Pack thousands of foodies and their umbrellas into the Ronald Reagan Building’s atrium, combine a hyperactive host with a bombastic sound system, and top if off with a hefty $175 ticket. It might not sound like a mouth-watering recipe, but Wednesday night’s Capital Food Fight was the hottest culinary ticket in town. Sixty of Washington’s most renowned restaurants proffered bite-sized nibbles to a sea of well-heeled grazers, and proceeds went to DC Central Kitchen. However, the main attraction was a series of Iron Chef-style battles featuring secret ingredients (among them merguez sausage, beef tenderloin, and raw lobster tails) that pit five chefs against one another—Bourbon Steak’s Michael Mina, Willow’s Tracy O’Grady, and Blue Ridge’s Barton Seaver plus Top Chef contestants Mike Isabella of Zaytinya and Bryan Voltaggio of Volt.
The final round featured an east-coast/west-coast showdown as Seaver, the two-time reigning champion, was ousted by San Francisco’s Mina, who transformed the round’s secret ingredient, coquitos (baby coconuts), into Thai coconut shrimp fritto misto.
In case you missed it, here are some of the night’s highs and lows.
Most memorable introduction: After being hailed as “a man who does so much for the community” and “the most popular sports owner in town” by chef and host José Andrés, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis quipped back, “I’m sure no one understood a word José just said.”
Boldest wardrobe choice: A tie between two-time Food Fight champ Ris Lacoste, who took the stage in a black coat stitched with giraffes, and co-host Anthony Bourdain, whose black loafers, black jeans, black button-down shirt, and black jacket made him appear to look like a cross between a lounge singer and an undertaker.
Best stage presence: The event’s emcee and voice of the Redskins, Mark Kessler, bellowed out a thunderous, arena-style introduction: “Ladies and gentlemen, let the battle begin!” before each ten-minute cooking competition—making each chef sound like a WWE wrestler. “I feel like a Lucha Libre,” Seaver told us.
Best use of local ingredients: Blue Ridge single handedly caused us to loosen our belts, as we slurped down a dozen of their Chesapeake littleneck clams spiced with almond purée and chorizo vinaigrette.
Biggest food flub: Between the slender frame, salt-and-pepper hair, and Johnny Cash-inspired wardrobe, we thought judge Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain could have been twins. Too bad the duck-foie-gras samples at Ripert’s WestEnd Bistro couldn’t match what Bourdain whipped up in just ten minutes (see last item).
Best nibble anyone can recreate: Darlington House skewered slices of prosciutto atop chunks of watermelon and cantaloupe to create a perfect, easy-to-imitate balance of sweet and spicy.
Most generous portions: Whereas most eateries dished out one-bite samplers, the folks at Goodstone Inn & Estate served a roasted rack of lamb, giving diners a rib (or two, if you wore an especially tight cocktail dress) with tarragon jus served over a bed of polenta.
Most delectable dessert: Pistachio and pecan French-style macaroons from BLT Steak were small enough that we could fit a few discreetly into a closed fist and divine enough to keep us coming back for more.
Best takeaway item: We couldn’t box any samples to go, but after revealing that he secretly fancied battling his good friend O’Grady in the finals, Seaver dished out his recommendation on where Washingtonians should head for a low-key meal: “If I could only eat out once a week, it would be at Dukem, an Ethiopian joint on 12th and U streets, Northwest. It serves the best African food in the city.”
Most unnecessary stage ornament: Miss District of Columbia and American University grad Jennifer Corey, who didn’t say a word all night and managed the clever trick of smiling for three hours while appearing as if she’d rather be elsewhere.
Best impromptu moment: Following the Battle of the Michaels (Mina versus Isabella) in the first semi-final, the former Top Chef contestant and Silver Spring native Carla Hall jumped on stage and challenged Hell’s Kitchen season-three winner Rock Harper to a cook off. Hall then grabbed Bourdain (whom she called “the tall glass of water”) as her sous chef, while Harper took Andrés (whom he referred to as “the big guy”) to assist him. Before squaring off, Andrés bit into a handful of the competition’s secret ingredient—pears—and hurled them into the audience. As each team prepared its dish, judge Ted Allen grabbed the mike and said, “Easy now, José, Tony hasn’t been in a kitchen in like 20 years.” With the judges bowing out, the challenge came down to an audience applause-o-meter vote, with Hall and Bourdain’s seared pears with foie gras beating out Harper and Andrés’s pears with fennel, raspberries, and honey. “For your last meal, would you rather eat a Days Inn salad,” Bourdain joked with the audience, “or the fattened liver of an incredibly happy duck?”
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