Nick&Nat’s Iron Chef Uptown Competition

Guest judging at the first of Nick & Nat’s Iron Chef Uptown competitions for the season is shaping up to be one of my favorite KW memories. It had everything: fun hosts, great setting – must make it back to Nick & Nat’s for their food soon! – amazing people, tasty food… And it was all for a good cause (raising money for the local food bank and for Foodlink, a local organization that, among other things, connects farmers with restauranteurs and other businesses.)
There was an incredible sense of energy and enthusiasm that bounced off every corner of the restaurant as two-man teams from Waterloo’s Bauer Kitchen and Morriston’s Enver’s incorporated maple sap, maple woodchips, maple candy, and maple syrup into two innovative and delicious dinner menus. In under an hour.

Considering that it takes me about an hour to create a simple meal, my eyes widened in wonder as I watched the chefs shape gnocchi and slice apples into impossibly thin segments. The knife skill and control displayed by both teams was (while perhaps not surprising) almost mesmerizing. Scoring perch fillets and mincing maple candies seemed as easy as breathing.

This is one of my favorite photos from the night, even though nearly everything in it is blurry. It captures the speed with which the teams were moving and a little bit of the concentration and dedication that the Enver’s team brought to the kitchen.

Here, gnocchi is being sliced into bite-sized pieces, before being combined with brussels sprouts, parmesan, bacon (?), maple syrup, spices, and mushrooms. Comfort food at its finest. (I admit now that I can’t remember all of the ingredients or elements to the dishes, but I’ll do my best to recall them.)

I was very, very happy to discover this morning that Enver’s has gnocchi on their regular menu; there was a world of difference between what I tried at the judges’ table and the plastic-wrapped insta-pasta that I usually pick up from the grocery store. (I may have used a metaphor involving the Sun and “that poor discounted planet, Pluto” to describe the difference between insta-pasta and Enver’s pasta during my judge’s review. On a mike. In front of the entire restaurant. But I think I made the chefs smile, so…)

More calmness-within-the-storm displayed as Mike from the Bauer Kitchen rolls out the pastry for their apple-maple-cinnamon tarte tatin.

Part of me thinks that when I upgrade to a DSLR camera one day, and almost all of my pictures turn out fully in focus, I might miss shots like this, where the subject’s body is a blur but you can sense his concentration. I know I’ve looked at a blank sheet of paper or Word document with a similar expression: where will you take me? And, sometimes: why aren’t you there yet?

Soon enough, “Welcome To The Jungle” was blaring over the loudspeakers, signaling the last five minutes of the competition. If possible, the chefs moved even faster.

Pouring, plating, decorating… to create the dishes below.

The Bauer Kitchen’s first dish was a spring greens salad highlighted most memorably by warm goat cheese medallions and spicy-sweet maple candied pecans. The salad was one of my favorites, and, were I given a jar of the pecans, they would be gone in short order. Great, zippy vinaigrette, and one of the prettiest dishes, plating-wise.

Enver’s first plate was a perch filet over a sweet potato (and/or squash? eep…) and bacon hash. I believe the fish was smoked with maple chips, and it was an unconventional choice that stood up well to the sweet-savoury hash. I really liked the orange orbital plating detail. I forget what it was composed of, but it was tasty.

Bauer Kitchen’s maple-smoked scallops… mmm. Perfect texture and great flavour. The toffee-esque circles of caramelized maple sugar they’re sitting upon were worth the work to get some off of the plate (eating it was similar to a good caramel apple; you feel your jaws stick together but you don’t care.)

The second-course stack by Enver’s was one of the most innovative dishes. Plated on spinach drizzled with a great white wine (and maple?) vinaigrette was a piece of garlic-rubbed bread topped with the Cyprian cheese halloumi (which I’ve only ever seen before served in a skillet with some olive oil and lemon – this was a great twist!) I’m not certain if the judges knew decisively whether the meat was proscuitto, duck, or duck proscuitto, and while I lean towards at least some duckish element, it complimented the mild cheese and zip of the salad. The green-onion-looking garnish is a garlicky frond of “ramps,” or wild leeks! I’ve seen these growing wild along the Iron Horse Trail, and always wondered what they were…

TBK’s pork chop with fingerling potatoes was massive and beautifully tender. No cardboard pork here! I liked the thyme incorporated into the potatoes, and the mild smoke notes in every bite of pork. Very satisfying. I didn’t get a very good angle on the maple squash puree underneath, but it was a lovely compliment.

Gnocchi, gnocchi, gnocchi! I blame M for getting me hooked on these tasty, doughy dumplings in the first place – Enver’s made my favorite plate of them to date. Complex and comforting… if you’re ever puzzled as to what to do with brussels sprouts, may I recommend this?

The tarte tatin rounded out The Bauer Kitchen’s menu. Sweet with a great mixture of cinnamon and vanilla bean from the ice cream, this dessert was all about tastes and textures, from the caramelized pastry to the smooth ice cream. We judges were in accord that the apples were “just right” in texture.

Enver’s baked, smoked ricotta ravioli may sound like an odd choice for dessert, but teetering over and served with a maple pecan and fresh apple hash, the smoky flavour of the ricotta played off of the sweet maple ridiculously well. It may have broken my brain in the first couple of bites, but this was my other favorite of the night.
And now (understandably) I’m off to find some food. Writing this post has definitely whetted my appetite!

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