The Second Annual Top Chef Iowa City event was held Wednesday at Hotel Vetro, and you can bet I was the first one in line to get tickets. A big fan of the show, I am slightly obsessed with notion of playing Padma Lakshmi for the evening to a room cocktails, dishes and chefs all available for perusing.
A sell out event last year at $10 a ticket, this year Downtown Iowa City upped the tickets to $25, bringing in a more foodie- centric crowd. The room was pleasantly crowded the right amount of people to add to the atmosphere but not clog up the lines or causing a wait longer than a minute for any particular dish.
As my mother and I strategized on just how to tackle the list of 10 “Chefs and Dishes” and eight “Mixologists and Drinks,” we quickly decided to just hit up the closest drinks and food. With no better way to give a summary of each of these items, I’ll just provide you with a list, the winners and a little encouragement to try each and every place. Let’s just say it was a tough competition. But of course, I have to insert my opinion in here somewhere, so I’ll start with what I know best:

The cocktails

Devotay --  Herbed Gin Punch My personal favorite, this was full of ginger and orange blossom. Herbaceous and not too sweet, this refreshing drink threw me right onto a patio, three months from now. And they handed out the recipe to boot. Mondo's Saloon -- Mai Tai The deconstructed Mai Tai was topped with Cointreau foam and caramelized pineapple. But the kicker? Black sea salt. Another twist on the use of black pepper in cocktails was the Pineapple Black Pepper Margarita by Justin Orlowski at Mondo’s Saloon. Their 1-2 cocktail combo catered to margarita lovers with a trendy edge as the pepper tapered the pineapple sweetness, and the rumchata catered to those of us that like to find ways to incorporate booze in our breakfast- sweeten rice milk with rum and cinnamon- good anytime of day. Pints -- Strawberry Peach Vodka Popsicles One of the best “I Need to Make This For a BBQ/Tailgate/Party/At Home” cocktails was definitely by Chris Lago from Pints. His fresh strawberry peach vodka popsicles were quite the parlor trick but rightly so; they were absolutely delicious, Pinterest-beautiful and fun. Not only that but he wasn’t shy about sharing a brief tutorial on how to recreate them at home, if you were a good enough listener and not too far down the cocktail tasting menu. Share Wine Lounge -- Whiskey Paralyzer Float Lastly for cocktails was the Whiskey Paralyzer Float by Lance Lerch. The People’s Choice Award Winner. His whiskey, Kahlua, root beer float could, and should, be easily made pint-sized (but it was hard for me to carry that many mini-glasses). It took you back to childhood, drinking root beer floats and batting away bees, but had a kick of alcohol that was barely noticeable. The win was well deserved.

The food

The outside of the ballroom at hotelVetro was lined with restaurants each displaying their choice dish. With 10 vendors, I’ll just do a quick breakdown that won’t do any of them justice, so you'll have to go try them on your own. The People’s Choice Award for food went to Thorin Peugh with Share Wine Lounge, and was later reinforced with another vote from the Judges as a favorite. His Jumbo Lump Crab Cake was accompanied by a Jicama Snow Pea Salad with Citrus. Given our Midwest location, good crab cakes are not easy to come by. But this crab cake was light and fresh, with a great balance of acid and citrus to cool the slight heat. It wasn’t mushy, overly breaded, or greasy- things we all too often come accustom to. The Smoked Trout Brandade with peach balsamic vinaigrette by Devotay had a slight crisp outside, not at all fishy inside. The peach balsamic that was drizzled on top was a sweetness that balanced it and left you wanting another bite. With the same familiar cornmeal dough, the first bite of the Pineapple Tamales from Mondo’s Saloon enticed memories of savory tamales you’ve tried in the past but with a new twist. The soft, moist tamale dough was filled with grilled pineapple, and topped with Mexican chocolate sauce, sitting on dulce de leche with fresh berry salsa. It’s no wonder this was one the Judge’s Favorites. The third Judge’s Favorite went to the University of Iowa/IMU, Barry Greenberg. For the labor intensiveness of the porchetta, and the care and attention of the homemade pretzel bread, this dish earned high merits from the judges. But I have to be honest- it wasn’t near the top of my list. But maybe like a proud mother when your child brings home an art project from school- it’s beautiful because you know how laborious the task was, and you can admire its’ beauty regardless. It was good but so was the prosciutto wrapped pork tenderloin with mushroom polenta by Givanni’s. Things worth mentioning: I had no idea Salmon in a crepe could be so good, you need to try the Kobe Beef Roll at Takanami if you never have, the Pho broth took 18-hours to make and is worth a second look, and if you’ve never had Avocado Ice Cream Pie- you need to try it at least once, and Graze is the place to do it. The evening was quite possibly the best way I’ve spent $25 on food and drinks lately. There were almost two dozen avenues for tasting something new, by local talents, most using local ingredients. Not only did I walk away stuffed with a satiated appetite, but I had 14 new places that I’d tasted and were at the top of my list of where to eat again.

-- Laura Kaiden

Check out these pictures from the event and prepare to drool. [nggallery id=145]