Food gluttony usually occurs on the last Thursday of November or maybe Jesus’ b-day, but at 9 a.m. on a Monday in May?
I had been asked to represent CityBeat as a judge at the annual Best of Taste of Cincinnati competition. For over a decade I worked for a restaurant that always participated in Taste and I suffered through every Memorial Day weekend foodfest in the heat and rain. One year we were lucky enough to win the “Best Damned Dish,” and, trust me, that can mean big bucks for the winner. So it was with confidence and experience that I drove through the rain up to Sysco in Evendale one early Monday morning.
Upon arrival, the organizers and had no idea that I was supposed to be one of the judges. Sigh. As I wandered around searching for coffee, they determined that, yes, I was supposed to be there and that I was assigned to judge entrées. While awesome, it was also the category with the most dishes (about 30).
The judges were herded into an adjacent room so we couldn’t see the cooking and prep. We were to judge each dish on three characteristics: uniqueness, presentation and taste. The dishes were numbered and the restaurant of origin was completely unknown. This was going to screw up my game plan of making sure that a chain restaurant didn’t win anything (though I was sure I could tell anyway).
The food arrived fast and furiously. The first five dishes I tasted were all pork, from sausage drowned in mustard (so I have no idea how it really tasted) to god-awful ribs that I deemed inedible. Like a marathon, pacing is key, but I ate too much of first few dishes. Rookie mistake!
There were hits and misses. I really liked a crispy Pad Thai that just missed the cut and I had to suffer through a blackened fish and dirty rice dish. Cutting through the mundane, we settled on six dishes to re-taste and determine the three winners. Yeah, six dishes that we had to eat again.
The winning dishes were all really good. In third place was lasagna from Krimmer’s Italianette Pizzeria in Deer Park. It was a traditional lasagna, but hearty, flavorful and loaded with ricotta and mozzarella. Second place was from Bella Luna in Columbia-Tusculum, the big winner of the day, taking home five awards, including “Best Damned Dish” for their Prime Rib Cannelloni (unfortunately devoured before I could taste by the other slacker judges who had fewer dishes). Bella Luna’s entrée was a Pulled Pork Shank with an amazing squash puree, alone worth whatever they’ll charge at the festival.
The big entrée winner was a burger. Yeah, I said a burger. But this wasn’t just any ordinary burger. Juicy, perfectly cooked and served on a grilled bun, the burger oozed cheese and was topped with grilled sweet onions and a fresh chunky tomato and herb sauce. It had a truly unique flavor.
I was pretty confident that I knew what restaurant had prepared the luscious burger when I gave it a perfect score. Did my taste buds prove me right in not awarding the prize to a chain restaurant? Hell no. That great burger came from Newport on the Levee’s Claddagh Irish Pub (with 15 locations in five states). Still, there was no doubt it was the best of the entrées. (That unique taste came from an unusual ingredient — Jameson’s Irish Whiskey).
See (and taste) for yourself at Taste of Cincinnati, returning May 28-29 downtown on Fifth Street. For the full list of “Best of Taste” winners, visit www.tasteofcincinnati.com.
CONTACT BILL HATFIELD: [email protected]