Dimes add up at chef auction

by Brian Clarey

Does beef tenderloin need to be wrapped in bacon or soaked in peppery butter? Does a braised short-rib roast need to be steeped in dark beer? Will coarse-mustard significantly improve the flavor of a beef pie?

Questions like these confront me at this year’s March of Dimes Signature Chef’s Auction, held last week at downtown Greensboro’s Empire Room, a nice respite from the election madness in which I have been embroiled as of late.

The event is a fundraiser for the organization that helps babies with birth defects, and each of the 13 restaurants and their chefs have pledged luxurious dinner packages for bidding. The night of the event, these chefs lined the Empire Room with tasting portions of about 20 dishes. I tasted them all.

It’s unfair to list the highlights of a menu that had no low end — chefs seemed determined to outdo each other on this night in the spirit of friendly competition, a boon for all who attended and proving that the culinary scene is as fertile as ever.

Chef Leigh Hesling of the Green Valley Grill and PrintWorks Bistro acknowledged some evolution in the restaurant business with a reference to Fire in the Triad, a Triad-wide culinary competition held in August and September.

“Fire in the Triad kind of turbo-charged it,” Hesling said. “I didn’t even know a lot of these [other chefs] before that.”

Hesling made the small beef and sherry pies, savory and sophisticated. His partner Chef Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 offered simple elegance with house pimiento cheese atop saltines with slivers of pickled turnip and graced with the restaurant’s signature Voodoo Sauce.

B. Christopher’s chefs Chris Russell and Jason Jones went high end, with seafood bisque, bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin nuggets and lobster twice-baked potatoes.

Many chefs used beef to make their pitches. Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse Chef Matt Riemold served tenderloin on skewers with rumesco butter. Cardinal Country Club Chef Ben Hollinger served the braised short-rib roast, unbelievably tender and flavorful, with sweet-potato puree, collards and stone-ground grits.

Some exemplary seafood dishes went out as well: Ruth’s Chris Chef Mark Wykoff went against his brand by presenting a New Orleans style barbecue shrimp rather than beef — though Ruth’s Chris got its start in the Crescent City, and if I’m not mistaken, they used Gulf shrimp in the dish. Sedgefield Country Club’s Chef Ben Hollinger plated up delectable sea scallops wrapped in bacon with a Sambuca cream sauce, one of the evening’s better dishes.

Chef Brian Dicey of Nico’s whipped up an involtina — pork pounded thin and rolled with herbs and mushrooms. Chef Tim Thompson of Marisol made a butternut squash soup, salmon gravlax and pork barbecue with a Cheerwine sauce. Mark’s Chef Bruno Catuhe made maybe the best wild-mushroom risotto I have ever tasted. And Chef Creighton McNeil of Liberty Oak made perhaps the most beautiful and interesting dish of the night: a bay-scallop ceviche with seaweed salad and crispy wontons.

For me, a few dishes stood above the rest. Chef Brad Semon of the Painted Plate made a gluten-free dish of seared shrimp dusted in rice flour with ginger, cilantro and garlic scapes served atop forbidden rice. So good.

Southern Lights Chef Matthew Adams may have cheated by using sea bass — best fish ever — in his dish, but it was expertly pan-seared, with a green-pepper relish atop it, sided with a gluten-free pumpkin grit cake.

And the highlight of my night was, believe it or not, a soup made by Chef Paul Riggan of the Blue Water Grille. His crab bisque was the best I’ve ever tasted, with exactly the right amount of sherry — no small feat, because most chefs tend to use too much — along with generous lumps of crabmeat and a spice blend that baffled those at my table. Mace, perhaps? His other offering, an udon-noodle salad with duck confit nestled within, was also fabulous.

And it would be remiss not to give a shout to Chef Catuhe’s bread pudding, with dark and white chocolate.

After it was over, I could not possibly have eaten another bite. And they raised more than $145,000 for the March of Dimes, which was even more gratifying than the food.