Eliza Christman-Cohen | Sun Contributor

March 21, 2018

Ithacans Makin’ Mac ’N Cheese

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Macaroni and cheese — aka mac ’n cheese — is an ingenious blend of dairy and carbohydrates. When done well, mac ’n cheese can be — this is no hyperbole — a life-changing meal. That being said, I was eager to attend the Mac ’N Cheese Bowl at Ithaca High School this past Saturday. The event featured 18 restaurants and caterers, and all proceeds went towards Foodnet Meals on Wheels, a meal delivery service for Tompkins County residents in need.

The scene at the Bowl was incredibly lively. Scores of people shuffled into the main building while I spent an eternity looking for parking. Once inside, there were raffles, free samples from Edible Arrangements and live music! A plethora of small children stood in the way of many sample tables, but I did not let that deter me; I pushed them aside and sampled all the mac ’n cheese that piqued my interest. I was unable to try every variety as some contained ingredients that I find gag-inducing, such as overly stinky cheese and corned beef. Moreover, I found myself increasingly bloated and had to stop, as I was taking on the shape of a very wide noodle.

Agava’s entry was by far the best mac ’n cheese at the Bowl. It was not wholly traditional in that it was made with rigatoni, but that shape set it apart from your run-of-the-mill “easy mac” lookalikes. Featuring a harmonious blend of mild and slightly sharp cheeses, the sauce was just thick enough and not at all dry. Agava, always a class act, truly served up a winning dish. This was recognized by the attendees who voted it “best vegetarian” mac ’n cheese . Unfortunately, the restaurant does not actually serve mac ’n cheese. None of you can try it. I am so sorry.

I cannot write an article for The Sun without mentioning Cornell Catering’s own mac ’n cheese submission. Frankly, I was disappointed. Our university’s two entries were mushroom-herb mac and a “macaroni empanada.” The mushroom variety was watery and chunks of mushroom gave the dish an unappetizingly gray color that resembled that of Hamburger Helper. The taste was underwhelming and lacked tangy cheese or herb flavors. I was intrigued by the concept of a mac ’n cheese empanada but, alas, this item was even worse! There was possible evidence of macaroni inside, but the pastry was so thick and underbaked that all I could taste was dough. After that experience I was reluctant to try Ithaca College’s entry, and, to be completely honest, never did.

I spent a long while assessing Luna’s mac dishes, considering that restaurant’s popularity among Cornell students. They entered two types: one smoked gouda, the other barbecue short rib. I believe they used cavatappi, a medium-length, hollow, spiral noodle, a choice that differentiated them from other competitors, but aesthetics are not everything. The smoked gouda had little noticeable cheese flavor. Worse, the sample was cold and the noodles had coagulated into a large pasta ball. The short rib was slightly better. Even though I’m not a big fan of barbecue, the addition of meat may have improved the flavor. Sadly, I have never had a good experience with short-rib dishes and, per usual, felt a tad ill afterward.

Red’s Place deserves a shout-out. Their “finger lickin’ fried chicken mac ’n cheese,” despite its multiple euphemisms for “greasy,” was voted the best meat dish at the event. The light brown chunks of meat submerged in the ivory-colored sauce gave it an overall beige tone. This might just be me, but I’ve never been attracted to beige food before. However, the taste was quite good. The chicken added crispiness to an otherwise mushy meal, and I could see how this one might have been a crowd-pleaser. My only qualms are that it was salty and a bit too liquidy.

The entries from Kendal at Ithaca, Rogues’ Harbor Inn, Serendipity Catering & Bar and Gola Osteria were all mediocre. Kendal’s was swimming in sauce and had flavorless shredded duck. The Rogues’ Harbor Inn dish was devoid of cheese. Serendipity’s was verging on too smelly to eat. Gola Osteria’s “piccante” mac was way too spicy, and my tongue remained numb several minutes after tasting it. Needless to say, I only took a bite or two before discarding each of the little cups of macaroni.

Overall, the Mac ’N Cheese Bowl was an eye-opening experience. I was expecting to have an immensely hard time deciding which entry was my favorite; it turned out to be all too easy. I still stand by the notion that a successful mac ’n cheese creation involves both science and art because it all comes down to the flour to cheese to milk ratio. The variety of cheeses employed must be balanced, in terms of how they melt (neither too stringy nor too creamy) and how they taste. And please never introduce smelly cheeses into what is supposed to be a beautiful and comforting meal. Agava did a fantastic job. Now we need to encourage them to offer it on their menu. Maybe I’ll start a Change.org petition.