The Man Who Came to Dinner

Still, I was able to successfully "plate" my meals by placing a mound of mashed potatoes in the center of each dish, covering it with wilted greens and a salmon fillet, then spooning the demi-glace around the inner rims of the plates and sprinkling with pre-chopped chives.

Voila! The dish actually did look just like something you'd get at a great restaurant. And although I consider myself a fairly adept cook, I don't think I've ever created something quite that professional-looking before (+50). As expected, Darby's meal was still in the works, allowing the whole group to ceremoniously declare me the new "Iron Chef Champion" (+1,000).

A few moments later we transferred all the food to the dining table and sat down to the evening's meal. Gaines complimented me on the "height" of my salmon fillets. I wasn't exactly sure what he was talking about, but it was clearly an outright compliment (+100). New wines were poured (+20), including a Seven Peaks Cabernet Shiraz and a Benton Lane Pinot Noir, both '96. We'd only prepared four plates for six people so we all agreed to pass and share. (I like things casual [+50].)

Digging into my salmon for the first time, I was just slightly nervous. I know salmon should be rare and although I followed the time instructions pretty closely, I got somewhat distracted by a "What exit?" question right around minute three. No worries, though: My fillet was perfectly rare, with two tones of pink inside. At the same time the crust was unbelievably crisp and tasty. It was maybe one of the best pieces of salmon I have ever had (+100), second only perhaps to a memorable herb-crusted slice at Noe Valley's Firefly.

And although I feared I'd left them on the heat far too long, the garlic mashed potatoes made a delicious and creamy team with the wilted greens and fish (+25).

As one of Darby's plates made its way toward me I vowed to put aside all competition and remain culinarily objective. The marinated pork chops were very tasty (+20), but, truth be told, they were a little bit dry (-10). (Sorry, Darby.) And while everyone agreed that the "Soft Sexy Grits" were perfectly done, I found my first mouthful bland and sexless (-10). Maybe they're an acquired taste. Still, the pre-pickled cabbage was extra good. It was a chunky slaw in a sweet and tangy dressing that I wouldn't have expected to like, but did (+20). Overall, the food was awfully impressive, hard to screw up, and a lot of fun to make (+500).

After dinner Darby pulled out the laptop to show me around the site while Kathy and Meredith assembled a tray of amazing desserts. Each item comes from local bakers and is also available online for delivery. The highlights for me were the Fresh Berry Bambino Cheesecake (+7) and the incredible Chocolate Zinfandel Tart (+15). Gaines followed up with a pot of fresh pressed coffee.

As I said my goodbyes I began tallying the total score in my head. Just then, Matt emerged from the walk-in to present me with a parting gift: a Chilean Sea Bass kit for the road. This blatant attempt to buy some last-minute points in our first ever and scrupulously fair dine-athlon did not go unnoticed.

Well, it depends how you define "noticed" (+1,000).

By Barry Levine

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