By Greg and Michael
On a night when the gales of November returned (after a few day hiatus of warm weather), Bill Crouse, of Sotto Sopra joined a competition. A veritable battle between local chefs, using the ultimate culinary battleground (or tool/weapon?): Pork.
The idea behind the Taste of Elegance Pork competition is to showcase local chefs using Pork in inventive, creative ways that still capture the essence of the pig itself. This being said, there were 10 stations with 10 very different styles of cooking pig. The evening also involves vendor showing off some Petit Sirah styled wines from several different wineries. Chefs were competing in three categories: Judged on their meals by food critics, judged best pairing with a Petit Sirah, and judged by popular vote of about 300 people. So, so go through the event, Mike and I will list the foods/wines and our individual opinions regarding them each, in no particular order.
First station was Ben Simpkins of the Bay and Atlantic Club, featuring a Sous vide butterscotch glaze, suckling pig chop with a house cured bacon roulade.
- Greg Bissonette: whew, that’s a mouthful to say/type. But when it came to the food, I have to give this a big pass. Now, granted I did eat this station later in the night and the chef had prepared three plates and left his station, so I picked up one of the plates, though I had heard good.. “good” things about this dish. To me, it had a kind of gross, old old old hotdog flavor, like stale boiled hotdog water permeated the food. I was not a fan of this dish at all.
- Michael Mohammadi: This was one of the tables that many people kept recommending to me, so I headed over with great expectations. Unfortunately, it did not live up to those! I think the dish got lost in the complexity of what it was trying to accomplish, in the process losing its identity and just falling short.
The Second station was by Chef Ontaria Kirby, of the Water Table Restaurant at the Renaissance Harbor Place Hotel, feauring a Roasted rack of Pork, cured pork belly heirloom bean ragout and homemade pork & happle sausage and smoked ham hock jus.
- Greg B: once again, a mouthful to say/type… but I think they made up for their lack of flavor in the amount of words used. The unfortunate choice of meat for this group, the chop did just what you might expect it to do when cooking for 300 people over a few hours: it dried out. Now, the pork wasnt great, but the ragout was awesome, a bit spicey, nice texture and moisture content. I was pleased with that for sure!
- Michael: Fatal error- a lean pork chop served to a large crowd over the course of hours…didnt Chef Kirby watch the last season of Bravo’s Top Chef (a contestent made this same mistake)? While I enjoyed the bean ragout and would love to have a plate of the homemade sausages for football on Sunday…this dish was doomed before it even hit the pan…dried and tough.
Third station was Mark Chew, of the Bay Hundred Restaurant, featuring Vietnamese baby back ribs.
- Greg: This station was great. The ribs has been simmering in a sauce for I dont know how long and were tender as anything, with a lovely sweet flavor that had a nice amount of spicey-kick right at the end. It was served with another rice which was sweet and delicious, not too dry or too wet. I felt it was a great shame that Mark Chew did not win any of the competitions, as this was certainly the second best meal in the entire pork dinner event, hands down.
- Michael: Hey Mark…do me a favor and pencil me in a reservation at the restaurant sometime soon! Pork and Vietnamese spices go together like peanut butter and jelly…so this dish isn’t changing the culinary world. On that note, you have to stop and admire a dish that keeps it simple, brings some culture to the table, and makes you want to go back for seconds (and thirds)! The flavor was right on, the texture was perfect, and the touch of heat in the sauce made your mouth water for more. Hats of to you, Mark!
Andrew Little of Sheppard Mension was the 4th station, featuring a classic Pork and saurkraut recipe.
- Greg: To be honest, this chef won the judged competition, though I have to say my tasting notes are limited to “grumpy and non-friendly guy/server, bland food”. I dont remember much about what he made, and I’m really quite confused as to why he won 1st among the food critic category, but the only thing this table was memorable for was being rather gruff. Certainly not the food.
- Michael: I’m with Greg here, actually. The chef wasn’t very friendly, almost seeming frustrated when we came up because we weren’t prepared with a plate (the other chefs plated it for us). That said, I did like the dish- it was very tender and the saurkraut, though a bit sweet was good. I’d say this is my number 4 dish of the night…though it loses points for the Chef being a bit unfriendly.
Table 5 had chef David Hayes of Mason’s Restaurant creating a Braised pork shank with spicy pulled pork and corn salsa dish.
Greg B. – I thought the pork was slightly dry. Not too bad, just slightly overcooked or overworked somehow, though this was helped by the delicious apple sauce coming with the pork. There was a very nice cumin element to the pulled pork which came with a saurkraut style side as well. I felt this was a nice, homey dish. Something I may want to make as the weather grows colder.
Michael: Good dish – my portion wasn’t as overcooked as Gregs but it was a bit dry. I did enjoy the contrast of the cumin and saurkraut. This is something I’d like to eat at home with friends and family around. That said, it didn’t blow me away.
Station 6 had chef Roland Morgan III of Calhood MEBA engineering school and the Kirkland Manor cooking up a “Due of pork- braised pork tongue with creamy mushroom risotto and apple star anise glazed pork belly with cinnamon pear saurkraut”.
