Have you ever wished you could witness an Iron Chef competition first hand? Well my friend, your wish can finally be realized! On June 11, the Competition Dining Series came to the Triangle. Brought to you by "Got to Be NC", the competition pits local restaurant teams against each other in an Iron Chef-style cook off with you, the dining public as one of the judges! Tickets quickly sold out but I was able to grab a pair for last night's contest that pitted Sono (Japanese, Downtown Raleigh) against Flights (Southern Seasonal, North Hills). There was definitely a lot of anticipation before the event and even a bit of trash-talking on the nets. Chefs Michael Lee and Dean Wendel were definitely ready to bring their A-game, who would reign supreme!?!
My friend Gina and I arrived early, about 6:20 and we had some wine and cocktails before the competition began. The room was buzzing with excited foodies, ready to have their culinary senses dazzled. The choice of the 1705 Chophouse was perfect, a stylish and traditional venue with fantastic service. I had been here earlier this year for a wedding and again, the place impressed me. Emcee Jimmy Crippen entered the lounge and got everything started with a quick announcement. We filed into the dining room with our assigned table numbers. Televisions all about played clips introducing the chef teams and built up the dining excitement. Each diner is given a card with a QR code, download the i-nigma app on your smart phone and you're ready to vote! If you don't have a smart phone, you can go the old-fashioned way with a paper ballot.
But hey, I'm here to eat so let's go! The staff at 1705 was buzzing around, making sure our wine and water glasses were filled, fantastic job. I had visited the Chophouse for a wedding earlier this year and yeah, they are very service-oriented. The secret ingredient for the night is announced as noodle, wonton and otherwise. A groan goes through the crowd, Sono has got to have a leg up given their Asian cuisine background, right? We shall see...
The food courses get announced on the TV screens and you don't know who cooked up the dishes. But we all had educated guesses, I pretty much was able to figure out the team origins of each dish. If I tasted a lot of butter or saw exotic ingredients (like rabbit, truffle oil, or pomegranate), it had to be Flights. I've eaten at Sono's chef's dinners and their food tends to be a bit more subtle. The first dish of open-faced lobster dumpling was really good and flavorful, I could have tossed down a six-pack of these! The parsley chimichurri was a nice pungent counterpoint to the richness. The next spicy shrimp spring roll was also great but more subdued. Nicely prepared with a crisp wrapper and plump shrimp, it could have used more citrus flavor.
Course 3 was the grilled smoked rabbit with collard greens and fried noodle cheese. Smelled great but I felt the rabbit was a bit tough and stringy. The collards were lovely and the noodle cheese tasty but I think this dish fell a bit short in its grand ambitions. The next course, the open-faced egg ravioli with pork porcini and asparagus tips and mashed potatoes was very good. Love truffle oil but the mushy egg ravioli on the bottom ruined it for me. The overall texture was just a bit too soft for the whole dish.
The last savory dish was a soy-braised pork with sweet potato puree and crispy wonton. Very nice presentation, the pork was accented with onions and I think jalapenos giving it a slight kick. I really liked this dish but unfortunately, the rest of the dining room didn't agree with me. The final dish was the only sweets we had and so yeah, we were all excited. A pistachio crusted blackberry cake with white chocolate and pistachio wonton cigarette. Very interesting and cool, I think we were all thankful to have something sweet to finish off a great meal. I immediately knew that this one dish would probably decide the winner. By being the only sweet item on the menu and well executed, it was going to be overly-weighted in a good way by the hungry and happy audience.
The cooking teams were then brought out and introduced to the dining room. Both teams were gracious and excited to be here for the evening and they looked like they had a fun but stressful time. Flashes were popping all round the room, we're talking about local culinary super-stars, right? The Emcee comes back to announce the individual scores for each dish and drum roll please...
Flights at North Hills is announced as the winner of Competition 7, with its final dish, the blackberry cake delivering the decisive blow. And deservedly so, it was a great finish. Diners met and thanked the chefs on the way out and we all headed back to our cars, sated and happy. It was a great meal and great experience, wish I had gotten more tickets but I'll have to wait to see what happens from the sidelines. And yes, great job to Flights and Sono, You two both brought your A-game, my stomach thanks you so much, bon appetit!