I was asked recently to be a judge in the Vancouver Foodster’s Mac and Cheese Challenge along a hand full of other friends and media personalities. Being a lover of comfort food and mac and cheese especially I was more than happy to take on the challenge and extra inches that were added to my waistline. With 10 different creations created for the Mac and Cheese Challenge spread out at 11 different locations it was my job to sample each so I teamed up with my buddy and fellow judge Sherman Chan because eating alone is never fun. I’ve listed the dishes below in alphabetical order and all were consumed in a 7 day period.
This is Burgundy Restaurant’s entry, Stewie’s Cheesey Adventure made with fresh macaroni, goat gouda, Parmesan, garlic cream reduction, panko crust and topped off with a tomato chutney. Digging into this I was pleased with the consistency and richness of the sauce both of which were perfect. For a cheese choice the goat gouda was great, it added a unique tang along with a full cheese flavour. To cap things off the pasta did a wonderful job of holding the sauce and the texture was really nice, they managed to keep the fresh pasta al dente.
Next up is Dunn’s Famous Jalapeno Mac & Cheese Poutine. Described on the menu as “a ooey gooey Dunn’s Famous inspired dish. The Jalapeño Mac & Cheese Poutine is a signature jalapeño cheese sauce covered over macaroni noodles, cheese curds, fresh-cut French fries and topped with our famous smoked meat. Melt in your mouth goodness!”. When I read that I was excited to see just how Dunn’s would pull it off and manage to keep the fries crisp still. When it was brought to the table I was kind of shocked at the size of the dish-it was huge! The pasta was cooked nicely and the fries were indeed crisp throughout the dish. I really did like the combination of poutine and mac and cheese together especially with the cheese curds as they added a nice chew to the mac and cheese. One thing that got to me after a few bites was the jalapeno cheese sauce, it ended up killing any smoked meat taste and the pickled jalapeno was a bit much with it in every bite. Overall I would love to order this sans spicy cheese sauce and just use the stuff for their regular mac and cheese.
One of the creations I was looking forward to tasting was the Fable Kitchen Mushroom Truffle Mac & Cheese with cremini & porcini mushrooms, aged white cheddar. Digging into the first thing that I noticed was the sauce wasn’t overly thick or heavy on the dairy which I liked with the type of pasta used-it was perfect for soaking up the sauce. for some added texture toasted almonds were sprinkled on top which was something that I haven’t seen before. Where this didn’t work for me was the overpowering truffle flavour, it totally killed the taste of the cheese and really dominated the whole dish. It should also be noted that this is on the regular menu and not created for the challenge.
Next up is the Gramercy Grill Hoisin Duck Confit Mac & Cheese. This unique creation is a white cheddar macaroni & cheese base with a topping of five spice, star anise, hoisin duck confit with green onion along with some water chestnut in the mix. Again this really intrigued me when I read the description, with the delicious duck confit and sweet hoisin sauce this really could be a double edge sword creation. The pasta was cooked nicely and the sauce was creamy and had a good cheese flavour. The duck itself was tender and seasoned well with the hoisin which did add some expected sweetness but it went well with the mac and cheese. To help cut the richness of the overall dish the scallions were perfect, they added a nice peppery bite. I will say that the water chestnut was an oddball ingredient but it did add a great crunch to what is a “soft” dish.
The healthiest mac and cheese creation definitely went to Graze Vegetarian Restaurant with the Smoked Mushroom and Truffle Macaroni in cauliflower ricotta sauce. The restaurant used a rice pasta for this mac and cheese which was a fail for me, the pasta was really mushy. Flavour wise the use of ricotta cheese was odd for me, it was really light in flavour and didn’t add that cheesy hit I like in mac and cheese. What I did like about this creation was the use of cauliflower as it did add a richness without the use of cream and the smoked mushroom was awesome. The addition of fresh asparagus was also a winner for me just because I was lacking in veggie consumption for the week! This was the only mac and cheese that I sampled in the challenge that didn’t leave me with a weight in my stomach.
The Kessel & March creation was another one I was looking forward to trying. Tony’s Northern Italian Macaroni & Cheese Saffron & Truffle Macaroni & Parmesan Cheese was definitely the most decadent creation I devoured in the challenge. Flavour wise this mac and cheese was very fragrant with the saffron and the fresh shaved black truffles. The pasta was on the firmer al dente side but it worked for me because every bite resulted in a mac and cheese explosion in the mouth.
The only creation to have seafood in it was from Lift Bar & Grill with their Ocean Wise Crab Mac & Cheese. This creation had fresh West Coast Ocean Wise dungeness crab meat with macaroni pasta and fresh mascarpone and podano cheeses and topped with panko bread crumbs. The mac and cheese component was rich and extremely creamy with the use of the mascarpone cheese but when combined with the crab it tended to be sweet and creamy which was weird for me. The pasta was cooked nicely in this mac and the sauce had good mouth feel but the sweetness didn’t do it for me, this also was available on the menu before the challenge started.
The South Granville specialty food legend Meinhardt created the I HARDT Mac & Cheese. They did something special and scrapped the original mac and cheese the used to sell and created this beauty. The recipe includes a medley of three artisan cheeses & pennette pasta that is baked to perfection. I brought along Melissa with me for this chow down since she is an aficionado of mac and cheese, we chatted with the owner of the store and he did a great job of explaining what they did and what went into this final creation-you could say the really went all in! Digging into this first entailed going through a nice layer of baked cheese, underneath was a nice thin penne like pasta and a rich cream sauce that was a pleasure to eat. The flavour of the cheeses really came through nicely, they have a custom blend of cheese done for their mac and cheese but the taste of fontina really came through. The Meinhardt mac and cheese was the most traditional of all the entries and was one of my favorites, it also made Melissa’s all time best list. The store has this available to take home and heat or you can get it in the hot food bar if your eating in.
The Milestones Grill & Bar Howe Sound my Orecchiette with Chorizo, double smoked bacon in a creamy cheddar cheese and beer sauce was my least favorite entries in the challenge. The chorizo and bacon were great ingredients but the choice of beer killed it for me, when I took a bite the flavour I was struck with was reminiscent of alcohol not being cooked off but it was actually the hops in the beer-it was extremely bitter and killed all the other flavours in the dish.
Lastly we have the Seventeen 89 Restaurant S-Mac Cheese. This is classic carbonara meets spicy chorizo mac and cheese. The choice of pasta for this was one of the most original hand down, it did a great job of holding the sauce but still was small so you could get a good amount with each bite. Flavour wise this mac and cheese was nice and smokey with the chorizo and pancetta, a perfect combination for any meat lover! The sauce was rich and creamy with a great mouth feel and the egg yolk used added another level of richness. If it’s still on the menu I would highly suggest getting over to Seventeen 89 for a bowl!
In the end I had a great time getting to try all these mac and cheese creations and I still love the stuff! The final winners were on point with my favorites but you can check out the winners and also find out more information about the current challenge underway by clicking here.