love bites: chefs’ night out 2013

IMG_4499 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.

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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.

IMG_4434Tag; you’re it!

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?

IMG_4491IMG_4490The smoked caramel glass was particularly effective with the puddingy pillowy bite.  It was like the princess and the pea or every rose has its thorn or something like that.

IMG_3115IMG_4506 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.

IMG_4517My 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.

IMG_4436I 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.

niblets: arts and flowers edition

Oregon is doing its springy best to paint the landscape in springy colors, so we, too celebrate art in nature.

Fuchsias, named after a German scientist Leonhart Fuchs and hence the odd spelling, are some of the most unusual and easy to grow of the shade/semi-shade flowers, so I always pick some up in the spring. Fred Meyer’s held a “Fuchsia Day” yesterday, and they have an excellent variety of starts.

Help those pollinators get an early start!  They’re important for our stone fruit and apple crops in the Willamette Valley.  Plant flowers that bloom early and attract the bees.  In my garden, that means rosemary, crucifer crops’ flowers (they love the yellow flowers of mustard relatives), lilacs, Oregon grape, flowering quince, and haskapberries.  More ideas from OSU Extension here.

Today on Food for Thought on KLCC at noon, listen in to Ryan and Boris, with special guests from Eugene’s latest addition to the cocktail scene, Rye.  The bar and restaurant opened a few weeks ago, and I had a chance to sample the menu the other day.  They have a terrific selection of pre- and post-Prohibition cocktails; the food could be just as good if they kicked it up a notch.  If you’re used to drinking deliciously spicy bourbon cocktails, you might try to lighten up with a Vancouver, a gin, vermouth, and Benedictine cocktail which has been likened to a Manhattan…on a diet.  Perfect for spring.

If like me and artist James Earl, you’ve been fascinated by crop circles while flying over agricultural regions of the United States, you’ll love Jim’s exhibit in the DIVA space and at the Eugene airport, Window Seat: The Art of the Circle Field.  A professor emeritus in the UO English Department and all around Renaissance man, Jim used Google Earth images to construct artistically interesting snapshots of irrigation systems interlaid into the US transportation network, squaring thousands of green circles. Check it out from now until May 4.  More information here.

Cinema Pacific is one of Eugene’s yearly glories, and this year the festival features two Japanese films about food production.  Take your environmentalist cousin to the gorgeously filmed and grotesque Midori-ko on Thursday, and your urbane food critic uncle to the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Sunday. Unfortunately, the sushi dinner after the film at Kamitori is sold out, but there will be sushi from Sushi-Ya at the film!  Yours truly will be reporting about the dinner.  You can watch all of this year’s film previews, collected by the festival organizers, on YouTube.

I was pleased to see Eugene’s culinary art at another annual extravaganza, Chefs’ Night Out 2012, this week.  Over a thousand people attended, most of whom stood in orderly lines to get delicious food.  (Anyone have a link to news about the award-winners and how much money was raised for Food for Lane County?  I know the press was there — where’s the story, guys?) My best bites included lovely little candied kumquat and farmer cheese on black pepper shortbread canapés from Koho Bistro, Blue Dog meads, a creamy fisherman’s stew from Fisherman’s Market, and a pulpy marionberry soda made from local berries from Hot Lips Soda.  But best of all was probably the simply pan fried oysters with tartar sauce from Mac’s at the Vet’s (bottom shot).  Tumbling from the frying pan into our mouths, they were hot, creamy and delicious.  Not really “Cajun” as advertised, but a tiny bit of spice was appreciated and the tartar had a nice dill pickle dice in it.

chefs’ night out 2011

I attended the sold out Food for Lane County fundraiser, Chefs’ Night Out, last night, and was so happy to see many of the restaurants, catering outfits, wineries, and breweries in town represented.  See a video from KVAL documenting the night here.  They were projecting that they’d raise over $60,000 for food support for the hungry in Lane County.  Hope they exceeded that goal!

Some of the bites were fanciful, like the savory bite-sized waffle cones with meatballs dished up by King Estate, one of the sponsors of the festival.  Hole in the Wall Barbecue took it to the next level (you decide which level) with their Ducks-baseball-hat-wearing barbecued pig.

Some of the best bites included three in the main lobby, Red Agave’s red snapper ceviche (which would have won my Best Bite had I been a judge) to the left on the red print tablecloth, Sfizio’s 3-year prosciutto- and speck-bedecked grissini breadsticks, center, and Field to Table’s “pork and grits,” which was a creative interpretation of an old classic: pulled pork and melty leeks on a polenta cake.

My teacher heart was warmed to see the culinary school at LCC in attendance in their spiffy chef whites, proudly displaying their “Lane” ice sculpture (above) and the pork rillettes on handmade biscuits with cornichons and a slice of their truffled sausage.  The MLK, Jr. Education Center Culinary Arts Program held their own, as well, serving up delicious mini fish tacos and little noodle nests with some kind of meat ball whose details are now hazy due to gorging and drink.

Other bites I very much enjoyed (either eating or looking at after I was full), in no particular order:

  • Bendistillery: grapefruit basil gin cocktail.
  • Skinner’s at the Hilton: chorizo mussels (for catering?! But they worked).
  • The Vintage: spicy passionfruit margarita (I usually avoid these things, but this one wasn’t sweet and had a nice slow burn on the spice).
  • Mookie’s Northwest Grill: foil-wrapped individual ribs (I’m a sucker for shiny).
  • Market of Choice: smoked tomato on goat cheese in little tartlet cups; simple, elegant.
  • Vanilla Jill’s Frozen Yogurt: Carrot cinnamon!
  • Heidi Tunnell Catering: homemade ricotta on bruschetta with a slice of bacon.
  • Ax Billy Grill (go DAC): crab bruschetta with an avocado corn salad (nice and light in a room full of heavy meat choices, too many sliders, and rillettes).
  • Rabbit Bistro: boar rillettes — Best Rillette.
  • Sipping Dreams and King Estates: drinking chocolates.
  • Amity Vineyards: 2008 Pinot Noir.

What did you like?