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Recap: Taste of the Nation in Houston, 2014

BBQ brisket terrine by chef Robert Del Grande of RDG + Bar Annie
BBQ brisket terrine by chef Robert Del Grande of RDG + Bar Annie
Mai Pham

More than 20 restaurants and hundreds of food enthusiasts turned out this past Sunday, April 6, 2014, for the Taste of the Nation event at The Houstonian Hotel, an annual event benefitting Share Our Strength's "No Kid Hungry" campaign, which aims to end child hunger.

Chef Austin Simmons' Peruvian Crudo tasting
Photo by Mai Pham

Though smaller than in years past, participating restaurants really turned things up a notch with delectable offerings. Additionally, the intimacy of the event meant that attendees had a better opportunity to hobnob with their favorite chefs, many of whom were manning the booths themselves.

Just in the doorway of the first room (the event spanned two rooms separated by a long hallway), last year’s Taste winner, chef Albert Estrada and team Frank’s Americana Revival, were serving up an English-style shepherd’s pie made with wagyu beef. At the adjacent booth, Susie Jimenez’s Trenza offered three items to sample: A spicy ceviche, a white sangria, and a super spicy albondigas (meatball) soup.

At a nearby booth, Claire Smith of Canopy and Shade offered a light salad with deviled egg mousse on house-made crostini. The Houston Food Bank was also present with an offering of sauteed shrimp in a cream sauce, which were served in small round bread bowls. It was a hit with attendees, earning them the people’s choice grand prize of the night.

Still, there were many other highlights, including chef Neal Cox of Olivette at The Houstonian’s smoked short rib sliders topped with an ancho-pimiento cheese sauce, oozing with juiciness and very flavorful in spite of being heavy on the salt. Chef Robert Del Grande of RDG Bar Annie’s terrine of barbecue brisket in smoked chile aspic with sarsaparilla sauce was one of the more creative offerings of the night, an unusual application of a traditional French preparation with Texan twist.

Chef Kevin Bryant of Eleven XI had a constant mob of people in front of his stand every time I walked by. On offer at his stand were hand made sugar cookie ice cream sandwiches -- filled with custom, freshly spun ice cream flavors of butter pecan, cafe, and a lavender that my girlfriend proclaimed was “out of this world.”

My favorite tasting of the night came from chef Austin Simmons of Hubbell and Hudson from The Woodlands. His team had prepared a Peruvian scallop crudo, which was served in a green apple dashi, with brown butter, bits of green apple, fresh micro mint, and a fresh radish. We were instructed to eat the scallop like you would an oyster shooter, and finish off by taking a bite of the fresh radish. Not only was presentation beautiful, but the melange of flavors worked together impeccably, hitting the palate in layers -- first with brown butter, then green apple, followed by a hint of mint and a sort of spicy radish finish -- a definite “wow.”

Entering the second room, attendees were greeted by chef Mark Cox of Mark’s American Cuisine, whose team offered samples of poached shrimp, vegetables a la grec, and sunchoke panna cotta that were finished off with shavings of bonito. The Bird and the Bear offered bacon wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese, a favorite for many, though the bacon was undercooked and the date was too sweet for my taste. Ouisie's Table had samplings of shrimp and grits. Tango and Malbec offered skewers of just-grilled meat and peppers.

And still, there was more. Peli Peli’s Chef Paul Friedman had a South African stew-like preparation called “Pap,” which was served over maize meal. Bistro Le Cep offered a creamy bisque topped with crab meat. Chef Michael Pellegrino and the Max’s Wine Dive team offered tastes of their famous “Max and cheese." And newcomer Urban Kitchen and chef Brian Pepper sampled house-cured salmon sliders with an avocado mousse and smoked tomato cream cheese.

The evening ended on a sweet note with Crave Cupcakes’ tempting display of vanilla, red velvet and dark chocolate mini-cupcakes. La Madeleine also had a mouthwatering display of mini fruit tarts. For drinks, guests indulged in Brugal Rum cocktails, Saint Arnold’s Beer, Skinny Girl Cabernet Sauvignon and several other wine choices, and drank Acqua Panna natural spring water.

For more information on Taste of the Nation, Share Our Strength, and the No Kid Hungry campaign, please visit http://www.nokidhungry.org/.