Seafood was the dominant theme at the second annual Long Branch Chef's Challenge held last night at the Ocean Place Resort and Spa.
Executive Chef Dominique Filoni of Avenue took the top prize. His wild black sea bass with maitake mushroom, bok choi, and sesame oil in a lemongrass ginger fish broth won the judges over with its simplicity, texture, and flavor.
"It was perfectly cooked. You wanted to go back for more," said judge Debbie George who is account director for Food & Wine magazine.
"Simplicity and flavor and texture were the three components to success," said judge Chris Brandl, chef and owner of Brandl restaurant in Belmar.
"I'm not a big a seafood person. Even the fish had nice crispy ends and soft insides," said judge Michael Sirianni, director of the Culinary Education Center in Asbury Park.
"I always like to do some Asian influence on the menu and this is the only dish that we have that's a little bit Asiatic," said Filoni.
He was trained at Lycee Hotelier Institute in Hyeres, France and has been executive chef at Avenue since 2009. His program biography says was inducted into the Maitres Cuisiniers de France at age 33, making him the youngest French Master Chef in America. In 2004, he was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine.
Before the competition began the judges told Patch what they were looking for in the winning dish.
"I'm looking for something creative, out of the box, full of flavor ... a party in my mouth," said Brandl.
"Ultimately it always comes down to taste. ...It's the dish you're just dying to finish, even though you know you shouldn't," said George.
Midway through the competition, Brandl, George, and Sirianni were leaning toward White Marlin's citrus ponzu marinated black grouper. Executive Chef Nigel D. Samaroo said he made the ponzu with the zest and juices of lemons, limes, and oranges, which he then mixed with brown sugar and soy sauce. He lightly dredged the grouper, pan seared it, and served it over Asian cole slaw and a mango puree.
Samaroo is a 1995 graduate of the Culinary Institute of Arts and specializes in a Carribean fusion style of cooking. He has partnered with White Marlin owner Philip Tretola in two other restaurant ventures. The duo opened White Marlin with Tretola's fiance Renee Cuomo in March 2011.
"The taste was very good, but the creativity was lacking," said Brandl when Patch asked him why Filoni's dish surpassed Samaroo's.
"One is at the beginning and one's at the end. You do pick your favorites, your hopefuls, but you don't know what's coming around the bend," said Sirianni.
Tre Amici's entry of arbori crusted frog legs with kefir-lime sauce and edible Margheritas won the People's Choice award. Chef owner Matthew Zappoli, who was trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, deep fried the frog legs and froze the pomegranate, elder flower, and Grand Marnier Margheritas with liquid nitrogen. He garnished the frozen beverages with marinated bay scallops. Zappoli said he recreated the dish from one he had cooked at the James Beard House in New York City.
"The originality is incredible, but the flavors aren't all there," said Brandl. He preferred the edible Margherita over the frog legs. "[It had a] nice pop," he said.
Zappoli, his brother Paul, and friend Michael Cacciuttolo bought Il Picolo Forno in West End three years ago and renamed it Tre Amici al Piccolo Forno. Paul studied hotel and restaurant management at Berkley College and the brothers briefly worked together at Charlie Palmer's flagship restaurant Aureole in New York City. In 2005, Matthew was named as one of "Five Chefs to Watch" by Bon Appetit magazine. In 2010 he was the Chopped Champion of the Food Network.
Branches Catering, White Marlin Cafe, Charlie's Ocean Grill, Draft House, Jesse's Cafe & Catering, Johnny Piancone's, McLoone's Pier House, Ocean Place Resort and Spa, Rooney's Oceanfront Restaurant, and Sirena Ristorante also competed in the Chef's Challenge.
Lark Floral and Home took the top prize in the Table Decor' competition.
Judge Meg Fox, who is assistant editor at DesignNJ, said she was looking for colorful designs that would enhance the dining experience.
"We were looking for the overall table presentation, not just one centerpiece," said Fox.
Lark Floral and Home opens a week from today on West Park Avenue in Oakhurst.
"When I met Spence a few years ago, we decided that our ultimate goal together was to sort of share our taste with the world in some sort of commerce venture," said co-owner James Whalen of the inspiration for the business he is launching with partner Spence Cook.
Cook is a third generation florist from Norfolk, Virginia. He created two floral designs to coordinate with Whalen's tablescapes. Theirs were the only entries to include table cloths and place settings.
"This is the second time we've done this event. It sprang out of a conversation three years ago about how great dining is in Long Branch and we figured we should showcase it," said Assistant Director of Greater Long Branch Chamber of Commerce Susan Woolley.
"It's gotten beyond belief and it's a challenge," she said, with more guests, more competitors, the addition of the People's Choice Table Decor' Awards this year.
Chamber member Michael Bienz was cofounder of the event and kept everything running smoothly.
"I have been running the show up here, so my taste buds haven't been out there, but I've been smelling some wonderful things all the way around. I can say it's probably going to be a difficult choice," he said.
Mayor Adam Schneider was in attendance.
"I go to a lot of events. There aren't that many that are this much fun. The campaign motto for the past 20 years has been 'Gotta' eat.' So you come, you walk around, you eat, you see people. What could be more fun than that?" said Schneider.