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Giancarlo Ferrara of Amalfi with his extravagant scallop dish.

Image: Daniel Ortiz

Dine-around food events, in which guests wander from stand to stand and taste as much of whatever’s being presented as they want, are so popular these days that nary a week goes by without some sort of festival or FOMO-inducing affair to entice the foodie in all of us. Such was the case at The Epicurean Project, a specialty foods showcase presented by locally owned gourmet food purveyor Martin Preferred Foods, which took place this past Wednesday night.

Now in its second year, it was like a mini version of those gigantic convention-center gourmet food shows that hit town several times a year. Complete with huge ice sculptures, ostentatious displays of food and plenty of wine and beer, one $75-per-head ticket got you in for unlimited samples of food from 50 gourmet vendors, ranging from Hudson Valley Foie Gras to Urbani Truffles and local beef purveyor 44 Farms. 

Several prominent Houston-area chefs were there dishing out signature samples as well. And, to make you feel really great about attending the event, all of the proceeds— $14,300 was raised— were donated to the local non-profit Recipe for Success, which aims to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity through nutrition education programs.  

Martin Preferred Foods, for those who don’t know, has been supplying gourmet prepared food products to the restaurant industry for the last 70 years. Founded in 1944 by Melvin and Israel Tapick right here in Houston, the brothers got their start selling chickens that their mother raised in their backyard to local grocers and chefs. Now run by the third generation of Tapicks, the company supplies hundreds of gourmet prepared food items, from cheese to prepared meats, seafood to beverages, to consumers and businesses locally and nationally.

The breadth and range of their offerings was impressive, starting with the fromage display, which took the form of an elongated table teeming with cubed, cascading mounds of cheese in varying shades of yellow. Walking around the table, I picked up some garlic Beemster, tried an aged Parmesan, slathered some Camembert on a water cracker, then sampled a slice of 18-year aged Parma ham, while munching sea-salt Marcona almonds.

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A duo of kibbehs from Fadi's.

Image: Daniel Ortiz

At the Hudson Valley foie gras stand, I tasted chef-prepared slices of foie gras torchon served over a tangy salad. Fully cooked, marinated pork was served with a mango relish at another stand. Over at the Frenchy’s stand, the staff served up Frenchy’s chicken boudin balls with grits and étouffée.

The list goes on. One table had no less than 10 mouthwatering cakes, including devil’s food, tres leches and red velvet. At another table, sticks of mini elote were served, while further in, there were all-beef sliders, Trois Petits Chocns duck rillette with cornichons, and several samples of tea ranging from black currant to a creamy matcha. Throughout the room, you could also get in line for beer like 8th Wonder Brewery’s award-winning Hefeweizen, or choose from at least 10 labels of red or white wine.

The center of the room was where the chef-manned stands were located. Here, you could interact with local chefs and taste their food as they competed in friendly competition to snag either a People’s Choice award or to win favor with a panel of local celebrity judges.

Among the standouts I sampled were the conically shaped red piquillo peppers stuffed with pork confit by David Cordua of Américas; chicken liver mousse with a golden raisin gelée and figs by Martha de Leon of Pax Americana; individual servings of yellowtail sushi by Adison Lee of Kuu; Indian-spiced lamb with tomato chutney and cucumber mint yogurt by Travis Lenig of Field & Tides; sliced rabbit roulade by the culinary team at Arcodoro; individual lamb chops by Russell Kirkham of Artisans; tuna-watermelon sashimi by the team at A’Bouzy; mini quail legs by Dylan Murray of Local Foods; and duck confit banh mi-style tacos by the team at Le Colonial.

The clear winner of the night, however, was chef Giancarlo Ferrara of Amalfi Ristorante, who was caramelizing U10 scallops in the skillet before serving them to attendees. Not surprisingly, his creation, served with baby zucchini mousse, pioppini mushrooms and summer black truffle cream sauce, won both people’s choice and also first place with the evening’s judges.

The second and third place winners, respectively, were Fadi’s and Bistro Menil. Fadi’s offered two tastes of kibbeh: seafood kibbeh with lobster sauce and micro greens; and another made with red snapper filet, cracked wheat and saffron. Greg Martin of Bistro Menil came in third place with a buckwheat crêpe filled with melted Gruyère and short rib cooked sous-vide for 12 hours.

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