- Greg: Ok, so this table had a lot going on and it was kind of overwhelming. I felt the pork tongue had great texture but had some kind of a sweetness to it at the end that I didnt like. I’m not one for sweet things in general, and I like my meats savory, especially tongue. The risotto was great, though if I have any thing to find negative about it, was that it was a bit too watery, (That’s an IF I found anything negative, Mike!) in flavor and in actual presentation. The porkbelly was a real nice treat, texture was soft enough to cut with ease using a fork and it was still a bit sweeter than I would prefer (had almost a saccarine sweetness to it, not sugary sweet). Overall, this was a positive experience, but not my favorite.
- Michael: Sure it had a lot going on, Greg, but damn it was tasty. The tongue was perfectly tender, but I feel the pork belly needed a texture- it was too gooey. I prefer pork belly to have a crisp sear on it, or at least serve it with something that provides crispness. The risotto was very good and I didn’t think it was too watery (maybe Greg spilled some of his wine into his plate?). I think this was overall very tasty, but once again I see the Chef going for too complex and I think something was lost along the way.
Unfortunately, Table 7, the “Pork three ways” by Jonathan Lee of the Intercontinental Harbour Court Hotel was not a table that I (Greg B) got a chance to try this evening. Being pressed for time, I could only eat so much!
- Michael: Well Greg missed out here because I thought this was a nice dish, not mind-blowing, but overall quite tasty.
Table 8 featured chef Randolph Sprinkle of the Key Lime Cafe, serving a Malaysian roasted pork with curried applesauce.
- Greg: This dish, I felt the texture of the texture of the pork was spot on, but the spices were off. They had kind of a bland flavor, though it was OK in general. The cous-cous it was served with was rather watery and bland as well.
- Michael: I had this but didn’t keep notes so it must not have been that memorable!
Table 9 had Chef Bill Crouse of Sotto Sopra Cucina, making a Barolo Braised Pork shoulder with house cured bacon on white corn polenta. (pictured above)
- Greg B: This table took the cake for me. It just barely beat out Mark Chew’s dish, but presentation and flavor really were great. Served on a bed of polenta was the bacon encircled braised pork, tender enough to cut with your fork and really with the barolo coming through in the meat. Tender and with the spices really melding together to create a nice flavored meal without being overpowered by one particular element of the dish. (Bill Crouse won both the dish to best pair with a Sirah, and the people’s vote for best dish of the night).
- Michael: Disclaimer: I’m the sommelier at Sotto Sopra, so there is a potential for conflict of interest here. That said, this dish won Greg’s vote, the popular vote, and the best dish with wine pairing (unfortunately I can claim no responsibility), so I’m pretty sure Billy doesn’t need me telling him it was good. But, I will- Using the shoulder just makes sense- it’s fatty, braises well and has a lot of flavor. The Barolo used in this dish brings a lot of flavor and depth to the sauce, the polenta was perfect, and I’ll just say that Bill’s house cured bacon is the main component of the best BLT I’ve ever had. Sous Chef Elijah did a great job keeping a nice, crisp texture on the bacon, providing contrast to teh tender inside. The polenta soaked up all those juices, and in the end, it really was the best dish in the room. Simple, well thought out, perfectly executed- great job Bill and Eliajah.
Table 10 had Allison Trinkle of The Fresh Food Cafe at John’s Hopkins University, creating a southern salute to the pig.
- Greg: This dish was alright, though it did not seem to hit the creative element of the event. The flavors of the different styles of pork and dish dishes all kind of blended together, and the textures were all similar, rendering this kind of un-interesting a dish. Had a good flavor, but kind of bland at the same time in how it struck me. However, I do have to say that this was the last dish that I ate on the night, and I was rather full of pork and a multitude of spices and flavors, so I think being saited really hinders some level of enjoyment of more food.
- Michael: I loved the idea here, taking the dish back to the south, but I think it fell short. The presentation was a bit of a mess, but the flavors were all good. I would LOVE this dish at a tailgate- hearty, lots of flavors, and definitely filling. That said, it didn’t stand out from many of the other dishes.
As for wines of the evening, Mike can fill me in better I’m sure (Michael’s note: I took some wine notes, but alas, this was a night of pork so let’s keep it that way! Besides, nothing blew me away!) , but I had a Foppiano Petit Sirah, which I felt was a little thin on the mouthfeel, had a bit of oak and a slight dryness on the tongue at the finish that I rather liked. There also was a Petit Sirah by the Mendocino wine company which had a nice, light spice right at the start, was kind of thin feeling but had this interesting dry, yet hardly dry ending. You could take a sip of this wine and expect it to finish very dry, due to the initial spicy flavor, however it did not! Interesting, to say the least.
And this is about it for the evening. Afterwards we went out to celebrate Bill’s victory (and we cannot forget about his Sous Chef, Elijah, who helped him through the competition) at the Waterfront hotel, had a few beers (they have Clipper City Winter Storm on tap there. Any Harpoon IPA, a nice bitter, English style IPA if you’re in the mood) and shot the breeze for a while. It was certainly an interesting evening, watching chefs compete and watching the general public vote who was the best dish compared to what a bunch of food critics felt was best. I look forward to more events like these in the future!