by Eric Ginsburg
All it took to understand why Graze nearly walked away as the champion of the Fire in the Triad competition-dining champion were three small plates.
The unbelievable taste of lobster and chevre grits as they complemented a lightly jerk-seasoned scallop. The phenomenal attention to detail with shiitake mushroom dust sprinkled on two pieces of cast iron-seared duck breast. And the mere smell of a dark chocolate bouchon with bourbon sabayon and strawberry confit floating down the table.
The multi-part meals at four top-line restaurants last week — featured as part of a Winston-Salem Dishcrawl evening — were all impressive and delicious, but even though it wasn’t a competition, Graze won the day again.
Designed to highlight the four highest-ranked Winston-Salem restaurants from the recent Fire in the Triad competition, the Dishcrawl event on July 22 brought 33 diners to Spring House, Artisan, Graze and Meridian. The organization, which is almost a year old, holds the food-oriented events about every five weeks around the Triad, but for the vast majority of attendees, it was their first time participating.
Wearing color-coded nametags to connote food allergies and dietary restrictions, couples, girlfriends and a group of friends toured some of the Camel City’s finest cuisine.
Four women, who met as neighbors in their Kernersville neighborhood, laughed raucously at the end of a table. Strangers joked jovially between stops on a bus provided by Twin City Quarter and a convivial, family-dining attitude pervaded the evening.
Most of the crowd looked to be in their thirties or forties. Holly Bertoncini, the local Yelp community manager, and food blogger Nikki Miller-Ka took mental notes.
The atmosphere lent itself easily to the pace of the event, an appropriately slow crawl that didn’t wrap up until around 10:30 p.m. despite beginning at 7.
It all began at Spring House, a well manicured property on the western edge of downtown Winston-Salem, where Chef Tim Grandinetti is at the helm. And like the three chefs that followed, he left the kitchen to address his guests and explain what exactly they were eating.
There were several elements to his dish, including a squash blossom and his miniature riff on an everything bagel with schmear, but the two most memorable items he offered were a General Tso’s sweetbread creation and slices of tomato paired with feta cheese, basil and cubes of watermelon.
The idea, Grandinetti said, was to provide a glimpse of Spring House’s summer menu, and the chatter gravitated to the watermelon and tomato pairing. The coupling is en vogue in the nation’s culinary scene this summer, and though the two in-season fruits seem like unnatural bedfellows it served as the perfect appetizer for the evening. The basil and feta, though unnecessary, provided a satisfying and simple garnish.
A signed card from Kevin Reddick, Artisan’s executive chef, awaited diners at each seat at Dishcrawl’s second stop, including a list of the three menu items that would arrive shortly. The best of the trio of cakes, a Virginia lump crab cake, was enhanced by the citrus of accompanying pea shoots and the light but buttery richness of a Homeland Creamery beurre blanc.
Risotto helped lighten what could’ve been overpowering pimiento cheese in another cake, topped with a fried egg and a tarragon hollandaise sauce, but it also somewhat neutralized the flavor. A pistachio-crusted Goat Lady smoke round, resting on an heirloom tomato ragout with green olives, tasted fuller and more distinct.
By the time people arrived at Graze, walking the short distance up the street to the Marriott that houses it, some attendees were starting to feel full.
The concept of a jerk-seasoned scallop may sound a little bizarre, but Chef Richard Miller and Sous Chef Timothy Gallione executed it with precision, gently enough that it was noticeable to those paying close attention but letting the scallop do the talking. Even for someone who doesn’t lean towards seafood, the dish’s excellence would be undeniable.
Though the night’s other dishes were strong, the scallop plated with the duck breast raised the bar. Soon after, the chocolate bouchon — a cross between a small brownie and cake — appeared, a dense, sweet and delicious cap to the meal.
It’s a good thing Meridian had desserts in mind, because it’s difficult to imagine anyone saved space for anything else. Three little cakes, from Meridian’s entries in the Fire in the Triad competition, graced a plate, but several people still requested to-go boxes.
Infused with ingredients like Texas Pete, Pepsi and a scotch sauce, the three desserts each brought a different element to the night’s finale.
“This is going to rattle the taste buds a little bit because there’s a lot going on,” Chef Mark Grohman said as he addressed the Dishcrawlers.
A cube of sponge cake and a wedge of powerful chocolate cake, both enjoyable, were outshined by a smaller s’mores concoction with a cracker-like bottom, chocolate core and delightfully sticky marshmallow layer topped with a peanut-brittle fin.
Just repeating its ingredients is enough to want some more, but at that point in the evening it was hard to justify anything besides water and witty banter.