CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With a variety of new restaurants at the table — and lots of dishes competing for top food-critic honors — this year's Taste-of-ALL was the best it's been in years, maybe the best yet.
In all my years judging the area's biggest food fest, it's the first time I remember wanting and needing to try so many selections before coming up with my list of favorites.
Sunday's event featured ribs from Ridge View BBQ (a former winner of the Taste of Putnam), fish tacos and salted caramel ice cream from BrickSalt Bar Kitchen (the new restaurant at the Charleston Marriott), a ramp chowder from Distinctive Gourmet, a fried green tomato BLT slider from Quarry Manor, home-style meatloaf from Five Corners Cafe, sesame seared scallops from Mardi Gras Casino, and jambalaya and red beans 'n' rice from A Taste of N'Awlins Catering.
Fellow food writer Judy Grigoraci and I "divided and conquered" the list to come up with our front-runners, then cross-referenced and tasted each other's picks until only one dish remained.
The hands-down winner in my opinion was Stonewall Resort's incredibly fresh and lively golden tomato gazpacho shooter with white truffle cream. The burst of tart tomato flavor, followed by a hit of silky cream, had an immediate "wow" factor that stayed with me all day. (I loved the resort's smoked rainbow trout with caper aioli, red onion pickle and fresh chives, too.)
I also was pleasantly surprised by Ashton Place Kroger's Korean BBQ Steak, which wasn't drizzled with sauce, but had that rich soy flavor permeating tender, thinly sliced pieces of meat.
Judy had different favorites, but the item that ranked highest on our combined list — thus winning the coveted Delmer Robinson Food Critic's Award — was a really nice Jamaican Chicken Salad from newcomer Charleston Brewing Company.
I was expecting heat-heavy jerk seasoning when I took my first bite, but this light salad went the tropical route with fresh, mild flavors and chunks of pineapple mixed in. It was scooped on a plate of fresh greens and chopped cauliflower then topped with lavosh, the brewpub's addictive flatbread crackers made from the spent grains that remain from the beer-making process.
Charleston Brewing Company has taken some heat of late, but this dish was a winner.
The runner-up favorite Judy and I had in common was a really nice smoked pork Cuban sandwich from Embassy Suites' Athletic Club. I didn't love the seared tilapia item it also offered, but relished the smoked tomato grits and champagne butter served with it.
The food this year was phenomenal and the entertainment — jazz, flash mobs, cloggers, belly dancers — helped make it a great day all around.
Smoke on the water
A day earlier, I joined thousands along Kanawha Boulevard in front of the Capitol for this year's Smoke on the Water Chili Cookoff.
Although I was tempted to stray to the Capitol grounds filled with concessionaires offering every festival food item under the sun, I stayed focused on the task at hand to help pick the event's top entries this year.
There were several dandies in the bunch, but congrats to these winners in each category . . .
* Red: 1st place, Don Stuewe; 2nd place, Laurie Ryffel; 3rd place, Carrie Lentz Parker
* Green: 1, Nathan Gramm; 2, Dawn Bush
* Homestyle: 1, Tana Harter; 2, Phil Majestro
* Salsa: 1, Christian Parker; 2, Gail Donovan