Thankfully, a few glimpses of brilliance emerged. Eli’s smoky eggplant and perfectly firm, flavorful lentils did show a significant amount of skill. And although it took some getting used to, I will never forget the playful sweetness and creamy, bold texture of Michael’s banana polenta. As I write this I am still in awe that he chose to make it—and that we all could not get enough. But it was Kevin’s Duo of Mushrooms, Smoked Kale, Candied Garlic & Turnip Puree that saved us. As much as Michael would like to believe it was thrown together in an amateur way, this dish was far from simple. The bright taste and integrity of each individual vegetable was apparent with each bite. What’s more, they all made perfect sense when eaten as one harmonious creation. Cooking vegetables this way is no easy task. It was decadent and robust, and exactly as Kevin had promised in his description.
It seemed that the rest of our chefs’ goals were just too lofty, too precious, and more focused on making their food look pretty than on making it taste good or feel substantial. Jennifer’s Charred Eggplant, Braised Fennel, Tomatoes & Verjus Nage was little more than a side dish. Bryan’s Artichoke Barigoule was barely any better. Finally, there was Mike Isabella’s Whole Roasted Leeks with Onion Jus, Baby Carrot Puree & Fingerling Potatoes. I am still unsure how he planned on passing off those stringy leeks as scallops. A trick of the eye cannot fool a hungry vegetarian stomach, I assure you. Most of all, his food was undercooked and tasteless. His dish was by far the weakest of the night. It is no wonder that as soon as Judges’ Table ended that evening we all went out for a second dinner, to this amazing little Japanese robata spot just off the strip that chef Paul Bartolotta introduced us to (he is the chef at what I believe to be the most spectacular restaurant in Vegas and one of the nicest people I know). The restaurant, to everyone’s delight, had plenty of delicious vegetarian options on the menu!