"We worked on these for two days straight," laughed Jody Stevens as she proudly displayed a cupcake garnished with a romaine lettuce leaf. Stevens and her partner, fellow pastry chef Rebecca Masson, were in inhospitable waters on Friday night as they competed against over a dozen savory chefs in the 26th Annual Caesar Salad Competition.
While restaurants like Brennan's, Fleming's and Ouisie's Table were serving up more traditional takes on the popular salad, the pastry chefs had come up with a concoction all their own: roasted garlic savory cupcakes with Caesar dressing buttercream frosting, topped with a parmesan crouton streusel and a small romaine heart that sat off to the side like a feather in the cupcake's hat.
Attendees at the competition, which goes to benefit educational endowments at the Hilton College at the University of Houston and the Culinary Institute LeNotre, were divided on how they felt about the cupcake. On Twitter, Chuck Cook described the Caesar salad cupcake as an "amazingly tasty creation by mad geniuses" while Taylor Byrne Dodge-Ray of My Table countered by simply saying, "They are very 'Wonka.'"
And although the ladies didn't win the competition, they certainly broadened a few horizons about the notion of savory flavors in non-traditional desserts.
Winners were announced in four categories.
- Best Classic Caesar: Shade
- Best Creative: Brennan's
- Best Presentation: Brennan's
- Consumer's Choice: Spencer's for Steaks & Chops
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Brennan's served their double award-winning Blue Agave Caesar Salad Tostadas out of a makeshift taco stand while wearing serapes and giant sombreros. (Although they weren't the only ones in costume; the first six people who showed up wearing togas were granted free admission to the event.) The tostadas were certainly creative and festive, although they weren't my favorites of the evening.
Chef Oscar Mejia of the Inn at the Ballpark blew me away with his offering, which was the first one I tried that evening and which stood out throughout the other tastings. Pulled pork rested on a Caesar salad that had been dressed with habanero sauce and topped with caramelized pineapple and a fried square of goat cheese, all served on a fried plantain.
Likewise, I enjoyed the deconstructed Caesar salad -- featuring a verdant Romaine-based soup that I could have eaten by the bowl -- that Quattro's new young Turk had created for the evening. Chef Maurizio Ferrarse, who is originally from Milan, has revamped the restaurant's menu and his wholly modern take on the Caesar gives me hope that Quattro is experiencing a whirlwind, not just a breath, of fresh air.
Check out our slideshow for more photos from the evening.