Battle Crab: Fire in the Triad Semifinals

Welcome to the second of two blog posts devoted to the Fire in the Triad Semifinal dinners.

Please follow me on twitter @niksnacks and the hashtag #CompDiningNC for live updates during the FINAL FIRE IN THE TRIAD battle on Tuesday, September 25 (dinner begins at 7pm).
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Chef Michael Harkenreader of Undercurrent in Greensboro and Chef John Milner of Milner's in Winston-Salem met to see who would join Chef George Neal of 1618 West in the Fire in the Triad Final.

To quote Brian Clarey, editor of Yes Weekly and former Fire in the Triad judge,
"Two chefs enter, and one chef leaves, like Thunderdome, but with white linen and a wine list."
Garland Fulcher Seafood Company of Oriental, NC provided tonight's secret ingredient. In business for over 70 years, this business operates with a mere 40 employees and provides flounder, scallops, oysters, snow crab leg, soft-shell crab, shrimp and more to retailers in the Southeast.

The night's secret ingredient...

NC BLUE CRAB: lump, back fin and claw

Course 1
Seafood Sausage, Jumbo Lump Crab Snow Pea Bacon Salad, Basil-Brown Sugar Mustard

Presented by Chef Harkenreader, this was the first time I've ever had seafood sausage. I'd seen it on Top Chef Miami, but this sausage was more glorious than I ever could have imagined. Stuffed in a sausage casing, the sausage was delicious and matched perfectly the snow pea salad. The smoky bits of bacon in the salad married with the basil-brown sugar mustard. Tangy and sharp, it was a complete contrast to the creaminess of the lump crab and sausage. I thought about this sausage all night. 

Course 2
Chili Glazed Sea Scallop, Carolina Crab Salad, Jalapeno-Radish-Snow Pea Slaw, Lemon Aioli

Presented by Chef Milner, this course was a favorite among diners at my table. The sea scallop was the star of this dish. Expertly glazed (yay) with a sweet, thai chili-esque sauce, it was hot, sweet and a bit spicy. The slaw was a nice division between the hot, sweet scallop and the crab.The crab salad did not taste like much of anything, except canned crab. I understand not wanting to mask the sweet, succulent natural flavor of crab meat, but it really didn't taste like anything. The lemon aioli was tangy and I wished there was more of it so I could flavor my crab with it.

Course 3
Roasted Veal Eye Round, Potato Crab Brandade, Sauce Gribiche, Pickled Beets, Baby Vegetables

Not my favorite course of the night, I tried taking multiple photos of it to make it look more appetizing (and I failed). And my nemesis, beets, were back.

Veal eye round on the menu made promise of a tender cut of beef, pleasantly pink and perfectly prepared. The veal was indeed pink, but the only part of the dish that I liked. My beets soaked into everything on the dish and like a petulant child, I refused to eat much of the plate. BUT--I loved the brandade (a mixture of potatoes and crab in a croquette form [no breadcrumbs though]) and the sauce gribiche (just like tartar sauce with the addition of capers and hard-boiled egg).

Course 4
Sauteed Crabcake, Manchester Farm Quail, Roasted Baby Squash, Raspberry Mustard, Chive Mousseline

Due to technical difficulties, this course was completely finished by the time we were told the components of it. The first quail of the competition that was not overcooked, I enjoyed the seared, juicy breasts swirled in the tart raspberry mustard and the elegant chive mousseline (Mousseline is a hollandaise with the addition of whipped cream; That is, heavy cream that is whipped, not Cool Whip. The roasted squash (zucchini and pattypan squash) here were well-prepared and better than in the last course and the star of this dish. The sauteed crabcake was classic and I ate it before I could really savor it.

Course 5
Popcorn Crab Fritter, Chocolate Sponge Cake, Roasted White Chocolate Mousse, Pecan Buttercream, Toasted Meringue

Photo courtesy: NikSnacks
I am allergic to pecans and the aroma filled the room so I had to sit in the lobby of the The Painted Plate while this course was being enjoyed by everyone else. The promise of roasted white chocolate mousse made be reenter and ask the diners at my table about this dish.

I flipped off the top layer of pecan buttercream, meringue dish and crab popcorn balls to reveal the white chocolate mousse and chocolate sponge cake. Sweet, deep and rich in flavor, the mousse was the star of the dish. The crab balls seemed to be crusted in grits and did not have much flavor. After I salted them and dipped them in the mousse, all was right with the world and I fell under Chef Harkenreader's spell. The highest scoring dish of the night, it was the most creative and visually appealing.

Course 6
Little Crab and Ashe County Cheese “Cake”, Apple Relish, Cayenne-Kiwi Sorbet

Chef Milner presented the last course of the night. I think diners were disappointed that it was not as sweet or visually appealing as the previous course. The "cake" was a biscuit that cradled the mixture of crab and Ashe County cheeses. When paired with the cayenne-kiwi sorbet, the contrasting textures, temperatures and flavors made this dish work. The tart apple relish was an appropriate accompaniment to the sorbet, but not the crab "cake".

As you can see below, the professional judges and the diners were tough critics. 

Graph courtesy of Competition Dining. Click to enlarge.

The night's judges were: Chef Eric Kirkeeng of Bermuda Country Club, Chef Dennie Veasley and Heidi Billotto of Charlotte Living Magazine.

Chef Eric and me. I worked for him at Noble's Grille.  My first professional cooking job. Ever. Talk about full circle!

In the end, it was Chef Harkenreader of Undercurrent that prevailed. Congratulations, Chef!

1618 West meets Undercurrent on Tuesday, September 25 at the Fire in the Triad Finals.

So 13 chefs have been knocked out of the competition and only two remain! Stay tuned for live updates and Competition Dining highlights.

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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.

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