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Menu of Menus® Draws, and Wows, Huge Crowds of Food Fans

Silver Street Station had a lot of new things going on for Menu of Menus® this year. Air conditioning, for one, had people happy to be inside eating warm comfort food from spots like Frank's Americana Revival and Fish & the Knife. There was a lovely photography show up on the walls as part of Fotofest. There were new restaurants like Verts Kebap, Heights General Store and Nara debuting their food for Houstonians, some of whom had never tried it.

But one thing remained the same: Kevin Naderi, chef of Roost, won the competition this year for the third time in a row.

The competition, emceed by Randy Evans of Haven, was fierce--it wasn't clear what Naderi was making until the very end of the 45-minute time limit, while Kevin Bryant, chef of Eleven XI, was very transparent about what he was preparing. In the end, though, Naderi edged out Bryant with his use of the secret ingredient: citrus. The judges all agreed that Naderi put the ingredient to use better than Bryant did, though Bryant's incorporation of the twist ingredient, bananas, with a pistachio mole was masterful.

So Naderi took home the title and the lron Fork (quite a heavy trophy), while Bryant's general manager, Joe Welborn, said he'd be working with Eyeore the rest of the week, referring to Bryant's sadness at having been beaten.

For the first course, Naderi served up a simple citrus salad with chile powder, olive oil, radishes, celery and grapes. It was a lovely dish to look at and a great way to showcase the secret ingredient. Bryant made ceviche that he cured in the citrus juice and topped with his signature "caviar"--little rounds of citrus that emulated fish eggs in the way they popped in your mouth.

Next, Naderi made chicken wings with a lemon jalapeño glaze, while Bryant prepared pork wrapped in bacon and stuffed with lemony kale. In this round, Naderi's wings were the clear winner, as they came out hotter and had a wonderfully complex flavor.

For the third course, both chefs had to incorporate bananas into a dish, which sounds nearly impossible for a savory item. I say nearly impossible, because they both did it, though neither banana offering was great. Naderi prepared rockfish on a bed of sliced bananas and a citrusy cream sauce, while Bryant cooked the bananas slightly and served them with quail in a pistachio mole. All the judges agreed: The mole and bananas worked much better than the rockfish and bananas.

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The chefs weren't required to make a fourth course, but Naderi did. He attempted to make a dessert using a biscuit in a chai tea and citrus broth and topped with Greek yogurt. He should have stopped at three courses.

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Still, the competition was close. For each of the judges, the scores came down to about one point separating Naderi from Bryant, and we had to hand it to the chef of Roost for his inventive dishes and use of the secret ingredient, citrus.

Elsewhere, the chefs and restaurateurs of the nearly 50 invited restaurants were celebrating the huge crowds and unlimited free wine, beer and cocktails. Each attendee was given a token to vote for his or her favorite restaurant based on the dishes each eatery was serving, and I hear the competition was steep.

Favorites included crawfish étouffée from the Cajun Stop, lobster rolls from Maine-ly Sandwiches and a daring squid dish from Nara. There could only be one winner, though, and the restaurant with the most votes from the crowd was Ciao Bello, which served individual tortellini-style pasta bites with a bolognese sauce and freshly grated Parmesan. It's very appropriate that Ciao Bello won, too, as the number one dish on my list of 100 favorites this year came from that restaurant.

Congrats to Kevin Naderi and Ciao Bello for their big wins, and thanks to everyone who came out to celebrate the amazing food we have here in Houston.

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