Complimenti del Cuoco – The Colombo Marsala Recipe Challenge June 27, 2011

A week or two ago, I spent 7 days eating 9 dishes across Atlanta. At every meal I sat down to, I had at least one “I can’t believe I get to do this” moment. Seriously, folks. The wonderful people from Colombo Wines, the company behind high quality sweet and dry Marsala wines, asked me to help judge their Complimenti del Cuoco – Colombo Recipe Challenge, which pitted 9 restaurants throughout the city against each other to create a recipe that highlights Marsala wine in a unique and tasty way. I had a concern, which I’ll hash out quickly in a minute….but my love of wine, a curiosity about all the ways to use Marsala and my rabid enthusiasm for the Atlanta restaurant scene drew me into judging the contest…and I can’t say enough wonderful things about all of the restaurants that took part and the people that work in them. The Colombo folks have also been extremely gracious and generous to let me do this…and I’m so happy I get to share this with you on my blog.

What concern would I have, you ask? I hadn’t eaten anything but vegetables or seafood in seven months. My pescatarian streak was still intact and I intended to keep it that way. I agonized over whether I should help judge this contest and, in the end, I looked at it as something fun I could do with friends and experience some parts of the Atlanta dining scene I hadn’t tried yet. I have to say…I enjoyed my week of eating meat and poultry….but now that the contest is done, I’m back to not eating it again. Fear not, you won’t be seeing sliders on the blog now that the seal has been broken. I’m back to my pesca ways.

There are so many wonderful dishes and recipes to share with you from the Week I Ate Atlanta ™, so let’s get started…

Not one to do anything halfway, my first dish back on the meat wagon was The Shed’s Chef Lance Gummere’s Pan Fried Chicken Livers doused with a Colombo Marsala Glaze. On a plate with creamy stone ground grits and perfectly cooked collards, it was a fun way to start my week-long eating adventure. The livers weren’t breaded, which I would imagine would make some people squirm. I love the gaminess of them with the tang of the Marsala wine.  A garnish of grilled Vidalia onions was a nice, charred touch. I kept going back to sop up the Marsala tinged sauce with a forkful of grits.

My second stop took me out to Perimeter Mall to dine at Goldfish, a seafood focused restaurant by the Here to Serve restaurant group. One of the great things about this Marsala recipe contest was that it really forced me out of my usual rotation of restaurants and I got to try places I’d normally rack up as “too far away”.  Goldfish’s contribution to the contest was Grilled Sea Scallops with a salad of Arugula, Blood Orange, Grilled Vidalia Onions and Fennel in a Marsala Vinaigrette. This salad was beyond words – the use of the sweet Marsala wine in a vinaigrette was genius and a move I’m definitely going to replicate at home.

Because I had 9 dishes to try in 7 days, there were a few days (during a busy shoot week) that I had to hit two places on the same day. I know…woe is me, right? The same day I went to Goldfish, I had dinner at Rosebud. Owned by Chef Ron Eyester, Rosebud is a Virginia-Highland’s staple. Local ingredients, unapologetically bold and Southern, and no fear of the use of pig parts are just a few things that Rosebud is known for. With Nick Melvin now in the kitchen as well, Rosebud presented one of the most complex and well executed dishes of the contest. Raviolis stuffed with local Riverview Farms pulled pork that was braised in Marsala wine. Accompanying the pasta was the most insanely delicious carrots I’ve ever tasted – tender and deeply caramelized from a Marsala glaze. The dish was topped with kale, a sprinkle of toasted pecans and a healthy shaving of goat gouda. There wasn’t a great vantage point to take a photo of this dish – there was so much sticky, yummy caramelized Marsala and deep colors & flavors. Take my word for this one – it was off the charts and should definitely be featured on the menu again…contest or no.

Abattoir, a restaurant cousin to Bacchanalia and Star Provisions (two of my favorite ATL spots), has long been a place that my sweetie and I visit. Sadly, as you can tell by the name, our trips there have been minimal due to my pescatarian ways. Abattoir is French for “slaughterhouse” – you see what I mean? It’s a beautiful spot featuring house butchered meats, homemade charcuterie and a focus on local ingredients. As a way of counterbalancing the bunny parts I was about to consume, we started with this stunning heirloom tomato salad with thinly shaved zucchini and fresh herbs. After some heavy duty eating, this simple plate of veggies was a nice start.

