Last night at the annual Houston Press Menu of Menus® Extravaganza, chef Lyle Bento of Southern Goods took home the Iron Fork Chef competition win for the second year in a row, and South African hotspot Peli Peli won the popular vote on the floor with the crowd-favorite huguenot pork belly sliders, which were marinated in a raspberry chipotle sauce, topped with a light bleu cheese, fried onions, peppadews and bacon, and served on pretzel rolls.
More than 40 participating restaurants handed out food samples to thousands of attendees, with everything from gelato and doughnuts to raw oysters, fried shrimp, and sushi for the taking.
In a head-to-head battle on the Iron Fork stage, presented by Whole Foods, Southern Goods chef Lyle Bento and competitor Gary Ly of Underbelly mesmerized the crowd with a range of intriguing dishes and technically challenging cooking given the circumstances and lack of fancy kitchen gadgetry or even a rolling pin.
Chef Kevin Naderi took on his first-ever duty as emcee without a hitch, though he admitted after he was "a little nervous."
Both competing chefs were required to use a secret ingredient, in this case local Buffalo Bayou honey, in every dish. The first dish was also given a twist ingredient of olives. Bento and Ly also got a huge surprise before the first round when they learned their sous chefs for the evening would be two Houston legends, Mockingbird's John Sheely and Cafe Annie's Robert Del Grande, who adorned a paisley button-down.
"Who cooks in a paisley button-down?" Naderi asked.
Apparently Del Grande, who went on to aid Bento's win by a fairly significant margin. Bento's dishes wowed the judges (including yours truly) with a honey drizzled and herbaceous olive and garlic goat cheese crostini, a deep-fried whole fish covered in cilantro, radish and a Vietnamese-tinged honey sauce, and a mind-blowingly moist cake that was actually steamed with the help of a latex glove (no plastic wrap to be found), and, flavor-wise, was similar to the creamiest, dreamiest honey biscuit on Earth.
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Ly did manage to turn out three applaudable dishes as well, a Chinese-inspired pancake that he rolled out using a bottle of fish sauce, served with melt-in-your-mouth scallop, olive and fermented crab oil, though ultimately hijacked by over-salting. A fruit- and pistachio-laced dessert couscous was a little undercooked, but with a subtle, sweet flavor and style reminiscent of Jessica Koslow's famed breakfast porridges at Sqirl in L.A., it did capture my heart. Ly's entrée, a gochujang-seasoned sirloin steak in a broth made with fermented crab oil and fish sauce, served over soba noodles, was outstanding.
"I loved the broth and the heat on that sirloin," fellow judge, Press contributor and chef Cuc Lam said. It was, perhaps, the stand-out dish of the night, but a shaving of truffles did seem lost on it.
Back on the floor, Ly looked a little winded, telling the Press, "That was by far the hardest thing I think I've ever done." Bento himself seemed a bit exhausted as well, apologizing if the whole fish was bony since he didn't have time to fully prep it to his liking. Such is the challenge of the Iron Fork. He shook it off, saying, "I really can't believe I pulled that off."
Check out more pictures of last night's event right here.