I had a great time last night as an audience member for a new Food Network show, Restaurant Express. It features a contest between chefs for the chance to open a real-life restaurant.
The contestants had been whittled down to four by the episode in which I participated. Each contestant had a small "restaurant" in which theoretically one would be spending a hundred dollars for a meal. This consisted of recipe and menu creation, table settings, and of course food prep and service. My friends and I were able to choose one of the four restaurants at which to enjoy a meal and then provide a critique.
We showed up to the lovely Hummingbird Nest Ranch at sunset, and were able to take in the full landscape of vacant horse stables and green paddocks. We quickly lost the light though, and filming commenced at night. The huge helium balloon lights that were used for the shoot made for impressive party decor on its own. Tech trucks were about a mile away, but there was one working truck decorated with the show's logo that was used as set dressing for the show, providing a trendy backdrop for the crane shots as the diners entered the knoll.
|Host and Chef Robert Irvine greets the audience/diners.|
Chef Robert Irvine greeted us warmly as the host of the show, then once the cameras rolled explained the premise and the procedures for the evening. On his cue we were allowed to wander into the set, choosing one restaurant from the four based on menu and atmosphere.
The restaurant I chose, Jade, looked like it had the most vegetarian-friendly menu: the main dish was pasta with chicken, so I simply asked if the chicken could be omitted for my plate. That was the biggest influence on my choice--overall there seemed to be a heavy seafood influence in the other menus, with lobster and salmon dishes in addition to the expected meats. As it turns out, I made a good choice. My friends went to the restaurant next door to my choice, and said none of their dishes had any flavor, including a lobster risotto and overdone steak.
|Jade's Table Centerpiece|
|Peach Mandarin Chilled Soup|
Since my friends had chosen another restauranteur, I was on my own. I stepped out of my comfort zone and sat with a party of two, who turned out to be an outrageously funny mother and daughter pair.
The first course was a lovely chilled soup of peach, mandarin, vanilla, and mint. Though I would have never thought it, the flavors sang together. The sweetness was just right, and the soup was cooling as the heat of the day had just begun to ebb. The diner across from me mentioned that she had never had a chilled soup. I thought back to a cucumber soup I made frequently in college and resolved to add it to the blog in the next few weeks.
Our next course was a salad with roasted beets and green apples. The dressing contained fish sauce, which was omitted from my dish. I'm not sure if that affected the flavor, or if it is simply that I don't care for beets, but the salad, while fine, was not impressive, and I forgot to even take a picture.
|Rice Noodles & Summer Vegetables|
The rice noodles hit the spot for me, even without the chicken. However, my dining companion pointed out that the menu didn't state that the main dish was to be served cold, and she hadn't been expecting it to be served as such. When later we were interviewed and asked if we would pay a hundred dollars for the meal that we'd been served, the cold entree came into play for all of us. The smart choice was the noodles themselves, being gluten free.
|Green Tea Napoleon Topped with Seven Nuts|
The dessert was the crown of the evening! The Napoleon made of green tea mascarpone was a treat. The crispy wontons were a little hard to handle, leaving me yearning for the same filling in a crepe. But the elegant presentation made up for any misgivings about how I looked as I chewed.
I'll be watching to see if our lovely chef moves on in the competition! And I may try to make a green tea mascarpone filling the next time I make french toast....