One of my favorite Eugene food events, Chefs’ Night Out, is a fundraiser for Food for Lane County, allowing local restaurants and culinary programs to experiment with cocktail nibbles for the thronging hordes.
What I really like to see, of course, is the chefs and service industry workers doing what they do best. This event, like the Bite of Eugene festival that produces the Iron Chef Eugene competition in the summer, seems to be a pleasure for the industry as much as it is for the guests.
It made me happy just to watch the workers interact with an appreciative public and do their thing.
Also successful this year? The giant carrot balloons welcoming vegetarians in the midst of all the tri-tip nuggets, and the new secret wood-lined lounge with a jazz trio and a couple of King Estate standards. I felt almost hip looking at the tweets broadcasted on the wall on a giant screen, so I drank a pomeberry-pink cosmo against my better judgment.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I noticed a level of institutional care and attention this year that I really appreciated. It seemed there were fewer vendors, but that meant less pulled pork and bad wine. The crowd control seemed to be managed, in any case, so people weren’t lined up at King Estate for more than, oh, 20 minutes. (I’m kidding — it was by the door.)
Congratulations to the winners of this year’s competition: Best Overall Bite – Marché Restaurant. Best Presentation/Hospitality – Sweet Life. Best Savory Bite – King Estate Winery. Best Vegetarian Bite – Govinda’s. Best Sweet Bite – Red Wagon Creamery. We don’t know exactly what won, though. On the Food for Lane County Facebook page, they indicated to me that “The judges don’t always indicate which specific dish they are voting for, however we did note on ballots that these dishes caught judge’s eyes: Marche’s Spring Pea and Asparagus Salad; King Estate Winery’s Charcuterie (Saucisson Sec, Smoked Duck Breast Speck, Pork and Black Truffle Paté); and Red Wagon Creamery’s Chocolate Meringue Cookies with Toasted Sesame Ice Cream and Whiskey Caramel [below]. We will try to encourage judges to be more specific in their choices next year!” That’s a terrific idea.
I was kind of surprised that all the deserving winners were located on the main floor atrium; did the judges go upstairs? If they did, they most likely enjoyed my Best Overall Bite, Koho Bistro’s duck liver paté on a slightly sweet walnut cocoa flat cake with fig and Zinfandel jam. The flavors matched perfectly. And not too shabby was the other dish at Koho (which the judges did see since they gave it an honorable mention), the candy-cap mushroom crème brûlée on a pepper sablé with smoked caramel glass (below). This is the second year in a row that I’ve found Koho’s bites the best, but the quality just hasn’t been acknowledged. (Last year, it was the candied kumquat and farmer cheese on black pepper shortbread canapés.) What is in store for next year?
Other unexpectedly delicious treats were the ricotta-mirepoix-mushroom stuffed pepper with a very fresh and wild basil mousse and chile oil from Ambrosia; a perfectly classic endive, celery and walnut salad with a lemon-tarragon mayo on a homemade potato chip from the catering outfit Our Daily Bread (better than the only other veg bites, award-winning Marché’s peas and Govinda’s stews, I thought); a simple pork confit taco from the new food cart Gastronomad, which was down in the Ninkasi tent; and the now tried-and-true but still good salmon rillettes and watermelon gazpacho with tequila from Shadow Hills Country Club. Never thought I’d say I like country club food, but there you are.
Whoa, and the wild boar agrodolce over polenta at Excelsior? A wonderful sweet and sour turn of that pork classic. Has Excelsior hired chef extraordinaire and our best local magician with sweets Shane Tracey, formerly Executive Chef Owner of Nib? It took a minute to recognize him, because I was thoroughly puzzling over the trio of desserts at the table. When did Excelsior up its pastry game to this level?, I was thinking. Then I saw Shane and it was clear. You can see two of the desserts above, a little cocoa bomb clothed in green on a brown butter financier and an interpretation of tiramisu with a pretty little hand-painted chocolate disc.
My favorite sweet bite, though, and again a surprise, was the ultra lavender cream puff on a stick made by the students at LCC (first photo). They infused both the pastry cream with lavender and the whipped cream with lavender-powered pear brandy. It came on strong and left creamy. A perfect dessert.
My favorite cocktail was the quickie Cocchi Americano-Rye signature cocktail at Rye, hands down. Had I known about the lounge earlier, I would have made off with that punchbowl. I had again a memorable glass of Roussanne at J. Scott, which quenched my white wine trending thirst, and a really good dry rosé at King Estate, which I am told is one of several, and which I do not know from the others. Oops.
I agree with the awards committee that Sweet Life had the best presentation, what with its pretty server in Victorian mourning and the tulip-themed sweets all over the Parisian pink Eiffel-towered table. But I would create my own award for the unintentionally coolest in a weird way bite. That would go to Mazzi’s, who served that mystery of mysteries, alive in 2013 only in Eugene — Steak Diane. The steak was so-so and I’m still trying to figure out why an Italian-American joint would serve it at the tasting, but I liked the sauce and the hundreds of little cups over the Mazzi napkins. Something very mod about it, both in form and function.
All in all, a good night and lots of fun. Hope it went well, Food for Lane County! You can see a full photo spread of the night’s photos on my Facebook page.