Spicy foods make you cooler! It's a refrain I must have heard and repeated a dozen times at the first-annual Curry Crawl on Sunday. And while research has confirmed the counter-intuitive cooling powers of hot peppers, the crowds on the patio at Straits were just as likely to use chilled cocktails and air conditioning breaks to fight the summer heat.
The 10 restaurants competing for curry glory were split between South Asian specialists like Pondicheri, Blu and Korma Sutra, and other top restaurants including Uchi, Roots Bistro and Samba Grille. As part of a judging panel that included Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, Houston Press food critic Katharine Shilcutt and TV Asia correspondent Ruchi Mukerjee, I was semi-sequestered indoors (in the sweet, sweet air conditioning) while the chefs took turns presenting and describing their curry dishes to us.
The range of offerings went from traditional fare to molecular gastronomy and from the idea of one or two perfect bites to three-course menus and drink pairings. But as anyone who's ever made it knows, there's no such thing as a simple curry.
For me, an early favorite was Pondicheri. Executive chef Mary Cuclis was the first to bring some real heat, serving a dry kerala-spiced prawn over coconut cilantro rice and a saffron yogurt broth that was both refreshing and kicking, with a hint of ginger. Simran Patel of Korma Sutra impressed with a tamarind-glazed duck over a brightly flavored ginger curry sauce and I liked the lighter watermelon curry over tandoori halibut by Kiran Verma of Kiran's.
On the other end of the spectrum was a quartet of unexpected offerings from Uchi, each of which featured a different curry. I was in raptures over the whimsical foie gras and curry cotton candy, light and airy with just a touch of rich sweetness. A Thai green curry dish with mussels and green tomatoes (you might recognize it from this video) had an intense, minty freshness, while some peanut butter-y red curry cookies packed a punch.
In the end, two restaurants sailed above and beyond the competition. Shiva Patel of Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen said she wanted to create the ultimate bite, presenting a duo of crab balls in chickpea flour over a four-alarm, Goan-style curry topped with raita and bits of sesame and fried curry leaves. To balance the heat, she also served a sweet cocktail of vodka, honey and thyme with an orange garnish for a kick of citrus — delightful.
Samba Grille's David Guerrero took a different tack with equally inspired results. Guerrero opened with grilled octopus in a curry-chimichurri sauce and created curried pisco sours tableside, but it was his curry ice cream with marmalade, rocoto and a richly tart Peruvian fruit (that I did not write down the name of).
When the judges panel came up with a numeric tie between the two, we gave the edge to Queen Vic, whose curry was simply unforgettable. For the first time, the judges and the crowd were in perfect agreement, awarding Shiva Patel the people's choice award as well.
"Are you tired of curry yet?" one guest asked us. But how could anyone get tired of something so versatile and flavorful? Keep the curry coming.