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Top Chef selects best local dishes, drinks

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | MARCH 31, 2015 5:00 AM

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Local Iowa City restaurants and bars competed on Monday for one of the most prestigious titles in town: Top Chef.

The foodies of Iowa City flooded hotelVetro to eat, drink, hear some jazz, and see El Banditos Chef Christopher Truitt crowned a culinary champion at the fifth-annual Top Chef: Downtown Iowa City.

The event featured two dozen local businesses sparring for top titles in four different categories: entrées, desserts, mixology, and baristas.

“It’s great exposure,” said Nicole Millard of Java House. “It’s great to be with everyone from the Downtown District. We see a lot of people from the restaurants in our store, so it’s nice to support the family of local bars and shops.”

Millard and her coworkers entered their Berry Coffee Frizz in the competition.

“We’re using a Kenyan coffee that was roasted for us especially for this event,” she said. “We’re combining the iced Kenyan, a little bit of soda water for effervescence, little bit of blueberry, and topped with blueberry-infused whipped cream.”

Java House tied with High Ground Coffee in the newly formed barista category.

Far from being upset, Millard welcomed the opposition.

“We were in the dessert category last year with an iced coffee,” she said. “Hopefully, next year we’ll have more competitors in the coffee category next year.”

Growing shouldn’t be a problem; Nancy Bird, the Iowa City Downtown District executive director, said there are new participants who shine every spring.

This year one of those participants was the Bluebird Diner. Chef Anne Stork has been with Bluebird for three years, but this was her first year at Top Chef. She won the Judge’s Choice Award in the dessert category for her “Cakey, Cakey, Eggs, and Bakey,” a bourbon-batter pecan pound cake designed to look like toast topped with an orange-curd-filled meringue “egg” and maple-candied bacon.

“It started as a joke,” she said. “How we could turn breakfast into a dessert? Because Bluebird eggs are our signature item, the first thing on the menu.”

The judges said they decided in favor of Bluebird partly because of its creativity.

Though it didn’t result in an award, Italian restaurant Baroncini also sought creativity in its dish. As a Blue Zone designated restaurant — identified by the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce as a promoter of good health — Baroncini chefs brought a health-conscious dish to the competition. 

They chose “ravioli stuffed with porcini mushroom and goat cheese in a light tomato sauce with crystalized sprouts.”

“The Blue Zone wanted us to partake, so we brought a vegetarian dish,” said Jessica Pease of Baroncini. “We can promote a healthier lifestyle while still providing delicious food. Hopefully, it’ll get a lot of people in the door.”

Attracting new patrons seemed to be a common theme for many participants. The Mill bar and restaurant took the opportunity to test one of a dozen new cocktails that will be unveiled on its menu today, the Fitzgerald, the event’s winning drink. All of the Mill’s new spring drinks are named after famous writers.

“The Fitzgerald is a standard cocktail, and we twisted it by adding sparkling lemon juice instead of regular lemon and rosemary simple syrup instead of regular,” said Rebecca Geissel, a Mill bartender.

“We chose this one because it’s our most popular this time of year. It’s really light and refreshing for people who like to sit on the patio and drink.”

Light and refreshing seemed to be the night’s key ingredient; in their first year competing as partners, Molly’s Cupcakes and Yotopia Frozen Yogurt prepared a froyo sandwich, new lavender blueberry froyo between two soft lemon cookies, topped with frozen blueberries.

The classic flavors may not have won them an award, but they’re hopeful the new spring froyo flavor will bring people to the shop.

Using Top Chef as a means of attracting new patrons doesn’t seem to be a bad idea, at least according to attendee Angie Breitsprecher.

“I like supporting the local restaurants and trying restaurants I may not usually try, ones I may not necessarily go to but now I can try them and maybe go there in the future,” she said.


Judge’s Choice

Entrée
Third: Share Wine Lounge’s Seared Smoked Duck
Second: Short’s Burger & Shine/RIDE’s Short Rib Poutine
First: El Banditos Short Rib Tacos

Mixologist
Second: Basta’s Basta Tea Party
First: Mill’s Fitzgerald

Dessert: Bluebird Diner’s Cakey, Cakey, Eggs and Bakey

Barista
First (tied): Java House’s Berry Coffee Frizz
First (tied): High Ground Coffee’s Black Coffee

People’s Choice

Entrée
Third: Heirloom Salad Co.’s Chicken Salad Sandwich with apricot lentil soup
Second: Short’s Burger & Shine/RIDE’s Short Rib Poutine
First: El Banditos Short Rib Tacos

Mixologist
Second (tied): Graze’s The Spa-tini
Second (tied): Forbidden Planet’s Resident Evil
First: Mill’s Fitzgerald

Dessert:
Pullman Bar and Diner’s Nutella Pie


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