Fire in the Triad: Meridian Vs Fincastles #CompDiningNC

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About Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series: This unique 15-dinner competition dining experience has traveled across the state of North Carolina to Asheville/Blowing Rock (Fire on the Rock), Wilmington (Fire on the Dock) and Greensboro (Fire in the Triad). Raleigh (Fire in the Triangle) and Charlotte (Fire in the City) are slated for later the summer and fall.

Mark Grohman Meridian Restaurant in Winston-Salem
This is Grohman's 3nd appearance in Fire in the Triad. He was dealt an unfortunate hand of under-ripe watermelon in 2012, handily beat Chef Mack Parker of Diamondback Grill to meet his end against Chef Timothy Bocholis of Bistro B in the Fire in the Triad semifinals in 2013.
Meet Chef Mark: see video, click here

Jody Morphis Fincastles of in Greensboro
Chef Jody says,"My competitive advantage is passion, creativity and working with a little to get a lot."
This is Morphis' 1st Fire in the Triad appearance as executive chef, but 2nd time competing. Jody competed as flex chef in 2012 with Chef Kristina Fuller of Crafted and The Bistro at Adam Farms, now closed.
 Meet Chef Jody: see video, click here

Playing to a smaller crowd than any of the other nights so far, both chefs and their teams were able to put their heads down, focus on the food, and create some solid dishes for Competition Dining diners on Monday night.

Competition Dining has made a valiant effort to choose culinary professionals with discriminating palates and know-how in the restaurant business to judge each night of competition. Monday night's guest judges: Michael Hastings, Winston-Salem Journal's food editor; David Claude Bailey of O. Henry Magazine; Lemar Farrington, former Fire in the Triangle competitor and upcoming Food Network Cutthroat Kitchen competitor in May 2014; Gerald Hyatt of UNCG's Culinary Program and Shane Ingram, chef/owner of Restaurant in Durham.

The secret ingredient?

Straight from Winston-Salem: Texas Pete Cha!, a new sriracha sauce that rivals any hot sauce on the market. According to the website, Texas Pete claims:
"Some crave the tantalizing blend of spicy sweetness that makes it the perfect topping for pasta, pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers. Others can’t live without the tangy, exotic heat that works great as a secret ingredient in all your sauces, soups and marinades. No matter how you use it—in the kitchen or on the table—now is the time to Embrace Your CHA!ddiction."
Let's embrace some now.

Course 1: Lobster Texas Pete® Cha! Mascarpone Stuffed Pancake, Sautéed NC Shrimp, Roasted Ginger Pepper Demi-Glace, Raspberry Mango Cha! Puree

Presented by Fincastles
Ready to roll at 7:30PM, this course had to wait a few minutes as the secret ingredient hadn't been announced to the dining room when it was ready to be served. No matter, it was a beautiful and aromatic start to the night. This chinese-style pancake was filled with lobster, Mascarpone cheese sitting atop this sweet, gingery sauce that was beautiful on the plate. Unfortunately, my shrimp was stone cold by the time it came to the table and the greenery on the plate, a few arugula leaves, weren't dressed (meaning, they were plain and were simply washed, dried and put on the plate). The presentation of the sauce with the swirls was a nice touch, I thought. The spice of the Cha! was nearly non-existant but the subtle sweetness of Cha! was kicked up with the addition of the raspberry and mango. I appreciate there being no raspberry seeds in this dish to remind us of the fruit. I'd eat that pancake again in an instant.

Course 2: Wanchese* NC Shrimp and Lobster Texas Pete® Cha!usage, Pepperonata & Cha! aioli

Presented by Meridian
Sausage is on my personal DO NOT EAT list. This was Cha!usage, so it automatically blew away my expectations. Usually sausage comes in a casing and is usually inferior. This sausage (chausage, whatever) was neither. The shrimp and lobster sausage was made in a boudin-style. The presentation of the plate and the aioli with the dark balsamic vinegar worked together to create this beautiful symphony of sauces that made me want to lick the plate. The chausage, however, was a different story. The texture, aroma, the everything--was not my favorite. Actually, no one at my table enjoyed the sausage. Technically superior to almost everything we had during the course of the evening, I wanted* to like it. I wanted to let the spicy, tangy Cha! take over my taste buds and dance all night to the rhythm of the beat, but this was no indoor sausage festival. I focused on the pepperonata underneath the sausage (which was excellently spicy and vinegary, just like it's supposed to be) and the aioli and ate a piece of bread in silence.

