Foie gras has had its day. Whey-fed pork still hasn't penetrated Houston's food scene. That means Mutt City's favorite fatty meat of the moment is inarguably wagyu beef. This year, Azuma Group's "Go Pig or Go Home" event was replaced with the less poetic "Go Wagyu" as the annual chef smackdown benefiting the local chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Yesterday, eight of Houston's most sought-after chefs brought their A games to Soma Sushi for a contest that was perhaps the highest-level competition I've ever judged. Alongside the Houston Chronicle's Syd Kearney, Phaedra Cook of the Houston Press, H-E-B executive chef Randy Evans and Houston Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus—who, it turns out, shares my adoration of Korean barbecue—I tasted my way through one excellent dish after another before deciding on the victor.
Southern Goods' chef Lyle Bento began the proceedings with a tartare that wove beef with skinny red onions, chiles and sesame on a taro chip. Good, yes, Southern, no.
Chris Shepherd of Underbelly followed it with another raw wagyu dish that utilized a rice cracker, dehydrated fish sauce, onions, basil and cilantro with a pho-flavored aioli to ingeniously replicate the flavors of the Vietnamese soup.
Pass & Provisions chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan also served up an Asian-inspired dish. A meatball-shaped mound of finely chopped tartare was covered in rice-flavored foam and bonito flakes. Ramps mixed into the chopped meat were reflected in the similarly flavored steamed bun presented on the side.
Jean-Philippe Gaston of Izakaya used a recent trip to his Mexican homeland as inspiration for a mole whose notes of chocolate and cinnamon filled the upstairs of Soma where he prepared it. The sear on the beef was welcome—big, undercooked chunks of bok choy not so much.
Robert Del Grande of the newly renamed Café Annie also lightly seared his beef, but better yet, served it over an oyster with oyster Hollandaise. Best of all? He fried chunks of the already fatty beef into tiny croutons of cracklings on top, my new game night snack of choice.
Jonathan Jones of El Big Bad took his presentation over the top by searing marinated meat over hot rocks right in front of the judges' table. But the theatrics didn't end there. The sizzle continued even when meat had left stone thanks to a dusting of Pop Rocks.
Visuals were key for Richard Knight of Hunky Dory, too, who served his deconstructed wagyu Wellington and Russian salad on his trademark silver platters. He offered to dance for the judges to get a win, but really didn't need to when he'd already brought a plate filled with bunny-shaped shortbread cookies, complete with silver eyes to match the glistening platter, to the the table.
But the well-earned victory went to meat specialist Ronnie Killen for a smoked-then-seared chunk of flesh that tasted like beef bacon but melted like the Chateaubriand served on Mount Olympus. Mushroom jam and sautéed fungus topped the steak, along with a dropper filled with intense beef broth. Extraneous? Sure, but this was a case in which too much of a good thing truly was wonderful.
Azuma Group's own Manabu Horiuchi didn't compete, but he and Kata Robata sous-chef Cyrus Caclini presented one of the quiet hits of the evening, a simple dish of marinated beef over perfectly cooked rice. The rendered fat and tangy marinade soaked into each grain, filling it with flavor.
And that is the secret to wagyu success: Raw dishes, even ones as clever Shepherd's, don't use wagyu to its greatest advantage. Caramelization and rendering are the keys to unlocking the magic of the marbled meat. My advice to next year's competitors? That flesh desires a kiss of fire.