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Top Chef: Downtown Iowa City wows the crowd at Hotel Vetro

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Atendees hurry to cast their votes for the “People’s Choice” award before the voting closes. Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

More than 350 foodies and bons vivants indulged in succulent fare and creative cocktails from 24 area bars, cafes and restaurants at Monday night, Feb. 27’s seventh annual Top Chef: Downtown event, hosted by the Iowa City Downtown District at the Hotel Vetro.

Attendees sampled an array of tasty treats, most of which highlighted locally produced ingredients, and voted on their favorites, while guest judges critiqued in secret, announcing the victors at the event’s end. Tickets for the event sold out in under three hours; the Vetro’s conference area was packed with hungry and thirsty throngs.

The event serves as a networking and promotional opportunity for businesses that are in the Downtown District; Coralville’s Maestro Empanadas was the exception, though many downtown diners have tasted the savory pastry pockets at the Saturday downtown farmers market over the past few years.

Maestro Empanadas’ offering for Top Chef Downtown at Hotel Vetro. Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

Chef Cristian Bejarano’s empanadas were a crowd favorite; his plates were thoughtfully and artfully presented, each featuring a beef empanada and a sweet corn empanada, garnished with complex chimichurri and a refreshing kale and quinoa salad. The People’s Choice award for best entree, however, went to Baroncini, for a baked macaroni dish with local, housemade sausage, fresh spinach and rich, creamy sauce.

Chef Gianluca Baroncini serves up Macaroni alla Bella during Top Chef: Downtown Iowa City at Hotel Vetro. Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

Judges preferred the University of Iowa Dining Service’s entree, a seared, smoked duck breast glazed with caramel-orange glaze and served with a savory doughnut stuffed with rich duck liver, which received first prize in that category. The result of a collaboration between several University Dining employees, the dish balanced savory and sweet flavors with decadent textures, disproving any stereotypes diners may have had about cafeteria food.

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People’s Choice award winner for best cocktail went to the Mill’s muscatine-melon and honey On an Island in Iowa; judges selected Pints for best cocktail, for a sweet, sparkly gin and fruit concoction called The Empiricist.

Anne Stork, dessert chef for Bluebird diner, took home judge’s accolades for a homey, comforting blueberry pie topped with housemade sourdough crumb topping and lemon ice cream, while Sweets & Treats pleased the people’s palates with their bacon crumble fudge and Sterzing’s potato chip-chocolate.

Throughout the evening, patrons milled about the Vetro’s conference center rooms, stopping by CSA booths and meeting chefs and farmers and discussing their opinions about the varied fare, which ranged from pho to fancy.

The Yacht Club stays true to itself with a little humor. Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

In fact, the owners of the Iowa City Yacht Club stabbed at fancy, with their “In Vetro Jerry Garcia.” Atop the bar was a framed poster listing the drink’s alleged ingredients, which included “1.0476 oz. muddled cucumber foie gras reduction” and a “twist of Iowa braised pork rinds with slight hints of ginger, clove and BBQ;” behind the bar, however, ICYC staff cracked open icy tall boys of PBR and served them alongside shots of Rumple Minze, a perfectly snarky and appropriate demonstration of Iowa City’s mix of highbrow and lowbrow, and a refreshing nightcap for the sated masses.

People’s Choice award winners:

  • Best Cocktail: The Mill
  • Best Entree: Baroncini
  • Best Dessert: Sweets & Treats
  • Best Barista: High Ground

Best Overall award winners:

  • Best Cocktail: Pints
  • Best Dessert: Bluebird Diner
  • Best Entree: University of Iowa Dining
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