I’m glad I skipped breakfast this past Saturday.
During my first go as a judge of — a fine-dining culinary contest / wine tasting at in Cutchogue Saturday — I had an afternoon of a lot of indulging ahead of me.
Sitting with co-judges Pascal Zugmeyer, a native of Toulouse, France and expert on all things food and wine, and winemaker Kelly Urbanik, who was educated in viticulture in California, I felt a bit like the redheaded stepchild of the panel. But, I did have the following on my side: I worked for about five months at a wine bar years ago, I’ve worked with all sorts of chefs at various waitressing jobs, I’ve written about Long Island Wine Country for almost four years now — and I’ve tasted a whole lot of the wines grown and produced here.
And, I’ve recently been on an “Iron Chef” kick for some reason. Guess this gig was destiny.
With a crowd of about 40 people, who all got to taste the same things we did gathered in the back of the small winery, we started the afternoon with a crisp 2011 sauvignon blanc while the chefs — Tom Fazio, chef at The Kitchen and Waterside Caterers in Northport, and Lia Stanco Fallon, executive chef and owner of Amarelle in Wading River — worked their magic at a makeshift kitchen set up under a tent outside the back of the winery.
Fazio, who competed last year, worked on a striped bass dish with an Asian twist — a sizable filet of the locally caught fish with crab cakes on a bed of a creamy, mild wasabi sauce sprinkled with soy “caviar” pearls, topped with a small poached egg. Fallon’s dish was slices of duck served with a tart mix of rice, apricots and cherries. The whole point of the contest was to make the perfect dish to pair with Waters Crest’s bone-dry 2011 rosé.
As we hungry people waited for the food and sipped the sauv, then a 2012 campania bianco spicy white blend, winery owner Jim Waters talked to the crowd.
“There are no winners or losers today, I just want to showcase this very special place we live in,” he said. “Everything is grown right here — we don’t have to go to for everything. And some of the top people in winemaking seek out the North Fork — they love what it has to offer.”
Finally, the rosé was poured and the plates were served. First came Fallon’s duck dish. I hadn’t had duck since Christmas 2010, when I made it for some friends. Of course, I baked the bird very slowly with sweet and syrupy mandarin oranges out of a can.
And that’s how duck is usually done — with sweetness. Fallon broke the rule and went for the tart, which I now think should be the norm. The tart from the cherry and young apricot really enhanced the rich meaty flavor of the duck, and the texture of the rice made every bite just pop. The neutral rosé was perfect with this dramatic dish full of focused flavor.
But I wish we could have tried Fazio’s lighter striped bass first. His dish was an amazing combination of creamy and Asian spicy — I for one don’t normally think of creamy when I think soy and wasabi. But he pulled it off. The dots of soy pearls — which he said he “bathed in a bath of sodium chloride” (sorry, a little too mad scientist for me to follow) gave a burst of saltiness to each bite already swimming with interesting flavors, which was great. And the yolk of the egg added to the velvety combination.
But the portion was a bit much after the delectable duck, and Fazio’s flavor strategy just wasn’t as perfect as Fallon’s with the rosé. If we were going for a pairing with the acidic sauv blanc, Fazio bass would have topped.
I was the first to explain my thoughts "Iron Chef"-style to the crowd, and the other two judges agreed.
“There is no flaws in this rosé, it’s not bitter, it’s not sweet — it was a flavor I was seeking with the duck,” said Zugmeyer. “I think you need a good acid with the spicier food.”
Whew. I guess I’m not so culinarily redheaded afterall and can hang with the big dogs. Thanks to Jim Waters for the faith and the invite — hopefully I can spend another gorgeous Saturday afternoon with a few of the creative types of Long Island Wine Country at another cook-off soon.