Raising the Bar at the Bourbon Throwdown

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Last night's Bourbon Throwdown at Branchwater Tavern was the fifth throwdown -- a casual, Iron Chef-style competition between local chefs -- that the Houston Chowhounds have thrown since June 2009. But far from being a regurgitation of the first four, the bar was raised across the board, making last night's competition not only an event to remember but also one to encourage even more creativity from future participants.

Instead of only featuring participants from the Houston area, Austin contestants were invited to throw down as well. And instead of only featuring a lineup of six chefs, the Bourbon Throwdown also invited six mixologists to craft their best bourbon cocktails. And instead of just featuring judges from the local (and occasionally very insular) food community, the panel featured people like two-time James Beard award winner Robb Walsh, the revered Bear Dalton from Spec's and Barry Maiden, owner of Hungry Mother in Boston and Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 2009. To say that this was a step up for the organizers was an understatement.

Hailey Harris, marketing representative for Maker's Mark, provided not only bourbon for the contestants, but also an "inspiration package" containing goodies like white dog (bourbon before it's put into the barrels) and smoked wood chips made from the oak barrels that age Maker's Mark for up to seven years. Most contestants made use of both the bourbon and the inspiration package, although -- somewhat disappointingly -- not all did.

The best entries, of course, where the ones that showcased the Maker's Mark to its fullest potential.

The second that David Grossman's entry landed on our judging table (I was the fifth judge in the lineup, although with a decidedly less impressive pedigree), it was apparent that no other entry for the night would touch the creativity on display. But would it taste good? Grossman -- the executive chef at Branchwater Tavern -- served up a single egg yolk in a spoon, topped by a miniature sliver of housemade bacon. Grossman had extracted half the egg yolk from the casing with a syringe, then re-injected it with a bourbon jus. On top, the bacon had been cured with a Maker's Mark reduction. The egg disintegrated the second it hit my tongue, flooding my mouth with the warm, smoky flavor of bourbon and rich freshness of the farm egg. It was an instant hit.

Not all dishes were as delightful, however. Mark Holley's entry showed immense promise: both ramps and morels had been incorporated into this springtime-inspired dish. But the Pesce executive chef's scallops were overcooked and salty, ruining the amazing sauce. Bryan Caswell's dish of braised short ribs were slightly tough and stringy, and -- while decent -- not a creative stretch for the talented Reef chef.

Other winners included Mushroom Throwdown winner Rebecca Masson's dessert entry of bourbon ice cream sandwiched between lemon snickerdoodles and Mark Cox's five-spice infused bourbon-braised short rib sandwich. Masson took home second place for the night while Cox took home third. As expected, Chef Grossman took first place with flying colors.

On the cocktail side of the competition, Austin bartenders Bill Norris of Fino and Adam Bryan of Eastside Showroom gave the Houston bartenders a run for their money. Norris' cocktail -- called the "Staat's Farm, October, 1989" -- was an early favorite at the judges' table, a kissing cousin to a Sazerac but flavored with ginger, sage and walnut. The lone woman in the cocktail competition, Claire Sprouse of Beaver's, played up her girly side with a pink grapefruit cocktail called "The Valley," which featured her warm, clove-tinged housemade falernum.

Ryan Rouse won the table over with his clever presentation of "Meet Your Maker," a tropical-inspired cocktail served in a prayer candle glass and topped with sprigs of mint and powdered sugar. The Meet Your Maker introduced many of the judges to orgeat, a sweet syrup made from nuts, sugar and orange flower water. But the cocktail that stunned everyone was the final entry from Hearsay's Anthony Montz.

Montz's "Old Fashioned New School" was an updated twist on the classic Old Fashioned, with Satsuma orange juice and three different kinds of aromatic bitters sprayed on top. His garnish consisted of a candied Satsuma orange slice, a cherry, and a gelatinized round of the Old Fashioned itself, which he laughingly compared to a Jello shot. The simple showcasing of the bourbon -- while at the same time adding a new element to a classic cocktail -- made Montz's cocktail the overall winner.

As the final results were announced, it was clear that none of the chefs particularly cared who won or lost. It isn't that they aren't proud of their creations, but rather that they're far prouder of the feeling of community that's forged every time one of these throwdowns occurs. Older chefs cheering on younger ones, Houstonians cheering on Austinites, restaurant patrons discussing their favorite dishes with their favorite chefs, and food lovers getting to know each other and build new friendships -- that's what the throwdowns are all about.

For more photos from the event, click here for a slideshow.

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