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Review: Top Chef Downtown Iowa City 2023 brings new delights
See the tastiest things I tried, and where the judges agreed
IOWA CITY — Downtown Iowa City’s Top chef returned with many of the same restaurants as last year, each vying for top titles in the judges’ and people’s hearts.
This year’s event, with 27 restaurants and bars, had something for virtually every tongue’s desire Feb. 27 at The Graduate hotel.
See what made its way to my heart through the stomach, and where the judges agreed.
1. Milk Money by Wild Culture Kombucha (210 N. Linn St.)
With a muted, dandelion yellow color, this drink put its money where my mouth was. It’s a fresh take on the Boulevardier — a whiskey, sweet vermouth and Campari creation credited to an American writer living in Paris during the Roaring ’20s.
Luscious notes of chai deliver a silky treat fit for high tea. A slight spice lingers on the palate, but in an embracing way. I typically avoid heavy, spice-laden teas; this was different.
I never understood why the British took milk with their tea — this demonstrated why. With clarified milk punch, the drink brings a complex treat that makes me wonder if Americans threw out the baby with the bathwater when they literally and culturally revolted against tea in Boston 250 years ago.
Hits of citrus are delivered by a tidbit of caffeine, ending on a high note. This cocktail earned first place from attendees and judges in the drinks category.
2. Fresh Gimlet from Get Fresh Cafe (109 Iowa Ave.)
Strong waves of fruit wash over me, pushing me into a new type of buzz that still stood out, even after sensory overload through the rest of the evening.
A housemade sour mix greets you with a gusto as emphatic as the drink’s fuchsia color, delivering zaps of lime and citrus gratuitously. In my mind, I know how “purple” and “blue” taste based off the drinks I associate them with. Now, I know what fuchsia tastes like, too.
One of the best ways I’ve ever tried to fight off scurvy. This cocktail earned second place from the judges in the drinks category.
3. Risotto alla Bella by Baroncini Ristorante Italiano (104 S. Linn St.)
Baroncini has done it again.
Just when you think they can’t possibly do anything more with cheese, they make Parmesan into a mousse.
Drenched in cream and punctuated by granola Parmesan — another form of cheese I didn’t know was a thing — a little burnt taste at the top caramelized the palate of creamy mousse. Fennel grass adds a pleasing, earthy flavor and reminds you that there’s actually mushroom risotto underneath all the cheese.
I saved the porchetta pork belly for last, thinking it would be a dream. It was a little too tough to chew through for me, waking me up from my dream with this dish, although the flavor itself was good.
If the category were cheesemonger, Baroncini would have swept the table yet again. This dish earned second place in entrees with both the judges and the people’s choice.
4. “The Dr. on NCIS” by ReUnion Brewery (113 E. College St.)
Perhaps you’ve had mint jelly with lamb, but have you had pepper jelly on roasted duck breast?
It brings a fresh take to duck, which is growing in popularity not only in fine dining, but in more causal establishments. This is a big swing for ReUnion as it positions itself for expansion out of state with its latest Iowa City opening — and it paid off.
However, the real heat comes from the dirty rice, which has a gritty character not in texture, but in color and taste.
Microgreens add a later of serenity to the loud base it tops — a rooftop garden on a burning building, if you will. But like water off a duck’s back, I let it roll off to savor all this has to offer — the sweet, the savory and spicy with duck and crawfish.
This doctor, named after Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard on NCIS, is not a quack.
5. Idli and Sambar by Bollywood Grill (201 S. Clinton St. Suite 166)
With a center of rice cake surrounded by three pools of peanut, tomato and ginger chutney, think of this as an Indian version of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Fluffy, savory steamed rice cakes, made with fermented rice and lentil batter, are perhaps a more dense version of our beloved Wonderbread, soaking up a bath of sauce. But unlike America’s most popular school lunch, this unlocks a new dimension with sweet ginger flavor mixed with brown sugar.
Together, they don’t look like anything more than a pool of liquids — to the layman and food reviewer alike. But in a room of wagyu beef, duck, salmon and octopus, the simple plate is a reminder that good things don’t need to be complicated.
6. Black Strap Betty by The Dandy Lion
This is what happens when sugar grows up and gets an education.
The bourbon molasses cookie — sporting the name she goes by at college — is back in her hometown with her degree, flaunting everything she’s learned about flavor compatibility in a saccharine world.
Soaked in slightly melted vanilla ice cream, each soft bite glows with spiced rum notes and a smoky espresso finish. Both rum and espresso are adult beverages, and both remind you that cookies aren’t just for kids.
This treat earned first place with attendees and the judges in the dessert category.
7. Mango Pomelo Sago by La Wine Bar & Restaurant (180 E. Burlington)
A bright delight brings warm mango flavors on the first sip — surprisingly ripe for the middle of winter.
With a near-smoothie texture, chewy pieces of sago (similar to tapioca pearls) grab my attention as I bite into juicy pieces of mango and pomelo. The sago itself has no flavor, but the texture is so satisfying that it dominated my attention.
Getting into the part of the drink you can actually sip, coconut milk brings a velvety texture, breaking down the barrier between fruity and creamy.
This rare Asian treat is available on the regular menu at La Wine Bar, and I’ll certainly be back to get a full-size order. This earned second place from the judges for desserts.
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