By all accounts, this year’s Taste-of-ALL Charleston — the second time in a new venue at the Four Points by Sheraton — seemed to be another rousing success.
Not only was attendance good at this past Saturday’s culinary extravaganza, but organizers also made changes to create much better flow to prevent the traffic jams some guests encountered last year.
There were plenty of people around, yet it never seemed uncomfortably crowded. Nicely done, folks!
As for the food itself, I’m not sure the offerings as a whole were as strong as in years past, but there were still plenty of good samples to sink your teeth into. And the best ones all came from restaurants whose names began with the letter B.
That’s right. After former Gazette food writer Judy Grigoraci and I sampled dozens and dozens of dishes in our quest to name a single item worthy of the Delmer Robinson Food Critics Award, it all came down to a Battle of the Bs.
Our finalists vying for the prize:
n Bluegrass Kitchen’s house-cured corned beef sandwich
n Black Sheep Burrito & Brews’ Korean noodle salad
n Bridge Road Bistro’s peach Riesling soup
n Brick Salt Bar+Kitchen’s barbecue shrimp and grits, ricotta cheesecake with strawberry ginger jam, and peach and wildflower honey agave fresca
n The Block’s tres leches cake
I will add that we gave an honorable mention to the non-B-named Mardi Gras Casino & Resort’s popular crispy shrimp, but it didn’t make the top tier simply because it’s the same dish they’ve served many times before.
But when all judging was said and done — and we were finally (finally!) able to step away from the table — it was Bluegrass Kitchen’s tender, juicy, flavorful and gloriously messy corned beef sammie that won the top prize.
Dressed with kraut, cheese and a tangy house-made Sputnik sauce, it was the best bite of the day, although Black Sheep’s runner-up Korean noodle salad did come in a very close second.
Other highlights from Saturday’s event:
n I’d have to give the Marriott’s Brick Salt Bar+Kitchen the award for best overall menu after landing an unprecedented three dishes in our final cut. Their refreshing peach and wildflower honey drink was a big hit, with many people commenting how much they’d enjoy sipping it while sitting by a pool (with or without a shot of a little something-something to kick it up a notch).
n Shrimp and grits seemed to be this year’s “it dish,” with three restaurants serving their own version. None of them got it right (too gummy, too sweet, too little flavor, etc.) although Brick Salt’s were pretty close to delivering the goods.
And, as always, some dishes sounded way better on paper than they tasted in reality.
The Block’s Tapas Valencia and pulled-pork bruschetta had zero flavor. None. (Where’s the salt? Garlic, herbs, anything?)
The Sheraton’s spin on last year’s winning lobster po’ boy with Appalachian ramp slaw (this year featuring fried crab and less slaw) wasn’t nearly as good.
Black Sheep’s overly salty chorizo carnitas tamales were inedible. (This could be a great dish. I recently enjoyed a few bites of it in the restaurant, but then couldn’t get past the salt overload to finish it.)
Stuff It’s “pan-seared” whitefish dumplings were heavily deep-fried instead.
Mardi Gras’ blackened fish wonton tacos were overwhelmed by the thick fried wonton encasing them.
Still, what a great event. After all these years, even as it evolves, Taste-of-ALL continues to be one of the city’s most talked-about food fests.
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Speaking of judging, I got a kick out of what a fellow writer wrote about me in her coverage of this year’s Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, which we both judged earlier this year.
In her article for Undark.org, a group dedicated to shedding light on how science affects our society, Rona Kobell writes:
“A few months ago, organizers invited me to be a judge at the 27th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. The event, in the small West Virginia town where George Washington famously ‘took the waters’ to heal his wounds, bills itself as the world’s largest and longest-running water-tasting competition.
“Our panel of 11 judges included regional food writers, bloggers, radio and TV producers, and me. We were to sip the water from wine glasses ... and rate them on a scale of one (bad) to five (great) for its appearance, odor, mouthfeel and aftertaste.
“Our leader patiently informed us that there were no right or wrong answers. Still, I found myself looking at the paper of the judge next to me, a West Virginia writer who calls himself ‘The Food Guy.’ We seemed to like and dislike the same waters, but my grades were far more generous.”
So yeah, I may be a tougher critic than most, but I think you deserve someone who’s not afraid to tell it like it is. (Sorry, not sorry, Red Fire.) And even when sharing criticism, I always strive to be not only honest, but fair and constructive as well.
In any event, Rona’s water-tasting article is a nice piece. You can read the full story at undark.org/article/water-testing-berkeley-springs.
Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and an occasional food blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/foodguy. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Facebook as “WV Food Guy” and on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as “WVFoodGuy.”