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Fun times with food on a stick: Eleven XI's Culinary Carnival

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Fun and games -- that was the theme of this year’s inaugural Culinary Carnival held at Eleven XI this past Sunday afternoon, an event benefitting Pulse at St. Luke’s Hospital. Though the afternoon was a scorcher, spirits were high as competing chefs came up with versions of food on a stick to impress judges and the 400-plus attendees.

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Host team Eleven XI set the tone for the event with elaborate carnival costumes and face paint. General manager Joseph Wellborn was the ring leader, who wore coattails and a top hat. Mixologist Anna Large’s costume went well with her Finlandia cocktail, made with nitro-spun ice cream that she mixed in small batches and topped with buttered popcorn and butterscotch liqueur. There was a balloonist walking the grounds making colorful balloon hats and animals. And of course, there was plenty of nosh on a stick.

That was the main challenge of the afternoon for the chefs who were participating. Who could come up with the tastiest, most creative food on a stick?

It certainly could have been Gastropunk Food Truck's Belgian chocolate covered bacon on stick, a messy, sticky, stick-to-your-face dessert-like creation that had me walking around with chocolate stains on my face until someone told me to wipe them off. Rolled in a mixture of nuts and spicy cayenne pepper, it was sweet and salty, fun and tasty, making me feel like a kid in a candy store. Two thumbs up, I say.

Then there were the fried creations, including Teddy Lopez of Killen’s Steakhouse' puffed lobster beignet (he had a second offering of wagyu meatloaf on a stick), and soon-to-be opening Midtown concept called Oporto Fooding House & Wine’s deep-fried “Lobster bombos” -- essentially lobster arancini that oozed with mozzarella cheese when you bit into it.

For meat on the stick, you couldn’t beat Jett Hurapan of Songkran Thai Kitchen’s beef chunks swathed in green Thai curry. To make them, the skewers of meat had been threaded ahead of time, then dipped into a large earthenware bowl filled with the curry, like you would with fondue.

Michael Pellegrino of Max’s Wine Dive’s elk meatballs stuffed with foie gras, which were seared on the grill and served piping hot with some dried cranberries, were pretty fantastic, a reason why I helped myself to seconds in spite of the heat, washing it down with a sampling of Buffalo Bayou’s refreshing summer beer.

Not to be outdone, Donald Chang of Nara Sushi & Korean Kitchen did a mouthwatering Black Canyon Angus Ribeye beef rolls stuffed with avocado, smothered in teriyaki glaze, and finished off with tempura crisps. The sign at his table said “Yeah, a taste of heaven on a stick,” and I have no argument with that.

Offering people a taste of street food from homeland, Latin Bites’ chef Roberto Castre brought his own grill, where he was making Peruvian anticuchos -- beef hearts on a stick, served with potato, choclo, and a colorful trio of sauces. Said chef David Cordua of the Cordua Restaurant Group: “They are pretty awesome.”

But seriously, there was a ton of awesomeness happening at the Culinary Carnival, including Cordua’s beautifully presented versions of ceviche on a stick on top of a fried risotto ball. He offered two versions of his newest ceviches -- one with ahi tuna, and one with salmon -- each stick standing upward from a small wooden block.

Susie Jimenez of Trenza took home the People’s Choice Prize with her mixed seafood ceviche and avocado mousse offering, while the winner of the afternoon-- awarded by a panel of judges -- was Gabriel Medina of Soma.

I visited his booth too late, so he’d completely run out of food by the time I got there, but it’s quite obvious that his kurobata corndogs were a crowd and a judge pleaser, and no wonder: To make them, Medina braised the kurobata pork dogs in Sapporo beer and miso before deep frying them in a batter of shisito and corn. They were topped with takoyaki toppings.

Rounding out the chef participants were Ryan Hildebrand of Triniti, Rishi Singh of Bar Boheme, Steven Ripley of D&T Drive Inn, Soren Pedersen of Currant Kitchen, and Michael Vigo of Compass Group.

On the libation front, Millenium Tequila was on hand with vodka on the rocks, while Buffalo Bayou Brewery offered tastings of two of their beers. A wonderful group of mixologists were also participating with carnival themed cocktails, including an snow cone cocktail, a Finlandia caramel apple cocktail; a chicken and waffle themed ice cream cocktail topped with chicken skin cracklins by Sheridan Faye of El Big Bad; a sweet 'n spicy mango margarita James Watkins of the Cordua Group; and more. Of these, Anna Large of Eleven Eleven's Finlandia vodka-spiked buttered popcorn ice cream drink beat out competitors as the People's Choice favorite.

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