Yeah…the bunny parts. Chef Joshua Hopkins worked the Marsala both into his Country Rabbit Terrine and the accompanying Apricot Mostarda. There were also some beautifully prepared morels on the board to join in the party with the terrine. Abattoir has always done heavenly paté and terrines…and this was no exception. The play on sweet and savory with the items on the sides was brilliant.

This dish, from Meehan’s in downtown Atlanta and its chef Jordan Wakefield, is way more incredible than this photo. It was dark in the restaurant (part of its charm, I promise) and we happened to be there on an evening during the NHL championship series….and it was a bit loud and my brain was being jostled. I loved my experience at Meehan’s – a place that serves really amazing bar-ish food and a selection of gourmet specials. Chef Wakefield came out and chatted and I love his Southern charm and spirit of making Meehan’s his own. He’ll be doing beer dinners paired with local ingredients throughout the summer. This dish – a smoked beef short rib on triple creamed corn with Marsala BBQ sauce – was bold, punchy, tangy, salty and texturally perfect.

ONE Midtown Kitchen is a spot that, every time I visit, I really quite enjoy. Tucked away in a sleepy area of intown Atlanta, it’s quiet boldness in its interior and location translates to the food…and I haven’t had a better meal at ONE than I did the night I visited for the contest with my friend Chris. Making a girl’s night of it, we started with some vino and a salad too intriguing not to order: pickled beets, shaved fennel, marinated blueberries, Gorgonzola and micro-basil. I can’t begin to tell you how much we enjoyed the combination of textures and the balance of sweet & sour.

While Chris shied away from the chicken liver in the Marsala dish and headed to the regular menu, I saddled up for one of the dishes I had been so curious to try. A Fettucini “Carbonara“: house-made fettucini topped with cherry tomatoes “en vierge”, summer squash and a dollop of chicken liver mousse that, once you got into digging in the dish, acted as a sauce the way an egg would in Carbonara.

See? I was a bit perplexed by the dish at first but as the warmth of the pasta started to melt the chicken liver mousse, it all came together really beautifully. The earthiness of the mousse (which contained the Marsala component) mingling with the sweetness of the tomatoes and summer squash and the lightness of the house-made pasta. It was heavenly.

My next stop, Pricci in Buckhead, is a restaurant I haven’t visited in 15+ years. After my experience here with my friend Tony for the Marsala contest, it surely won’t be that long between visits. Old-school decor and brilliantly attentive service, everything we ate that day was meticulously prepared and beautifully plated. The dish for the Colombo contest – a Colombo Marsala pan roasted swordfish with summer vegetables “sfinciuni” (think a ratatouille) – was expertly cooked. The fish was perfect and I loved the contrast with the meaty sweetness of the fish and the Marsala.

Because I simply cannot resist anything having to do with raw tuna, we had to try the tuna carpaccio appetizer. I haven’t stopped thinking about this dish since our lunch there. The juxtaposition of the smooth tuna with the fried capers and the chunky avocado was insane – I’ll be back just for that.

Words cannot describe my last meal of the Colombo Marsala Recipe Challenge. My friend Tony and I dined at The Buckhead Club, a private members-only club high above Atlanta. The dining room is breathtaking and there is no better view of our city than from our table that evening. The chef at the Buckhead Club, Daniel Andre, was so charming and warm. We couldn’t help but want to love our meal even before the experience started. Notice that I said experience – that is what this meal was. In need of a little roughage after my meat week, I started with this lovely roasted vegetable tart tatin. Each sliver of vegetable was perfectly cooked and the red pepper sauce on the side tied it all together so well.

The featured Marsala dish. I can’t help but sigh when I think of it. It was extraordinary in every way. The perfectly seared diver scallops. The slightly curry touched peeky toe crab flan. The punchy citrus segments floating in an Asian-influenced Marsala cream sauce. It was light, bold, flavorful, and inspired. The plating was incredible. My only bit of remorse? That more people didn’t eat this dish…and that I didn’t have at least another plateful.

