When I was first approached by Richard regarding being a judge for the Mac & Cheese Challenge, I was slightly apprehensive. 10 different mac n' cheese creations in a relatively short period of time? Could I do it? What would my doctor say about this??? This tasty dilemma was considered for all of 5 seconds as I agreed to do it. To hit as many places as possible while not doing it myself, I visited most of the 10 establishments with fellow judge Sean.
Our first destination was Fable Kitchen and it's Mushroom Truffle Mac & Cheese with Cremini & Porcini mushrooms and aged white cheddar. An immediate hit of the sharp white cheddar was tempered by the overwhelming taste of truffle. Personally, I love truffle, but this was just a bit too much especially with the generous amount of mushrooms. Furthermore, it was too wet for my tastes as the sauce had a difficult time adhering to the al dente pasta. Onto Lift Bar & Grill, we tried the Oceanwise Crab Mac & Cheese made with fresh Mascarpone and Podano Cheeses and topped with Panko bread crumbs. The draw here was the ample amount of fluffy and sweet Dungeness crab meat. Otherwise, the mac & cheese itself was a pretty classic interpretation other than the use of the creamy Marscarpone which made it lighter and slightly sweet. The mild flavours allowed the crab to be the star.
Moving onto another day, we had the only vegetarian offering from Graze Vegetarian Restaurant. The Smoked Mushroom & Truffle Macaroni in cauliflower ricotta sauce featured pasta made with brown rice. As such, the dish was very mild and only moderately creamy. However, the smoked mushroom was really nice as well as the purposeful amount of truffle which only announced itself at the end. I would've liked to see more salt for more punch though. Next, we headed over to Milestone's on Robson and tried the Howe Sound my Orecchiette? Okay, there is no use trying to sugar coat this one - we didn't like it. As much as we were thankful for a chain restaurant taking some chances, this didn't work. The amount of beer added to the dish was excessive and they type of beer was too hoppy. Hence, every other flavour including the cheese was destroyed. Too bad really as the pasta was flawlessly executed and the ample chorizo was good.
Onto a hardcore day where we visited 3 places, we started with one of my favourites from Seventeen 89 being the S-Mac & Cheese best described as classic Carbonara meets spicy Chorizo mac & cheese. This creamy, yet amazingly not super heavy concoction had strong purposeful flavours while benefitting from the right amount of spicy Chorizo. At first, I was worried with the pasta selection, but it didn't get mushy and held onto the sauce well. We then made our way to Dunn's Famous for their Jalapeno Mac & Cheese Poutine featuring jalapeño cheese sauce covered over macaroni noodles, cheese curds, fresh cut French fries and topped with smoked meat. I found the fries to be on point being crispy even with all the wet toppings. The mac had a nice chewy texture while the ample amount of cheese added richness and ooey gooey bites. However, the jalapeno was a bit overwhelming and dominated all the other flavours. Finally, we ended at Gramercy Grill and their Hoisin Duck Confit Mac & Cheese consisting of white cheddar macaroni & cheese with a topping of five spice, star anise and hoisin duck confit with green onion. Initially, these flavours did not sound like a match in my mind. However, it worked as the mac & cheese was mild enough that it didn't interfere with the Asian flavours. Furthermore, the amount of hoisin and 5-spice was kept to a minimum so it was only in the background rather than overwhelming. The duck itself was moist and tender.
Finally, I made it to the last 3 with a visit to Meinhardt first. No, Sean was not with me this time, so I was able to eat alone! Not that I like to do that though... Being the most typical-looking version, the I HARDT Mac & Cheese was made of 3 different artisan cheeses. As simple as it appeared, the flavours had impact. There was a pleasant sharpness that negated the need for salt. I liked the firmness of the penne pasta as well as the right amount of moisture. Off to meet up with Sean again (yah, not eating alone!), I headed over to Burgundy Restaurant for Stewie’s Cheesey Adventure consisting of fresh macaroni, goat gouda, parmesan, garlic cream reduction, panko crust and tomato chutney. This was a fairly simple version except for 2 things - the fresh pasta and the tomato chutney. Both elevated this seemingly simple concoction in terms of texture (surprisingly al dente) and taste as it added a nice sweet acidity. Our final stop was at Kessel & March where we had Tony’s Northern Italian Macaroni & Cheese made up of saffron & truffle macaroni with Parmesan cheese. The saffron was definitely evident in the colour and aroma of the dish. Another layer of aromatics was due to the shaved truffle on top as well as the Parm. Phew... that was too much of a good thing in such a short amount of time! For myself, my favourite was the one from Seventeen 89. The official winners can be found here.