Chris Nixon, of Element 112 in Sylvania, was smoking quail eggs as part of the Toledo versus Cleveland Chef Dinner at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio.
MILAN, Ohio — The battle was on at the Toledo v. Cleveland Chefs’ Dinner, held at the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI) on Jan. 24.
An oven mitt had been thrown down like a gauntlet.
Which city has the best restaurants? The best chefs? The best food? Each city boasts. Each city claims bragging rights.
So the knives were sharpened. The aprons were tied. The tables were set. And the winner was declared.
It was close: 75.5 points vs. 77 points.
We all know that Cleveland rocks. But ....
Toledo — yes, Toledo — won.
Guests, who had paid $100 each for the dinner, were treated to 10 courses: one prepared by each competitor, with Toledo and Cleveland alternating throughout the evening.
Judges — Noelle Celeste, publisher of Edible Cleveland; John Benson, a freelance writer; and I — scored the dishes on presentation, portion size, and flavor, while also judging the teams on kitchen organization and time management.
In this corner, representing Toledo: Rob Campbell of Stella’s, Joseph Jacobsen of Dégagé Jazz Café, Kengo Kato of Kengo Sushi & Yakitori, Chris Nixon of Element 112, and Erika Rapp of Registry Bistro.
The dinner began with a delicate smoked quail egg, violas, and nasturtium, which Mr. Nixon served with fried butterball potato crisps that were cooked until deeply golden, the sugars having caramelized a bit.
Adam Mahler of Ampelography Wines, which provided the wine pairings, said, “I was blown away by Kengo’s dish,” which was served in the second round: cured madai fish served over shredded daikon radish with a white soy dashi gelée.
Ms. Rapp enjoys working with game, which is one reason she chose squab for her course in the third round. “I love cooking it,” she said. The meat was served with sesame confit beets, pickled apples, a roasted sunchoke puree, and petite bok choy.
Halfway through the dinner, Mary Martin of the Toledo chapter of the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a group dedicated to fine dining and wine, said that the squab was her favorite dish at that point. Chanel Hipp of Mansfield, a frequent attendee at CVI events, agreed.
Sheree Quan purchased tickets to the dinner as a birthday gift for her husband, Ron Nisch. She said that if he hadn't been a lawyer, he'd have become a chef; his interest in food goes beyond mere enthusiasm. The couple had never been to the CVI before.
Mr. Nisch said that "the unexpectedness and the variety of flavors," as well as "the perfect spiciness of the chili sauce," in Mr. Jacobsen's fourth round dish — glazed pork belly with bourbon-candied purplette onions, smoked roasted miniature Brussels sprouts, and a burnt kumquat mustard — made it his favorite.
Cardamom carrot cake by Rob Campbell of Stella's in Perrysburg.
Peg Stafford, whose son, Mr. Campbell, offered the dessert course for Toledo, said, "I've made the carrot cake every year for his birthday." But she gave her son credit for having added cardamom to it, as well as complementing the cake with a toasted marshmallow topping, sweet-tart pomegranate molasses, and "the crunch" — toasted baby coconut and bacon brittle.
There were rumblings of surprise about Toledo's strong performance. One guest said, "Toledo is representing? Who knew they had a food scene?"
"Three to five years ago, this [competition] never would have happened," said Mr. Mahler. "But now, Toledo's got the reputation."
As does Cleveland, don't forget.
In the other corner, representing the northeast corner of the state: Jonathan Bennett of Moxie, Matt Del Regno of the Levy Restaurants — Cleveland Convention Center, Jeff Jarrett of AMP 150, John Selick of the University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center, and Eric Williams of Momocho.
A dome-covered dish was brought out for Cleveland's first course, served by Mr. Bennett. When opened, it revealed a tender steamed bun filled with beet slices and with crisp cucumber, served over a layer of coarse salt. Mr. Bennett particularly praised the beets that the CVI had provided, saying "You really can taste the difference" in the "top produce" the chefs had been given to work with.
While several attendees claimed to not be fans of scallops, they gave high praise to Mr. Williams' dish in the second round: achiote-seared sea scallop served with a crispy spiced pork rind and, as Mr. Nisch described it, "wonderfully spicy cream corn."
As his third round dish — a beautifully plated rabbit loin roulade with pickled baby carrots and frisée — was being served, Mr. Del Regno won laughs when he tried to garner some favor by addressing the judges. "I've loved everything you've ever done and everything you've ever written," he said.
Mr. Selick called his fourth round dish — Pork Shoulder Confit in Bacon Fat, which had cooked slowly for 12 hours until it was meltingly tender — "family-style comfort food," and served it on platters to pass rather than having wait staff bring it on individual plates. There were "ooh"s and "ahh"s among the diners upon hearing the words "pork," "bacon," and "slow cooked" all in the same sentence.
And finally, to end the meal, Mr. Jarrett served a silky smooth chocolate bombe complemented by a vibrant — in color and flavor — beet-orange puree and pistachio brittle.
Throughout the evening, there was competitive camaraderie among the chefs. Ms. Rapp said, "It's been a lot of fun," and others in the kitchen agreed with her.
Mr. Selick said that the entire event was good for both cities and that, in the end, both Toledo and Cleveland had won by showcasing such bounty and such talent.
But he's already thrown down the oven mitt gauntlet again. Cleveland wants a rematch.
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