BLT: The ultimate Challenge

Stephen Dennison
Stephen Dennison of Varanese and his prize-winning sushi-style BLT. Photos by Melissa Richards and Robin Garr

LEO’s Eats with

B … L … T. Are any three letters better suited to capture the joyful tastes of midsummer’s seasonal bounty?

A bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, properly constructed with quality materials, is arguably the greatest sandwich ever invented, an expression of summer at its best, when fresh tomatoes come bursting from gardens in juicy, glowing red orbs.

With the current emphasis on heirloom tomatoes, artisanal bacon, varietal lettuces and great breads, the BLT has never been better.

Inspired by this summer treat, four local chefs who participate in the online forum recently faced off in a BLT challenge before a live audience of local foodies and trio of judges – members Suzi Bernert, Deb Hall and Yours Truly.

Instead of reviewing a restaurant for this week’s column, I thought you might enjoy a glimpse into the creative – and very different – ways these four reinvented the BLT. All four entries were mighty good, and you just may see one of them turn up on a local restaurant menu some day.

We found it hellishly difficult to pick a winner. We used an Iron Chef-style rating system, each judge awarding up to 10 points for taste and five each for presentation and originality, mounting up to a possible top score of 60 per contestant. This had the effect of rewarding the offbeat, deliciously weird entries at the expense of a couple of addictively good but more traditional approaches. Stephen Dennison of Varanese took the prize, but the Oakroom’s Pastry Chef Ethan Ray, Big Spring Country Club Chef Dan Thomas and Café Lou Lou Pastry Chef Marsha Lynch all took home the people’s ovation and fame forever.

Here, right off the mojo wire, are my notes from the event:

Marsha Lynch
Pastry Chef Marsha Lynch from Café Lou Lou and her traditional-style BLT on honey-wheat.

Marsha Lynch, Pastry Chef, Café Lou Lou

Lynch went the traditional route, fashioning a fairly standard BLT enhanced by high-quality ingredients and careful prep. Artisanal honey-wheat bread was stacked with Broadbent’s pepper bacon, Bibb lettuce, watercress, fresh avocado and roasted garlic aioli, plus a dab of Irish butter for good luck, and garnished with a crisp, tart homemade refrigerator pickle and a perfect grape tomato. Flavors were excellent, although the bacon’s intense smokiness overpowered the more subtle tomato. It won loads of points for presentation and flavor. Still, the harsh judging criteria, which reward creativity and punish traditionalism, cost Marsha a few ratings points, although I heard that her sammy was the People’s Choice.

Taste: 23; Presentation: 13; Originality: 8; Total: 44

Dan Thomas
Chef Dan Thomas from Big Spring Country Club and his triangular BLT on focaccia.

Dan Thomas, Chef, Big Spring Country Club

Thomas also went with a fairly traditional approach but kicked it up by building his triangular sandwich on three-cheese-and-onion focaccia. Three flavors of Father’s brand bacon – hickory smoke, Cajun and pepper – added complexity to hydroponic Bibb lettuce and a mix of Better Boy and yellow tomatoes. Garnishes of guacamole, separate dollops of pesto and ranch mayo, and a garnish of cocktail olive, pickled radish, Chicago sport pepper and kosher dill cornichon pulled it all together. The flavors worked together remarkably well; the Father’s bacon was spectacular. He lost presentation points, though, for a “wet” sandwich that tended to fall apart in the judges’ hands and run down our arms.

Taste: 29; Presentation: 7; Originality: 10; Total: 46

Ethan Ray
Ethan Ray from The Oakroom presented this “molecular gastronomy” take on the BLT (shown under construction).

Ethan Ray, Pastry Chef, The Oakroom

Now we move from the traditionalists to the wild-eyed radicals: The final two chefs thought far outside the box. Ray’s entry, presented on a white curvilinear plate, was an open-face work of art that deconstructed the BLT and put it back together in a new form. An oval of savory sourdough French toast was topped with yellow tomatoes concentrated into a gel; bits of Allan Benton’s Tennessee hickory-smoked bacon went on top, with the admirably offbeat addition of what Ethan called “faux mayo,” pure cream ice cream infused with a touch of smoke. Micro mezuna on top made a delicate substitute for lettuce, and a shake of bourbon-barrel-smoked salt heightened the bacon-smoky theme. It wowed the judges, who gave all-but-unanimous top scores for both presentation and originality. In the flavor department, as you might expect from such an offbeat concept, things got a little controversial. The overall flavors were great, and the combined textures were right-on, but the dominant ice cream flavor and texture seemed to defeat the complexity that Ethan was shooting for. Still, borne on his top grades for looks and creativity, he moved into the lead at this point.

Taste: 22; Presentation: 14; Originality: 14; Total: 50

Stephen Dennison, Key Employee, Varanese
Stephen Dennison from Varanese.

Just when we thought Ray had raised the bar beyond reach, along came Dennison with an even more radical concept: BLT sushi. He built a pair of sushi rolls he called “from the barnyard to the rice paddy.” The “barnyard” roll, so called for its earthy flavors, was a futomaki-size roll of German rye bread, not rice, wrapped around applewood-smoked bacon, the meat of roma tomatoes, Hudson Valley Camembert, caraway seeds and pickle, touched with an artful stripe of buckwheat honey and black molasses scented with Chinese Five Spice and a dash of cayenne; alfalfa sprouts went on top as garnish. The “rice paddy” roll was a standard short-grain rice roll around Broadbent Kentucky Country bacon and arugula, garnished with a dill pickle slice and Middle Eastern spice, topped with Sichuan pepper aioli, tomato “caviar” and pulverized Tellicherry pepper. Overall, this effort ultimately took top honors because it demonstrated spectacular creativity while retaining respect for the BLT character. Oh yeah, and it tasted great. I’ll never look at a BLT the same again.

Taste: 25; Presentation: 15; Originality: 14; Total: 54