The Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce recently concluded the inaugural Issaquah Epicurean Experience contest that crowned a best appetizer and dessert among seven local restaurants.
Vista Prime Steaks and Seafood at the Snoqualmie Casino won the people’s choice and best dessert award, and Levitate Gastropub won the award for best appetizer. Both received golden spatulas and plaques. The chamber required that chefs use two local ingredients — salmon and native berries — for the appetizer and dessert respectively. The competing chefs had complete freedom beyond using the required ingredients.
“I was so excited, and it was pretty humbling with all these other chefs out here,” Levitate Gastropub executive chef Pa Jallow said. “I think this might be the beginning of a cool thing… Hopefully people in Issaquah will start dining in Issaquah more often. I think the Issaquah chefs are doing a great job of taking the food to the next level.”
The chamber created the event to give a boost to local restaurants during a slow time of the year and, with its success, the event will continue in the years to come, according to chamber community engagement and events manager Brenda DeVore.
“The chamber had reached out to local restaurants in previous years to find out their busy times of the year and slower times of the year and what we can do to support that,” DeVore said. “The consensus was let’s do an event in Spring when it’s a little bit slower and dark outside to bring people in and create a bit of excitement in the downtime.”
Locals and selected judges visited participating restaurants throughout March to vote on which had the best appetizer or dessert crafted for the contest.
The chamber selected four judges to visit each restaurant at different times during the day to try out the contest entries. DeVore added the judges were encouraged to invite friends and family along to make the judging event a party-like atmosphere.
“It was enjoyable to see our staff get behind it, the community participation as well as full banter between our restaurants,” Levitate Gastropub owner Eric Paschal said. “But most importantly, being able to showcase chef Pa’s talents.”
Levitate Gastropub, Nicolino Ristorante and Trailhead Kitchen + Bar competed in the dessert contest, ultimately losing to Vista Prime Steaks and Seafood.
Snoqualmie Casino executive chef Justin Lee and pastry chef Chuck Dugo said they came at the contest with an “outside-the-box” mentality which culminated in the winning dessert, a blackberry cheesecake Push-Pop.
“Winning Best Dessert and the People’s Choice awards was the icing on our cheesecake,” Lee said. “[We] were experimenting with the idea of a non-traditional take on the childhood favorite push-pop. Once learning that native berries were the required ingredient, we explored the idea of creating a delicious blackberry cheesecake served within a push-pop. We were counting on guests enjoying the experience as well as the taste.”
Chinoise Sushi Bar & Asian Grill, Montalcino Ristorante Italiano, Trailhead Kitchen + Bar, Vista Prime Steaks and Seafood and WildFin American Grill competed in the appetizer contest, ultimately losing to Levitate Gastropub.
Jallow created a Salmon flatbread appetizer for the contest and said he’s excited to make another dish for next year’s contest.
“This was the first time I’ve made it, and everybody was really excited about it and thought it was a good combination of flavors,” Jallow said. “It was a good feeling because when you put these things together, you never know how people are going to react to it. So when people are happy and excited about it, it makes it worth all the while you know?”
The chamber plans to continue the contest in March next year with different ingredients and a different challenge for local chefs. While the feedback from local participants was positive, DeVore said the chamber plans to make tweaks and improve the overall experience, hoping to get even more people involved in future events.