The dish on the best in NC

“So, what are the best restaurants?” That’s the single most common question I get asked. (The second is, “Why does the paper boy always throw my paper on the roof?” Although it’s harder to do that when reading online.) I answer carefully, because so much depends on individual taste and mood. I can’t say I have a single favorite restaurant – it’s all in what I have a taste in my mouth for on a particular evening. If I’m in the mood for sushi, I’m not going to Magnolia Grill, as wonderful as it is.

But the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s annual Best Dish in North Carolina contest points out some of the top spots. This year’s winners were recently announced, and I had to good luck to attend a dinner on Sunday featuring many of the top dishes. The goal of the competition is to promote locally grown, North Carolina products, so not every dish will always be available. It’s what eating local is all about, people.

Restaurants from all over the state entered their entrees, appetizers and desserts in two categories: Fine Dining and Casual Dining. Ten finalists were named in each group, from which the winners were selected by judges who visited and tasted at each restaurant. The restaurants’ efforts to promote the contest and North Carolina products also figured into the judging.

Durham restaurant Four Square and chef Shane Ingram won in the Fine Dining category. Ingram offered Lamb Carpaccio, Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho Trio, Prosciutto Wrapped Trout and Buttermilk Cupcakes with Blueberry Mousse as his entry. The first runner-up was Indigo Marsh in Surf City and second runner-up was The Table at Crestwood in Boone.

For Casual Dining, the winner was Yancey House in Yanceyville and chef Lucindy Willis. Her entry: Crab Cakes, Bloody Mary Gazpacho, Chicken Paillard in Buerre Blanc and Peach Trio of Peach Upside-Down Cake, Peach Ice Cream and Peaches in Wine. First runner-up was Inn on Church in Hendersonville and second runner-up was Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse in Durham.

The dinner on Sunday, held at Elodie Farms in Rougemont, offered some of the winning dishes from Willis and Ingram, plus treats from finalists Jason Smith of 18 Seaboard in Raleigh, Adam Rose of Il Palio in Chapel Hill, Patrick Cowden of Weathervane in Chapel Hill and Mel Melton of Papa Mojo’s. Melton didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen because he provided the music with his band, the Wicked Mojos. The courses were paired with all North Carolina wines. The dinner benefited Children’s Flight of Hope.

The gazpacho trio was offered, and showed just how different tomatoes can be. The green had some back-heat, the red was rich and smooth, and the yellow was bursting with basil. Willis’ chicken, crunchy in a panko crust, was so moist I asked her twice if it had been marinated (no, both times). She uses N.C.-raised poulet rouge chicken, a breed from France that is being raised in limited areas in the U.S.

Smith said he felt that the contest raised awareness of North Carolina ingredients with his diners. He said many people ordered the Best Dish items specifically because they saw the contest noted on the menu.

My sources tell me that a mere handful of points separated the winners from the runners-up, showing that the competition – and the drive to use local ingredients – is only getting stronger.

Bounty at the Brickyard

One of the area’s newer farmers markets was designed by and for students and IMG_0612faculty at N.C. State University, but it’s a great resource for nearby residents, too. The Campus Farmers Market operates each Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Brickyard at the D.H. Hill Library. The market opened on April 22. The fall session of the market runs Sept. 2 through Nov. 18. Plans are for the market to operate year-round in the future.

All items sold are locally produced. The varying offerings usually include produce, meats, eggs, dairy products and soaps. Of special interest to me is the weekly bounty of North Carolina seafood from Southport Seafood, which also sells at other area farmers markets. I do love me some good Carolina shrimp.

Since the market was organized by the young folks, you can find it on Facebook and Twitter. You can sign up at the Facebook page for weekly updates about what’s available at the market. The only thing that would be better for me would be if they sold parking spaces at the market, but I’ll make the prowl.

Sweet history

IMG_1038Foy Allen Edelman decided she was going to travel North Carolina with her camera and tape recorder, to collect recipes, memories and food traditions before they faded away. She had no thoughts about what to do with all the information once she gathered it, but knew it was a project that she had to do.

I met Foy a couple of years ago, heard some of the history she collected and tasted some fine cooking. She has collected fascinating information about the way North Carolinians lived and fed one another.

And she found an outlet. “Sweet Carolina: Favorite Desserts and Candies from the Old North State” has just been published by the University of North Carolina Press. As the name indicates, the book focuses on the desserts from the material she has collected. (Hopefully, there’ll be other books; the world needs to read the tale of how to cook a bear.)

But the real tale is in the resilience and imagination of the cooks who provided their recipes and life stories. As Foy writes: “The ability to take anything you have, make something good out of it, and share it is perhaps the most characteristic tradition of all.”

You can hear about how to make sorghum molasses (with a recipe for Molasses Cake), the story of Chew Bread and vignettes of life throughout history. Recipes cover the range from cakes, pies and cobblers to ice creams and candies.

Nothing like a reward for exercise

If you’re going to spend hours paddling down a river, I believe, you deserve some incentive. So does Benjamin Vineyards, which is set in rolling countryside about 40 minutes from Chapel Hill.

The winery is offering a Paddle and Wine Dinner on Sept. 26 that combines about three hours of canoing on the Haw River with a dinner featuring local foods and Benjamin’s wines. The menu – the important part – includes pork loin with pickled grapes and peaches in spiced wine. There’s also a sorbet made with the winery’s Creme de Framboise, a dessert wine made from raspberries that is a fun wine to play with when making spritzers or lemonade with a kick. Reservations are required.

Mac attack

A sure sign that people crave comfort food in this uncertain, contentious time: Later this month, a restaurant serving nothing but macaroni and cheese will open in Manhattan, according to The New York Times. The takeout establishment, called Macbar, will offer about a dozen kinds of mac & cheese, including one with lobster and mascarpone.

Believe it or not, Macbar isn’t the first of its kind in the city. S’mac has been open since 2006 with a menu of all mac & cheese, plus sides and dessert.

I think the Southern version would have to be a menu of all chicken-and-dumplings plus greens. With slippers and blankies offered at the door.