The Ultimate Critics Dinner was just that — the ultimate dinner of the year. Not only were the chefs deemed the best in town by area food writers, but the setting at Fort Sumter was spectacular, providing a stunning panoramic view of Charleston capped off with a picture-perfect sunset. The novelty of the location, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, helped the $300-a-plate dinner sell out in a day and a half, before the winning chefs were even announced.
Civil War reenactors greeted diners as they boarded the Spirit of the Lowcountry and headed for Fort Sumter to sup on food from Charleston's best chefs.
To honor the setting and the sesquicentennial of the war, the chefs agreed to incorporate historical ingredients in their dishes. On the boat on the way over, Marc Collins of Circa 1886 passed around some interesting (and tasty) hors d'oeuvres, including onion custard tarts with black truffles, salmon jerky, and an antelope meatball. They were paired with a bracing cocktail made with sweet tea bourbon called The Beauregard.
Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill, was voted best front-of-house guy and provided the color commentary for the evening. His charity, Chefs Feed the Need, is the signature charity for the 2012 BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival too, so the evening was a double honor. Funds raised by the Ultimate Critics Dinner will be dispersed to the signature charity as well as the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, which helped make the fort available for this event.
Once at the Fort, guests were encouraged to walk the ramparts, drink some champagne, and nibble on Chef Mike Lata's lettuce wrap, made with pickled brown shrimp, vermillion snapper roe, and heirloom peppers.
As the sun settled into the water, the action moved down to the parade ground for the seated dinner. Jacques Larson of Wild Olive was up first with a Carolina rabbit confit served with barley, Mepkin Abbey mushrooms, balsamic, and black truffles on arugula. Clint Sloan of McCrady's was selected by the critics as best sommelier for his expertise in wines, which was apparent with his first pairing. The Perrin & Fils Cotes Du Rhone was a smooth companion to the earthy rabbit dish.
Course two came courtesy of Sean Brock of McCrady's and Husk. He sent out a beautiful dish of flounder with summer vegetables, salt pork, and hardtack. Made with flour and water, Brock's hardtack was a sprinkling of croutons, not quite the flour and water biscuits eaten by soldiers on the move, but a cool historical reference nonetheless.
Chef Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca grilled up some Kobe beef deckle, which he served with small bits of lobster and peanut potato salad with a barolo vinaigrette. Flavorful and most definitely not something that's ever been eaten at Fort Sumter before.
Emily Cookson, pastry chef at Charleston Grill, had the unenviable task of finishing the dinner, which she did with amazing skill. I think she might have put the savory courses to shame with her sorghum trifle served with fig preserves and chocolate. The mellow sweetness of the sorghum and the figs had us all licking our bowls clean. (It was so good I neglected to photograph it for fear someone would eat mine up.)
At the end of the night, the chefs lined up to receive their plaques, and the guests filed back on to the boat for more cocktails and a quiet ride back to town through the dark night.