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The Final Four

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Gad-zucchs! The zucchini chip is king

This year’s tournament began with a bang and ends squashed.

Nolen Kitchen’s zucchini chips – impossibly thin, impossibly crisp, with a dusting of salt and a side of thick yogurt drizzled with a mildly fruity arbequina olive oil ($7.99) – shouldered their way to the top, with consistent performance and fine quality.

Stratos Lambos of the Xenia ownership group claims the secret to this traditional Greek mezze (small plate) is the freshness of the zucchini, and credits Tommy Kaltsounis, father of Xenia partners Frank and Angelo Kaltsounis, with procuring that freshness year-round. He’s the one who picks the group’s produce.

Also deceptively difficult: Dipping them into water to help the seasoned flour adhere without them getting too wet; dusting each individual paper-thin slice evenly and lightly with that flour, and keeping the frying oil clean: One fryer is set aside just for these chips; fries and calamari go in the other, he says. “If you’re going to do this, you have to do it wholeheartedly,” says Lambos.

“People love them because they’re a very, very light appetizer that goes great with cocktails and wine. Once you start eating them you can’t stop,” he says, noting they’re especially popular with “our women clientele.” Plus, they’re vegetarian.

Chef Katrina Bearer bears responsibility for keeping these coming out of the kitchen correctly.

Our judging panel found them seductive without being palate-deadening, a rare quality among appetizers and rarer still among fried ones. (Raise your hand if you recall the onion loaf at, say, Damon’s.)

Though the menu calls its accompaniment “cucumber yogurt,” we saw no cucumber – and if dill and garlic were present, they were so mild as to be unnoticeable; one of us liked that (“sour cream!”) while the others wished for something more assertive.

On the other hand, assertiveness was the strong suit for runner-up Ni Fen, whose ginger-studded-pork potstickers ($5.95 for five) come with a truly marvelous, chile-spiked dipping sauce. At this price, they’re a steal, too.

The zucchini chips made the final by defeating the Crepe Cellar’s Brussels sprouts ($9), a caramelized batch of the little good-for-you sprouts tossed with arugula pesto and shreds of Parmesan, served in a paper cone, that are delicious, if a mite pricey.

Potstickers prevailed in the other side of the bracket by topping Greg’s Pickles from Pinky’s, a basket of crunchy breaded and fried dill pickle slices ($3.95 for small; $5.95 for large) that held their breading well, but proved a little too oily to advance.

Let me know here or email me at hschwab@charlotteobserver.com with your thoughts on next year’s tournament. Should we tackle desserts, for example (we’ve yet to do anything sweet), or should we start our rotation over again with chicken wings? Or perhaps you have another, even better idea.

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