Two Houston restaurants have reason to be extra-proud this morning. Last night at the annual Houston Press Menu of Menus® Extravaganza, chef Lyle Bento of Southern Goods won the Iron Fork Chef competition in an extraordinarily close match at Silver Street Station. Out on the floor, CityCentre restaurant Texas de Brazil won attendees’ hearts (and their voting tokens) with chimichurri flank steak and horseradish mashed potatoes.
The dozens of participating restaurants that handed out food samples to attendees represented a wonderful cross section of cultures. There was Pakistani cuisine from Bismillah Restaurant & Cafe, Mexican from Arnaldo Richards’ Picos and Cyclone Anaya's, and Chinese from Mala Sichuan.
There were creative takes on Cajun food as well. Harold’s In The Heights served an interesting peanut butter and jelly take on bread pudding, and no one could complain about the battered catfish and dirty rice balls being served outside at the Frenchy’s booth. The Cajun Stop doused slices of French bread with spicy crawfish étouffée.
Prestige Oysters represented the Texas Gulf Coast in the purest of ways as it manned an oysters-on-the-half-shell booth. All those dishes are just a tiny representation of the dozens that could be sampled last night.
Up on the Whole Foods-presented Iron Fork stage, Bento engaged in culinary battle with worthy and well-matched competitor Jean-Philippe Gaston of Izakaya. The always-entertaining chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly was emcee, taking over for his friend chef Randy Evans, who now lives near San Antonio.
Shepherd was not just the emcee, though. Part of his role was to be the thorn in the competitors’ sides. First, he challenged them with the secret ingredient of asparagus. Then, Shepherd threw another ingredient at them: crawfish tails. Worst of all, though, was the twist ingredient: triggerfish. It has notoriously tough skin, is very difficult to cut and is not what you want landing on the judges’ plates.
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Speaking of judges, there was a tough trio to impress: four-time Iron Fork champion chef Kevin Naderi of Roost, Houston Press food critic Phaedra Cook (that’s me) and Susan Stillson of Whole Foods. Bento and Gaston were so evenly matched that even after all three judges’ scores were totaled, Bento won by only five points — a score that was only about 3 percent higher than Gaston’s.
After his win was declared, Bento agreed to return next year as the new Iron Fork defending champion and remarked that the competition was much tougher than he expected. It will be interesting, indeed, to see not only who Bento’s challenger will be but also to see if next year’s overall lineup of restaurants beats last night’s delectable, multicultural lineup.