There were 17 entries at the 27th Annual Caesar Salad Competition this past Friday. Set in the beautiful ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel, the event was fun and elegant, an opportunity for people to party, culinary style.
Up for grabs were four prizes: Best Classic Caesar Salad, Best Creative Caesar Salad, Best Overall Presentation, and Consumer’s Choice.
Judges were presented with blind tastings and then, like they do in an episode of “Chopped,” they debated the merits of the standout offerings before selecting a dish for the win. There was no numeric system of judging. Judges, Editor-in-Chief Teresa Byrne-Dodge of My Table Magazine, Food Editor Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, retired Food Editor Ann Criswell of the Chronicle, Food Critic Katharine Shilcutt of the Houston Press, Deputy Editor Jody Schmal of Houston Modern Luxury, Food Writer John Demers, Executive Chef Frederick Brown of the Crowne Plaza Houston, and myself sat in the round, then voted for one dish in each of the categories.
Would it be the Savory Pink Caesar Cotton Candy on heart of romaine “handle” with crouton center (Houston Marriot at Hobby), which was really creative and pretty tasty, but a bit weird at the same time, or the Steak Tartar Crostini with fried quail egg and romaine (Spencer’s for Steak and Chops), which pleased almost everyone’s palate? A Caesar Soup with Tapioca-Parmesan Foam, and Baby Romaine with anchovy crouton and cured Spanish jamon (The Westin) was definitely a contender in the creative category.
Presentation-wise, the Parmesan Profiterole with Duck Rillette, anchovy caviar and lavender dressing looked lovely (The Remington), but the profiterole pastry itself fell short on texture. Likewise, a Chicken Kebob Caesar with bacon tuile (Le Mistral) was impressive in presentation, but the tuile was a bit too thick and doughy. Petite Romaine in a Cone with Caesar Gelato and Parmesan frico (Ristorante Cavour at Hotel Granduca) looked great and sounded great, and we had high hopes for the caesar gelato, but it didn’t quite turn out as we’d hoped. And the lightly Smoked Caesar Lettuce with Mediterranean sardines, served in a sardine can (Quattro at the Four Seasons), was a fun presentation, but for a group that was already overloaded on garlic and anchovy flavors, the sardines were too powerfully flavored to gain the win.
A Torched Hamachi Caesar on Parmsean crostini with roasted garlic-lemon cream (The Barbed Rose) was empirically good on its own, but did not stand out when compared with some of the other entrants. The Santa Fe-style Caesar with grilled chicken in a tortilla-Parmesan crisp was tasty and easy on the palate (CK’s at Marriot International), but didn’t stretch the imagination enough, even if it was served with a deliciously spiced mexican mojito shot, and even though several judges agreed that they would order it, if given the opportunity. And a Roasted duck, Truffle Croutons and Romaine (El Meson) was yummy, but the addition of duck meant that it had to be judged against all the other creative entries, and it fell just short of creative enough.
Other entrants included Haven with Mario Cantu’s Classic Tableside Caesar Salad, victimized by the fact that it couldn’t be tossed by the table; Shade with a Classic Caesar on brioche crouton with farm fresh egg dressing; The Omni Hotel with Classic Caesar with pretzel twist, baby romaine, dried fruit and Sambuca dressing; Bistro Alex with Garlic Mousse Croustade, Parmesan-truffle fondu, romaine chiffonade and fried anchovy; and Monarch at Hotel Zaza with Benji Homsey’s family recipe or classic caesar; Kris Bistro with Caesar with Truffle Salmon Gravlox; and Inn at the Ballpark with Scallop & Bacon Caesar Salad with scallop ceviche and roasted pork belly.
In the end there were definitely some surprised winners in the room. Loud cheers and yelps accompanied each of the announcements as the hardworking teams were called up to the podium to receive their prize, an engraved wooden caesar salad bowl, presented by event co-chairs Guy Stout (event founder) and Randy Fournier, president of the Food & Beverage Managers’ Association:
Best Creative Caesar Salad –Spencer’s for Steak & Chops, Steak Tartar Crostini w/fried quail egg & romaine
Best Classic Caesar Salad – Monarch at Hotel ZaZa, Founder Benji Homsey’s family recipe for classic caesar
Best Presentation – Houston Marriott at Hobby, Savory Caesar Cotton Candy on heart of romaine “handle” with crouton center
Consumer’s Choice – Inn at the Ballpark, Scallop & Bacon Caesar Salad (scallop ceviche & roasted pork belly)
The event was sponsored by the Houston Food & Beverage Managers Association and My Table magazine, and all event proceeds benefit the Food & Beverage Managers’ Educational Endowment.