Last night I ate too much. I was one of the lucky judges at the 4th Annual Savor Pittsburgh evening on the South Side. Big white tents in the parking lot next to McCormick & Schmick’s on Sidney Street. They call it “A Celebration of Cuisine” and it was a pretty sublime evening of wonderful food. Perfect weather. Nice big crowd. Live band. All the proceeds benefit the American Respiratory Alliance of Western Pennsylvania. It’s a good deed. It’s talk talk talk. Food food food.
We 13 judges got to sit like culinary apostles at a Last-Supper-like set of tables, and culinary students brought us samples of all the dishes in the competition. Someone said there were 46 different dishes for us to taste! I didn’t count.
I missed the first few plates because I was socializing, and I missed all the desserts because I had to run home and help deal with a what-turned-out-to-be a minor family crisis. But just before I got the call saying I needed to get home, I had turned to Chris Fennimore, my fellow judge sitting next to me, and I said, “Hmm. All of a sudden I’m very full.” Maybe I got to leave at exactly the right moment, before that one thin mint led to disaster.
We started with appetizers. Logically. And oh they were impressive and memorable and startling and scrumptious at times. Lots of seafood. A rash of risottos. I didn’t take a picture of every one, but I remember the bright taste of the Pennsylvania Silver Queen Corn in a risotto with some “Sautéed Laughing Bird Shrimp.” Rice nice, shrimp tender, corn bright and sweet and a perfect starter.
Then there was one of the largest presentations of the evening, the classic oxymoron: a HUGE shrimp, maybe he biggest shrimp I’ve ever eaten. It was called “Dirty Shrimp with Sweet Potato Grits and avocado and Chili Oils.” My oh my. Spicy and luscious and served with style and color and panache. Today I found out that this dish won the Best Appetizer category.
But if you stopped to talk last night, I would have said, “Oh the Mussels Escabeche were amazing.” Three perfectly cooked (or marinated or whatever) well seasoned mussels, served cool. I think I remember a slice of radish or two, and wow! spicy Rice Krispies as a garnish. With a dollop of citrus-y foam atop the whole presentation.
I suspected it was a Kevin Sousa creation, and later when checking the program for the evening, I saw that this was one of his dishes, and I love the way he puts things together and makes my taste buds zing. I will long remember the big shrimp but tonight I wish I had more of those mussels.
What else do I recall? Some good green-vegetable gazpacho with a scallop seviche (“cooked” in lime juice, tender and smooth) partially immersed in it, sort of riding on a spoon in the cold soup. Good dish for a summer night.
I also like the Sweet Corn & Lobster Vol-au-vent. The vol-au-vent is a squat flaky pastry tower that usually gets filled with something wonderful and this was a good one.
The scrumptious seafood ,just kept coming, and I’m not sure when the appetizers stopped and the main courses began, but when the student chefs starting bringing presentation platters as well as judges’ plates (usually smaller with a sample of the big plate), I figured we’d gone on to another course. Here’s the presentation platter for 0ne restaurant’s seafood risotto:
And below is what the judges got. Not too shabby. Perfectly cooked shrimp, scallops and other fruits of the sea. Big points for whoever made this. (I suspect it was from the Tuscan Inn when I look now at the program.)
I also really liked the seared scallops and asparagus salad that brightened the evening with a crisp sear on the scallop and a good blend of flavors. I could eat more of those too. (If I again read my program correctly, I think these were from Mitchell’s Fish Market.)
It was a great evening of food. I apologize for not pairing up all the dishes with their chefs, but last night, as a judge, I was just tasting great food without a knowledge of place or personality. It was a celebration of good ingredients, careful prep, cooking and presentation, and I’m honored to have had the opportunity to eat like those judges on TOP CHEF and IRON CHEF and WHATEVER CHEF. The food here was often world class.
I give huge thanks to Christina Dickerson from McCormick & Schmick for inviting me again. (I’ve been lucky enough to do this judging three times now. Ahh.) And a special thanks to my buddy Merritt Holland Spier from the American Respiratory Alliance who has been treating me like royalty even though we got back to my earliest days at WQED in 1987. I remember meeting Merritt in a tiny dark editing room on the ground floor of WQED when I went there for my job interview. So here’s a photo of Merritt and her husband Dave Spier and their fellow vote-counter, Cyndy Tallerico. Merritt spent most of the evening gathering ballots and Dave and Cyndy were calculating the results. I wish they had gotten a chance to eat more than they did.