There are few food industry traditions as potentially educational as a giant tasting. Taking chefs out of their natural habitats and into not only a banquet service situation, but one attached to a single table in a hotel ballroom, truly separates the resourceful technician from some dude in freshly pressed whites.
Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair's Grand Tasting on Friday night at the Sugar Land Marriott was this Newstonian's first opportunity to sample the wares of more than 30 area chefs at once. Not surprisingly, results were wildly mixed. Here are a few lessons I learned.
La Table can do no wrong: I've yet to eat anything less than delightful at the Post Oak restaurant, so I was surprised that diners seemed to be keeping a wide berth from La Table's, uh, table on Friday night. I'm still not sure quite what their damage was—the French restaurant's offering was my favorite of the night. The fluffy Comté cheese soufflé, resting in a shallow bath of big-flavored asparagus velouté recalled a savory île flottante. What's not to love?
Blowtorches are awesome: Songkran Thai Kitchen chef-owner Junnajet "Jett" Hurapan threw down with another of the night's stand-out dishes, a rare beef salad that had fainter palates grabbing for the many wines on offer even more desperately than they were before. And the fire was literal. To get the serious sear he wanted on the thinly sliced beef without his kitchen's high-powered stove, Hurapan used a blowtorch. The result revealed the flavor balance that Thai food should: Spicy, sweet beef gave way to bright herbs and tangy sauce.
Why haven't I been to Kraftsmen Café yet? Working out of the beautiful Houstonia house in the Heights, I spend most of my waking hours just minutes from Kraftsmen Café. I'm not much of a breakfast-and-light-lunch type of eater, so I never gravitated toward the bakery. I was clearly very, very wrong. At an event dominated by big, fatty braises over creamy starches, chef Scott Tycer produced the only one that I would go to a restaurant and order again. His pork belly melted within with a crusty sear on the outside. Even more laudable, the herbaceous risotto retained an al dente texture and just enough cheesy flavor so as not to devolve into overkill.
Too much of a good thing can be too much of a good thing: Those braises I mentioned can weigh a girl down quickly, especially if most are lackluster. The most egregious example was the host venue's own Burning Pear, which served the oddity above: a deep-fried cube of dry braised short rib, a fried ball of mashed potato and a cap of fried chicken skin, all sitting in a pool of gloppy brown sauce. A pair of Amazons with Barbie-like proportions serving up the fare and studio-style lighting couldn't save the St. Regis, either. Their arid pork belly sliders were all style, no substance.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment came from Pearland's Grazia Italian Kitchen. Chef Steve Haug's smoked beef and risotto dish was named grand champion entrée a few weeks back at the Houston Rodeo's Best Bites competition. On Friday night, I was presented with a carelessly plated dish of meat that tasted less-than-fresh and mushy, flavorless risotto.
A little taxidermy goes a long way: Austin ice house Ranch 616 charmed me with a simple but well-made slab of beef over an Asian-style slaw. A little break from all the carbs was refreshing, and so was the care in decorating their table. That squirrel and I got to be pretty good friends by the end of the night.
Effort + talent = good things: The longest line led to the table for small chain Grotto Ristorante, but the rewards at the end were worth the wait. Despite a rest in a warming tray, the seabass ravioli remained enviably toothsome, with a soft, briny center. The fish was offset by tangy buerre blanc and cherry tomatoes that woke up my muddied palate. I was further cleansed thanks to a selection of homemade gelati. I tried the pineapple flavor, which left me overwhelmed with memories of Disney World's beloved Dole Whip. Not a bad thing, especially when the presentation is elegantly tutto Italiano.