2009 Culinary Flavor of Asia: People’s ChoiceAward

On Oct. 19, I was much honored to attend the Asian Cook Off at the Kimball Kitchen Center, which was sponsored by the Asian Chamber of Commerce. Six new Asian restaurants were showing off their stuff and each had its own kitchen in which to cook. The best dishes were those made to order while the worst ones seemed to be carted in from a catering van. Everyone attending received a ticket for a beverage, but when I got to the table I was mesmerized by two very cheap wines — neither of which went with Asian food.

Here are my comments on the six participating restaurants:

Myung-Ga (Korean)

They served Bulgogi with steamed rice. You were greeted at their table by two lovely girls in typical Korean gowns. The plate itself had a wilted lettuce leaf, which I guess you were supposed to use as a wrap, several spoonfuls of cold mystery meat, and a taste of very spicy kim-chee. The girls placed two dots of different sauces on the plate — one chili, the other sweet bean sauce. Not very impressive.

RICE: Asian Fusion & Sushi Bar

My friend Alice was at this station busily preparing sushi rolls. They were very nice and tasty. Her staff was preparing Sake Maki (a raw salmon roll), California rolls with the typical “krab,” and a New York roll with the typical avocado, cream cheese and smoked salmon. The rolls were perfectly executed and served with wasabi and pickled ginger. To me, even though these items were great, RICE failed to step up here; everyone else at the contest was trying to take a few risks, showing off something new and different and trying to introduce some unique flavors.

Tandoor (Indian)

I really liked this food. Tandoor’s station’s had a beautiful Indian who could answer all my questions and new exactly what was in her recipes — surprisingly, this was the first time I had encountered a cook! Tandoor served cilantro chicken curry which was marinated and cooked in yogurt. I found this very flavorful, but thought it could have had a little heat to it. I suspect, though, that the presenters didn’t want to offend the Utah palate. The chicken was accompanied by an equally delicious rice which was fluffy and yellowed with turmeric, and which I would have called a kind of Bhiriani. It was also full of sautéed, julienned veggies and sprinkled with black/brown mustard seeds. I loved the combination of the rice with the tangy chicken.

J. Wong’s Asian Bistro (Thai/Chinese)

These guys really stepped up to the plate. They served freshly bake/poached salmon laced with a gorgeous panang curry sauce. The station was manned by the Wong family with Mother Wong out front, spreading her gracious but perfectionist smile. The salmon was accompanied by sugar snap peas and julienned red bell pepper making the color combination sensational. In talking to the Wongs, I found out that there was a secret ingredient in the sauce: finely cut threads of Kaffar lime leaf. I tasted the leaf by itself — very citrusy up front but with a rich background of mace and marjoram. These guys not only know how to cook, but how to talk about it as well. I placed my vote for J. Wong.

Café Trang (Vietnamese)

Here, once again, I was impressed by a knowledgeable cook. A charming girl explained the dish to me as being match-stick mango — quickly sautéed with whole basil leaves then placed on a breaded and baked filet of tilapia. (I thought the fish was a little over-cooked.) The mango, un-ripened but spectacularly neon-yellow in color, shredded on a mandolin, was then doused with anAsian vinaigrette made of sugar, vinegar, fish sauce and red pepper flakes. Café Trang won the event with this dish, which to me lacked the elegance of the J. Wong entry. But it was the People’s choice — not mine.

Pad Thai — (Thai)

Pad Thai was totally not in the game. They had mixed two rice noodles together, some fried some not, and they had all stuck together from sitting too long. The dish was cold and had no color other than some roughly cut green onion here and there. It was topped with cold chunks of scramble egg and had little flavor.

At an event like this, it is very hard to actually judge the performance of the restaurant itself. Some of these people really saw the potential in wowing their audience, and some did not. There is an underlying question, though: If you’re new and want to impress, why not step up and at least try to be creative and excellent? Maybe we should judge the restaurant by the standard they displayed here?

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