Fire in the Triad: Southern Lights Vs Meridian

Please read my blog for a nightly recap of Fire in the Triad posts to stay in the loop. You can also follow me on twitter @niksnacks and the hashtag #CompDiningNC for live updates during each battle (dinner begins at 7pm). Please also follow Competition Dining on Facebook or the web.

Round three of Fire in the Triad brought us another Greensboro Vs Winston-Salem battle. The rivalry of Tobacco Road is the most notorious battle in the state (and probably the sports world) but the real battle is in the other trinity of the state, between the county seats of Guilford and Forsyth counties.

Southern Lights Vs Meridian

Meet Chef John Wheeler of Southern Lights Bistro in Greensboro

Meet Chef Mark Grohlman of Meridian in Winston-Salem

The night's secret ingredient...


The variety of watermelons used: Melody Seedless and Sugar Baby. Watermelon is one of my least favorite foods. It's not on my DO NOT EAT list, but: I don't do watermelon. I appreciate it for what it is (a crisp, juicy member of the melon family that has texture ranging from smooth to slightly grainy and flavor ranging from sweet to slightly bitter) but contrary to popular belief, I do not like watermelon. I dislike it so much, I did not participate in the night's voting.

First course: Chilled Sugar Baby and Basil Consommé with a Watermelon Cube,
Alderwood Smoked Salt and Spiced Shrimp.
The first course was simple (probably not so much in the preparation department) and beautiful with a great watermelon aroma. To me, the best part of the dish was the shrimp. Of the first two courses, the watermelon was used best here, but drinking watermelon soup did nothing to whet my appetite. According to the voters, the diners echoed my sentiment with a score of only 50%. The judges score was much higher, coming in at 71%.

Speaking of judges, we were joined by local food writer and PR professional, Carroll Leggett and Kim Alexander of Triangle Localista. Their scores accounted for 30% of the overall score for night.

Second course: Spiced Lobster and Quinoa Salad with Red Onions, Roasted Almond Watermelon Vanilla Vinaigrette, Watermelon Champagne Broth, Crispy Pancetta
Photo courtesy:

The next course was the tastier of the first two courses and the diner's voting palate agreed with a high vote of 68%. I love quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) and lobster and having them together in one composed dish was pleasing to me. The quinoa was simply sprouted and there were some un-sprouted granules in the bottom on the plate that I thought were poppy seeds. I'm still not sure what the lobster was spiced with, as I didn't taste any spice, but the lobster was sweet and succulent.
Anything with pancetta makes it better. In this case, the salty piece of meat was just a tasty piece of garnish that didn't match with the rest of the salad. I didn't taste much watermelon flavor between the broth and the vinaigrette and that is probably why this dish scored lower than the first with the judges.

Third course: Watermelon Glazed Manchester Farms Quail with Grilled Herbed Polenta Cake,
Port Soaked Sultana-Pickled Watermelon Rind Relish
Photo courtesy:
The highest scoring dish of the night, this course deserved every point. The herbed polenta cake was absolutely delicious. When I dug into my piece, it was creamy, hot and grilled perfectly. The quail was topped with golden raisins (the sultanas) and a dice of perfectly pickled watermelon rind. Encircling the entree was the relish jus and it reminded me of watermelon-flavored Jolly Ranchers, but in the most reverent way one can be reminded of candy in an entree! This watermelon in this dish was definitely the most palatable of the whole evening.

Fourth course: Pan Seared Pink Peppercorn Rubbed Breast of Duck, Pickled Watermelon Rind,
Potato Trio-Goat Cheese-Fig-Watermelon Mousse Au Gratin, Pistachio-White Wine Béchamel
I have a short story to tell you before I talk about this dish: One Saturday morning when I was about 4 or 5 years old, I watched The Galloping Gourmet and thought that whatever he did on TV, I could do it too! While my parents were still asleep, I pretended to have a cooking show in their kitchen. I put some eggs in a bowl, sliced some cooked potato with a butter knife, poured in some orange juice, grape Kool-Aid, a sprinkle of flour, mixed it, poured it on a jelly roll pan, put it in the oven on 350... and forgot about it. The next thing I knew, black smoke was billowing from the kitchen and my parents were awakened from their slumber, very angry with me. As punishment, I had to eat what I'd cooked... and that experience reminded me of this next course.

There was so much going on, I didn't know where to start. One of the best parts about duck breast is the result of crispy skin when it's cooked. The duck was cooked well, but there was no crispy skin on this. The pickled watermelon rind was too vinegary and tart and a little unpleasant to eat. The potato (sweet, white and purple) au gratin was not executed well. The potatoes were just barely cooked but the mousse was delicious. Nearly anything whipped with goat cheese is tasty. BUT--I couldn't taste any prevailing watermelon flavors. The bechamel... well... I tasted it for the sake of this blog post, but I will only say that it tasted most like my Galloping Gourmet Failure of 1985.

Watermelon-Champagne Granita with Mint & Toasted Pignoli Brittle
The lowest scoring dish of the night, I was surprised at the scoring results. The granita was my personal favorite of the two desserts. Watermelon is light and anything frozen into a granita becomes lighter when used in this method of application. There were too many chunks of ice that did not have much flavor, so in retrospect, I understand why diners voted the way they did.

Sixth course: Balsamic & Sugar Glazed Watermelon & Cantaloupe, Banana & Mascarpone Brûlée,
Strawberry Onion Compote, Roasted Watermelon-Jalapeno Coulis

Another dish with a lot going on. This time, I knew where to start first: the brûlée. And then I wished I'd saved a little of it for the rest of the dish. The strawberry onion compote was a little tart but the balsamic and watermelon saved it. I didn't care for the coulis, but all of the flavors and textures in this dish worked. The judges and diners total score marked this course a full 10% higher than the last and I understand why.

For a side-by-side comparison of each course and the scoring break down, visit Competition Dining's website here.

With a total score of nearly 67%, the winner of Battle Watermelon: Chef John Wheeler of Southern Lights Bistro! He and his team were responsible for courses two, four and six.  Chef Mark Grohlman of Meridian and his team were responsible for courses one, three and five.

Thank you to both chefs for making me believe in watermelon again. I won't be picking one up at the farmer's market, but I have a semi new-found appreciation for it.

Stay tuned next week for the SOLD OUT August 20 battle between Greensboro's Chef George C. Neal of 1618 West Seafood AND Winston-Salem's Chef Tim Grandinetti of Spring House!

Like this post?

About the author

Nikki Miller-Ka

Nikki Miller-Ka

Ms. Miller-Ka is a classically trained chef with a BA in English from East Carolina University and a Culinary Arts Associate Degree from Le Cordon Bleu-Miami.

Formerly, she’s worked as a researcher, an editorial assistant, reporter and guest blogger for various publications and outlets in the Southeast. She has also worked as a catering chef, a pastry chef, a butcher, a baker, and a biscuit-maker. Presently, she is a food editor, freelance food writer, and a tour guide for Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours.

Leave a reply