Monday, July 20, 2009

Taste of Wilmington

I hesitate to blog about this, because I have some real issues with how they did it this year, and I don't want to just complain. But here it is, I guess, for better or worse.

Let's begin with the length of the selection. They announced the competition and nominations at the beginning of the year, then there was vote after vote after vote to narrow the field. I lost track, because honestly, I lost interest. The whole process really ought to be trimmed down to a month or so. Leaving the voting open that long just brings about its own problems, which brings me to my second complaint. People should be allowed to vote ONCE. This is not difficult. If the newspaper can post stories on the interwebs, and have something as complex as a login and preferred story interests, they can set up a voting online method that forces you to register so you can't vote multiple times. Given the finalists and the word on the street, some restaurants sent many email blasts out to their patrons and urged them to "vote early, vote often". To me, this makes the "Top Chef" moniker meaningless. It's a popularity contest. If that's what you're after, instead of who actually cooks the best food in Wilmington, so be it. But if you're really after who is the best chef, limit votes to one, and nip this sucker in the bud earlier so it doesn't drag on for months and months.

We weren't even going to go this year, but Sara invited us to help her at the Marc's on Market booth. Marc wasn't competing this year since he won last year - he got to judge instead. We helped Sara serve their dessert sampler - strawberry buckle with honeyed goat cheese and pistachio. Now, I can say this here, because my readership is not far and wide, but that's MY recipe (she said proudly) adapted by Marc, that helped win last year's Top Chef for him. It's an old family recipe of Apple Squares. I've had it growing up, and it's one of the easiest desserts in the world, and seriously tasty. Marc and Sara were over here for dinner one night, and Marc actually raved about it (which was high praise in my book for sure) and he asked for the recipe, which I gladly gave him. Then he turned it around, modified it for whatever fruit was in season, and added the goat cheese, which was perfect, of course. Genius. So obviously I can't take too much credit. But the base is mine and my family's and I'm proud anyway.

Back to Taste of Wilmington. Phillip and I went and did the booth tour pretty soon after we got the booth set up. This year, I think the restaurants had it together a little better. Last year it was kind of a chinchy little tiny bite here and tiny bite there and we couldn't really get a feel for what the restaurants were all about. Not so this year. Most restaurants had a pretty wide variety of samples (no small feat for something like this) and generous servings. By the time Pootie and I waddled back to the booth, we were stuffed and happy.

Our favorites: Big Thai - which is one of our favorite restaurants anyway. They had a couple of new things they were trying out for their menu, which I hope make it. There was a cabbage leaf with larb (chopped chicken and herbs topped with peanuts), some spring rolls, and the two new things, which I couldn't catch the name of because it was loud, but they were delicious.

Another favorite was Double Happiness, which I shamefully haven't blogged about. I need to get back there so I can. Really good Chinese. They had some wonderful selections at their booth. Pot stickers, a curried beef that I could have eaten all night, spring rolls, and more.

We tried the pastries from La Gemma. Oooo, they were pretty! Tasty, too! Someday when I'm skinny after doing P90X, I'll pay them a visit. Last night I had a couple of bites of a few things and everything was good.

We had a "Martini Meatloaf" from Trebenzio, which has apparently been downtown by the Post Office for three years and we've managed to miss. I think it's kind of a martini lounge, which could explain why we've missed it, but I sure did like their tiny little meatloaf meatball on top of a bed of mashed potatoes.

What's Cooking did some excellent shrimp and grits, and we hadn't been there before either. This was obviously a good chance for us to discover some new places. Mad Boar was another one we didn't know about. They had some pork that was beyond tender on a bed of decent risotto.

Other places didn't dazzle so much. Temptations, which I used to love, was kind of "meh", which reflected the change since the new owners took over. I have stopped going there for lunch because the food just isn't as good and I feel ripped off. Portions are tiny (and I'm NOT a big portion fan) and it's just not the warm, inviting place it once was. River Landing gave us some potatoes wrapped in beef over a bed of corn that was just bland and boring.

We didn't taste any of the wine, because Sara was gracious enough to bring some for us, and our experience last year put is in a "why bother" mood. The samples were ridiculously small, and most (not all, but most) of the wines being poured were cheap and bad. And I am seriously not a wine snob.

What impressed me a LOT was the military food service folks. Wow! They were serving a beef bourguignon and a creme brulee' that looked hittin'! I hope that our military get to eat that stuff periodically instead of the rations my dad showed me in the closet from when he was in Viet Nam. I didn't try it because it was at the very end of our tour and I was about to pop. But Greg, who is another Marc's fan who worked the booth with us said it was great.

Final score, competition - 0, Booths 9. I think if they can streamline the competition and make it genuinely fair, it will be a much better event. And if they'd kill the fluorescent lights at the Convention Center and use the other incandescent lighting they already have in place, it will look less like a triage unit in a field hospital and more like the event it wants to be.

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