Chef’s Sampler 2010

As I write this I am literally and figuratively digesting a few dozen restaurants that we just sampled at the Children’s Home Society’s 25th Annual Chef Sampler. We’ve attended these a few times in the past (my company used to do the printing so I was able to go to one or two many years ago and then Todd and I went last year for the first time together) and it’s always been a foodie highlight. This year…

First a few disappointments. After searching for a parking space at the AMC end of Tallahassee Mall we finally get in and up to the counter to find that you cannot purchase tickets at this entrance. No, you have to drive to the opposite end of the Mall and enter near Guitar Center. Ugh! The door is being held open by a politician stumping for votes in the upcoming City Commissioners race. Finally, there are lines out the wazoo, going every which way, it seems,  and no real order to be found.

On the up side, it’s the most crowded I’ve *ever* seen one of these events which is great for the Society but there was also a much more casual air among the attendees and there were several children running around. At the risk of sounding elitist–it just wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from this sort of event.

But enough of that, let’s get on to the food!

University Center Club
A variety of desserts including a delectable mini pecan pie and some peanut butter brownies/bars that Todd (who does not like peanut butter) unknowingly picked up. They also had some crab cakes served over an apple(green and red)-cabbage slaw; the slaw was tasty, the crab cake tasted like it’d been frozen and reheated.

Anthony’s Wood Fire Grill
(Opening this March in the Veranda’s at Market Square) Dick Anthony, previously of Anthony’s Italian Restaurant, is making another go at things with his Wood Fire Grill. We were able to sample their Seafood Gumbo (very dark brown, light on favor, rather boring) and Shrimp and Grits (lots of spice but also a great flavor, the grits were very creamy and even Todd liked them! Unfortunately, the shrimp had it’s tail still on–forkable shrimp should not have tails).

the Melting Pot
Ah, fondue! You really can’t go wrong with chocolate fondue served with angel food cake, marshmallows and other tasty tidbits.

On the Border
The popular Mexican chain had a line an absolute mile long. The reason? Apparently they were serving a very full buffet. Having eaten there before and not primarily interested in a chain restaurant, we skipped it.

Harry’s Seafood
With one of the larger displays, this is a regional chain specializing in Louisiana cuisine and a favorite of ours. They were serving Chicken Baton Rouge (light on the tomatoes with chunks of cream cheese and chicken, good balance of spices), Jambalaya (could have been spicier but tasty), Corn and Crab Chowder (thick, rich, with good flavor) and Shrimp and Grits (these grits were cheesy, studded with corn and peppers and quite tasty and the shrimp were appropriately tailless).

Andrew’s 228/Andrew’s Bar & Grill
Penna a la Vodka and Ham and Cheese on Rye Soup! Cheese soup with chunks of ham and well seasoned with caraway Seeds–simply amazing. The vodka sauce was very thin, watery and, according to Todd, rather bland. How unfortunate!

Cabell’s American Bar and Grill
Crab cakes with cajun tartar sauce (definitely an improvement over UCC’s, very tasty, lots of crab and the sauce was spicy and creamy and a nice pair to the cakes) and Sliced roast beef which was very tasty if a little difficult to eat as your walking along balancing a plate on your program on a cup, using one’s chest to balance the whole bit.

Applebee’s
Queso Blanco & Chips, Fiesta Lime Chicken, Margarita Chicken–we skipped this stand because we’ve eat at Applebee’s enough to not want to eat there when there are so many other options.

Tijuana Flatts
Hot sauces glore! Sweet Chili, Habanero, and Jalapeno. The Sweet Chili would be excellent over cream cheese with crackers, the Habanero (according to Todd) was proclaimed WAY too hot, and the Jalapeno was actually a bit bitter. hey also had some chicken quesadillas and seemed to be making burritos farther down the line but we opted to skip those.

Wakulla Springs State Park
We didn’t make it all the way down to their end of the sampler, it was just too crowded. Last year they had some tasty offerings, though (a braised beef and a chicken dish).

SouthWood Golf Club
Serving a tossed salad seems at once novel and foodhardy at the same time. Needless to say, we passed by their offerings and moved on to the next table.

