I was at the annual March of Dimes Signature Chefs Gala one week ago today, and I’m pretty sure I’m still full.
Besides being a fun honor, being at the judges’ table at this event puts you in the middle of a storm of flavors, colors, tastes and food sensibilities. It’s equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming, and I can’t wait to go back next year (please!).
Although some of these dishes are unique to the gala event and won’t be found on a dinner menu, I always feel the chefs — many of the top chefs in the area — are hinting at things to come or highlighting what they do best. And who knows? Maybe if you ask your server real nice, you can get a little taste of their featured appetizer or entree at their restaurant.
Back to the gala: At the judges’ table, we first are served the 10 appetizers in rapid-fire succession, including a brief explanation of the dish by the chef who created it. After that round, we started over with a full menu of 10 entrees by those same chefs. Each dish was scored for taste, creativity and presentation.
Like I said: Whirlwind of flavor.
There were a few standout appetizers, including the charred sweet corn soup with a golden seared scallop, delicate and perfectly cooked by Rochester International Event Center’s Executive Chef Chris Hodapp. Another favorite was Grand Rounds Executive Chef Alex Sjoberg’s Minnesota-made Brussels sprouts, cooked with pancetta and topped with maple syrup, the most beautiful quail egg and parmesan cheese. My almost-winner was Rochester Golf and Country Club Executive Chef Bill Eisenmann’s warm hand-pulled mozzarella, served with summer garden tomato preserve, milk thistle and lavender focaccia.
But my top pick, and the eventual appetizer winner after all five judges’ score sheets were tallied, was Four Daughters Vineyard and Winery Executive Chef Erik Kleven’s take on a lobster roll bread dumpling. They looked a bit like crab cakes, and the creamy lobster and sweet white bread combination was divine. Add the multi-colored cherry tomatoes, kettle chips and old bay ranch, and he had me at the first bite.
Moving to entrees, I thought I was done at the very first dish served, which was a nice portion of fork-tender crispy baked pork cheek, served with yam puree, micro arugula, Fresno chili and vinaigrette, an inspired dish created by Somerby Executive Chef Kyle Stumpf.
Another standout dish was Victoria’s Executive Chef Jason Windsor with his roasted butternut squash ravioli made with sage pasta and served with a pesto and cream sauce, sun dried tomatoes and feta.
I loved Half Barrel Executive Chef Seth Essar’s Mirin-glazed duck breast, which was served with such a bright combination of flavors: caramelized Brussels sprouts, sweet potato gnocchi and lingonberry port reduction.
The winner of the entree portion of the competition — as well as walking away with the people’s choice award — was Chef Eisenmann at the Rochester Golf and Country Club. If you weren’t there to have his entree, I’m sorry for your loss. It was rolled Minnesota bison ribeye medallions, and it was served with sweet potatoes fresh from the garden, as well as fried golden kale with a local blueberry demi-glace.
Congratulations to all the chefs for strong showings again this year, and well done to all the winners! (And readers, do yourself a favor and save the date for next year’s gala. I am!)
Quick Bite notes
A few quick notes I didn’t want you to miss:
• Join me next week for dinner on Tuesday, Nov. 17, or Wednesday, Nov. 18, at ZZest Cafe & Bar for “Meatball Warzz,” the latest in a series of chef-vs-chef friendly competition at the restaurant. Three chefs compete for diners’ votes over those two nights only and the winner walks away with bragging rights. (And diners walk away satisfied.) The meatball platter (featuring three different meatballs by three different chefs) is $15; paired beers are another $12.
• For those of you wanting to get in the holiday mood before Thanksgiving (you know who you are), Caribou is there to help you out. They just released their lineup of holiday coffee/tea drinks, including a few new ones — ginger chai latte and chai nog latte, to go with their fa-la-latte, spicy mocha, and ho-ho mint mocha.