Fire in the Triad lights up food scene

by Brian Clarey


In the end, it came down to dessert. The quarterfinals of the Fire in the Triad dining competition came after weeks of head-to-head battles between the Triad’s most notorious chefs.

It began on Aug. 13 with Chef Jay Pearce of Lucky 32 facing off against Bistro B’s Chef Timothy Bocholis. Bocholis would survive the round, only to fall to Chef Chris Blackburn of Josephine’s on Sept. 5.

That’s the way it works: Two chefs enter, and one chef leaves, like Thunderdome, but with white linen and a wine list.

The rules are simple. Each night of competition, the battling chefs must create three dishes using the night’s featured ingredient and supplies from a common pantry. Judging comes from dinner patrons and guest judges, weighing things like aroma, appearance, creativity and flavor. Whomever gets the best score moves on to the next round.

On Sept. 11, I sat as a judge when Chef Leigh Hesling of PrintWorks Bistro and the Green Valley Grill squared off against Chef Michael Harkenreader of Undercurrent, both immensely talented and reputable, but only one could claim victory.

In honor of the day — the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — the featured ingredients were red, white and blue:

apples, milk and bleu cheese. The first dish was a salad with honey mustard-glazed shrimp, black quinoa and apple slaw dressed with a bleu-cheese ranch; we learned later it was a Harkenreader creation. The shrimp were magnificent, and I love quinoa, but I preferred Hesling’s offering, an applewood bacon rillette with sweet-potato strings and a green-apple chive oil. The second course, too, I gave to Hesling — though Harkenreader’s grilled pheasant, layered potato pave and grilled-apple compote was delicious, Hesling’s lamb loin, paired with a smoked apple butter and minted sweet-pea puree atop sautéed spaetzle was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. I awarded it the highest mark of the day.

Murmurings among the dinner guests, many of whom had been coming to these events for weeks, revealed that the highest scores generally went to desserts. A quick perusal of the contest results bore this out.

Hesling’s offering, a small pile of petite croqueembouche — basically creampuffs — filled with apple-maple mousse and drenched in salted caramel and crème anglaise, were delicious, though some at my table felt they were too sweet.

But Harkenreader delivered a candied-apple and bacon sweet roll with bacon caramel and a buttermilk semifreddo, a sort of ice milk that is designed to melt over the dish.

The dessert was a masterstroke: the sweet roll both crispy and soft, with perfect blends of savor and sweet. The semifreddo brought a tangy element to the proceedings, and the sauce of bacon and caramel worked so well together that it made me wonder why more desserts don’t base themselves on it.

My scorecard rated this the second-best dish of the night — I place more emphasis on main courses than I do dessert, mainly because I view dessert as an appendage to a meal and not part of its main thrust. Think about it: If you have a great meal followed by a so-so dessert, you do not leave the restaurant disappointed. But a lackluster entrée can ruin the night.

But my dining companions felt otherwise. The sticky roll earned a weighted score of 77.57, the highest of the evening; Hesling’s best effort, the lamb loin, eked out a 66.9, while his rillette got the third-best, a 66.75. Neither was enough to overcome the power of the sticky bun.

Harkenreader will challenge Chef John Milner of Milner’s in Winston-Sale on Wednesday night; the winner will face off against either Blackburn of Josephine’s or Chef George C. Neal of 1618 West — they do battle on Tuesday — in the finals on Sept. 25. All events are sold out.

But Fire in the Triad has been an immense success, highlighting the best of the area’s culinary scene and generating excitement in an oft neglected aspect of our culture. Now that we are part of the statewide tour — along with similar contests on the coast, in the Triangle and in the mountains where it began — next year’s event is already in the books.

Take my advice: Make your reservations early, and often.

Fire in the Triad is the most fun I’ve had at a dinner table in a long time, and I eagerly await the chance to do it again.