Have you ever felt like Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote, the bloated epicurean who explodes in a gory mess when he surrenders to the inducements of an evil maitre d’ offering him a “wafer-thin mint” after a laughably enormous feast? Well, that’s how I feel right now. Don’t move me; I might burst. Why? Well, let me explain….
I was excited last week when Anne Mitchell, CityBeat’s eminent dining editor, asked me if I was available to help judge the Best of Taste food competition this morning at the giant Sysco facility in Glendale. As a judge, you get to sample food items that will be featured at the Taste of Cincinnati, the Queen City’s signature spring food fest (Memorial Day weekend, May 29-31). This year, there were over 100 dishes entered in competition by nearly 40 vendors.
Upon arrival, I was assigned by random drawing to the “Entrée” category along with about nine others. Seated at my table were a number of other judges, including Lisa Biello of Radio 94.1, chef Tom Milliken of Polo Grill in Mason and renowned Master Chef John Kinsella of the Midwest Culinary Institute. We had just introduced ourselves when the room quieted for a quick reading of the rules.
And in no time, platters started flying into the room. Our first plate consisted of a small but overstuffed pulled pork “sammich” that was moist, rich and lightly dressed with a tangy barbecue sauce. Served with a side of soggy (but tasty) cole slaw, it looked delicious — but difficult to eat without napkins or forks. By the time these necessities were found, the next two dishes were already stacked up on the table — and I knew this was going to be much harder than it seemed going in.
Interestingly, that pulled pork turned out to be a Pit-to-Plate creation — the winner of CityBeat’s “best barbecue” series a couple of years ago. Smoky and porky, it was one of the best things I ate all morning. All the items were rated (on a scale of 1-5) in four categories (originality, appearance, value for price and taste). So while I gave it three fives, it was still a pulled pork “sammich,” which just isn’t hugely “original” — and, if you ask me, doesn’t need to be.
Another quite tasty item that scored higher in the “originality” category for me was a Chicago Gyro pizza, though Tom mentioned that he’s done a similar dish at Polo Grille in the past. It was beautifully presented, with a cross-hatching drizzle of tzatsiki yogurt sauce on top of the shaved slices of spiced “gyro” meat. Chicago-style crust is generally too bready for my liking (I’m a thin-crust lover), but this was more crispy than doughy, which I could deal with.
Other standout entrées included a delicious Cincinnati sushi roll, a solid Jambalaya filled with big shrimp and slices of andouille sausage and yummy stuffed cabbage roll in a slightly gooey sweet and sour sauce, and a great Greek sausage sandwich served on a pita with sautéed onions and green and yellow peppers.
All in all, we plowed through 19 main courses, priced from $3 to $5, in about an hour, then waited to hear the winners announced. I should make clear that by “plowed though” I mean that I rarely had more than two bites of any one dish. Even so, I hit the wall around dish 15 and started to wonder how I was going to have four more tastes without … losing it.
The announcement of the winners provided some of morning’s best moments. For instance, when it was announced that some of the items had been completely consumed before photos could be taken by the press, the announcer warned that, “If your dishes have all been eaten, we’ll need you to get more or make more or throw some up.” Feeling stuffed to gills already, that was not an image I needed in my head.
Well, the “best damn dish” of the day came from the dessert category: Courtyard Café's Raspberry Cloud Pie, which apparently came in 2nd place in the 2009 competition. The best entrée? That Chicago Gyro Pizza, which is from Mac’s Pizza Pub.
But when I get down to the Taste in a couple of weeks — once this morning’s food has all finally been digested! — I’ll be looking for the Pit-to-Plate booth. They make at least two damn good sammiches, as their beef brisket sammich also scored high on my card. And their baby back ribs took 2nd place (Award of Excellence) in the Appetizer category!
Oh, and if you go to the Taste of Cincinnati, make sure you stop by the Sensodyne booth for a free sample and a chance to say hi to Lisa from 94.1. (Ask her about the Cincinnati Iditarod.) And while I’m handing out plugs, look for Chef Kinsella’s books, including his classic Professional Charcuterie, and, due out this fall, a new cookbook that (as I understand it) will simplify classic Escoffier dishes for the home cook.
When I got home, I looked in the “goodie” box the judges received for participating. Among the other Sysco products inside, there was an Andes mint — an Andes wafer-thin chocolate mint. It’s tempting, but I think I’ll pass.