SOUTH PORTLAND – Just moments before the winners of the Incredible Breakfast Cook-Off were announced Friday, chef Jeff Landry admitted that he was eager to take down Lisa Kostopoulos and her Creme Brulee French Toast.
Kostopoulos, owner of The Good Table in Cape Elizabeth, had won the popular cook-off three years in a row with her “bring you to your knees delicious” baked French toast dish topped with lots of fresh fruit.
Landry’s Sweet Potato Corned Beef Hash, served with a sunny side up quail egg and hollandaise sauce – the best-selling brunch dish at his Portland restaurant, The Farmer’s Table – came in second last year and third in 2011.
“I’m sick of being the Susan Lucci of the breakfast competition,” Landry joked.
In the end, Landry didn’t exactly take Kostopoulos down, but he tied her for first place. First runner-up was chef Kevin Cunningham from the Tavern at Brunswick Station, who served Pastrami Eggs Benedict.
The breakfast cook-off, held for the fourth year at Sea Dog Brewing Co., marks the launch of Maine Restaurant Week, which runs through March 10. This year’s competition, which drew about 300 breakfast lovers, raised $4,200 for the United Way of Greater Portland.
The cook-off allows people to sample breakfast dishes from 11 Maine restaurants, then vote for their favorites. The dishes served Friday ran the gamut from Huevos Rancheros Con Rojos from Portland chef Shannon Bard of Zapoteca Restaurant Y Tequileria to “cheeseburger doughnuts” and chocolate-covered bacon from Congdon’s in Wells.
(Overheard at the Congdon’s table: “Dude, chocolate-covered bacon. It’s the final bastion of gluttony.”)
Kostopoulos, who said the breakfast cook-off is one of her favorite events of the year, was prepared to lose this time “just because I think it’s time. And everybody brings such good stuff.”
She also knew she had some head-to-head competition from Norm Bintliff of Bintliff’s Restaurant in Ogunquit. In a rather cheeky culinary move, Bintliff prepared his own version of Creme Brulee French Toast.
Bintliff’s version, which is on his restaurant’s brunch menu, starts with homemade Tuscan bread cooked on the griddle. The traditional French toast is topped with custard and a little cane sugar, then he takes a torch to it “so you get the classic creme brulee technique but made on French toast.”
“I just thought, it’s a dish we do all the time, so why not do it and see how it goes?” Bintliff said. “If we win, great. If we don’t, we had a lot of fun doing this.”
At least one person, Pete Wormell of Westbrook, wasn’t impressed.
“Just so you know,” he called to Kostopoulos as he walked by her table, “you got no competition.”
Hillary Knight of Cumberland wasn’t so sure, saying she “didn’t love” the Good Table’s version of the dish.
“I don’t love sweet breakfast foods,” she said. “I’m a savory breakfast food person. You’re going to win my heart with a great breakfast sandwich.”
Knight sat at a table with three friends, deconstructing each dish they’d sampled while they tried to decide how to cast their votes. The friends go to a different restaurant in the Portland area for brunch every Sunday, said Adele Hayward of South Portland, “and then we sit around and we talk about it.”
Knight said they really liked the flavor of the Savory Bread Pudding with Shrimp and Bacon topped with a lobster cream sauce, from the Freeport Seafood Co., a newcomer to the competition. But they didn’t like the texture.
Knight voted for Landry’s dish, saying “the quail egg was unbelievable.”
The Good Egg Cafe in Portland came in a close second, in her opinion, with its Savory Corned Beef Hash and Egg Danish with a Mustard Horseradish Hollandaise.
“If you put salty meat, egg, cheese and butter sauce together, I’ll be there,” Knight said.
Hayward ended up voting for The Farmer’s Table as well, but said Kostopoulos’s French toast was also a favorite. “It was neck and neck between the two,” she said.
At another table, six students from the University of New England chewed over their votes.
Christina Szeto tried everything, and liked Kostopoulos’s dish and the bread pudding from the Freeport Seafood Co. She voted for Kostopoulos.
But four of the six people in the group cast their votes for Landry.
“I thought the presentation was really good,” said Jane Lee, noting that the quail egg on top showed “attention to detail.”
Lauren Englert said she asked Landry to make hers without meat, “and I still voted for it.”
After the tie was announced, Kostopoulos said she thought sharing the win was “the best-case scenario.”
She liked the fact that one sweet dish and one savory dish won, and thinks the organizers should consider having two separate categories next year.
Landry said it seemed like more men were at the event this year, and “men like the savory.”
In past years, Landry has been too busy at the competition to taste everyone else’s dishes. This year, he made a point of trying Kostopoulos’s Creme Brulee French Toast.
“I tasted her dish for the first time this year,” he said, “and I thought it was extraordinary.”
Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: