For me, this past Saturday was the culmination of a week's worth of anticipation and a day's worth of appetite-saving, a chance to taste more than 500 wines and sample 50 chef's tastings at HEB Wine & Food Week's Wine Rendezvous Grand Tasting and Chef Showcase in The Woodlands.
I kept my glass full the entire night with a mind-boggling assortment of wines from all over the world: Spanish Albarino, Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays, Merlots and Zinfandels from Sonoma and Napa Valley, Argentinian Malbecs, Chilean Sauvignon Blancs, French Cabernet Francs and Vouverays, and Italian Moscatos.
There were labels I recognized, like Duckhorn, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Silver Oak, Robert Mondavi, Cakebread, and Ferrari-Carano. But most of the labels were entirely new to me, some with interesting names like Menage a Trois, PromisQous, Kitchen Sink and Arrogant Frog, or more exotic ones like Terra d'Oro, Chateau Lascombes, and Castello Vicchiomaggio.
The chefs in attendance were competing for a Waterford Crystal trophy and $5,000 cash grand prize, so unlike other tasting events, the stakes were quite high. In the Just Desserts Zone, presented by My Table Magazine, a $1,000 cash prize was also up for grabs.
After doing a round of the entire room, there were several standouts. Chef Michael Pellegrino at Max's Wine Dive had what for me was the most creative entry of the night: a bright red tuna tartare wrapped in prickly pear sorbet, served in a cone with a dollop of green wasabi cotton candy. The marriage of cold sorbet with tuna was unexpected but delicious, and as the night wore on, word about it had spread around the ballroom, drawing chefs and patrons alike who stopped by to say "I heard about it from across the room and had to try it!"
At the Latin Bites stand, I felt like I was watching art in motion as Chef Roberto Castre orchestrated the almost-simultaneous plating of more than 500 colorful mini causitas. Collectively, the little plates looked like a modern-day three-dimensional Seurat painting - something you would find in a modern art museum - but individually each plating was a beautiful work of art in itself.
Chef Tyler Stone, a definite showman and traveling chef/consultant based in Sacramento, wowed with a smoking, just-dipped-in-liquid-nitrogen frozen coconut mousse served on a lollipop. His smoking stand had curious crowds lining up not just to taste but to join in on the fun.
Chef/owner Jose Duarte of Taranta, who had flown in from Boston specifically for the event, created another one of my favorite samplings of the night, painstakingly spooning individual summer black truffle ravioli covered in white chocolate sauce onto plates that were subsequently garnished with freshly grated white chocolate and cypress black salt. Decadent and scrumptious, the white chocolate sauce and truffle were a magical combination.
Other notables of the night were Jason Chaney's pickled wagyu beef short rib with smoked corn jicama relish from The Barbed Rose; a melt-in-your mouth braised beef cheek over mashed potato by John Sheely at Mockingbird Bistro; and a Texas pork sushi medallion with flash barbecue spice tuna by Chef Jason Weaver at La Torreta Resort.
In the Just Desserts Zone, The Marriot Waterway hotel wowed with a mouthwatering display of mini dessert cones, ice cream sandwiches, and more. Drew's Pastry Place offered a lovely tri-colored and flavored panna cotta trio.
The take-home grand prize winner for desserts was private caterer The Stone Kitchen, whose caramelized Texas peaches, vanilla creme, Bing and Rainier cherries, peach sorbet, and lavender peach reduction topped with an almond lace cookie, hit the perfect notes in flavor and sweetness, while capturing the essence of the summer season.
I walked the room more than twice, but somehow managed to miss the grand prize winner of the night, Le Mistral, which won the $5,000 prize with an offering of corn tres leches with vanilla panna cota and corn relish. This was the second year in a row that Le Mistral earned top prize at this event. Latin Bites placed second with those beautiful mini causitas.