At the eighth annual Top Chef: Downtown in Iowa City on Monday, 12 restaurants served bite-sized entrees, five offered up mini desserts and six bars poured cocktail samples.
They were enjoyed by around 500 guests, including sponsors, staff and 385 ticket holders, who tasted their way through the food and drink stands at the hotelVetro. The tickets sold out in two hours, a record time.
“Every year the tickets go a little faster. The community loves it. So long as our team keeps having fun and the restaurants keep having fun, that’s what it’s all about,” said Iowa City Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird.
She said the event was a chance for camaraderie and sharing between the district’s restaurateurs, chefs and bartenders, as well as their customers.
Each restaurant prepared between 400 and 500 samples of their best dishes for professional judges and ticket holders, who submitted votes for people’s choice awards.
For Maestro Empanadas, that meant 480 chicken empanadas served with a side of quinoa risotto and fresh tomato and habanero sauce. Owner Cristian Bejarano said the night was a good chance for his Coralville eatery, and his Downtown Iowa City Farmers Market stand, to gain greater exposure.
“We don’t serve the quinoa risotto at our store, but we might have to add it because everyone seems to love it,” he said. “I have to give credit to my wife, Marta. She made the sauce, and the risotto was her idea.”
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Clinton Street Social Club was among those shaking and stirring up signature cocktails. It finished off seven bottles of London gin for its 18 1/2 Gin Fiz, with blood orange, dry Curacao and egg whites.
“We’re known for our classic cocktails, and this is our spin on the gin fiz,” said bartender Marcus Owens. “Since we got new owners recently, we wanted to show people we haven’t lost our step.”
In the dessert category, Aspen Leaf Frozen Yogurt and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory dished up 475 Turkish apricots dipped in milk chocolate and coconut and prepared 75 caramel apples, sliced into sample-sized slivers.
For Aspen Leaf owner Saf Ibrik, the night was less about the competition and more about the community and atmosphere.
“You know how people get pissed when they’re in an airport and their plane is delayed? I don’t. I just enjoy it, because I enjoy watching people and meeting people,” he said. “I love meeting people and tasting the food. Oh my goodness, we’re as good as Chicago.”
At the end of the night, the winners were announced. The People’s Choice award went to Bluebird Diner for dessert for its mini-chocolate chip pancakes topped with Cedar Ridge chocolate malt bourbon walnut pralines and Great River maple syrup. For mixology, Clinton Street Social Club took second place, and Mickey’s Irish Pub won first place with a smoked gin and juice. For the entree, Joseph’s took third for coconut-braised pork belly, Dumpling Darling earned second place and Banh Mi Amore won the top honor with Chef Greg Millsap’s roasted pork banh mi with sweet chili sauce.
The judges, which included chefs and industry professionals from around Eastern Iowa, awarded Atlas runner up for mixology, for its “From Russia with Love” concoction, and gave The Mill first place for its lavender-infused “Gin Your Dreams.” University of Iowa Catering won best dessert with a lemon blackberry mousse cake. For entrees, third place went to I Love Pho, and second place went to Pullman’s butternut squash puree with crispy pork belly and pomegranate. The title of Top Chef went to Dumpling Darling, which caught the judge’s taste buds with Chef Jody Escobar’s red curry steak dumplings.
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