*Wanchese is a fish company on the coasts of NC & VA.

Course 3: Crispy Manchester Farms Quail, Texas Pete® Cha! Peanut Mole, Old Mill of Guilford Grits Cake, Crispy Heritage Farms Cheshire Bacon, Pickled Root Vegetables, Basil Oil

Presented by Fincastles
As the lowest-scoring dish of the night, I can say it was not my least favorite.
I did not have any of the peanut mole drizzled across the quail, but I did have the grit cake. And my mom's grit cake and I may have picked off my friend's plate too. It was that good. Very buttery, very salty and very crispy, it was the best thing on the plate. The quail was not crispy and truth be told, it was a little bland. Maybe the mole would have jazzed it up. It was the only chance to taste Cha! and I didn't have any. I did have the pickled vegetables and I liked them. Almost like bread-and-butter pickles, they were my second favorite part of this dish. And even though everyone loves bacon and goes crazy over it--I didn't think the bacon matched anything on the plate and seemed to be an afterthought.

Course 4: Grilled Texas Pete® Cha! Marinated Lamb Loin, Cha! Gnocchi, Parmesan Roasted Fennel, Braised Chard, Cha! Harissa

Presented by Meridian

Lamb. Oh, Lamb! Lamb is my favorite meat! And I'm always happy to see it on any menu. My lamb was perfectly cooked, but there were reports of undercooked lamb at other tables. Raw, overcooked, undercooked--it makes no difference to me. I'll eat it however its served. The chard was a little chewy, but chard usually is, so I gave that a pass. The Cha! harissa was my favorite. The spice was tamped down (a little) by the addition of sweet red peppers and other additions. There was a little nest of Parmesan cheese on top of the fennel which took it over the top and made this course sing a special song. My fennel, however, was still attached at the root and still had the tough outer skin and that was inedible, but other than that, it was okay. And I almost forgot--because I ate them first--the gnocchi! Teeny, tiny puffs of spicy goodness. I am glad I ate them first because the spice of the harissa and the lamb would not have allowed me to taste the subtle nuances of these pasta pillows that had been sauteed and crisped up.

Course 5: Red Velvet Beet Cake, Chocolate Bourbon Ice Cream, Mint & Texas Pete® Cha! Cream Anglaise

Yup. There were beets Monday night. In cake. And I am not opposed to eating beets in chocolate cake. As a matter of fact, I went on live television and made this very same type of cake.
This cake was tasty, but a little dry. The plate presentation was a little simple and it seemed that the only Cha! was the stream of sauce circling the plate. That does not creativity make. I wished there was some Cha! in the cake itself. Or the whipped cream. Or even the superior chocolate bourbon ice cream! MAN--that ice cream! I go weak in the knees for bourbon (or whiskey) anything and this ice cream was the star of the plate. Unfortunately, the mint/Cha! sauce gets a two thumbs down. It was fresh, it was minty and it was delicious by itself, but it did not match the rest of the dish.

Course 6: Dark Chocolate & Texas Pete® Cha! Torte, Brûléed Heritage Farms Cheshire Bacon, Cha! Ganache, Cheerwine® Sabayon, Toasted Crushed Pistachios

Presented by Meridian

I'm going to need a moment of silence for the 6th and final course of night. More people should have been in the room to witness the glory of this cake.

The highest-scoring dish of the night and highest-scoring dessert so far, this is what Competition Dining dreams are made of. My portion was without pistachios, but that made no difference when it came down to the nuts (hahaha) and bolts of this dessert. The thick, rich, dense torte was dark and spicy and the Cha! lingered in the back of my throat long after my plate was licked clean. The Cheerwine sabayon was a mere afterthought as I dragged my spoon across the plate to savor everything about this course. I saved the best for last--the bruleed bacon. And how did I know it was best? No fewer than five people asked me,"Are you gonna eat that?" I thought about saving it in my purse for later, but I just sucked on it as if it were penny candy.

Chef Mark Grohman and his team prevailed and will be competing May 14 against the winner of the B. Christopher's/J. Pepper's battle on April 29.

The score of each dish and the score breakdowns course-by-course can be found here, but keep reading, eating and tweeting and follow Competition Dining on Facebook, Twitter and the web.

(Photo courtesy: Competition Dining)

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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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