Lucy & Leo’s Cupcakery
A charming display included photos of the (presumed) namesake pups and served up Red Velvet and Chocolate Espresso cupcakes. The red velvet was, unfortunately, a bit dry and lacked that hint of chocolate that should be present. It’s hard to screw up a chocolate cupcake, of course, but it didn’t have nearly the coffee flavor I was expecting outside of the chocolate-covered espresso bean. Still, a cupcake shop that loves dogs deserves another view–we’ll have to check them out in their home location at some point in the not-t0-distant future.

Catering Capers
Tuscan chicken salad (which was a little too heavy on the dried oregano, but otherwise creamy and tasty), Pesto Lime Shrimp (it had a tail! Ugh! It’s hard enough to juggle everything but trying to clean oily pesto off your fingertips is another downside of thoughtless cooks serving tail-on shrimp in sauces to wandering guests!) and Asian Meatballs (tasted like your basic sweedish meatball and not very “Asian” at all–and it was the last of the pot so you’d think the flavors would have been more concentrated than not!). Altogether uninspiring. Though I’m quite capable of doing all my own catering, there’s is not a service I’d use even if I wasn’t.

Sunny Days Bakery
Here was an idea I would not have come up with on my own: peppermint fondant over a red velvet cake. The cake was moist and did have the chocolate flavor that is customary–I liked it, Todd wasn’t as impressed.

Piggy’s Barbecue
Sweet Potato casserole was very tasty with a pronouced sweetness from molasses? maple syrup? rum? not sure but it was good. Somehow we missed the corn casserole but we each ended up with beef or pork–the sad thing it was tough to tell which was which! That’s probably not such a good sign. After further reflection I think I had the bbq brisket which was fairly tasty and Todd had the pork which was a little on the dry side.

Trail Break Cafe
Turky and Swiss on flatbread, sort of quesadilla-like, but it wouldn’t be a bad light lunch when you’re spending the day out at the Junior Museum (technically the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Sciences, but to those of us who’ve lived here long enough, it remains the Jr Museum!).

Peterbrooke Chocolatier
This chain opened up on the North side of town a year or so ago and does a pretty decent job of coating all sorts of things in chocolate (potato chips, anyone?). Tonight they had chocolate-covered strawberries (amazing!), chocolate-covered popcorn (which Todd found too salty) and cocoa-dusted fudge (which, in hind sight, is probably meant to be a truffle but, whoa, was that cocoa more than a dusting–do not inhale!).

Carrie Ann & Co
CA&C know desserts. I remembered their Punch Bowl cake from last year and it is to DIE for! It’s basically a trifle with layers of yellow cake, strawberries, pineapple pieces and fresh, sweet whipped cream. Yum! They also had their wonderful buttercake cookies, Kahlua brownies (a nutty cookie bottom, fudgy brownie layer, creamy Kahlua layer and topped with a layer of ganache), truffles, lemon curd tarlets (the blueberry tartlets, Todd said, tasted canned–a pity!) and other yummies.

Granddaddy’s Barbeque
Baked Beans and Brunswick Stew were tried by Todd. The verdict: the beans had a nice, smoky flavor and the Stew looked a lot like a vegetable soup with bits of barbecue instead of stew meat but was very well seasoned. The barbecue pork sandwiches were quite tasty. According to the nice young men serving them up it’s smoked in Old Hickory smokers for 12 hours a day, every day. Very tasty. The house sauce, which Todd tried, was apparently unremarkable, but the quality of the meat and sides makes up for it.

Tomato Cafe & Tea Room
(In)Famous for their “rainbow cake” we passed over this table having tried it last year and were unimpressed (it’s basically food-colored cake batter combined helter-skelter–might be good for kid’s parties but not much else, I’m afraid). They also had small packets of tea you could take with you, so that was nice.

Roly Poly
Wraps, wraps and more wraps. I did not try them because I have a grudge against them: they have one of the more annoying jingles I’ve *ever* heard and it was playing incessantly on the station I set my clock-radio to. Just goes to show: your jingle may make you memorable, but not always for the right reasons. Still, Todd does not quite hold the grudge that I do and tried the Philly Melt they had out (the only thing left on their table and we were only halfway through the allotted time of the sampler)–I wasn’t missing much. It was heavy on green pepper compared to the beef or cheese.

Bella Bella
Pasta al Forno was all gone, no bubble bread this year, but we did snag some Sangria as we passed. Can’t go wrong there!

