Black Bear Beats Out Valley Eateries As People's Choice

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The Black Bear went down to the Valley and came home with the gold.

It sounds like the kind of stuff fairy tales are made of, and maybe it was.

The Black Bear Restaurant of Strawberry, representing Payson in the Mayors' Culinary Cup Appetizer Competition Friday, got the People's Choice Award, a golden whisk, and the attention of some 600 people who showed up for the $50 per person black tie event at Scottsdale's Civic Center.

Black Bear chef Diane Skinner entered her Cajun Shrimp, a local favorite that was recently added to the restaurant's menu.

"We broke into an arena down there that I don't think has been broken into before," said Mayor Vern Stiffler.

Stiffler, who selected Payson's first entry in the competition last year, said Monday that he thought the Black Bear's win may have been the first time a rural entry had won the People's Choice Award.

"That was my goal for this year," he said, "to go down there and get a prize for the rural area."

To qualify for the Scottsdale competition, the Black Bear competed locally Feb. 27 at a Friends of the Library fund-raiser at the Mazatzal Casino gym. The event was attended by some 400 people who paid $15 each to taste appetizers provided by 10 area restaurants. The Black Bear Restaurant received the most votes and was chosen to represent Payson in Scottsdale.

Of the 15 restaurants that represented their communities Friday during Scottsdale's week-long event, the Payson entry was the only one to be chosen to compete by the residents of a community.

"Ours was the only competition," Stiffler said. "Next year we're going to plan a competition and I think we'll just leave it with the Library Friends."

The Payson Roundup co-sponsored this year's local event, which netted more than $5,000 for a new library.

The Black Bear received $100 from the Roundup, $100 from the Library Friends and $250 from the Town of Payson to help meet expenses for the competition in Scottsdale.

Black Bear owner Cindy Windle said Monday that her costs came to nearly $2,000 to provide samples of a single Cajun Shrimp and Cajun Crab Salad on breadsticks for 1,000 people.

Windle said more than 600 people showed up for the event, but she was prepared for more.

Channel 3 personality Bill Mosley did a live television show from the Black Bear table and Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana was among those who enjoyed the Black Bear offering.

"Those who were there obviously liked our food," Windle said. "It's a wonderful dish that Diane (Skinner) invented."

The table was decorated with fine china, vegetable flower arrangements, and bottles of Bearitage, a blended red wine served at the restaurant.

"Their presentation was very well done," said Library Friends President Judy Buettner, who attended the event. "The appetizer was delicious and chef Diane and her assistants looked very professional in their white chefs' coats. Cindy (Windle) was lovely in a long ivory Southwest dress and boots."

Also on hand to assist Skinner was Jinjer Carter, her daughter, Lacee Lee, and Ola Rae Johnson.

Sixteen-year-old Lee was the only casualty of the evening. She was taken to a nearby hospital when she developed an allergy after coming in contact with the shrimp, "While I was getting the award, there were doctors at our table," Skinner said. "We had to take her to the hospital. She was there 4 1/2 hours and her eyes were swollen shut."

The rest of the Black Bear group carried on without Lee and went to the hospital when they were finished serving.

Buettner said the competition was serious and tough with 15 cities and towns represented.

Prizes were awarded to the following restaurants:

The Mahogony Run, Gilbert, won the top prize, the Mayors' Cup, for its Crab and Wild Mushroom Cheesecake with three sauces.

Fuego! Restaurant Bar and Grill, Tucson, won the Best Specialty Appetizer Award for its Trio Hors d'oeuvre Varie;

Top of the Rock at The Buttes, Tempe, won the Best Seafood Appetizer Award for its Blackened Seabass with a Ratatouille Napolean;

Scottsdale Marriott Suites at McDowell Mountain won the Chefs' Choice Award for its Ahi Tuna Isabella;

The Ironwood Grill, Carefree, won the Mayors' Choice Award for its Smoked Salmon and Shrimp Cakes over Sake Marinated Cucumbers with Chipotle Aioli.

The Black Bear Restaurant and Lounge is located at 120 Ralls Drive in Strawberry and is open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner. Both lunch and dinner are served Saturday and Sunday starting at 11 a.m.

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