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Judging Wings

February 5, 2010

Tuesday, January 26 was an awesome day.  I was up in Saratoga Springs and tried my first slices of Pope’s pizza.  Then I attended an amazing seminar and tasting of New York craft distillers.  Later that evening I participated in the judging of the best wings in the Capital Region at the Times Union’s headquarters.

They had us sign documents that prohibited participants from blogging about the event until after the story ran in the paper.  If you want to see how it all turned out, and see some pictures of the Profussor in action, the article ran yesterday and can be viewed here.

Beyond the tasting itself, I was excited to finally get to meet Ruth Fantasia, the predominant restaurant critic in the region, in person.  Superfan Sarah M. wondered, “Ruth Fantasia eats her wings with a fork, yes?”

And having met her I cannot tell you, simply because none of the Times Union staff was on the panel of judges.  Ruth was a gracious hostess, and I salute her bravery for inviting my participation.

Now let’s discuss this judge’s perspective on the proceedings and the results.

The Wing Wars were an even more brutal challenge for the wings than the AOA Tournament of Pizza was for the pies.  These challenges were documented in the Times Union article and have already been widely discussed on the Table Hopping blog.

But in summary the wings were all ordered mild and packed up in to go containers and brought to the Times Union.  There they were photographed and put in aluminum holding trays.  The wings were kept warm in an oven until all the judges arrived and were briefed on the evaluation criteria and score sheets.  The wings steamed in their containers, and some caramelized on the surfaces of where they were in contact with the warming pans.  If the wings were sauced on their arrival, most of it was gone by the time of the judging.

The point was to simulate real world conditions of people ordering wings for a Super Bowl party.  And I can get behind that.  It is just important context for reading the results of the judging.  What is truly amazing is that given all the challenges the wings had to overcome, there were still a couple of tasty specimens in the bunch.

Until I read the article yesterday, I (along with my fellow judges) was completely unaware of the results.  In my mind there were really three winners.

The Ale House – I cannot tell you how happy it makes me that The Ale House scored in first place. I love their wings.  But this judging was completely blind.  We were not even told which restaurants were competing in the competition.  We assumed The Ale House was likely included, but there was never any speculation in the judging about which wing belonged to which restaurant.  There was, however, broad consensus among the judges that one of the wings stood above the others.  And this was that wing.

Bombers – There is no love lost between Bombers and me.  I’m likely on the record saying that I hate it.  However, all of that vitriol is based on their eponymous burritos, which are beyond awful.  If their wings are good enough to come in at number two, especially given all the hurdles they had to overcome, I will certainly be giving Matt’s place a second chance.  Maybe someone can convince him to drop “Burrito Bar” from the restaurant’s name.

Towne Tavern – I think it would be hard for someone reading the Times Union article to pick up on the fact that this restaurant submitted what was by far the tastiest wing.  It just wasn’t a Buffalo wing.  The wing was smoked, and then coated with a combination of mild Buffalo sauce and parmesan and garlic.  It wasn’t crispy.  It wasn’t pretty.  In fact, by the time the wing made it to judging the sauce resembled infant spit-up.  But if you are getting wings for someone who doesn’t like heat but likes deeply layered flavor, you could do worse than these.

I do agree with the critics of this competition that it was really a lost opportunity to structure an entire challenge around mild wings.  The judges all had to submit 100 word essays about why they should be chosen.  Everyone in the room was a Buffalo wing lover.  It is sensible to believe we all could have managed our critical responsibilities while evaluating medium wings.

The judges were all clearly disappointed.  Even if you weren’t in the room, the dissatisfaction is evident in the scores.  The Ale House won with an overall score of 59.6.  That is out of 100.  Nobody loved them, but they were the best of the bunch.

For judging purposes, I think it is important to try and keep some variables constant.  There are some who suggest that next year restaurants should be asked to submit their best wing. This is just asking for trouble.  A future evaluation of medium heat offers a good compromise.  The wings will most certainly be tastier.  There is a lot of flexibility in medium, and seeing how each restaurant works within the range of heat adds another layer of consideration.  Plus I imagine a lot of diners order medium when sharing with a group of friends.

The original plan for the competition was to judge ten restaurants.  In the end, there were only seven.  Thank heavens.  Seven was plenty, thank you very much.  But for those people who are sore about their favorite restaurants not being included, it was my understanding that some restaurants declined their invitation.

Honestly I can’t blame them.

As to the losers, they can always point to the trials and tribulations of the competition, but they were competing on an even playing ground.  And for the most part, the judges concurred about which wings were the best, and which were the worst.

Thanks to the other judges, Ruth and the Times Union. It was a memorable experience. I hope to join you again next year.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 5, 2010 10:11 am

    And your opinion of Pope’s?

  2. snickel permalink
    February 5, 2010 12:12 pm

    Love your blog! So, you were drunk for the judging of the wing competition? I too am wondering what you thought of Popes.

  3. phairhead permalink
    February 5, 2010 8:46 pm

    Was Scarborough’s represented? Check ’em out, Rotterdam’s finest :D

  4. February 6, 2010 10:31 am

    Just to set the record straight…Ruth did tell us who was in the competition and who declined to come at the beginning…some of the judges who arrived later might not have heard the whole run-down!

  5. Jessica R permalink
    February 6, 2010 11:45 am

    A good run down of how I feel the competition panned out. I was amused by your “baby spit” comment – I have to agree. That said, a friend and I already have plans to go out to Averill Park to try them in person.

    EZ – Yeah, I didn’t know she said which restuarants had been approached. Care to say which ones declined?

    • February 7, 2010 2:58 pm

      I think Graney’s and Hill St. Cafe were two of the decliners. I can’t remember the other one.

  6. February 7, 2010 3:02 pm

    Next time you are in Saratoga give Caputo’s a try. I grew up in Brooklyn and to my taste, their pizza reminds me of the pizza I used to get at my corner pizzeria.

    I know some people like Pope’s better but I don’t get it. Maybe I need to try it again. I tried it one time and was not impressed.

  7. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 8, 2010 9:43 am

    Yes, Caputo’s is Brooklyn; Pope’s is more NJ, where I grew up.

  8. R.J. permalink
    February 10, 2010 5:52 pm

    Glad you enjoyed the contest. I actually agree with some of the adjustments you would have made to the method. All the judges could have at least handled medium. But, as you said, every restaurant was on a level playing field.

    My only response to people complaining about which restaurants “we chose”: We didn’t choose the restaurants. YOU did. Where were these people during the voting?

    Thanks to all the judges for coming out. It was a fun story to do.

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