It's summertime, Houston. And it ain't just the 98 degree heat that's sizzling hot.
This past Sunday, ten local chefs set patrons on fire at the first annual Curry Crawl. Hosted by Straits Restaurant at CityCentre and benefiting PULSE, St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital's New Young Professionals Group, this culinary event featured mouth-watering curry flavors and a hip, vibrant crowd.
Curry, let me count the ways I love you. Although India shines brightest under the spotlight, curries make their home in many countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Curry utilizes ingredients such as cloves, cumin and fenugreek, either used whole or ground, cooked or raw, wet or dry, and sometimes implements yogurts, coconut milk and lentil purees. And, yes, chiles remain king.
Judging this inaugural curry throw-down was a panel including our very own Katharine Shilcutt, Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, Sarah Rufca of CultureMap and Ruchi Mukherjee, host of TV Asia.
Ready, set, eat. The curry games began.
The judges crowned Chef Shiva Patel of The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen as the queen for "Best Curry" thanks to her spirited crab balls. To boot, Curry Crawl ticket-holders gave her the "People's Choice" award. Swimming in burnt orange, Goan-style curry, her raita-topped fish koftas proved spicy, moist and jubilantly flavorful. But her piece de resistance were her simply cut ripe mango slices mysteriously marinated and sprinkled lightly with herbs and spices.
Chef David Guerrero of Samba Grille came in at a very close second for "Best Curry" with his robust octopus morsels, and I agree with the judges. Chef Guerrero got my vote for his chunky, warm cephalopod molluscs coated in curried chimichurri and green Thai curry sauces. The tangerine-like slices of yucca, I could have done without. But the matched beverage of a Peruvian pisco sour with lula fruit, fresh turmeric and curry leaves was outstanding. Little shots of South American heaven...of which I had three.
More Winners In My Book
Although not officially handed a blue ribbon, Chef John Sikhattana of Straits, through his succulent, soft lamb chops, left a little red and rare and oozing with juice, created meat perfection. The savory lamb lollipops dipped in rust orange and olive green curries certainly delivered on Chef Sikhattana's home court kitchen. If I wasn't watching my figure and stuffing my face with at least one sample of all the approximately 15 dishes, I would have chowed down a minimum of two of the tamarind curry, spice-rubbed lamb chop specials.
Chef Mary Cuclis of Pondicheri and Indika, manufactured a little Keralan houseboat by placing a huge piece of Texas wild shrimp on coconut cilantro rice with saffron yogurt broth, served in a tiny, fake bamboo boat. Chef Cuclis masterfully seasoned her dry curried prawn, sauteed South Indian-style with fresh kari leaves and turmeric, keeping it alive with its spicy kick and masala burst. Honestly, this prawn needed no flavor assistance from its Basmati rice raft or chicken broth river.
Another taste test down, and it was on to Chef Junnajet "Jett" Hurapan, who makes scrumptious, wild and trendy cuisine in the suburbs of Sugar Land at Blu Restaurant and Lounge. He made barbecue curry pork roti with cucumber relish and what looked like onions and maybe tomatoes -- it was a little triangle of savory love.
Uchi's Chef Philip Speer enthralled his guests with white cotton candy, bubbling foam and red curry cookies. The most eye-popping menu item of the evening had to be Chef Speer's innovative and amusing whipped, foie gras-curried, cotton candy. Duck liver never felt so much like a Ferris wheel of fun. The foamed-up mussels in Thai green curry sauce showed that Chef Speer is definitely top of his game in display and decoration. High fives all around for serving fluff on a stick, as a giddy dose of childhood nostalgia.
My Honorable Mention is awarded to Grey Goose and the delicious bartenders serving up libations so lip-smacking tasty, you just had to take down one after another...after another...and maybe another. Top billing goes to the Cherry Ginger Drop with its hot-pink snap and ice-cold splash. Follow that with a cherry noir martini, in a setting with burners a-flare and hair-blowin wind, and suddenly the ambiance resembled an upscale, outdoor international barbecue party. Cheers to you, Grey Goose. We tamely partied like it was 1999.
And that's not it, folks. The desserts were the prettiest parade of chocolates, all dolled up in Jackson Pollock-esque swirls of abstract colors. Although not in the formal curry competition, flavors like Mango Caramel and Coco Curry candies boldly ran alongside the main event, pastel, loud and proud. Admittedly, the flavors were slightly outside the box and not so sweet, but maybe that's the beauty of these treats.
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In the end, my upper lip sweated more from the natural oven that is the great outdoors of our wonderful city than any fiery, hot masala, spice or pepper. So now, don't be shy. Go ahead, Houston, venture out across the 656.3 square miles of this great, diverse metropolis and try your hand at our city's finest curries.