Barnacle Bills
Fresh-shucked oysters on the half shell with a variety of toppings. I prefer mine plain and it was just amazing. Can’t get enough fresh oysters for this girl! They also had their smoked seafood dip out for sampling but it was a little on the fishy side, tonight–not the best representation as I’ve had it before and it was better. They were also serving up margaritas in generous portions–bless you! It was so very delish and was great to wash down the next few tables.

Hobbit American Grill
A local chain specializing in a variety of quick, good foods like sandwiches, salads, subs and wings. They had some subs out but that was way too much bread for this time of night and a couple types of wings available. We tried their Fiesta Ranch wings and were pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Messy as all get out and way too tough to eat in this setting, but delish none the less. I usually go for their garlic Parmesan wings but these I would order, too!

Masa/AZU Lucy Ho’s Restaurant
We caught this table JUST as it was running out of sushi. Grabbed the last plate to split and had a piece of California Roll and one Fried Shrimp roll. Not bad, but I think I’d want to try them at their shop before I’d give them any sort of real review.

Krispy Kreme
What can you say about those truly amazing doughnuts? And what was I thinking picking up a chocolate-glazed cream one? It may be sacrilege, but I had to toss the last bit of it–should have stuck to a doughnut hole for my fix, lol. Serious, if you’ve never had the chance to try a Krispy Kreme doughnut, you really should at your earliest opportunity.

Stinky’s Fish Camp
Horrible name, in my opinion, but they sure served up an amazing bread pudding with caramel sauce! Apparently these guys started in Santa Rosa Beach and have just opened a spot in Cross Creek. Good to know! I’m definitely curious to see how the rest of their menu compares to their dessert!

Cabo’s Island Bar and Grill
Chili and crab cakes! Todd proclaimed the chili rich and meaty, lots of cumin (maybe a touch too much) but could have used a bit more tomato for his liking. The crab cake was almost all crab, which isn’t necessarily bad, but I do enjoy something more than a loose batter binding it together. This is a fun place, though, just don’t go in wearing a tie after 5pm 😉

PoBoy’s Creole Cafe
We just got our oyster poboy fix at their northside location not 2 weeks ago so were happy to see them out at the Sampler serving up bayou gumbo.  The gumbo was a bit too heavy (maybe getting down to the bottom of the dish?) and way too spicy–more heat than flavor, which was disappointing. We washed it down with the last of the margaritas from Barnacle Bill’s.

Angellete’s Cajun Kitchen
(in SouthWood–no website that I could find) Another place serving up gumbo (chicken and sausage) and shrimp & grits. The gumbo was not too thick or too dark, but had a smoky flavor that I didn’t expect. Still, it was very tasty and, possibly, the best of the night for what it’s worth. The shrimp (no tails! yay!) and grits featured lots of fresh veggies–onions, tri-color peppers–and a light broth compared to the heavier sauces of other places. Unfortunately their grits were white and gluey–the exact type of grits that make a Nebraskan like Todd dislike grits. Such a shame! But that shrimp over, say, Anthony’s or Harry’s grits and I’d be in love!

Romano’s Macaroni Grill
Probably the best single display of the night, they had a variety of marinated olives and tomatoes as well as some chocolatey cake with chocolate sauce and nuts that was very moist.

Japanica Steakhouse
Featuring a grill chef with flames leaping from his hat and mouth(!) we didn’t get to taste any of the food they may have been serving earlier in the evening but we did try some Sake that was much better than the Pearl Sake we’d had another time.

Drink services were provided by Coca-Cola Tallahassee, Cone Distributing (beer), Community Coffee, Premier Wine and Southern Wine & Spirits. Other restaurants that were listed in the program that were either out of food by the time we reached their table or just didn’t see for whatever reason were Another Broken Egg Cafe, Famous Dave’s, Hats Off to Food, Killearn Country Club, Marie Livingston’s Texas Steakhouse, Shane’s Rib Shack and Shula’s 347 Grill.

And there you have it. Todd probably summed it up best when he mentioned, as we were leaving, that it was a bit of a disappointment compared to last year. Whether it was the promoters catering to a different demographic or just the lack of originality in the offerings (seriously–4 gumbos, 3 crab cakes and 3 shirmp & grits in one building?) it makes us think twice about going next year and paying $50 a person to be herded like cattle through a noisy, crowded mall.