Giovanni Gentile waited intently by Chef Massimo Stecchi at the Bar Rosso table. While you have probably seen owner Giovanni at Bar Rosso, Volta, and Capriccio, you might not have seen Massimo in action. They were there as first time competitors at the First County Bank Chef’s Challenge where local restaurants must craftily use Stamford Museum & Nature Center Maple Syrup. Joining them as newbies was Nicole Straight from Festivities Catering. While they have always been very popular, their food has gained a bigger audience since opening a spot at the SoNo Marketplace. Joining them were two veterans: first we had EOS of Stamford who always puts together some nice Greek food, and we had defending champions David’s Soundview Catering. David’s has always “broughten it” and was definitely a force to be reckoned with this year.
So what mapely goodness did this team of all-stars serve up?
Bar Rosso created an Orange Panna Cotta prepared with candied oranges and maple syrup. The orange flavor was great with this panna cotta and we enjoyed how a little pool of syrup was at the top. We took a little bite of panna cotta and made sure we had some of that luscious syrup, too. The flavor was right on, but the texture was just a bit too watery. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to try their Eggplant Relish Crostini with whipped ricotta and maple syrup because they went very quickly!
Next up was David’s Soundview Catering who first offered us a Butternut and Apple Bisque with maple baked chopped pecans. So many great contrasts going on here between the rich, sweet, tart, and nutty and with textures. An excellent bisque that we really enjoyed. We talked with Chef Erik Anderson who was eagerly confident about retaining the crown this year, but was still a bit unsure because the other competitors had put out some great food. And, of course, we talked with Melissa DeSousa and David Cingari himself. From the pic you can tell how much fun they have doing their jobs! Then we tried their Maple Glazed Jumbo Shrimp with white cheddar grits (and bacon, yay). This was a killer dish and was one of our favorites of the day. The shrimp was cooked nicely and had a slightly sweet taste from the maple glaze, bits of bacon added saltiness, and the grits were cheesy and silky. Again, great contrasts in flavor and texture. Our favorite of the day!
Next up was EOS, one of our favorite restaurants in the area that recently created a new, lively menu. For this event they decided to feature one of the new meats on their menu: duck. Major props to Nikki Glekas, chef/owner, for thinking outside the box and trying an unusual ingredient in the contest. They created Pulled Duck Sliders that were cooked down delicately with the maple syrup. The texture and flavor were actually pretty close to a carnita, the Mexican version of pulled pork. They also served a bright and refreshing salad with mixed greens, oranges, toasted almonds, and a maple syrup vinaigrette. This added a good contrast to the very rich duck slider.
Then, we finally hit up Festivities Catering and talked with Chef Nicole Straight. We were first treated to a Maple Infused Warm Chocolate Pudding (think ganache) with pecan wood smoked bacon grissini that we dipped over and over into the ganache. The bacon was smoky and cooked very nicely and we enjoyed the contrast in flavors when we took chocolate dips. We might have eaten some of the ganache with our fingers…might have. Their second dish was a Brie & Maple Scented Cranberry Chutney Quesadilla served with a salad that had Maple Dijon Vinaigrette. Dan’s creeped out now that he realized it was Brie, but he actually did enjoy it. Kristien loved it, too as it’s her favorite mix of cheese and fruit. Great flavor profiles, cooked nicely, and not overpowering at all.
After we fed our maple syrup greed, we talked with some really awesome people from First County Bank and the Stamford Museum & Nature Center. Things wrapped up at 1:30 and then the crew at SM&NC began to count the ballots. Before the winner was announced, Karen Kelly from First County Bank gave us the chance to speak about the event and what we thought of the chef’s performances. Dan shared how we always stock up on our maple syrup each year with at least 4 bottles and Kristien shared how she loved the balance of tastes, textures, and how each chef was able to use maple syrup just perfectly so that it wasn’t overpowering at all.
And then came the moment we had all been waiting for. Melissa Mulrooney (SM&NC Executive Director) announced the winner: Chef Erik Anderson from David’s Soundview Catering. Congratulations on your two-peat and congratulations to Bar Rosso, Festivities, and EOS for a hard fought battle in this creative culinary contest. We can’t wait for the 2014 Chef’s Challenge…that will be the 5th year! Awesome! Also, major props to Robin Wexler, Melissa, and everybody at SM&NC for their kind words and for putting together another great event. We’d also be remiss if we didn’t say how great First County Bank has been in putting together this effort each year. It can’t be easy to make something this great happen!
So, after we had our fair share of goodies, we took some nice shots of the farm animals and the otters, of course. We checked out the maple sugaring demo to warm up a bit and finally picked up our yearly supply of liquid gold. Ah, life’s sweet. If you didn’t get to go this year, this is a great weekend event to get to whether you have a family, if you’re going with friends, or if you’re just a couple. See you next year!
Dan and Kristien