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 felt last Monday. Why? Well, let me explain.
I was excited to be asked to help judge the Best of Taste food competition 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 (May 29-31). This year, there were more than 100 dishes entered in the 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 Chef Tom Milliken of Polo Grill in Mason and renowned Master Chef John Kinsella of the Midwest Culinary Institute.
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.
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. 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, 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 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 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. When it was announced that some of the items had been completely consumed before photos could be taken by the press, the announcer, fittingly, warned that, “If your dishes have all been eaten, we’ll need you to get more or make more or throw some up.”
The “best damn dish” of the day came from the dessert category: Courtyard Cafe’s Raspberry Cloud Pie. 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 I’ll be looking for the Pit to Plate booth. Their beef brisket sammich also scored high on my card and their baby back ribs took second place in the appetizer category.
When I got home, I looked in the “goodie” box the judges received for participating. Among the other Sysco products inside, there was a wafer-thin chocolate mint. It was tempting, but I decided to pass.
CONTACT MICHAEL SCHIAPARELLI: [email protected]