If there was one night a year to go crazy and totally overdose on food and wine, Friday night was definitely one of them. The Grand Tasting, signature event of the Sugar Land Wine & Food Festival sponsored by H-E-B, was every food and wine lover's dream come true, thanks to a who's who of some of Houston's most prominent chefs and restaurants, and an endless supply of wine and spirits.
Like previous years, the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott in Sugar Land quickly became crowded with throngs of people flooding the walkways in the front of more popular stations. Because of the large number of restaurants in attendance, the most notable tastings quickly filled up just from word of mouth referral.
"Where did you get that?" I'd overhear people ask one another, pointing in this direction and that. My companion and I tag teamed to find the best tastings of the night, which started for me at the Killen's Steakhouse booth.
Located just to the right of the doorway, the simplicity of the booth belied the quality of the food he was sampling. "Going out of my comfort zone tonight," Killen tweeted before the event, describing his Asian-inspired tasting of "smoked brisket, smoked shoyu consomme, bonito flakes and shiitake powder." At the booth, Killen himself was handing out the tastings -- a duo of traditional smoked barbecue brisket slider and side tasting of the Asian-flavored smoked brisket accompanied by a small pipet of consomme. Killen's tasting was my first of the night, but was so delicious, it ended up being the bar by which I measured the rest of the offerings that evening.
Standouts for the evening included the O'Hea's, who had come all the way to Houston from the Kennebunk Inn and Academe Maine Brasserie and Tavern. Their cold Asian lobster noodle topped with freshly seared, crisped pork belly fantastic, as was their deconstructed fluffernutter dessert, whereby a peanut butter biscuit was presented on top of a large pipette filled with liquid marshmallow cream.
At the Artisans booth, Russell Kirkham's tasting of a tasting of confit quail leg, foie gras mousse, fingerling potatoes and balsamic reduction was not only delicious, but did well to capture the style of French cuisine you'd find at their restaurant.
Good ol' mac and cheese made several appearances that evening. Jaspers in the Woodlands offered a king crab and lobster mac and cheese with peas that was good, but it was the generously topped lobster cheddar mac and cheese by the Marriott hotel's house chef that was the talk of the night: at least three people I talked to mentioned it as their favorite tasting.
I really enjoyed the dahi puri offered by the Pondicheri booth. Each bite-sized tasting consisted of a small crispy puff pastry that was cracked down the middle so that it could be stuffed with chickpea, corn and potato, and topped with tangy tamarind and other sauces. Just one bite and it exploded with flavor and texture that was irrefutably tasty.
Olivette at the Houstonian occupied a corner table, the most lavish of all the booths present. Flanked by gorgeous square topiaries of lushly red roses, pastry chef Audrey Sam was offering chocolate cream puffs and eclairs to one side, while chef Neal Cox did my favorite tasting of the night, an Asian-style seafood campechana made with shrimp, scallops, crab, avocado, which had been seasoned with mirin and wasabi, and topped with a crispy shrimp chip. He paired it with a coconut and grapefruit vodka champagne cocktail.
Other notable savory tastings of the evening included the octopus and chorizo offered by Jeff Balfour of Citrus at the Hotel Valencia in San Antonio; a whole u10 scallop crusted with pesto by Peter Laufer of the Royal Sonesta; bacon-wrapped shrimp balls with tamarind glaze by Jett Hurapan of Blu; barbecue pork belly on chorizo-cheddar cornbread with spicy Texas slaw by John Signorelli of The Remington; wild boar chili by Randy Evans of Haven; and crispy frog's legs with pesto sauce by Maurizio Ferrarese of Quattro at the Four Seasons.
On the dessert front, Johnny Wesley at the Killen's Steakhouse booth was doing "dragon's breath" peach cobbler -- topped with a liquid nitrogen meringue drop that would make you breath out smoke through your nose -- a big hit that had people from across the room talking about it.
Rebecca Masson completely sold out of her decadent take on the Lion's Bar, with a silky milk chocolate cremeux, stroopwaffles, corn flakes and caramel. Churrascos of Sugar Land offered beautiful tastings of its famous tres leches, and John Signorelli of The Remington sampled chocolate toffee torte with orange caramel and popcorn dust.
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I barely made a dent in the the wine selections that evening, tasting an Alexander Valley Reserva and a Ridge Zinfandel of the several hundred bottles on offer before filling my plate with a whole bunch of cocktails, including a fantastic one made with Hendricks Gin, and the San Antonio cocktail winner "The Spicy Kiss" by mobile bartenders The Black Tie company.
The event only ran for two hours -- from 7 until 9 p.m. --- but that was plenty. Plenty of time to eat to my heart's content, drink until I my cheeks were rosy, and go home satiated after what can only be described as an extraordinary evening.