When it comes to Houston food, the spotlight is often focused on Inner Loop establishments, but this week, it was all about west Houston chefs and restaurants at the ninth annual Zest in the West.
Presented by the Houston West Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with event producer Food & Vine Time, the Wednesday evening kicked off with a VIP Bubbles and Brews cocktail hour. Stylishly dressed attendees sipped on sparkling wine, champagne and beer set to the tunes of a live jazz band while noshing on sausages by German restaurant Rudi Lechner's and fish curry by Nirvana Indian restaurant. Adding flair to the event, Ferrari of Houston had shiny yellow and red Ferraris on display in the courtyard in front of the Chateau Crystale ballroom.
Ferrari of Houston was also the sponsor for the Ultimate VIP Luxury Lounge, where guests had access to a range of premium wine labels such as Caymus and Freemark Abby and got to taste premium samplings of lobster mac 'n' cheese presented by executive chef Jeffrey Meyer of The Capital Grille in Citycentre. Live acoustic music and blackjack tables provided additional entertainment.
In the main ballroom, approximately 900 guests enjoyed an evening filled with wine, beer and chefs'
creations. In the corner of the room, the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce had a delicious display of Italian cheeses and charcuterie. Throughout the room, Kroger, the main sponsor, had stations that showed offerings ranging from Nolan Ryan Premium Reserve Beef to chef-prepared rotisserie chicken quesadillas, guacamole and churros.
In the center of the room, beneath glistening chandeliers, chefs from west Houston area restaurants did their best to wow attendees and a panel of judges that included myself, wine blogger Jeremy Parzen of dobianchi.com, chef Kris Jakob of Brasserie 1895, Craft Burger Food Truck owner and Chopped champion Shannen Tune, and former Houston Press food editor Phaedra Cook.
Last year’s Zest of the West winner, David Denis of Le Mistral French restaurant, seared U-10 scallops in the pan, topping them with gourmet mushrooms and a cream sauce — simple, delicious and beautiful. Jose Hernandez of Radio Milano created a dish of risotto topped with butter-poached lobster. Newcomer Peli Peli Kitchen made an interesting pulled braised oxtail over crostini with a chimichurri sauce. Churrascos in Memorial City did mini empanadas stuffed with beef or chicken. Students from the Art Institute of Houston presented cured salmon over crostini. Seasons 52 offered a selection of its signature mini desserts.
On the creative side, chef Mark Cox of Mark’s Culinary Consulting (the former owner of Mark’s American Cuisine) created one of the most memorable dishes of the night, an incredibly tender pan-seared tenderloin that he’d rubbed with 11 spices, and served over a white bean truffle puree, with marinated tomato to finish. His dish was awarded third place for the evening.
Artisan chocolatier Annie Rupani of Cacao and Cardamom placed second for her gorgeous display and selection of chocolates in whimsical flavors like blueberry lime, mango and caramel, pineapple fennel caramel, and her buddha-shaped five-spiced praline — all presented in luxe black lacquer and gold boxes.
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In the end, it was Carlos Ramos of Peruvian restaurant Latin Bites Cafe that won the night with an undeniably creative and memorable pulled lamb slider. To make it, New Zealand lamb shoulder had been marinated in panca pepper and Peruvian spices for 24 hours, then braised for five hours in Peruvian dark beer and corn beer. The moist, flavor-infused pulled lamb was then stuffed in scratch-made slider buns made with quinoa and caramelized onion. Sweet pickled cucumber, ricotta mayo, crispy onions and micro cilantro provided the finishing touch.
1st Place: Carlos Ramos of Latin Bites for his pulled lamb slider
2nd Place: Annie Rupani of Cacao & Cardamom for her creative chocolates
3rd Place: Mark Cox of Mark’s Culinary Consulting for his spice-rubbed beef tenderloin