By Michael Devlin
All out war has never been this much fun… or delicious. James Devine and Raymond McArdle went toe to toe (or knife to knife) for the last time on Thursday night in the Battle of the TV Chefs finale.
After two previous bouts at the Black Cat Restaurant outside Ballygawley, James (of Masterchef fame) emerged the overall victor against a valiant Raymond (of the Great British Menu).
In reality however, James was already the champ, having scooped two previous wins, but that didn’t stop him pulling out the stops for the third and final set.
In the end, whilst Thursday night’s battle concluded with a draw, it was anything but an anti-climax for decision-making diners. The only downside for local foodies is that Thursday marked the last battle – for the foreseeable future at least.
The plan was thus: Seven sumptuous courses would arrive, four of which were specific to a particular chef and then it was up to diners to decide who took the plaudits.
Whilst this obviously meant a lot of hard work for the chefs and their sous-chefs, for those doing the eating, it proved an entertaining, taste-bud-tingling and filling night all round.
With an air of definite competition, proceedings kicked off with a glass of presseco and some mildly-spiced popcorn and pork scratchings, as diners settled into the fine Black Cat surroundings. The only thing better than the view across the lake was the sight of smiling servers arriving with plates of delicate delicacies.
Next up and it was a selection of canapes, as the restaurant slowly filled to capacity. Bite-size burgers (small in stature but big in taste), arrived with divine goats cheese and candied walnut on a home-made cheese cracker. There were also chicken liver parfait pastries and deep-fried risotto balls – both also heavenly.
Course number three was a selection of breads with manna-like tapenade and whipped butter and then it was time for the chef-specific dishes.
McArdle’s Pigeon Post was one of the dishes Raymond invented on the Great British Menu and its inventivness was not lost on diners. Rare to medium breasts with a confit of leg, sat astride a savoury flapjack with a trickle of blackberry sauce.
Round One McArdle!
Not to be outdone however, Devine’s Monkfish Carbonara was next on the agenda and this dish in particular went down well with the chilled sauvignon blanc. Pan-roast monkfish wraped in Parma ham with smoked bacon tortelili, crisp hen’s yolk and Parmesan velouté – groans of pleasure began erupting around the restaurant.
On second thoughts, maybe that was Round One to Devine.
Following an exquisite citrus sorbet with strawberry sauce to clense the palate and it was back into battle.
Another creation from the Great British Menu was McArdle’s Officer’s Mess and this was one of the most favourited on the night. Fermanagh beef loin, slow-cooked beef chuck, boulangere potato, confit of root vegetables and wild mushroom cream, the combination again had diners reeling.
Then as the battle finale, Devine’s Chocolate and Caramel arrived in all its majesty. A chocolate and peanut parfait, peanut foam and salted caramel ice-cream, this was richness epitomised and not unlike a deconstructed Snickers Bar.
Despite the quantity of the gastronomy offer, these seven courses were nowhere near a battle to finish. From start to finish, the attention to detail was inspired: From the ever-smiling service to the quality of the wines to the very surroundings of the Black Cat locale itself.
And though James was declared the ultimate winner, Raymond’s dishes were hardly losers.
If we were being picky (which we are because after all, this was a competition), you might say that the battle was lost by tiny margins. Perhaps there was no need for the Fermanagh beef lion within the Officers’ Mess. Perhaps the game-y pigeon wasn’t to the taste of mid-Tyrone dinners. Perhaps the monkfish carbonara was too memorable. Who knows.
One thing is certain however, there wasn’t a person leaving the Black Cat following a Battle of the Chefs who didn’t thoroughly enjoy themselves, both gastronimically and otherwise.
For all this country’s foibles when it comes to food, it’s events like these at the ‘Cat which push the boundaries a little. After all, no-one ever achieved anything by staying within their rut. And the word rut is definitely not applicable to James Devine or Raymond McArdle.
There will surely be calls for another battle outside Ballygawley. The only hope is this time, they make it best out of five.