Professional eater on closed course: Do not try at home

“What, they couldn’t hit double digits?” I thought when I received an invitation to a nine-course dinner prepared by 13 culinary students at The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham. Nine courses in one Monday night? That’s an Olympic contest as much as a meal. But I’m sure that competitors in that event where you ski a whole bunch, then fling yourself on the ground and shoot a rifle never eat this well.

The evening started with Ahi Tuna, Avocado and Crab Timbale, a stack of beautifully cubed tuna and avocado with a layer of crab on the bottom, dotted with sweet soy sauce. Light, refreshing, a good start, although I thought the crab on the bottom kind of muddied things up flavor-wise. And it came with the first of six wines. Next, Tomato Sliders and V7. The play on a slider, using a soft, slightly sweet cookie “bun,” was filled with chopped tomato and shallot. A small  glass of “V7” was a twist on V8 juice, but lighter and with a kick (the students had considered lighting the vodka on the top, but thought again). I liked the contrasting flavors of sweet, tart and hot.

So far, this looked like a breeze.

The third dish, Roasted Beet Salad with Red Onion, Poblano and Lime lacked any poblano flavor that I could discern, and my portion was a little heavy on the oil. But it was vegetables, and I ate it. Still six courses to go, and I needed vitamins. It was time to start pacing myself, so I tasted only a few spoonfuls of the Roasted Apple and Parsnip Soup. It was velvety smooth but a bit sweet for me, although other guests raved about it. I’m just a tart girl. I also restrained on nibbling all of the Trio of Crostini: Eggplant Caviar, Goat Cheese and Salmon Rillette.

The room filled with exotic perfume as the Spiced Duck, Farro and Cumin-Scent Carrots arrived. The perfectly spiced and cooked duck slices and crispy carrot strips, and the aroma, shook off my palate fatigue. The farro (a grain) described as “creamy” wasn’t, but it didn’t matter next to  the wonderful duck. When Yogurt Pannacotta with Cucumber-Mint Sauce arrived, I knew I had to slow it down or I wouldn’t make it to the Fruit Napoleon with Papaya Shooter and Raspberry Coulis. The goal was in sight.

Rack of Lamb with Risotto and Grilled Asparagus stood between me and the dessert finish line. Perfectly cooked lamb with a passion-fruit sauce was the good part; risotto that wasn’t herb-flavored as described and a little thick was the not-so-good. But I reached the finish line, where a fluffy stack of crisp phyllo and spiced cream with pureed papaya awaited. A light dessert, thank goodness.

The dinner was a test for the students in the two-year program, and the room of invited restaurant and industry professionals went through each dish with the chef-instructor and evaluated them.

If you haven’t trained for such a marathon, the restaurant, The District, is open to the public. The days and hours depend on the institute’s 11-week semesters, but the next semester opening should be around April 15. Call 919-317-3200 for information. When open, The District offers breakfast on Fridays and lunch on Thursdays and Fridays. And the WMCA’s treadmills are right across the hall.

From pizza to sweet ‘taters

When I was in college, back when dinosaurs walked the earth, all I asked about the location of my food was that it be near my hand and not make me pull out a lot of dollars. And the closest thing to an actual recipe in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel was a coupon for Pizza Transit Authority. Now, the DTH has a food column written by junior Alex Walters and senior Blair Mikels. In this entry, the pair fail in their attempt to steal sweet potatoes, but eat well anyway.

The column is another sign of increased awareness about food and its sources on area campuses. According to the column, UNC-CH also has a campus garden. And several campuses, including N.C. State University, have on-campus farmers markets.

Party at the market

If you live in West Raleigh, there’s a small gem on the N.C. State University campus worth braving the parking hassles to visit. A completely student-run farmer’s market sets up on the Brickyard every Wednesday during the spring and fall semesters from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.. And, yes, students came up with the idea. All vendors sell North Carolina-produced items. Besides fresh produce, there is exotic ravioli from the Pasta Wench in Boone, roasted corn cornmeal (it has an interesting smoky flavor) from Carolina Grits & Co. in Rocky Mount and other vendors.

On April 14, the organizers are throwing “Localpalooza,” with food samples, music and information on finding locally produced food.

With NCSU’s agricultural roots, a market makes sense; with the stereotype of student eating (pizza and burgers), it doesn’t. Read about how the market came about in my article here. For information on the market, visit its blog here.