Culture / Foodie Events

A Worthy Truffle Champion?

Top Houston Restaurants Battle In a Food Challenge — and There’s Plenty of Room for Debate

BY // 01.12.16

There were a few glaring misses, a number of dishes that were good enough, and several outstanding courses. In the end, it came down to one ingredient on Monday night: uni.

Yes, it was a truffle event — specifically, the Second Annual Truffle Chef Charity Challenge — but the dish that my fellow judges deemed best (and which I say came in second) was Kata Robata’s plate of cold soba noodles, mushrooms, fresh uni and uni foam, and a generous amount of shaved black truffles. And it was good. Very good. I think, however, that the uni put it over the top in a way that had nothing to do with the truffles in the dish. I love uni, but this time it did not (to my palate) pair well with the tuberous delicacies.

Uni and soba noodles, plus some truffles.
Uni and soba noodles (plus some truffles covering the firm noodles).

My top winner? “Breakfast of Champions Eggs & Truffles,” from Robert Del Grande and his team at RDG + Bar Annie. First, the eggs, which were done in the soft-scrambled manner (decadent) and served in actual eggshells.  Rich, not hurried, smooth in texture, with a velvety mouthfeel. They were mixed with a huitlacoche sabayon, which provided umami in a big and satisfying way. And the truffles. Eggs and truffles make love to one another in a way that stimulates all but the most jaded of palates, and these truffles — supplied for the event by Diane Roederer’s company, DR Delicacy, which also organizes the challenge — were certainly up to the task. They were fresh, and they were shaved with skill. I was smitten at first bite, whose taste was all richness. (If you have eggs and truffles in your refrigerator, store them together for a few days in an airtight jar. When you scramble those eggs, you will thank me. Scramble them the way M.F.K. Fisher instructs, and you will fall head over heels in love.) A few people quibbled with Del Grande’s dish, saying it lacked texture, but I say the texture was silky, and that’s all I needed.

This is perfection in a shell.
This is perfection in a shell: Robert Del Grande’s Breakfast of Champions.

The dish from Kata Robata was, of course, executed well (Manabu Horiuchi does everything well), and possessed some fine acidity, but we were judging a truffle challenge. I’d order it if it was on the restaurant’s menu, but I would not need the truffles to enjoy it.

Celery root, beef cheeks, and carrots: rustic and delicious.
Celery root, beef cheeks, and carrots: rustic and delicious.

Coming in third place for me was Philippe Verpiand‘s dish of celery root mousseline, braised beef cheeks, and carrots. (Beef cheeks and oxtail were popular last night, one or the other being featured by at least five chefs.) Verpiand, who cooks at Etoile, knows his technique, and both the cheeks and the celery root were prepared about as well as they could be, as were the carrots. Together, they sang.

Wagyu sushi, from B&B Butchers
Wagyu sushi, from B&B Butchers

Rounding out my top five were truffle-crusted Wagyu sushi rolls (from B&B Butchers) and the people’s choice winner, Le Mistral‘s braised oxtail patty on brioche. The former was served to the judges on a salt block — accompanied by chopsticks — while the latter, a one-bite beauty, was round in shape and topped by a soft quail egg. And my, was that brioche crisp and buttery.

What's not to like: oxtail, brioche, quail egg, and truffle.
Deliciousness in the round: oxtail, brioche, quail egg, and truffle.

The official 1-2-3 finish was Kata Robata, RDG + Bar Annie, and The Tasting Room, which brought a chocolate truffle drizzled in honey and topped with black truffle and sea salt. (For a complete list of competitors, click here.)

Pasta and truffles done not so well.

Sunday Dinner: A good idea, but lacking in (the right) flavor.
And the less successful creations, you ask? Truffles are divine, but their inclusion will not make a lackluster dish sing. Arturo Boada‘s beef stroganoff, made with radiatori, was limp and bland, and the truffles did nothing to improve its faults. Eculent‘s David Skinner supplied a “Sunday Dinner,” but the freeze-dried romaine leaf lacked flavor, and the black truffle sabayon was far too acidic.

Horiuchi walked away with 1 kilo of black truffles, while Del Grande had to settle for half a kilo of the delicacies and The Tasting Room’s Michael Pellegrino took home 250 grams. The event, which benefitted the scholarship programs of Les Dames d’Escoffier, was held at The Astorian, a pleasant improvement on last year’s venue, National Tree & Shrub.

Note to chefs: On some of the dishes, I detected the use of truffled oil. Next year, don’t do it.

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