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A Mouth-Watering Good Time at the Houston Press Menu of Menus®

What do you get when you cross a food sampling event with a live Iron Chef competition, musical entertainment, and an open bar? One hell of an event, otherwise known as the Houston Press Menu of Menus®. Tuesday night, the Houston Press, in conjunction with Stella Artois and Whole Foods, put on the 10th annual Menu of Menus® at Silver Street Station. The event was jam-packed with tantalizing edibles and adult beverages, fun, and people (almost 2,000).

Approximately 40 restaurants -- ranging from fast-casual to fine-dining -- had booths at the extravaganza, where most were sharing mouth-watering, Texas-size samples that represented their specialty items and cuisines. Each Menu of Menus® guest was given a token for casting their vote for Best Restaurant. One look at the Beaver's and Fadi's Mediterranean Grill booths, and anyone would've thought that one of them was going to be the recipient of the People's Choice Award -- they had lines 15 deep throughout the entire night. But it was Boudreaux's Cajun Kitchen that the diverse crowd deemed their favorite.

I could write a book about how difficult it must have been for people to cast their votes -- everything was just so freaking good. It took me much deliberation to decide that some of my personal favorites were the decidedly Mexican-style "street" tacos served up by Tacos del Julio, as well as Artisans' gourmet bite-size chocolate cremaux (flavored with earl grey) tarts, some topped with candied kumquats (what an underrated ingredient), and others topped with fresh berries. I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit that I had about 15 of these -- yes, they were that good.

With so much distinctive food to try, it was hard to steal away from the restaurant booths, but it absolutely had to be done in order to witness the first-ever Iron Fork Competition, a live, Iron Chef-style competition in which Kevin Naderi, Chef Owner of Roost went head to head with Amanda McGraw, Chef de Cuisine of Brasserie 19. The friendly competition was moderated by acclaimed local chef Monica Pope. The young, notably nervous chefs were given 45 minutes to create an appetizer and entree using wasabina, the "mystery ingredient" that was revealed to them seconds before their work time started ticking. This ingredient, something I had never heard of, is a leafy green mustard that tastes similar to wasabi.

As the chefs quietly and seemingly calmly worked on their creations, judges Ryan from Whole Foods, Special K from 104.1 KRBE's Roula & Ryan Show, and Houston Press food critic Katharine Shilcutt entertained the crowd with their humor and witty remarks.

Throughout the entirety of the competition, Naderi and McGraw maintained composure, even during the last few seconds, in which the observing crowd loudly counted down to the end and dramatic, ominous music blasted from the speakers.

McGraw presented to the judges her and her sous chef's refreshing creations -- a scallop ceviche with plenty of wasabina for the appetizer and seared mahi mahi with butter-poached red potatoes, wilted wasabina, radishes and apples for the entree. The three judges concurred that the ceviche was light and refreshing, while the mahi mahi was cooked perfectly. As the plates were cleared away to present Naderi's creations, Special K threatened to hit somebody if his ceviche was taken away -- he clearly loved it.

In the allocated time, Naderi put together a "sashimi bomb" appetizer - filet of red snapper and big eye tuna pounded and stuffed with wilted wasabina and xo sauce (a spicy seafood sauce popular in Asian cuisine), along with radishes, grapes, and pea shoots. His main dish was a pan-seared pork chop over purple potato that was intermixed with Spanish chroizo, kalamata olives, and plenty of butter. He topped the pork with fried wasabina, which Shilcutt compared to kale chips.

Impressive, huh? Totally. After the judges gave their comments, they voted on who they thought deserved to win. Kevin Naderi came out as the victor. When Monica Pope announced his name, he threw up his hands in disbelief, smiled big, and immediately turned to give Amanda McGraw a big hug -- a complete "aww" moment. He won a one-night stay to La Torretta Resort in Conroe, which he bestowed to his parents as soon as he got off-stage -- a thank you for all the help and support they have given him at Roost. Double "aww" moment!

As if on cue, the building lights went out; the only illumination came from a couple of free-standing colored lights set up throughout the building. The live music from the second stage prevailed and people resumed their partying, mainly by hitting up the bars stocked full of beer -- craft and not, Izkali tequila cocktails, and a wide variety of wines.

The 2012 Menu of Menus® was the best yet. If you missed the event, I'm sorry -- you really missed out on a whole lot of goodness. As you wait for next year's event to come around, you can keep yourself busy by checking out this slideshow.

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