Highlights of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (NOWFE) are the Grand Tastings, where competing chefs put their best dishes forward. And as the event has grown, so too have the influences on what’s plated on the judging table. Chefs nowadays have extensive exposure to other cultures and cuisines, which often inspires their efforts. It is a win-win situation, as those holding the fork are the recipients of this largesse. Here is a quick look at a few of the participating restaurants and their entries into the competition:

Ralph’s on the Park

The Chef: Chip Flanagan

The Dish: Lamb Cheeks Braised in Saffron and White Wine

For Executive Chef Chip Flanagan from Ralph’s on the Park, this year’s dish is all about the uniqueness of the primary ingredient. “I chose lamb cheeks because I haven’t found anybody around who has been serving these. Last St. Patrick’s day I started using them; I was braising them in Guinness. But for NOWFE I’m doing a more Tunisian-style dish with characteristically North African spices.” The flavors for the dish were inspired by time spent in the south of France, which has a large North African population. “We’d eat in a lot of those restaurants. I liked the flavors, so I did a little research on their spices and seasoning and it developed from there.”

Flanagan makes up his spice blend using fennel, coriander, cayenne and a little ginger and nutmeg. After seasoning, the cheeks get seared with an aromatic mirepoix and then braised in white wine and infused with saffron. This is then served over pearls of large Israeli couscous.

If this makes you hungry, brunch is a good time to visit Ralph’s on the Park. Flanagan gets playful with the menu, offering up fun stuff like his “Pigs in a Blanket” – Creole County sausage dipped in cornmeal pancake batter, fried and served with a sugar cane syrup reduction. More studious choices include a Crabmeat Ravigote Napoleon.

Layered with Israeli couscous, corn and ravigote-dressed crabmeat, it’s then drizzled with a salsa verde.

Traditionalists will enjoy the great turtle soup and can broaden their horizons with a revamped Bloody Mary, which gets brightened up with lemon and basil. Whatever you get, be sure to order a side of the fantastic biscuits.

Domenica

The Chef: Alon Shaya

The Dish: Stracci – Torn Pasta, Oxtail Ragu and Fried Chicken Livers

Executive Chef Alon Shaya keeps a cool hand on the triple-threat menu at Domenica, which offers an impressive selection of pizzas, salumi platters and small plates discharged from a kitchen that boasts more firepower than the New Orleans Saints. Wood burning oven? Check. Dedicated pasta station? Check. Charcuterie room and old-school carving station? Check and check.

The multi-faceted kitchen and the thrum of the dining room signify that Domenica is an unusual destination. Its environs manage to be both contemporary and rustic, an effect that is encapsulated in such individual details as trendy drink tumblers made from butt ends of wine bottles. Shaya’s dog in this year’s fight is his Stracci, pasta dressed in oxtail ragu and garnished with fried chicken livers. “It is a fun dish,” Shaya says. “Cooked down nice and slow, a ragu pulls a lot of the natural flavors from the meat. Oxtail is one of the best things to do this with because it adds so much texture and mouthfeel to the dish.”

It really does; the depth of flavor of the ragu is akin to a demi-glace with a more brawny complexity and the oxtail tastes almost caramelized. Really, a dish like this doesn’t need much more in the way of richness. So why the chicken livers?

“I was thinking about incorporating chicken livers somehow into one of the pasta dishes. While in Italy, I had these beautiful raviolis that were stuffed with chicken liver, so I’d thought maybe I’d do that. Then I started thinking about driving through Mississippi and eating all those fried chicken livers at gas stations. Since fried is one of my favorite ways to experience chicken livers, I decided to do that instead of a stuffed pasta.”

Still something was missing, and Shaya couldn’t figure it out until he grated a bit of fresh lemon over it to finish.

“That really pulled it together – just two seconds of zesting a lemon makes this dish.”

Other good offerings from Domenica include the pizzas – try the one sheathed in translucent prosciutto and rounded out with buffalo mozzarella and arugula. The build-your-own salumi plates are good as well. On my last visit they offered a skinny venison iteration that paired well with the Taleggio cheese. One of the perks is that this comes with a basket of torta fritta – basically, savory beignets that, paired with myriad condiments, make this a delicious choose-your-own-adventure plate. For those interested in learning more about the technique of cured meats, Shaya will be offering a salumi class during NOWFE.

The Grill Room at the Windsor Court

The Chef: Chef Drew Dzejak

The Dish: Gulf Shrimp with Trofie Pasta in a Thyme Mascarpone

Executive Chef Drew Dzejak from the Grill Room is entering a dish of Gulf Shrimp with Trofie Pasta tossed in thyme-infused mascarpone. Akin to a luxe version of mac and cheese, this dish shares similarities to his Seared Diver Scallops dish from the current (at press time) “Indulge” column of the Grill Room’s unusual matrix-structured menu.

“People will recognize the dish’s components, but it will be a bit different from what the others have,” Dzejak says.

“The thyme mascarpone sets it apart – once the heat hits that, it just melts and makes for a great combination to get tossed with the pasta.”

The menu at the Grill Room is essentially four menus in one, each with its own theme. Spread among Southern, Unadulterated, Steakhouse and Indulge, these arrangements provide visual cues for diners to focus on themes that appeal to them most. From a service side, it also accommodates a hotel’s requirement for tried-and-true dishes (for example, a boutique beef strip steak served with bordelaise sauce) to cohabitate with others that are more outré (for example, Trio of Duck with foie gras drizzled with a Huckleberry Lambrusco reduction). On my visits, I tend to hew to the Indulge side (go figure), which tends to offer more in the way of unusual ingredients. But you really can’t go wrong with any of the other themes.