more than capable sous, at an event sponsored by Foodies Like Us. And lest you think this was some casual get-together, oh no... this was a culinary battle ready for primetime, hosted at the Wolf and Sub Zero showroom, emceed by Robin Miller of FoodTV, and catered by The Mission and others. Oh, and those sous chefs? Eugenia Theodosopolous of Essence Bakery and Matt Carter of Zinc Bistro. All of which made for a truly high-stakes experience, because really, the only thing more painful than losing a cooking competition is losing a cooking competition with production value.
|Winning the raffle is easy!||Sherilyn McLain|
The fates of these valiant competitors would be entrusted to three individuals. Andi Barness, of Sonoran Living Live. Joe Johnston, who I understand is on the verge of conquering Gilbert en route to complete domination of the valley's restaurant scene. And a third judge, determined by charity raffle, representing Foodnerdia, your humble servant, myself. ... Okay, the truth is that I wanted to wield absolute power over Joel and Ty, if only for an hour, and it seemed like a brilliant idea right up until I realized that no matter what happened, one of them would soon be seeking revenge. And you'll have your chance, sir. Soon, in fact. But that's another post for later this week, perhaps. In any case, let's just say I bought some raffle tickets. And then I bought a few more. And by the time the drawing took place, I had secured roughly a 40% chance of landing the third seat. Hey, it's for charity, right? So I took my place front and center at Judges' Table, shook hands with Andi and Joe, and once the theme ingredient -- avocado -- was unveiled, the competition was underway. I confess to watching very little of the actual cooking. I mostly spent that time chatting with Andi and Joe (exceptionally swell folks, both), but it was immediately evident that this would be a battle of contrasting styles. On Team UpAgency's (Largo/Theodosopolous) end of the kitchen, a bounty of farm-fresh product. On Team Hotdish's (LaTondress/Carter) end of the kitchen, soy lecithin and alginate (and plenty of farm-fresh product... let's kill this notion that MG chefs don't also respect their ingredients).
|Red Snapper Ceviche||Dominic Armato|
About midway through the hour, food started arriving. The first dish from Team Hotdish was visually striking, a red snapper ceviche wrapped in paper-thin strips of avocado and dressed with lime foam, microgreens, and a little bit of spherified heat -- tomato and Tabasco served in "caviar" form. So the dish was essentially an MG repackaging of a very classic flavor profile, which could work except that Team Hotdish encountered two problems. The first, completely out of their control, was that I'd just recently sampled spherified Tabasco at Alinea, and while Joel's version was quite good, I trust he won't be insulted to discover that I preferred Achatz'. So not only was the wow factor lost on me (though my judging compatriots seemed quite tickled by that element), I'd also just tried a version that popped in your mouth, gushing tiny amounts of Tabasco sauce. These were solidly gelatinous all the way through, and while delicious, didn't have that surprise punch and textural delight. The larger issue, however, was that the balance of flavors was off. The lime was too aggressive and the avocado was wanting somewhat for salt, and as a result the ceviche didn't work. There's a great dish in there, I'm sure, it just didn't quite come together on that day.
|Goat Cheese Tart||Dominic Armato|
And that was the last time I tasted an unsuccessful dish that day. Team UpAgency's first followed shortly behind, and the promise of contrasting styles was realized. Here, a very simple and elegant puff pastry tart, layered with goat cheese, zucchini blossoms, slices of avocado and tomato, seated alongside a pile of greens tossed with a simple vinaigrette. I thought the blossoms, while lovely, were lost among the other flavors, but that's the extent of my complaints. The pastry was beautifully light and crisp, and while the side of my tart with thinner slices of avocado had me questioning what the theme ingredient was adding to the dish, the side of the tart where the avocado was cut thicker made it clear. It was a gentle, creamy counterpoint to the pungent cheese -- an understated but delicious and unconventional use of the fruit. And lest all of this cheese, avocado and buttery pastry get too rich, a bite of bracingly acidic greens refreshed in between (or atop) bites of the tart. A strong and confident start from Team UpAgency.
