I’ve done some pretty exciting things with the minds behind All Over Albany in the past. One thing that I loved contributing toward was the Tournament of Pizza last year. As a result of this, I can’t walk into Marisa’s Pizza without being called “The Judge.” It’s flattering to have gained this kind of recognition.
I was recently called upon by All Over Albany to serve as a judge for their “AOA/Central Steak Burger Lab” event to benefit the ASAP Daisies. Also invited to judge was Daniel B. proprietor of FUSSYlittleBLOG and a young lady from ASAP Daisies, Janie, who was new to judging food.
The way the slider lab worked was that AOA posted a list of ingredients and invited the community to submit ideas of what would make great combinations. Of thirty-something submissions, it was narrowed down to five based on input from me, Daniel, and God knows who else. The winning combination would get to be offered on the menu as and appetizer to the general public at Central Steak. The five burger combinations that were judged upon were as follows:
- Ground beef, caramelized fennel, black pepper aioli, blue cheese, and arugula
- Pulled pork, coffee molasses glaze, caramelized onions, bacon, and romaine
- Pork Belly, Black Pepper Aioli,Pickled onion, Pickled cucumber, Caramelized onion, Bacon, braised pork belly, Sesame purple cabbage, Blue cheese, Arugula – Call it “the whole hog”
- Ground lamb, Black pepper aioli, Caramelized onion, Pickled cucumber, Goat cheese
- Pork belly, coffee molasses glaze, pickled habanero, and crispy onion
The event started at 6PM, and was open to whoever was able to score tickets. The draw for this was that it was set up as a buffet with all-you-can-eat sliders. All of the meats and additional toppers were available to these people so they could make as many combinations they wanted. And some people didn’t stop. I think I saw a kid make five trips to the buffet and build six sliders each time (5 x 6 = 30); that’s a lot of sliders! There were even people eating them as they were making them. Crazy!
When I found out the judging was going to happen at 7:30PM, I got on the line for the buffet because I wanted a shot at making my own, and I really wanted to scope out the ingredients. I had a few observations about the stuff on the buffet. I found it a little weird that most of the cheeses, with the exception of cojita, goat cheese, blue cheese, and American cheese, were shredded. I was also a little struck by the appearance of the rolls; they looked like supermarket rolls. While the chef was refilling the buffet station, I asked if he could divulge the source of his rolls. He reluctantly told me they were store-bought, and mentioned that they usually have their sister company, Bountiful Bread, bake the bread for the restaurant. They tasted fine, but this seemed like odd to me.
After waiting on the line for 32 minutes, I finally got to make my own creations, but I got kind of sucked into the moment, and didn’t really think about it. My goal was really to try some of the individual components on their own to get an idea of quality.
I don’t remember what was in these. But I did get to eat next to a f*cking fire pit!
I didn’t get to try the pork belly on its own, but it was fun watching the kid in front of me fish out the scraps for three minutes. My initial impression was that the lamb was great, the beef was mediocre, the pulled pork was bad because of an overabundance of a strong spice (something like anise or allspice), the buns were fine, and the toppings were a mixed bag. I was not a fan of the goat cheese on the toppings bar. But none of this is important because I was slated to judge stuff the kitchen was putting together, not stuff some schlub waiting on a line made.
Each combination of sliders came to our table individually and we were to give each a numerical rating between 1 and 5 by each of the judges. They were tasted in the order listed above.
The first one suffered from beef that was beyond well done. I didn’t get many flavors aside from char; the other judges didn’t seem to have this issue.
The second one suffered from the same spice I mentioned above in the pulled pork. For me, it really overpowered everything. The pork itself was succulent and juicy.
The third one was my favorite, and I thought was close to perfect. Not that there wasn’t enough on there already, but I think a creamy component, maybe a dressing or a cheese, would have helped with the flavors. The pork belly was nicely done. Because it was falling apart, it was tough to keep this one together, but making a mess while you eat this type of stuff is fun.
The fourth combination was actually decent. I got some flack from Daniel for picking this one because of the pickled cucumber. Honestly, I missed the pickled part when I submitted this as a choice. I thought lamb, cucumber, goat cheese – great combination! Dill pickles wouldn’t be bad in that either. Dill, cucumber, goat cheese, lamb – sounds good to me, it’s a play off of tzatziki. I actually really liked this slider, but the pickles were sweet and that really offset everything. The lamb was delicious, though.
The last one was right in the middle. It was really interesting, but I thought the coffee glaze was too sweet and drowned everything else out. All I got was heat from the habanero, crunch from the onions (no flavor), fat from the pork belly, and all of the flavor from the coffee glaze.
I was actually happy that the one that had the gimmick going for it wound up being my favorite.
[Find out which one ultimately won over at All Over Albany!]
After the judging was complete, we got to speak with the chef, Devin.
One thing the chef stressed was to come back to try the harvest burger. They apparently design it around the seasons. Currently the spring harvest burger at Central Steak consists of “Fresh ground lamb shoulder, arugula, spring onion pesto, balsamic roasted tomato, “R&G Cheesemakers” goat cheese spread, sesame brioche bun, house cut steak fries.” As he was describing this to all of us, a lightbulb went off in my head. I love R&G Cheesemakers goat cheese; why did I hate the goat cheese they put out that night so much? So I asked the chef who admitted that we didn’t eat R&G Cheesemakers goat cheese that night. o.O
I do have to go back to try that burger. I did like the first burger I had there, which I had before Chef Devin joined Central Steak.
To be completely honest, looking at the sheer volume of food people were taking on that buffet, for a benefit, I don’t blame them for taking shortcuts. However, I would have made sure the ingredients going on the stuff to be judged was top notch.
It was an enjoyable evening. As always, I enjoyed seeing some old friends and meeting some new people. And, it’s always fun talking and arguing with Daniel about food. Although you probably notice a lot of overlap in the stuff we talk about, we come from totally different backgrounds and have completely differing views on key matters.
What I really liked about this event was that my input went toward putting something on a menu at a local restaurant. I don’t know the first thing about the logistics of designing a menu to execute for a restaurant, but I do know that I have lots of ideas, some probably really impractical, stored away that I hope I get the chance to share with someone who can do something with them. But I digress, it’s really cool that the winning slider is going on the appetizer menu.
A huge thanks again to AOA for approaching me to be a part of this.