On Monday, July 11, I had the pleasure of attending the sold-out preliminary battle of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series in downtown Raleigh’s historic 214 Martin Street. This battle pitted Team Sandhills, including Rhett Morris, owner and chef at Rhett’s Restaurant, Personal Chef and Catering; Renee Beaulieu, pastry chef at Ashten’s Restaurant; and Raymond Martin, sous chef at Rhett’s Restaurant against Team Fuquay-Varina's Finest: Joseph Fasy, proprietor and executive chef at Hook and Cleaver Market on Broad and part owner and executive chef at Old North State Catering; Leo Cuthbertson, chef at Hook and Cleaver Market on Broad; and Bryan Dahlstrom, executive chef at the Crown Complex in Fayetteville.
Every Dining Series dinner event requires each team to prepare three courses based on two special North Carolina ingredients made known just hours before the competition. Guests not only dine on a full-service, six-course meal but also vote for their favorite dishes to help determine who moves on to the next round. The entire meal is a blind tasting in which the creators of each dish are kept secret and only discovered once the final scores have been posted.
Not long after 7 p.m., Competition Dining Series Founder and Host Jimmy Crippen announced that the secret ingredients were Olinda Olives and NC Yellowfin Tuna. He also explained that both teams had opted to include a dessert course (not a requirement of the competition) and, much to the delight of the crowd, that the “chef referee” ruled that the teams would not have to use tuna in their desserts.
A few moments later, our first course of Olive Oil Infused Yellowfin Tuna with Local Canary Melon-Calabrian Chile Gazpacho, Carrot Salad, Quick Pickled Local Watermelon Rind, and Mint-Infused Ran Lew Dairy Crema arrived. It was refreshing and a little sweet with a slight touch of heat. The tuna was beautifully rare, and the pickled rind was sweet and tart.
The second course, Tuna Puttanesca, was amazing! It featured a Queen Olive, Caper, and Spicy Roasted Tomato Sauce; Clemson Blue Cheese Polenta; Oil-Cured Black Olive Tapenade; and Jalapeno Crisps. The dish had a delightfully briny heat, and the diamond-shaped blue cheese polenta added creamy richness.
The Olive Oil-Cured, Black Olive-Encrusted Yellowfin Tuna with Queen Olive Grits, Local Corn, Okra, and Field Pea Relish was up next. This one was a bit too vinegary and a little light on the corn, field peas, and okra in my opinion. But the olive crust on the tuna was fantastic.
Our fourth course was a Duo: Olive Oil Poached Tuna with Queen Olive Pesto and Peppercorn Seared Tuna Mignon with Peach-Sweet Vermouth Glace. Saffron Lentils with Local Romano Beans, Lima Beans, and Corn accompanied the fish. I found the lentil and vegetable medley extremely dry, but the tuna along with both sauces were very good. In fact, the "queen olive" pesto was absolutely brilliant.
By the time the Olive Oil- Pecan-Cardamom Cake with Rosemary Buttercream, Olive Oil-Lemon Ice Cream, Maple Candied Pecans, and Black Olive Salted Caramel were served, I was already full, but I somehow found the strength to carry on. And I am so glad I did! It was the best dessert I’d eaten in a long time. The mini cake featured great flavor and texture, the ice cream was perfect, and the rosemary butter cream divine.
The final course comprised a Verjus Blanc Chess Tart with a Cured Black Olive Crust, Roasted Pineapple-Canary Melon-Passion Fruit Compote, Local Blueberries, and Lemon Verbena. The artfully plated dessert was tasty, but it wasn’t quite a tart, more like a cookie topped with mousse, and I couldn’t detect even a hint of olive.
We spent more than two hours eating, but now it was time to vote. We logged onto a special website on which we rated each course based on appearance, aroma, creativity, flavor, and use of the secret ingredients. Within minutes, Jimmy began the big reveal. Courses 1, 3, and 5 were from Team Sandhills, whereas the even-numbered courses came courtesy of Team Fuquay-Farina’s Finest. As the scores for each course were announced, I quickly realized that my fellow diners felt the same way I did. It was a win for Team Fuquay-Farina’s Finest, but the teams were separated by a mere 1.564 points.
Team Fuquay-Varina’s Finest now awaits the winner of the Tuesday, July 12 battle to compete in the Raleigh Semifinal on Thursday, July 14. That winner will then move on to the Raleigh Finale and face the semifinal winner from the second bracket. The Raleigh champion will advance to the annual Battle of Champions and the chance to vie for the state title against the Charlotte, Durham, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Wilmington champions.
If you’ve never been to a Competition Dining event, I cannot recommend it enough. It’s fun, delicious, exciting, and thought provoking. You’ll have a blast and make a few new friends in the process. I certainly did!
The battles in Raleigh’s second bracket are scheduled for July 18, 19, and 21 and are $59 each, and tickets for the Raleigh finale battle on July 24 are $69 each. Tickets are available now at www.competitiondining.com/events/Raleigh.
For more information, visit www.competitiondining.com or join the conversation and follow along at www.facebook.com/competitiondining and @CompDiningNC on Twitter or Instagram.