The 4th Annual Kiss My Grits Throwdown: Shrimp 'n Grits and Crafted Cocktails

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Four years ago, the first inaugural Kiss My Grits Gulf Coast Throwdown benefitting the Young Texans Against Cancer (YTAC) charity took place at Silver Street Studios. I still remember the first year vividly, because I got to see the chefs exercise an immense amount of creativity. I remember grits gnocchi, grits congee, crispy round grits cakes, and kimchi grits topped with fried dumplings (the winning entry by Kata Robata's chef de cuisine at the time, Seth Siegel-Gardner). The second year was equally memorable, with offerings like panko-crusted grits balls, Indian-inspired grits three ways, chocolate-covered grits popsicles, and lobster grits topped with corn-cognac foam by winning team Uchi.

This year, however, while the cause was still just as important, and the party was still very fun, the creativity and competitive spirit seemed lackluster. So, what happened? My theory is that there are just too many things going on at the moment. In the last month or so, we've seen a number of throwdown events take place -- Go Pig or Go Home, Sugar Land Wine and Food, Taste of the Nation, Big Taste of Houston, etcetera -- with two more events this coming Sunday (Curry Crawl is taking place this coming Sunday at Straights, and a new Fried Chicken Throwdown is taking place the same night at Haven).

Maybe the chefs didn't have enough time to think about making something really unique. Or, maybe they just weren't acquainted with the level of creativity that had come into play during what I'll call "the early years." I was live-tweeting the event as I made my way from table to table and at one point, one of the chefs who was following my progress asked the obvious question: "How many shrimp 'n grits dishes on the menu tonight?" he asked. I waited until I'd made it to all the tables, and then replied: "Great question. 6 out of 8!"

On balance, the dishes all tasted pretty good, but unfortunately, when you taste six dishes that all have some version of shrimp and grits, they all start to taste the same. Michael Pellegrino of Max's Wine Dive went with a repeat of his winning recipe from the previous year, a country grits and shrimp that he served in a mini martini glass. He scored high on presentation and taste, earning him second place in the throw down. Skip King offered a shrimp and grits dish straight off of The Oceanaire menu. It was delicious, but I can't remember how much it differed from the shrimp and grits dish served up at Punk's Simple Southern Food. Nor can I readily differentiate its taste against Jeff Taylor's shrimp 'n grits with tasso ham from Del Frisco's Grille.

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Travis Lenig of Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette also offered shrimp and grits too, but his came with a twist. He served New Orleans barbecue shrimp over white cheddar and andouille grits alongside the only dessert offering of the night, a scrumptious vanilla grits pudding topped with bourbon caramel sauce and smoked raisins. Sort of like a grits version of bread pudding, the one-two punch of shrimp 'n grits and dessert scored high among attendees, earning him the People's Choice title. It pleased the judges as well, who awarded him third place overall.

One of the most creative dishes of the night came from Shannen Tune of the Hotel Derek. He took the idea of frito pie to another level by serving curried lamb over smoked grits, and topping it with corn, queso fresco and Frito chips. The chips gave the dish great texture, and I really enjoyed how the smokiness of the grits came through.

Tyler Mason of Line & Lariat at the Hotel Icon had hands-down the most visually arresting dish of the night. His dish of "Grits two ways" included another version of shrimp 'n grits that also came with sausage a large fried potato ring, and a watermelon jicama salad. It was served on the same plate with a mini pancake grits with lavender syrup.

In the end, the dish that scored highest on taste won the night. The grillades 'n white cheddar grits by Justin Turner of Bernie's Burger Bus had this deep, earthy flavor, reminding me of a really well done boeuf bourgignon. For the grillades portion of the dish, he grilled the beef before braising it in a peanut butter roux with sherry, red onions and a blend of five mushrooms that had been roasted to a golden brown. The white cheddar grits were creamy, cheesy, and well seasoned, and together, it made a winning dish. I liked it so much, I even went back for seconds.

Although the grits portion of the throwdown was fairly tame competition-wise, one of the cool things about this year's event was the addition of a bartender throwdown, which meant that attendees didn't just move from one table of grits to the next. The room was setup in an alternating chef and bartender pattern, so that you could do a tasting of grits followed by a creative cocktail.

And the bartenders really threw down. Though I didn't taste all the cocktails (I'm a weak drinker), each of the ones I did taste were thoughtfully created, masterly craft and memorable, like the Dulce Fuego, or "sweet fire" drink by Art de Hoyos of The Hotel Derek. The bright pink drink, made with a base of Dripping Springs vodka and quickly shaken, was topped with fresh slice of jalapeno and tasted just like its name -- sweet and spicy.

Cadillac Bar's Cesar Bracamontes came in third place with a Titanium Vodka-based peach margarita, which came complete with a wedge of salt-dusted peach. The Alley Kat Bar & Lounge's Erica Mota came in second with a citrusy ginger-beer topped cocktail infused with hints of sage.

The big bartender winner of the night, who also won People's Choice, was Luis Villegas of El Big Bad. His carefully crafted Bombay Sapphire cocktail included lime, lemon juice, agave nectar, and gin that was shaken, poured, and topped with ginger beer and cucumber foam. It tasted of cucumber and brought to mind the crisp freshness of a cool spring morning.

In the end, the spirit of the event was all that mattered. Thanks to the participating chefs, bartenders, spirit companies and silent auction donors for a great evening benefitting the Young Texans Against Cancer.

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