Last night's Ceviche Throwdown was the sixth and easily the most successful that the Houston Chowhounds have thrown to date, and not just because of the sheer volume of raw fish being prepped by the 11 participating chefs.
This competition had an additional component never before seen at other throwdowns: a charity silent auction which raised nearly $25,000. And when added to proceeds from ticket sales, the Ceviche Throwdown raised well over $30,000 for Gulf fishermen affected by the BP oil spill. The money will be directly distributed to the most needy families and fishermen by Houston's own Jim Gossen, owner of Louisiana Foods and a Gulf Coast native himself.
In the cavernous yet sexy dining room at Soma Sushi, hundreds of attendees watched as nearly a dozen of Houston's best chefs prepped their dishes for competition, Iron Chef-style, in the "sushi pit" at the center of the restaurant. The list of competitors couldn't have been more diverse: longtime competitors like Jonathan Jones and Randy Rucker faced off against new blood like Jorge Alvarez from the ceviche-only restaurant Ocean's, Hugo Ortega of the eponymous Hugo's and Jason Hauck of hosting restaurant Soma Sushi.
And in the end, a dark horse took the judges by surprise and won the throwdown with a dish that stunned in both taste and presentation.
A last-minute addition to the rotation of participating chefs, the young Alex Padilla of Ninfa's on Navigation blew the judges away with a simple salt-cured barramundi and live sea scallop ceviche with fresh-squeezed citrus, passionfruit and truffled sea salt, all served on top of a rosy wheel of sea salt that looked as if it had been sculpted from pure marble.
The panel of judges were certainly up to the task of tasting the 11 ceviche dishes, with notables like Brett Anderson, food critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Mai Pham, a Houston Chowhound who once took a four-day trip to Chile in search of the world's best ceviche. Longtime restaurateurs Michael Cordua of Americas and Churrascos and Peter Garcia of El Meson rounded out the judging table alongside Teresa Byrne-Dodge of My Table Magazine and Greg Morago of the Chronicle.
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Coming in second place was Oceans, which was entirely apropos for a ceviche-only restaurant and which makes me even more eager to visit the old Bistro Vino location and finally check out the food for myself. In third place was sushi restaurant Kata Robata with a Texas peach yuzu ceviche with gobo chips.
Over in the silent auction area, it was a fitting end to the night's festivites that the auction item which sold for the highest amount of money was fish-oriented as well: A fishing trip for two with Levi Goode (son of Jim Goode and overseer of the Goode Co. empire), with dinner for eight that night at Goode Co. Seafood, where Goode himself would prepare the day's catch fresh off the boat.
Perhaps we'll see him as one of the competitors in whichever throwdown Jenny Wang and the Chowhounds do next. But whatever it is, they've set the bar incredibly high for themselves after last night.
For more photos from the evening, including all of the beautiful ceviche dishes, check out our slideshow.