"This is such a great event -- so many of Houston's best chefs all in one place!" said Matthew Lovelace, a sous chef at Osteria Mazzantini, as he offered me a sample of their Blackhill Meats lamb meatball and chicken liver mousse. His was one of the first booths I encountered at the 2nd Annual Big Taste of Houston this weekend at The Corinthian, a premier food event and charity fundraiser for the Houston chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Indeed, though the inaugural event last year was fantastic, the lineup of chefs and restaurants this year was quite amazing. "I felt like the entrants this year were much stronger than last year," said celebrity judge and blogger Adam Goldberg (Twitter: @LifeWorthEating). For the second year in a row, Goldberg had flown in from New York City to take part in the event, live-tweeting each dish (check out his awesome Twitter feed!) as it was presented at the judge's table for all the world to see.
In all, 21 participating chefs and restaurants, and six dessert spots provided samplings to a throng of approximately 500 attendees. Spirits were high amid free flowing libations from sponsors Don Julio Tequila, Dripping Springs Vodka, Pisco Porton, Becker Vineyards, and Evamor Water, while a live band belted out booty-bopping tunes, like Barry White's "Can't get enough of your love, babe."
I was impressed with many of this year's entrants, including chef Donald Chang's Nara, whose spicy pork jowl buns -- one of the restaurant's specialties -- were a big hit with attendees. Both times that I visited their booth I overheard people coming up to say "Someone told me I had to come here for these."
Chef Adison Lee of the brand new KUU in Memorial City was another highlight, offering two tastings of his restaurant's signature dishes -- a beautiful "Kanpacchio" made of kanpachi, orange, pickled grape, with pickled shallot and yuzu garlic soy; and a citrus cured fluke with edamame puree and kale chip.
Truluck's Danny Kievit was painstakingly pan-searing whole u-10 scallops a la minute -- the just-seared beauties were served over a sauce of tomato butter. El Big Bad, whose table was adorned with an ice sculpture of their big bad wolf logo, offered deliciously refreshing barramundi fish in a citrusy leche de tigre, alongside a barbacoa tostadita with smoked crema and flash-fried sweet potato.
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Soma's Mark Gabriel Medina looked to his Filipino roots for inspiration with a version of Filipino pork adobo -- sous vide pork belly lightly pickled, potato puree, fried garlic powder, pickled tomatoes and red shiso. The single bite melted in your mouth, and reminded me of Vietnamese pork belly dishes for its sweet and salty flavor, and mahogany-caramel color.
Latin Bites' chef Roberto Castre came up with a 48-hour sous vide Peruvian pork shoulder slider, served on a pretzel bun with aji amarillo mayo, sweet potato, and slivers of red onion. It was terrific -- a chef'd-up version of the pork sandwiches one might find in a typical Lima sangucheria. It was also the only dish that Goldberg tweeted twice, giving it a "Wow" in the first tweet, and immediately following it up with: "I'm tweeting another angle because this was so damn good."
Still there were other hits, including Philippe Verpiand of Etoile Cuisine et Bar's French pork and duck cassoulet, which earned high marks from Houston Chronicle Food Editor and judge, Greg Morago: "The cassoulet from Etoile Cuisine et Bar was perfect in every respect, especially the beans - tiny, firm, essential, infused with porky flavor. It wasn't what I expected on a warm, muggy afternoon, but I couldn't stop eating it."
Chef Chris Leung's Cloud 10 Creamery also got a lot of love for his extraordinary dessert of red currant mascarpone ice cream, matcha crumble, blueberry compote, with blueberry meringue kisses and whip cream. Said Morago: "I loved Cloud 10 Creamery's ice cream with the whimsical toppings."
In the end, however, the winner of the night -- both on presentation and for overall dish -- was team Uchi Houston helmed by chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards. Their trio of offerings included their house-favorite "Machi Cure" of smoked hamachi on yucca with marcona almonds; steamed mussel in kim chi dashi; and dessert by Sharon Gofreed.
When asked which was her favorite entry and why, judge Christine Ha, winner of Masterchef 2012 (Twitter: @theblindcook), said "Uchi put a lot of care and effort into creating their food: three different dishes that took you from savory to sweet. That dessert with the chocolate and panna cotta was the clincher. Just a hint of sweetness with bittersweet chocolate, and the contrasting textures of the chocolate shell to the oozing interior was magnificent."
Morago further described Uchi's dessert as an "insane chocolate cube holding panna cotta and an oozing strawberry and red beet center. Amazing stuff." And judge Courtney Bond of Texas Monthly described it as "a wonderfully complex little flavor bomb (and they managed to make a highly addictive dessert from strawberry, beet, chiles, and chocolate)."
Taking home the prize for People's Choice was Mockingbird Bistro with a decadent, six-hour braised Kobe beef short rib dish.
On the dessert front, Treat! Cupcakes from Vintage Park won for their amazing selection of mini cupcakes, from frilly strawberry cupcakes topped with pink bunny rabbits, to red velvet, or coconut cream pie of topped with shaved white coconut and a robin's egg nest-colored chocolate covered blue almond.
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The rest of the evening's offerings included: Straits Asian Bistro, with duck liver potstickers by chef John Sikhattana; Triniti, with a chilled oyster and leek soup with cured snapper meringue by chef Greg Lowry; soon to open Museum Park Cafe, with smoked ocean trout over panzanella salad by chef Justin Basye; Sorrel Urban Bistro, with sweet corn bisque, lump crab and truffle; La Fisheria, with tuna and crispy chicharron tostadita by chef Aquiles Chavez; Eleven XI, with an Asian-style grouper tiradito topped with soy pearls and tobiko by chef Kevin Bryant; Fish & the Knife, with a foie and chevre stuffed beer bread topped with fresh berries and berry foam; Sale Sucre, with beef bourgignon crepe by Philippe Harel; Taco Nuts Truck, with skewers of pork two ways by chef LJ Wiley; and Jackson and Company, with a pork sandwich, caramelized plantains, and tamarind haricot verts. Desserts included: Cacao and Cardamom chocolates, Michael's Cookie Jar, Papaw's Pralines, Cake Pops and Fat Cat Creamery.
The evening came to an end with an awards ceremony, presentation of trophies, and a raffle for the brand new Audi Q5 by title sponsor Audi Central Houston. When all was said and done, everybody came out a winner, because the charity event raised more than $150k that night --monies that will directly benefit the Houston chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters.