"Duck schmaltz with ginger beer -- my secret ingredients," said Joshua Marcus (Chow Down Grill, Josh's Delicatessen & Appetizing, opening April 17) in response to a question regarding his potential path to victory in the Third Annual Matzah Bowl in Lauderhill. He was up against seven fierce competitors at the Forest Trace Luxury Resort Senior Community -- or, more specifically, in the Jennie Grossinger Theatre at Forest Trace, where the event took place. Ms. Grossinger was hotelier of the famed Grossinger's Catskills Resort Hotel. Jennie's daughter, Elaine Grossinger Etess, is Director of Hospitality at Forest Trace, and served as one of the judges for the Matzah Bowl.
(A bit of Grossinger's trivia: In 1952, the resort was the first in the world to use artificial snow on its' ski slopes).
There was a packed room of over 100 people (and some media). The whole set-up is reminiscent of the old Grossinger's, and I'm not just saying that because the word "Grossinger's" is displayed on the wall along with photos from those halcyon days; many of those attending probably visited the resort during the years those photos were snapped.
As for the Matzah Bowl, it was extremely entertaining. There was an organist and a singer, plus an incredibly spirited Mistress of Ceremonies (Sandy Warren) who kept the ball rolling while the matzah balls were being rolled out to the tables -- and even managed to belt out a few ditties of her own, such as "Matzah Ball" sung to the tune of "Macho Man" (Matzah, matzah ball...I want to eat, a matzah ball).
It was the most fun I've had at a food event in quite some time -- sort of like being at a bar-mitzvah, except with a senior crowd and a menu of matzah ball eight ways. Marcus copped two awards, and Mo, of Mo's Bagels nabbed one; they were Miami's sole representatives. There were cash awards involved -- $500 for the main prizes -- that were given to charities of the winner's choice.
The other contestants were The Pastrami Club from Lauderhill; Sage Bagel & Appetizer Shop in Hallandale; Zinger's Delicatessen and Ben's Kosher Deli from Boca Raton; Ally's Comfort Café in Shenandoah Square; and Too Jay's Original Gourmet Deli from Plantation (plus other locations). In photo to the left, Marcus is front row left, Mo is second row, third from the left).
The eight judges on stage included, besides Ms. Grossinger, a food stylist and editor from West Palm Beach; the CEO of Mr. Food; Chief of Staff to District 9 Broward County Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness; chef Alan Bergman; the Director of the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Broward County; and -- get this -- two boxing guys. One is Matt Baiamonte, current co-owner of the 5th Street Gym in South Beach; the other is Sam Cohen, current VP of the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame. Prior to this matzah match, the contestants posed while wearing boxing gloves, so we can suppose the underlying theme to this Bowl was that liking matzah balls really is for macho men.
What's making you feel confident?, I asked Josh before the proceedings got underway. "I'm not confident at all," he answered with a laugh. "Everyone here has a fantastic product. I'm just giving it what I got."
What he got was Best Matzah Ball Recipe from Scratch for his creative ginger/duck twist. He also received the Knockout Award: Best-Out-Of-The-Box, which doesn't mean out of a box of matzah ball mix, but in the sense of being a newcomer -- sort of like a "Rookie of the Year" award.
Mo was presented with the Best Floater award, which we take to mean light and fluffy enough to float upon the chicken broth. It was in fact one of the lightest, and a strong entry. "It's homemade, from scratch," Mo told me as he was setting up. "It's the recipe from the old Pumpernik's. Remember them?" I only remembered the name, so switched the subject and asked if these were the same matzah balls he served at Mo's. "Yes," he said, "At breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Marcus' rendition was the most distinctive, and arguably the most flavorful, but for best overall the judges were probably looking for a more traditional entry. Will Josh be serving these at his upcoming deli? "Yes, that's exactly how we'll be making it. At Chow Down Grill we go through so much duck, so I have plenty of duck shmaltz."
My own favorite, by far, was the matzah ball from Ben's Kosher Deli. They had the richest coloring, best flavor, and fresh dill sprinkled into the broth sealed the deal. The people at my table mostly seemed to agree. They were not shy in stating their opinions as they sampled each entry. "It tastes like water," snapped one with a look of exaggerated disgust. "This is tasteless -- worse than my mother-in-law's," said another, of the same ball, while his wife rolled her eyes. For the most part, though, the matzah balls were quite good. Surprisingly, the least successful in my opinion came from TooJay's -- too much salt.
Ben's Kosher Deli took home the Best All-Around Matzah Ball Award. Everyone went home with at least one plaque (Josh was the only one with two). There was, for instance, the Most Like Mom's, which went to Ally's Comfort Café. Ally was cooking in the restaurant and so couldn't attend, but her mother Judy did; besides matzah balls, she brought along sandwiches and cole slaw from the Café that we all shared during a post-ceremony luncheon (the sandwiches and slaw were excellent; I promised Judy I would mention this).
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While congratulating the team from Ben's Deli for their victory, I questioned whether or not they may have swayed voters by being the only ones to hand out sweet kugel as a bonus side to their matzah balls. "Well we learned that from last year, when somebody handed out desserts, so this year we thought we would sweeten the pot a bit."
Josh's recipe award was one of the more important nods, so he didn't seem especially bitter or disappointed at missing out on the top prize. "No, this was awesome. I mean I'm competing against places like Ben's Deli. I'm glad to be the Chrysler Building to Ben's Empire State Building." He admitted to making "rookie mistakes", but vowed to return in a year for MB4.
"Don't forget to bring along kugel next time," I said to him on my way out.