|Turkey Meatballs with Avocado Fries||Dominic Armato|
Though I wondered if Team Hotdish's early stumble would make it impossible for them to come back, this question was quickly answered by their second dish, which was flat-out awesome. Pan-seared meatballs -- a blend of ground turkey, avocado and assorted seasonings -- was served with a grape gastrique and set next to tempura-fried slices of fresh avocado. Though turkey can be wonderful, it's one of those proteins I always regard with suspicion. When its most common selling point is that it's lean, I don't see that as a positive. But what Joel did here was actually quite brilliant. To keep such a lean meat from drying out, he blended in avocado, adding both fat and a creamy element that was also a great flavor complement. I can't say enough about these meatballs. They were outstanding. With an intense sweet-tart gastrique and perfectly executed crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside avocado fries, it was a perfect dish. Maybe bring the sweetness on the gastrique down a touch, cut the fries a little thicker to better highlight the crispy/creamy contrast, but these are thoughts so minor that I feel dirty even bringing them up. Killer dish, great use of the theme, and on my scorecard at least, the afternoon's winner.
|Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp with Fruit Salsa||Dominic Armato|
Team UpAgency came back with another strong dish, however, grilling bacon-wrapped shrimp and plating them with whole roasted fingerling potatoes, a fresh fruit salsa and huge slabs of avocado. The potatoes were beautifully salty, the shrimp perfectly cooked, the salsa a fun blend in which I got peach and strawberry (though I suspect others as well), and all of the elements worked great as a whole. On its own, I really don't know that I can find fault with it. The only downside was that in the context of the competition, the flavors -- particularly the use of avocado against a fruit salsa -- struck me as somewhat conventional. So while I thoroughly enjoyed the dish for what it was (though it didn't have the knee-buckling quality of Joel's meatballs), I thought the previous dish was a more creative and delicious use of the theme. Score round two to Team Hotdish.
|Avocado Ice Cream & Cannolo||Dominic Armato|
As time expired, desserts made their way to our table. Avocado crosses over into a sweet context quite well, but it requires a little care owing to the fruit's green, vegetal quality. Team Hotdish chose to put the avocado front and center, plating a pair of desserts -- a bacon avocado ice cream and an avocado cannolo. To ensure I got it at its peak, I started with the ice cream, and the avocado wasn't just for color. It took to the sweet beautifully, crispy bits of bacon making for a nice textural contrast and salty counterpoint (sweet and creamy always does well with salt). The cannolo, meanwhile, took a surprising and appreciated tack. Once you got past the chocolate on top and the shell itself, the filling was barely sweet at all, or at least it didn't come across as such in comparison. So the dish ended up being a nice contrast of creamy avocado, sweet and not-so-sweet, and both halves of the plate were quite tasty.
|Crepes with Blood Orange Sabayon||Dominic Armato|
Largo's dessert, meanwhile, tucked the avocado away, at least in terms of presentation. Technically, this was really a beautiful dish. Crepes were filled with avocado, fruit and mascarpone and tied into beggar's purses, which were then floated in a foamy blood orange sabayon. Though hidden, the dish certainly wasn't lacking for avocado, large chunks of which were present inside the purse. Citrus and avocado is a natural combination, but unlike their previous dish was done here in a less conventional manner. The textural range on the crepes was particularly nice, warm, soft and pliable below the purse's string, lightly crisped edges above, and saturated with the sabayon beneath the waterline, so to speak. And the flavors worked, even if I wished the focus was a little more squarely on the avocado. Another very successful dish.
When it came time to judge, each dish received scores of 1-5 for flavor, presentation and use of the avocado. And for those unaware of the result, when everything was totaled up, Team Hotdish prevailed by a single point... a result that I think accurately captures the relative strength of these two menus. At the risk of needlessly putting myself on the firing line (the judges' individual scoring was not announced), I scored it narrowly for Team Hotdish (though I don't recall the precise numbers). Their starter may have been the day's lone failure, but they came roaring back. While Team UpAgency's menu was a more evenly strong experience from start to finish, what allowed Team Hotdish to come back on my ballot was what struck me as a more creative and effective use of the theme, and the fact that those meatballs were made of turkey, avocado and pure awesome. But it was close enough that not only could the result have swung if they re-fired everything and let us judge a second time, but also I couldn't argue for a moment with a judge who scored the other way. I really was impressed by the dishes these folks put out, and I consider it an honor to have held their fates in my hands.
And now I'm in *so* much trouble when it's my turn.