Since I haven’t shown you a dessert shot, I thought I’d throw this plate from The Buckhead Club into the mix. They airbrush their plates for maximum decoration. This oversized macaron stuffed with lemon curd and fruit with a bit of chocolate mint sorbet was the absolute perfect end to a whirlwind food week.

In the end….a dish that seems so simple with no bells and whistles won my heart. It also won the hearts of many others – this dish won the popular vote, as well. Sprig, a tiny little gem of a neighborhood place, threw their hat into the ring of the Marsala recipe contest with…a vegetarian dish. While this dish seems pretty ho-hum, a simple Farro Marsala, I can assure you it was nothing of the sort. Chef Chris Neff soaked the porcini mushrooms in the Marsala wine for hours upon hours to infuse them with as much Marsala flavor as possible – and it worked. The nuttiness of the tender farro, the extra body from the spinach and the super-intense Marsala punched mushrooms – this dish was a knockout. My friend Erin and I swooned at every bite we took. I’ve made this dish at home since I ate it at Sprig and it’s easy to prepare and replicate at home. I’ll be sharing the recipe in a post this week to make sure all of you see it.

Congrats to Sprig for being the overall winner. Rosebud and Goldfish tied for second place. Thanks, also, to the people at Colombo for such a wonderful experience and for making such a great product – I’ve used it at home in my cooking several times since this contest and I’m a little smitten with it. You’ll be seeing Marsala on the blog more often.

In the effort of disclosure: I was given a stipend per restaurant to try additional dishes and tip on the total amount of the check, as well as reimbursed for gas. The featured Marsala dish was also comped for a guest and myself.


Georgie Jun 27, 2011 11:06 pm

Absolutely lovely!

Averie @ Love Veggies and Yoga Jun 27, 2011 11:06 pm

Tami, one shot is more beautiful than the next…I am in foodie photography heaven :)

Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table Jun 28, 2011 01:06 am

I just drooled my way through this post. It was also a great reminder to visit some of the old Atlanta “standards” that I don’t get back to often enough. So much good food, so little time..!

Melissa @ Dash of East Jun 28, 2011 07:06 am

Amazing. Beautiful photos Tami! This post just made me fall in love with Atlanta’s restaurant scene all over again.

Sawsan@chef in disguise Jun 28, 2011 12:06 pm

Tami looks like you had an amazing week :)
the pictures are stunning! and I bet they tasted out of this world

Susie Bee on Maui Jun 28, 2011 01:06 pm

Lucky you! Love ONE; Goldfish is close to my son’s place so we go there sometimes. I’m in Atlanta in a few weeks and will be trying some of the other restaurants you mentioned. Thanks for sharing!

Broderick Jun 28, 2011 03:06 pm

Amazing photos – the Buckhead Club’s scallops are calling my name

g. Jun 28, 2011 04:06 pm

completely agree — i can’t pass up anything to do with raw tuna either! it all looks just beautiful.

Kiran @ Jun 28, 2011 06:06 pm

Everything looks so delicious. And your photography skills are commendable :)

MikeVFMK Jun 28, 2011 10:06 pm

Tami, all the dishes look amazing and the pictures are beautiful. However, those seared diver scallops have me drooling behind this screen. What an opportunity!

lis Jun 29, 2011 12:06 am

absolutley stunning….gorgeous photography, food looks beyond awesome- wow- need to go to atlanta apparently!

Jean-Claude Garzia Jun 30, 2011 05:06 pm

what a nice feast for my eyes!
lucky you guys that you had to eat all these wounderful dishes.
one in particular catch my eyes:
Daniel andre
scallop and crab looks superbe and light

[…] that, folks? That’s a culinary cliffhanger. Check out Running With Tweezers to see how restaurants like Rosebud, the Shed, Abbattoir, ONE Midtown Kitchen, and more stacked up […]

Marie Jul 4, 2011 01:07 pm

Delicious and inventive! When do we get the recipes???

tami Jul 4, 2011 01:07 pm

Hi Marie! All of the recipes from the competition are available on one page here (rather than the individual recipes I tried to link to):