Cocktail drinkers got a choice of specialty-crafted gin libations by three local bartenders at the Hendrick’s Gin booth. Other liquor and spirit options included samples from The Glenlivet, Suntory Whiskey, El Jimador Tequila and more.
The Kennebunk Inn in Kennebunk, Maine, were back, serving mini pizzas topped with huge chunks of lobster.
New faces included Cesar Enciso Gasca from the Casa Dorada Resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Greg Baker of The Refinery in Tampa, Florida; Sunny Bawaeja of Lehja Restaurant in Richmond, Virginia; Sophina Uong of Mestiza Taqueria in San Francisco, California; Fernando Ruiz of Santacafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Ferrell Alvarez of Rooster & The Till in Tampa, Florida; Ben Runckle of Salt & Time in Austin, Texas; and more. Riel Restaurant represented with his signature roasted heirloom carrots dish garnished with yogurt, cardamom honey and hazelnut powder. Richard Knight (formerly of Hunky Dory) made chicken and liver pâté bánh mì garnished with colorful cocktail umbrellas.
Parsnip yucca latkes with blue cheese foam and fig sauce came via John Bogue of the Sheraton Houston Brookhollow, while John Signorelli of The St. Regis Houston served adobe braised short ribs over a sweet potato saffron risotto. And these were just some of the highlights.
Here are the five best things I sampled throughout the night:
5. Steak tartare taco by Ben Runkle of Salt & Time, Austin, Texas
From afar, they looked like tuna tartare tacos, but approaching the arresting table with mini tacos that Ben Runkle and his team had assembled, it became evident that the tacos were filled with beef — freshly ground, hormone and antibiotic-free 44 Farms Angus flank steak. In fact, Runkle brought his own meat grinder from his butcher shop in Austin so he could grind the meat just seconds before he filled each beef-fat-fried corn tortilla shell. It was seasoned with queso fresco, onion, cilantro and jalapeño vinaigrette, and I loved the Texan-meets-Tex-Mex twist on this steakhouse staple.
4. Short rib in adobo sauce, with creamy grits and parmesan by Scott Tycer of Kraftsmen Baking
Scott Tycer has pretty much stayed out of the spotlight since Gravitas closed in 2012, but every now and then we get glimpses of what made him such a talked-about chef in his heyday, and the tender braised short rib in adobo sauce was it. Velvety and deep brown in color, the adobo sauce had the naturally thickened consistency of something that had been stewed and stirred for hours. Paired with creamy grits and a few shavings of parmesan cheese, though it may have been a bit heavy for a springtime dish, it was instantly recognizable as something you'd want to eat again.
Fresh from his nomination as a James Beard Foundation 2017 Best Chef South semifinalist, Tampa’s Ferrell Alvarez showed his creativity with a French-meets-Indian creation. Quenelles of ultra-smooth foie gras ganache were topped with chana granola, garum masala dehydrated honey and a pomegranate liquid gel before being garnished with one perfect edible flower. Elegant and understated, the sampling wasn’t as boldly flavored as some of the other offerings, but its quiet sophistication made quite the impact. La Table
It’s hard enough to find perfectly prepared duck breast in a restaurant, but to find it during a walk-around tasting event with 1,000 attendees is practically unheard of. So bonus points go to La Table’s Hassan Obaye for his delectable Hudson Valley duck breast, cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a bed of parsnip puree with a citrus duck jus and a blood orange wedge. I especially loved how the spice came through so vividly. To get the aromatics to really shine, Obaye said that a dry rub mixture of Earl Grey tea, cinnamon, coriander, cloves and Sichuan pepper was applied to the duck for 48 hours prior to roasting.
If you just happened to walk up to Sunny Baweja’s table on Friday night, chances are you would have seen him scooping hefty mounds of his tuna avocado bhel (a type of chaat, or Indian street food) onto a spread of sample plates. Indeed, this is what I saw when I arrived at his stand — a jumble of ingredients dressed in a brownish sauce and topped with fresh pomegranate seeds. I didn’t expect the explosion of flavors and textures that took place once I took a bite. But the puffed rice, creamy avocado and tuna chunks combined with mango, pineapple, cilantro, tomato and red onion in a harmonious song and dance on the palate. A tamarind, date and ginger chutney sauce, ever so slightly tinged with green chile spice and a hint of banana, tied it all together. Exemplary.