• Steven Keith

And this year's FestivFALL winning dishes are …

Good food never goes out of style, but there’s just something about the flavors of fall that get me in an extra-festive mood. Squash, apples, maple, brats, even the much-maligned pumpkin spice? Yes, please.

Chilean Sea Bass with Wasabi Pea Puree from The Block
Chilean Sea Bass with Wasabi Pea Puree from The Block

Many of those seasonal tastes were on display when I once again had the honor of helping select the best-tasting dish as part of last week’s revamped Taste-of-ALL, along with former Gazette-Mail food writer Judy Grigoraci and Alex Burdette from Blenko Glass.


Instead of the usual mega food festival format at the Four Points Sheraton, organizers this year opted for a lower-key (and more COVID-cautious affair) by instead promoting special FestivFALL dishes offered at more than 20 local restaurants last week.


Harvest Grain Bowl with The Vandalia Co.
Harvest Grain Bowl with The Vandalia Co.

And after an hour of tasting, re-tasting, resting and tasting some more, We Three Critics unanimously selected The Block’s pan-seared Chilean Sea Bass with wasabi pea purée, tempura zucchini and mirin beurre blanc as our “Critics Choice” best dish for this year’s FestivFALL celebration.


The fish was glistening, buttery, flaky and perfectly cooked, with a nice crisp golden sear. The bright green purée was slightly sweet with just the faintest hint of heat. The fried zucchini slices were nicely coated and studded with black sesame seeds. And the mirin-spiked creamy sauce provided the perfect umami finish.


Not only was it a well-executed dish, but the presentation was colorful and gorgeous, even in a to-go container that had carried it to us for judging.


Coming in second — and winning our “Best Fall Flavor” award — was The Vandalia Co.’s scrumptious Harvest Grain Bowl bursting with seasonal ingredients. A bed of kale, baby greens and mixed grains was topped with sausage, apples, white beans, sweet potatoes, dried cranberries, feta cheese, toasted walnuts, pumpkin seeds and house-made cinnamon maple vinaigrette.


Short Rib Bolognese from 1010 Bridge
Short Rib Bolognese from 1010 Bridge

Other contenders among the judges were 1010 Bridge’s Short Rib Bolognese with bucatini pasta, San Mariano tomatoes, crispy pancetta, baby arugula and gremolata, along with Chow Thai’s Larb Woo Sen featuring ground pork, spicy vermicelli noodles, red and green onions, cilantro, fish sauce and lime juice with leafy greens and cucumbers.


And this year’s “People’s Choice” winner, determined by online public voting, was also another critics’ favorite: Ichiban’s FestivFALL Maki sushi with cream cheese, cucumber, crunch and strips of kanpyo, a Japanese sweet pumpkin.


This year’s two food-critic winners, along with the “People’s Choice” honoree, will receive specially commissioned “trophies” designed by Burdette and hand-blown at Milton’s Blenko Glass plant.


Larb Woo Sen from Chow Thai
Larb Woo Sen from Chow Thai

Outside of those three stellar dishes, there were so many others to enjoy throughout the week.


Items like low-country shrimp and grits, pan-seared ahi tuna with roasted garlic jasmine risotto, shrimp scampi dip, cheesy pulled chicken nachos, specialty pizzas, and a smothered Angelo’s Old World Sausage sandwich with peppers, onions, tomato sauce and queso on a buttered brioche bun.


Plus there was an array of special breakfasts and fall-flavored drinks, donuts and desserts as well.


I sure hope you made it out to try some of them!


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In other local restaurant news, Charleston’s Dem 2 Brothers & a Grill just received a Black Kitchen Initiative Grant from a national partnership of HEINZ, Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice and The Lee Initiative.


More than $1 million was awarded to help support 71 black-owned restaurants and food-related businesses nationwide.


In announcing the awards, the group said: “The Wright family of Charleston, WV, speaks a language called BBQ, and they spent the last 4 years teaching it to friends, neighbors, and tourists all over the world. What started as a stand on the side of the road has evolved over the years into one of the best BBQ spots in the country, and a favorite staple in the community.”


• • •


Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at wvfoodguy@aol.com.

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