In the heat of battle last night, the oysters -- and the chefs -- kept their cool. The fourth such event organized by Jenny Wang and the Houston Chowhounds, the Bivalve Throwdown at Stella Sola on Sunday afternoon saw 11 of the city's best chefs compete to create the best oyster dishes for a panel of distinguished judges. But that's where the "distinguished" part of the event ended: The afternoon was a celebration of the first Gulf oysters of the season that got messy, dirty and slightly debauched as the evening wore on. Chefs know how to party, after all.
By the end of the night, floors were slicked with water and mud from the rain and the shells that rained down from the shuckers' hands. People were happily slurping the last fat little oysters from their nests, and although the bar at the newly opened Stella Sola ran out of beer by 9 p.m., that didn't stop the party -- beer runs were made and cans of Lone Star were cracked open in honor of the restaurant's name: "Lone Star," in Italian.
The judges sat sequestered in a private dining room that once had a wall filled with wine bottles, when the restaurant was the site of the now-defunct Bedford. In their place, two whole cases were filled with hanging meats at various levels -- the charcuterie that's made in-house by Stella Sola's newly-appointed executive chef, Justin Bayse.
There was a dark cloud over the afternoon at the beginning of the event, as Jason Gould -- who had been with the restaurant for more than two months as executive chef and who guided both the menu and the renovations -- was let go by Stella Sola co-owner Bryan Caswell on Friday afternoon. The original concept behind Stella Sola was not only Tuscany-by-way-of-Texas cuisine, but also a power team consisting of some of the best chefs in town -- Jason Gould and pastry chef Rebecca Masson, fresh from Gravitas, Justin Bayse from Voice, Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd (the team behind Reef and Little Big's) and a cocktail program from Anvil's Bobby Heugel. With one of the power players gone, there was a dark and gloomy tinge yesterday as guests began to arrive.
That all disappeared, however, once the oyster shucking got underway outside and the kitchen got fired up inside. Participating chefs in the main event included Jean-Phillipe Gaston from Kata Robata; Michael Kramer of Voice; Mike Potowski of Benjy's; John Sikhattana from the brand-new Straits; Paul Petronella of Paulie's; and Jose Vela of Mockingbird Bistro. While the main oyster competition was underway, amateur chefs from the Chowhounds group had their own contest: a gumbo battle which was judged by the professionals. Over in the Meat Market -- Stella Sola's bar area -- Bobby Heugel slung his classically strong cocktails until his arms cried uncle, which was just long enough to get most people in a very good mood.
At the end of the night, winners were chosen in two categories: raw oysters and cooked oysters. Taking home the raw oyster prize was Reef's own Bryan Caswell, followed by Randy Rucker in second place and Chris Shepherd in third. The cooked oyster crown went to Michael Kramer -- who had hinted at the beginning that he had some special ingredients for the night -- while second place went to Shepherd and third to Caswell.
After the winners were announced, it was back to Lone Star and loud music -- with inebriated karaoke and shirtlessness taking place as the crowd wound down and mostly industry people remained. Throughout the night, Jenn Moholt had been cruising the crowd with a video camera, getting interviews from the attendees about Plinio Sandalio, the talented pastry chef at Textile who's shooting for a spot on this season's Top Chef. And even as the night was wearing down, people were still eager to support the young chef, chatting with Moholt and waxing poetic for the camera.
Taking it all in, we couldn't help but be just a little bit more in love with a food community that takes risks with both cuisine and concepts -- name another city that does Fried Chicken or Pork Belly Throwdowns -- and supports and celebrates its members like they were family. Austin will be the next city to attempt a throwdown of its own. And although it will be organized and supported by Jenny Wang -- the same person who wrangles Houston's throwdowns -- we doubt the camaraderie or creativity will be the same.