"I hope there's no Caesar salad Schweddy Balls," joked Ann Criswell, former Houston Chronicle food editor and longtime judge at My Table's annual Caesar Salad Competition.
Most of the judges -- including My Table's editor Teresa Byrne-Dodge, Delicious Mischief's John Demers and Criswell herself -- had seen it all in past competitions, from Caesar salad sorbet to last year's Caesar salad cupcakes.
But this year, the event had a new home -- the Four Seasons Hotel -- and a few new tricks up its sleeve. One of those was the Caesar salad cotton candy presented by fellow hoteliers Houston Marriott at Hobby. The bright pink candy floss was caught with shreds of Parmesan cheese and flecks of black pepper, all wrapped around a heart of romaine lettuce as its handle.
The cotton candy was intimidating to say the least. And yet all of the judges -- me included -- were stunned by how good it tasted. That is to say, it tasted nothing like cotton candy and every bit like a Caesar salad. The only missing component to make it a winner in the Most Creative category was texture: The floss itself was fairly dry, as was the lettuce. With a little creamy dressing tucked inside the lettuce handle, this entry would have swept up the Most Creative award handily.
As it was, the award ended up going to Spencer's for their modern yet unfussy interpretation of a Caesar salad, perched on a crostini with a perfectly poached quail egg on top. It met the standards across the board for a winner in this picky competition: unique yet still retaining a Caesar salad-ness to it, delicious enough to order again, bite-size and easy to handle with a wine glass in one hand.
These are all secrets to winning the competition each year that competitors still seem to forget. On the judging panel with us was Chef Frederick Brown, a four-time winner himself from the Crowne Plaza Houston West. He shared his most important secret tactic with us -- one that I won't repeat and one that none of us saw in any of the entries. Despite this, there were some clear favorites among the judges.
Of the 17 competing restaurants, only three made a salad for the Classic category. It was the Creative entries that had us dazzled all night long. The entry from the Westin featured a Caesar salad bubble tea shooter on the side, topped with Parmesan foam. And the subtle torched hamachi Caesar salad from The Barbed Rose was perhaps the tastiest bite of the night, topped with a charred slice of jalapeño, but wasn't Caesar-y enough to win.
The crowds loved The Inn at the Ballpark's very straightforward Southwest Caesar salad, giving it the Consumer's Choice award that night. And the cotton candy makers from the Houston Marriott at Hobby didn't go away empty-handed, winning the prize for Best Presentation.
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The Classic category was the biggest struggle, with only three middle-of-the-road competitors. Haven's oil-based dressing was the best tasting of the trio, but the romaine and croutons were overdressed and soggy. Another salad was miserably underdressed, featuring barely any dressing at all. In the end, the judges gave the Best Classic award to Monarch for its straightforward salad featuring an old family dressing recipe from Hotel ZaZa's founder Benji Homsey.
My Table editor Teresa-Byrne Dodge despaired of the lack of Classic entries this year, but I saw an opportunity in there for a strong competitor to sweep this category next year with a well-dressed, simply constructed Caesar easy on the bells and whistles but heavy on technique and execution. I may not ever share Chef Brown's secret for winning, but a perfectly dressed Caesar salad won't ever need it.