There are food and wine events throughout the year, but none as big, or with as much at stake, as the Wine Rendezvous and Grand Tasting at Wine & Food Week in The Woodlands.
This is no regular tasting event. Where other events may have winners, and the winners may take home trophies or bragging rights, this event has a monetary prize of $5,000 up for grabs, which means the chefs in attendance have to bring their A game. With just one bite to impress a large panel of distinguished judges -- Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle and Pat Sharpe of Texas Monthly, among others -- and approximately 50 competitors, what would it take to combat the judges' palate fatigue to take home the big prize?
As someone walking the floor, my strategy was to hit as many places as I could before I got full, bypassing the ones that didn't look like something I'd enjoy. Yes, that means that there were stands that I passed up, simply because they didn't look too inviting. I also had a companion who was nice enough to taste-test for me. "Is it worth it to try?" I would ask her before taking a bite, skipping the ones where she wrinkled her nose or seemed on the fence.
The more memorable dishes included: shrimp cake on pea puree with fennel cucumber slaw by Soren Pedersen of Sorrel Urban Bistro; scallop and salmon gravlax carpaccio on micro wasabi salad greens with fennel saffron vinaigrette from Le Mistral; tenderloin with a tonnato sauce from Renato di Pirro of Ristorante Cavour; Korean-style sliced sirloin with kimchi and pickled daikon and carrots with wonton crisp by Peter Laufer of the Royal Sonesta Hotel; fig, foie gras and pickled rhubarb, with a crisp pork belly sprinkled with bacon snow by Abuso Catering; cold orange marinated scallop and octopus salad on the half shell by Maurizio Ferrarese of Quattro at the Four Seasons; pecan smoked salmon on herbed potato cake by Frank's Americana Revival; and crispy quail legs by Dagan Lynn of Carlton Woods in The Woodlands; a ceviche with crisp chicharron by David Cordua of The Cordua Group; lamb skewers by Jose Duarte of Taranta in Boston; and a cold gazpacho by Jonathan Jones of Monarch at the Hotel Zaza.
The highlights of the nights for me started with Kaz Edwards of Uchi, with a nacho-inspired single-bite tasting of yucca chip topped with housemade kimchi, salmon rillette, lemon foam, candied ginger and micro shiso. Each bite produced a delicate, multi-layered burst of flavor with crunchy component that was smoky, sour, tangy, sweet, pillowy. I went back twice (for a total of three bites) and enjoyed all three. Sharon Gofreed, Uchi Houston's new pastry chef, was also on hand with a delightful display of retro candies -- retro jellies, tootsie rolls, and pop rocks, that were a huge hit.
Michael Pellegrino of Max's Wine Dive and his freshly shucked gulf oyster topped with bloody mary sauce was also a winner. The bold red sauce was like an amped up bloody mary cocktail sauce and was fantastic -- I couldn't help myself from slurping down two.
Likewise, La Lupita in The Woodlands's duck confit taco, on a corn tortilla with black bean and plantain, topped with a chipotle-honey-tequila demi-glace and fried leeks, was so delicious, I had to have seconds.
Roberto Castre of Latin Bites' beautifully plated tuna and scallop tiradito, swimming in a pink sauce with guanabana and potato puree, was also notable for it's subtle interplay of exotic flavors. His presentation was also gorgeous, with his plates sitting on an elevated plank surrounded by a bed of smoky liquid nitrogen.
In addition to the savory competition, there was a dessert competition, with a $1,000 grand prize. By the time I made it to the sweets area, most of the desserts were already gone and people were already packing up, but I managed to taste the winning dessert of the night, a Caramel cremeux, caramel crunch, basil, honey crime fraiche, smoked raspberry by pastry chef Drew Casteel of The Woodlands Waterway Marriott, as well as a pretty matcha green tea petit four by Hui Lim of Soma Sushi.
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And that was just the food. There were literally hundreds of wines to sip and savor, and it's all a blur now. Congratulations to all the participants and winners. It's safe to say that it was a grand, wonderful, stupendous night for food and wine.
1st Place, Chef of Chef's Award: Paul Friedman of Peli Peli for his South African Bobotie 2nd Place, David Guerrero, private chef 3rd Place, Randy Evans of Haven
1st Place, Dessert Competition: Drew Casteel of The Woodlands Waterway Marriott