Those of you who’ve chatted with me in the past about my hopes for the blog may know that I have been longing to be invited to judge a food event. I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon. And I finally got such an opportunity this weekend through my involvement in the Yelp community. Troy’s steampunk festival – the Enchanted City – included an Iron Chef style food competition where a few members of Yelp Elite were invited to pick a “mystery bag” of ingredients from the Troy Farmers Market. Five chefs affiliated with Troy restaurants then had 45 minutes to create a unique dish using some or all of the ingredients from the mystery bag. They could also use a few of their own ingredients.
So what exactly did our mystery bag include? The consensus going into the farmers market was that we didn’t want to focus only on tripping up the chefs with a completely bizarre item. Instead, we wanted to give them a limited selection of really high quality produce and proteins to highlight local vendors and give the chefs a good springboard for their personal creativity. We ended up picking: bacon, a semi-soft aged cheese, eggs, cream, cherry tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, cucumbers, onions, brioche rolls, a raspberry maple jam, fresh cilantro, and fresh sage. It sounds like a lot, but given the selection of fabulous looking options for sale at the market, I’d say we did a decent job at narrowing it down. You can find some more info on the specific vendors we visited in Daniel B’s writeup of the event.
Dishes were judged on presentation, creativity, and overall taste. Our unanimous consensus for the winner of the day was Chef Marla Ortega of the Illium Cafe with a blackened scallop served over a crostini with fried bacon-wrapped cheese, a crispy sage leaf, and a raspberry cream sauce, along with a side of lemon and tomato couscous and some micro greens.
The mystery bag items that I could detect in this dish were the brioche rolls, bacon, cheese, fresh sage, raspberry maple jam, cream, and cherry tomatoes. It was a dish that also had some very prominent outside ingredients (such as the scallops and the couscous). However, there was really no denying that the dish had beautifully paired flavors. It was the best usage of the brioche rolls – they were charred but still soft inside. I was really hoping that someone would play with the cheese and the raspberry flavors together, and the bacon wrapping around the cheese added another element of smoky depth. The scallop was perfectly cooked and seasoned with a nice blackened surface. I did wish that there were less outside ingredients. But man was it good.
Another really close contender for me was the dish by Chef Josh Coletto, who was representing Sweet Sue’s. The dish included a piece of brioche and sweet potatoes cooked in rendered bacon fat, a slice of the cheese slightly warmed, charred cabbage and mushrooms, a grilled egg, and a side of salsa verde with tomatoes and cucumbers.
I loved the presentation of this dish, as well as the Chef’s cooking methods. While we were eagerly waiting for the first round of plates to be served from another competitor, the judges were completely enthralled by the fact that Josh was grilling whole eggs. They were placed directly on the grill racks, shell and all, and afterwards he cracked them open and put a chunk of the yolk on our plates. It was so creative and well executed, with a little bit of runny yolk mixing with the rest of the ingredients.
Just about everything in this dish was from the mystery bag (except maybe the tiny garnish of basil on top). I really respected that Josh used so many of our ingredients. I think where he slipped behind a little bit was just that the dish seemed less cohesive than the Illium Cafe’s dish. It was more of a collection of interesting components that were plated together, instead of flavors that really melded together and complemented one another. It was also a little mild and under seasoned.
The other competitors (in no particular order) were all pretty enjoyable as well, with some strong elements in their dishes.
Chef Adryana Washock of Next Level at the Ruck presented us with a coconut raspberry glazed shrimp served over a chipotle pork fried rice with a sage, cucumber, and raspberry reduction.
Mystery bag ingredients that I could detect in this dish were the egg, cabbage, bacon, mushrooms, cucumber, fresh sage, and raspberry maple jam. Although we thought some of the sauces were a little disjointed from the rest of the meal, and the fried rice was maybe too packed with mix-ins, this dish really had the boldest flavors. There was some spice to the dish, and I appreciated that she didn’t play it safe.
Chef Brad Stevens of B-rads Bistro presented us with a platter of fried bacon and sage over a Thai-style cilantro lime slaw, topped with a hearty chunk of panko-breaded and fried cheese and a spicy raspberry vinaigrette.
Mystery bag ingredients that I could detect were the bacon, cheese, eggs, cabbage, tomatoes, raspberry jam, and fresh cilantro.
One of my chief critiques of this dish was its presentation on top of lettuce. It’s a big pet peeve of mine when a restaurant serves a dish, especially something hot, on top of lettuce for no apparent reason. I think it tends to get kind of wilty and distracting (see my previous grumbling about sad lettuce in this post). I also thought the cheese was a little overpowering and heavy, especially because it was a bit of a sharp cheese to begin with. However, everyone raved about how good the slaw was. The flavors were bright and balanced, with strong notes of the fresh cilantro and a little bit of spice. It was probably one of our favorite dish components of the afternoon.
Finally, Chef Lucie from La Petite Crepe (a recent addition to Troy Kitchen) served us crepes three ways – an “appetizer” crepe with a slightly creamy cabbage, cilantro, sage, and tomato filling; a savory “main” crepe with bacon, onions, cheese, and sweet potato; and a “dessert” crepe with raspberry jam and fresh whipped cream.
Mystery bag ingredients detected were the bacon, cheese, cream, cabbage, tomatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, fresh cilantro, fresh sage, and raspberry maple jam.
The three course meal presentation was a cute idea, and I loved how light and sweet the crepe shells were. I am now on a serious mission to check out La Petite Crepe’s stall in Troy Kitchen and have some more of these perfect things. Of the three crepes, I especially enjoyed the appetizer one, which I thought was the best component of the whole competition in terms of highlighting the fresh produce. The cabbage and tomatoes were just so crisp and fresh tasting, and the herbs weren’t subdued by any other flavors. The savory crepe was good, but mine was almost completely devoid of sweet potato (other judges had a more balanced filling). And I thought that the dessert crepe was fine as well, but more so because of the strength of the jam to begin with rather than any special additions on the part of the Chef.
The takeaways from the day (and this very long post) are that Troy has some really serious culinary talent. All of the dishes were different and creative and enjoyable in unique ways. And the experience of shopping for ingredients from the Troy Farmers Market was a great reminder of how many phenomenal local vendors are available to us here in the Capital District.