Monday, November 14, 2011

Fun Playing with 24 Cleveland Chefs for a Great Cause

This marked my second year as a judge for the March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction. Once again, our panel of four, and more importantly, over one hundred guests who donated $150 per person, were treated to an amazing array of donated culinary delights. Twenty four of Cleveland's finest chefs were represented. The panel enjoyed 20 savory creations and four desserts, which were judged in their own separate categories this year. The event raises funds and awareness for the March of Dimes Northeast Ohio Division, and the important work that they do in Northeast Ohio to help premature and at risk babies and their families and to prevent birth defects. This was the event's first year at Windows on the River, located in the building formerly known at The Powerhouse, in the Flats, and possessed of amazing views of Cleveland!

Apologies for some incomplete descriptions. We experienced a little logistical confusion with the new venue, and so some of the dishes were presented a little too quickly, or the description got drowned out by noise, such that I couldn't get good notes on all of them; I've improvised where I could. I invite anyone with corrections or additional info to please post in the Comments. Each dish was judged on three criteria: Creativity-Originality, Presentation-Appearance and Taste-Flavor. Here are the savory contestants:

Jerk Chicken Potsticker, Black Bean Salsa - Rachel Spieth, Georgetown; dish presented by Rose

Our first dish was among the tastiest. Crispy outside, steamingly savory inside, black bean creaminess accompanying.

Sweet Potato Coconut Soup - Matthew Anderson, Umami Asian Kitchen

This comfort food offered rich texture and fall flavors. Gluten free and vegan, to boot!

Tuna Slider - James Bogart, McCormick and Schmick's Seafood Restaurant

This "burger" was topped with a cucumber-wakami salad, Wasabi Mayo and pickled ginger. Most enjoyable.

House-Cured Gravlax, House Preserved Lemon, Lime Creme Fraiche - Chef Kenneth, LaStrada

This delightful bite contrasted pristine fish against gently tart lemon and lime flavors and rich creaminess. 

Tomato-Gorgonzola Mac N Cheese - La Dolce Vita

I really liked the way the tomato toned the Gorgonzola down just enough so that it asserted itself without overpowering the dish. Though La Dolce Vita's Chef-Owner Terry Tarantino was in the house, I did not learn who actually prepared this dish (even though he presented it) and I apologize - it was most hearty.

House Smoked Salmon and Cucumber "Spool" with Tobiko Caviar - Ben Davison, MUSE at the Ritz Carlton

This dish presented me with a little bit of a challenge. Intended as a finger food to be enjoyed in one or two bites with a squirt of the cream, I picked it up and first enjoyed the caviar. I then separated the cucumber from the filling and met the challenge: the filling wasn't intended to be fingered on its own and I didn't have a fork. I really liked the filling and I'm sure the cucumber added both texture and flavor contrast, but that hunk was just too big for a cucumber-phobe like me to work around. This dish was my favorite for presentation/appearance. 

Well, insert embarrassment here. This is where my photo of the dish that WON the savory category should be. Except, in the tumult of service (dishes were flying onto the Judges' Table faster than we could taste them) - it would seem that I don't have a photo of Noodlecat's entry. Thankfully, Brand Manager Bridget Rehner, who presented the dish to us, has come to the rescue with a camera-phone shot of her own, which she is kind enough to share:

Image courtesy of Bridget Rehner and Noodlecat
Bridget presented the dish, as she explained, because Noodlecat Chef Brian Reilly broke his ankle over the weekend (heal quickly, Chef!); Sous Chef Dick Kanatzar did the actual cooking. House made Japanese Chicken Sausage (Yakitori) on a house made Steam Bun topped with house-made pickles and "maggie mayo" (that's how I wrote it down). The combination was irresistible, even without the cucumber pickles (my plate didn't have the pink pickle shown above, but I've had Noodlecat's other, non-cucumber pickles, including that one, so I understood exactly what so excited the other judges about the texture and flavor combination - they raved about the pickles!).

Braised Short Rib with Squash Gratin - Michael Smith, Marigold Catering

I loved the squash gratin, which paired exquisitely with the tender beef. 

Oyster Shooter with Ginger and Horseradish Gelees and Beer Foam - Andrew Gorski, Tremont Tap House

This unusual dish was refreshing, in a briny-sweet kind of way. 

Seared Lamb Lollipop over Herbed Risotto, Truffled Wild Mushroom Demi-glace and Microgreens - Marlin Mayorga, Corleone's Ristorante

Tender lamb was perfectly cooked. A delightful plate.

Sushi Trio - Jimmy Soria, Shinto Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar

Honestly, when a Japanese dish leads with "tuna with cream cheese" as a sushi item, I start out a little skeptical. This dish nevertheless rated highest on my score sheet for "Taste" as well as "Creativity". The three rolls started with said Spicy Tuna w/Cream Cheese. Next, I enjoyed Snow Mountain Roll with shrimp tempura, crab, cucumber, avocado and scallions with tobiko and eel sauce, and topped with a spicy crab mix that I couldn't stop eating! Finally, the Hawaiian Roll with shrimp tempura, eel, avocado and cucumber, topped with spicy tuna. No off smells or tastes anywhere on this plate - and the eel was heavenly! Yes, I did remove the cucumber prior to ingesting.

