Big Brothers Big Sisters' annual Big Taste of Houston is kind of a big deal, in more than just name. In past years, the money raised for the charity has been comfortably within six figures—though the amount this year hasn't yet been announced. That's great for the kids looking for mentors, but for spoiled grown folk looking for a survey of some of Houston's best restaurants, the rewards yesterday, at the event's fourth iteration, were great, too. Big Taste brings out the big names—State of Grace, Uchi and the Original Ninfa's among others. But their offerings weren't among my favorites. These were:
One of my major complaints at tasting events such as yesterday's is that chefs make their plates too large. I want to save room to sample everything, so I throw most things away after a single bite. It's a waste for all involved. That's part of why I applaud Dish Society's single bite. The other half of the argument is even more simple: The tangy tangle of juicy Black Hill Ranch pork carnitas resting atop a round of cotija cheese, watermelon and a basil chip truly embodied the restaurant's mission of serving full-flavored, healthy local food.
Straits Restaurant succeeded by going the opposite route and departing from its Singaporean theme. Instead, Hawaiian-raised chef John Sikhattana stuck to his own roots with a duo of pokes. The tuna one at left (it's hamachi on the right) was especially palate pleasing with puffed quinoa lending texture to the raw onions and herbs of the tender fish.
A pair of beef-and corn concoctions were also winners. Southern Goods presented smoked 44 Farms beef belly over grits, while North Italia won raves for its short ribs served with mascarpone-thickened polenta. The latter, whose Houston link in the chain is located on Post Oak, wasn't just a winner with me. It nabbed both the peoples' choice and Best of the Big Taste awards. But North Italia didn't stop at beautifully seasoned polenta and tender beef. The restaurant's beet salad and espresso budino were also excellent.
When it comes to audience voting, whether it's "American Idol" or a food event, the masses are usually wrong. But I agreed with the crowd that Red Dessert Dive presented the best sweet (or rather sweets) of the day. Both their lemon-blueberry cake shots and salted caramel chocolate bites were thoroughly lovable. I was less impressed with the judges' pick, a scoop of malted barley ice cream from Cloud 10 Creamery. The scoop I received was still too cold and hard to taste like much, though the candy pink strawberry crunchies that dressed it were adorable.
But I can make a rare statement of yesterday's event: Everything was at least good, even if some bites impressed me less than others. And that's big news in itself.