The third annual Top Chef Downtown tasting event in Iowa City dazzled a crowd of 300 at hotelVetro on Tuesday night.
Let’s start with dessert first – it’s more fun that way! Both of the two gluten-free options: a lemon curd cheesecake by Howling Dogs Bakery and a white chocolate satin tart by John’s Grocery were good, but I didn’t go back for a second bite. New Pioneer Coop wins in my book for biggest cupcake. Their Chocolate Mousse Cake overwhelmingly layered with chocolate, filled the plate with a pastry so beautiful that I was nervous to even dive into it. And as a person who likes my chocolate with a side of dairy, fruit, salt or any other contrasting element, one bite of it was enough for me for the day. Well, two bites of the fluffy milk chocolate mousse topping to be exact.
The more bite-sized Creme Brulee Cupcake from Molly’s Cupcake was by far my favorite — and the rest of the attendees as well. Again, the evening’s theme proved true: simple is better. The basic vanilla cake, filled with a vanilla bean pastry cream and topped with carmelized sugar and a single blackberry was scrumptious. The judge’s winner — a chocolate raspberry amaretto frozen yogurt was, I have to admit, one I didn’t try.
Much like eating dessert first, we started our evening with the cocktails. Many of the concoctions either featured fresh fruit (the types of beverages meant to be sipped on a patio) or Iowa bourbon or both. Two that rose to the top of our list fell into the last category.
Jacob Lancaster of Shorts Burger & Shine created the “Emporer Norton’s 2nd Mistress” inspired, he says, by drinks he had in San Francisco created for and favored by a man who dubbed himself the Emporer of the United States. Good story for a good drink that featured Cedar Ridge Bourbon, the vanilla infused Tuaca and fresh strawberries. The vanilla cut through the harsher bourbon notes and created a very sippable drink.
Similarly, the appropriately named “Smoke & Mirrors” by Nick Brink at Linn Street Cafe combined Cedar Ridge Bourbon, strawberries, basil, smoked peppers, fresh sweet and sour and a sparkling Riesling from Cedar Ridge. Each ingredient sang on its own but also harmonized well.
The most interesting twist on your stand-by cocktail was the Bloody Mary by Xie. Never my go-to drink regardless of the time of day, this celery-colored water was garnished with cilantro and tomato reduction on the rim. For someone who doesn’t like the souplike consistency of a bloody mary, this tomato water based concoction would be a good alternative. However, if I am to imbibe anything involving tomatoes, the Michelada always wins. In this case, “The Angry Rooster” from Takanami with muddled ponzu and wasabi, soy and Sriracha created a house-base that beats most spice and clamato mixtures. After a few sips, I was looking around the room for a Adirondack chair and heat lamp to settle in for a few hours.
A few drinks incorporated gimmicks like a dissolving cotton candy by Formosa’s Ryan Wagner. While whimsical and interactive — who doesn’t love the look of cotton candy — the drink tasted like a traditional Sex On The Beach.
Ultimately, it was another parlor trick that won over the crowd. A first timer — Brian Lovejoy of Clinton Street Social Club took home the win with his “Grandpa’s Coffin Cocktail.” He dazzled the crowd with a pedestal lifted cocktail that was spritzed with Lagavulin and then ignited, literally, with orange rind adding flame to mist for a crowd pleaser. The end result? I found it smooth and sweet, as the Cedar Ridge Apple Brandy and Homestead Bourbon can be, but a little too shocking on the throat to start the night.
For me, simplicity and sipability won out. My favorite – above all tricks and creative concoctions of ingredients – was the Strawberry Cucumber Spritzer from Martini’s. I dare to say it was the simplest of the bunch, but the flavors were balanced and I could sip it like a tall glass of fruit-infused water. With no detection of alcohol, it is the most dangerous and enjoyable kind of cocktail to consume.
It was simplicity that stole the show in the culinary category as well. As it turned out, I almost missed out on the best dish of the evening. As I was courting all the other dishes, in search of my soul mate on a plate, a line formed in front of Shorts Burger & Shine. Before long it snaked through the room. Not one to wait, I was tempted to skip their dish, the Dundee burger by Gern Blanston. It was, after all, just a burger, right?
Oh, so, wrong. The burger — local Wagyu ground beef, heirloom tomato, shittake mushroom, bacon, garlic aoili, smoked cheddar and an adorable sunny-side up quail egg — was perfect. The first full bite was a multitude of elements in one place, but all I could think was “that is good beef.” Dissecting it further revealed ingredients that were delicious alone but also paired together perfectly. A majority of the 300 other people who also ate their way through the event agreed. Blanston took home the People’s Choice Award.
Beef, was, an overwhelming theme for the evening. It’s Iowa, though, so pork, too, was featured by many of the restaurants. It was Linn Street Cafe’s Stuffed Iowa Pork Tenderloin and Polenta that won over the judges for not only it’s flavor but local sourcing. Chef Brian Kirkman took home the Top Chef Award for his dish, which paired the pork with polenta and a cherry hoisen barbecue sauce.
I enjoyed the polenta and sauce, but of the pork offerings, I preferred the crispy pork belly by Thorin Peugh (who deserves a shout-out for providing one of only two vegetarian options at the event with a bonus falafal) that melted in my mouth.
The Kobe Roll from Takanami had too much rice. Alone, the Kobe beef was delicious. The bonus Vegas roll literally hidden behind a sign off to the side of Formosa’s cooking station was better and topped my list of favorites for the night.
Formosa’s official entry — a Pho — combined beef bones, whole side of brisket and flank, aromatic vegetables and herbs for a deeply flavored broth.
Among the other offerings — Orange Chili Glazed Hinterland Farms Pork Belly by Clinton Street Social Club, a New York Style Reuben from Fair Grounds Cafe, Cashew on Hot Tin Wrap by New Pioneer Coop and Salmon Gnocchi by Xie — the sauces, such as the cashew butter on the wrap and chili glaze, are what stood out.
So ultimately, to truly fall in love with what I ate Tuesday, I’d like to create an ideal meal with the best of each dish: Linn Street Cafe’s herb polenta cake atop the cherry hoisin barbeque sauce, topped with the Share Wine Lounge Pork Belly and thin layer of the New Pi cashew-butter earthy greens “slaw” drizzled with the Clinton Street Social Club chili glaze.
Now, how do I get all of these elements to one plate, while not leaving my Adirondack chair or spilling a drop of my strawberry cucumber spritzer? That part I still need to figure out.
The winners from Iowa City Downtown District Top Chef:
— Top Chef: Gern Blanston from Shorts Burger and Shine
— Top Chef Pastry Chef: Veronica Tessler from Yoptopia
— Peoples Choice – Top Chef: Brian Kirkman from Linn Street Cafe
— People’s Choice Pastry Chef: Abbie Misfeldt from Molly’s Cupcakes
— Peoples Choice Best Brew: Backpocket Brewing
— People’s Choice Mixologist: Brian Lovejoy from Clinton Street Social Club