Sponsored by the Iowa City Downtown District, the eighth annual Top Chef: Downtown event sold out quickly once again, packing the Hotel Vetro on Feb. 26 with revelers who relished food and drink from 24 Iowa City food and drink establishments. This year, there was balanced representation from food trucks, higher-end restaurants and smaller, more casual eateries, offering a spectrum of gustatory delights and creative cocktails.
Judges from Kirkwood Community College’s Hospitality Arts Program, along with a few representatives from the area food industry, voted for their favorite dishes, while local bartenders weighed in on their preferred cocktails. In addition, attendees submitted their votes for people’s choice awards; accolades from judges and for people’s choice were given in three categories: savory dishes, desserts and cocktails.
Kitchen manager Jody Escobar, of Dumpling Darling, took home top honors from the judges and second place in people’s choice for savory dishes. Escobar and her crew offered two different dumplings: one red curry steak with cashews, one polenta and vegetable. The steak one was fat and juicy, cashews perfectly offsetting the supple dough and tender meat. In the name of journalistic ethics, it was my duty to try the polenta dumpling, too, though I generally oppose starch-filled starches. I actually ate the whole thing; its delicate flavors and creamy texture were almost dessert-like after the spicy steak.
It was evident by the wall-like line bisecting the room that people’s choice first place would go to Greg Millsap, proprietor of Banh Mi Amore, for his roasted pork banh mi. Millsap’s food truck can be found on the Ped Mall, in front of DC’s, late on weekend nights, and he’s also posted up at lunchtime on Thursdays by the Carver College of Medicine for Science Thursdays.
His take on the traditional Vietnamese sandwich involves a roll dipped in garlic butter and topped with roasted pork, pickled vegetables, cilantro and sriracha aioli. This delicious sandwich is unbelievably hedonistic. It’s not really a banh mi, by traditional standards, but it’s a really fucking delicious sandwich. The line got longer as more people sampled cocktails, and I can see why: This is the perfect drunk food, all pungent flavors and decadent, juicy textures.
Second place from the judges went to Pullman’s Emily Agnew-Seiler and her sous chef Ryan McLaughlin for their crispy pork belly with softly braised onions, butternut squash puree and a little, snappy, jazz-hands garnish of pomegranate arils. This dish did an excellent job of conveying what diners can expect from Agnew-Seiler and Pullman, balancing often-local product with comforting composition and an artful flair.
Judges chose I <3 Pho’s spicy beef rice bowl as their third place winner, while the people chose Joseph’s coconut-braised Hinterland Farms pork belly with pickled onion and radish on a pretzel crostini. Both were delicious in their own very different ways, though I’m still thinking about the lush, mildly herbed braised pork belly from Joseph’s, which was balanced perfectly by the salty pretzel crostini crunch.
Both award-winning desserts were sublime little gems of sweet deliciousness. Anne Stork, pastry chef at Bluebird, won the people’s choice award for her Derby Pie pancakes: perfect little pillowy chocolate chip blini topped with a disassembled Derby Pie, all bourbon walnut praline crunch and chocolate, featuring small-batch Cedar Ridge chocolate malt bourbon in both the praline and the whipped cream. Judges’ choice, University of Iowa Dining’s perfect petit four of lemon pound cake with blackberry mousse, lemon curd and a thyme tuile, was beautiful and balanced, just like their chefs’ savory dish that won the judges’ awards last year. Maybe Catlett Dining Hall is the restaurant destination of 2018?
I wasn’t drinking this year, so I didn’t taste any of the drinks, but I loved laughing at Micky’s beloved Jeremiah Burke in his Hammer-pantsed homage to Snoop Dogg, and the people chose as winner his D O Double G, a smoked, herbal gin and juice. Judges preferred The Mill’s more nuanced lavender-scented Gin Your Dreams, crafted by bar goddess Patricia Foote.
Atlas’s Joy Buehler clinched second place from the judges with her From Russia With Love, a classic milk punch, while Samuel Hall from Clinton Street Social Club pleased the people’s palates with an 18 ½ Gin Fizz. And, just like they did last year, bartenders from Gabe’s and Yacht Club showed their true colors, reminding us all that it’s okay to be yourself while dispensing shots of Fireball and bottles of Budweiser, complete with koozie, to the happily accepting, tipsy masses.
Other highlights included a succulent herbed Old Capitol tofu with green curry, from Heartland Burrito’s Kyle Sieck; a savory smoked salmon crepe, from Crepes de Luxe Cafe’s Hicham Chehouani; and, my favorite of all, Oasis Falafel’s chicken schnitzel with za’atar vinaigrette and Mediterranean sides. I dream of the day that shows up on their menu.
Last year, there was a CSA table in the center of the event, allowing attendees to meet their farmers and learn more about where their meat and produce came from. The farmers, along with a handful of baristas, were notably absent this year, though in their absence, traffic moved more fluidly from room to room, and diners were more able to mill about and celebrate with one another. It might be good to invite them back next year, though; for such a decadent event, and since we’re meeting the creative people behind the products, I’d like to be reminded of even more of the people who make it all happen.