“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.