Duck-Pumpkin Pasta with Crispy Sage - Brian Goodman, Greenhouse Tavern
The judging panel determined that this dish was a very close second to Noodlecat's winner. Duck was lovingly confited and then cooked in more duck fat, then tossed with rigatoni and a very original pumpkin-based sauce. The Piggie Plates were a nice presentation touch for this ducky dish. 

Duck Confit over Smoked Tomato Corn Spoonbread - Chef Danny, Blue Canyon Kitchen & Tavern
This dish also received high praise from all four judges. I particularly liked the spoon bread, which benefited from the smoked tomato flavor. 

Duck with Sweet Potato Two Ways (Flan and Fries) - Michael Lyons, Accessible Gourmet
This dish earned a lot of "Creative-Originality" points for the luscious Sweet Potato Flan, which was dressed just so with some of the amazing ducky jus. So glad to learn that Chef Lyons is setting up shop on the East Side now with his full service catering company!

Crab Cake, Roasted Corn Relish, Remoulade, Chipotle Honey - Jason Reed, Don's Lighthouse
Chef Reed told us that this dish may be found on Don's Lighthouse's regular dinner menu.

Salad of Red Curry Squash, Leeks, Crispy Speck, Micro Arugula, Truffle, Dill, Panko, Smoked Bleu Cheese Fondue - Brian Okin, Fountain Cafe & Lounge
This salad garnered high marks from the judging panel; the combination of ingredients and preparation reflected great thought and skill that may not be readily apparent at first glance. This dish was truly a delicious sum of all of the parts and I look forward to trying more of Chef Okin's creations at Fountain Cafe soon! 

Pork Belly with Peanut-Chili Glaze, Asian Slaw - Jeff Jarrett, AMP 150
Another dish at the top of the panel's picks - this deftly executed plate offered melt-in-your-mouth pork belly accented by the nutty glaze (my favorite part of the dish) and contrasted with the crunchy slaw. The event's Honorary Chef came very close to victory with this dish.

Pretzel Crusted Chicken - Rock Finley, Great Lakes Brewing Company
This dish has been a signature at Great Lakes in one form or another for over twenty years.

Lemon Fried Blue Point Oyster with Pickled Cucumber - Reagan Riek, Pier W

My apologies to the soft spoken young chef who presented this dish - I didn't get your name, and that's a shame considering that you spent so much time shucking these oysters for us! A very lovely dish.  

Salad of Winter Greens Topped With Crispy Pig Ear, Fried Quail Egg and Oinky-Rice Wine Dressing - Brian Doyle, SOW Food
Chef Brian knows how to make a pig's ear sing, that's for sure. This plate earned high praise from the judges for the fabulous textures and flavors. And we were grateful, by the time we consumed this 24th dish, that Chef Brian had opted for the small quail egg over a standard chicken egg.

And now, on to the sweet side. 

Cannoli with Chocolate and Almond - Richard Rhein, Mama Roberto's
Leave the diet, take the cannoli.  

"Love Potion Parfait" - Dark Chocolate Mousse, Rum, Strawberry, Cherry, Balsamic, Candied Hazelnuts, Salty Carmel, Caramel-Filled Chocolate Candy - Amanda Montague, Lilly Handmade Chocolates

This dish was the only one of the evening that won a perfect score of 21 from me. Though it wasn't a slam-dunk for the whole panel - Chef Montague's creation swooned us enough to earn first place on the sweet side. 

Pumpkin Cake Shot - Becky Rink, About the Cake
This little container packed large pumpkin-bourbon-mousse flavor, balanced out with orange and chocolate and topped with candied pecan. 

Cognac Mousse over Pastry with Salted Caramel and Apple, Chocolate Tart - Britt Culey, Coquette Patisserie
This entry was a bit lighter on the stomach than the other desserts, but married delicate flavors and textures very nicely. 

Congratulations to the winners! And thank you to all of the many chefs, purveyors and auction donors who contributed to the success of this year's event. If you would like to contribute to our local March of Dimes Chapter - please follow this link

While all four judges had great fun playing with this food - we remain mindful of the larger purpose. So, please consider supporting your local Chefs and charities by attending a food-centric benefit or two if you can - the monthly Dinner in the Dark series offers a unique opportunity to support charities while enjoying a 6 course wine dinner from some of Cleveland's finest chefs! The next DITD will be at March of Dimes Chefs Auction Winner Noodlecat, on Monday, December 12, 2011 beginning at 6:30pm


  1. From the distance of the Internet, and purely for its classical combination of flavors, I would go with Muse. Smoked salmon, cucumber, and caviar is a perfect combination.

  2. Everything looked amazing. So jealous!