HTX Good Eats 2012
Foodie News

Popsicles, BLTs and pork belly, oh my! The weird (and weirdly delicious) Caesar Salad Competition

Popsicles, BLTs and pork belly, oh my! The weird (and weirdly delicious) Caesar Salad Competition

Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, popcicle
The caesar popsicle from CK's Restaurant Photo by Sarah Rufca
Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, judges
Judges John DeMers, Janice Schindeler and Ryan Pera having a salad day. Photo by Sarah Rufca
Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, hot dog
Triniti's mini chicken caesar sausage Photo by Sarah Rufca
Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, salad, Ninfa's
Ninfa's on Navigation's caesar BLT won the judges' pick for Most Creative. Photo by Sarah Rufca
Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, salad
The people's choice award went to the island-style caesar from Inn at the Ballpark. Photo by Sarah Rufca
Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, popcicle
Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, judges
Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, hot dog
Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, salad, Ninfa's
Four Seasons, Caesar salad judging, October 2012, salad

The Caesar salad cotton candy at last year's Caesar Salad Competition was the talk of foodies in Houston and beyond — totally unexpected and surprisingly delicious (although not the evening's winner).

What could possibly top it at the 28th annual contest, held Friday at the Four Seasons Hotel? Among the 15 entires in the most creative categories, there was a divide between those that stayed faithful to the classic salad recipe and those that seemed to throw caution to the wind, creating elaborate concoctions with only the most tangential connection to the original ingredients.

 "Could I bring in barbecue and call it a Caesar salad?" asked judge John DeMers.

 Take, for example, a dish of braised pork belly on "anchovy" bread pudding with cassis and fried Swiss chard. Aside from the alleged anchovy in the bread pudding (it tasted more like French toast, with nary a hint of savory much less anchovy flavor) the dish seemed to have little relevance to any Caesar we knew.

"Could I bring in barbecue and call it a Caesar salad?" asked judge John DeMers.

After a phalanx of pork belly-focused dishes (um, 2010 called and it wants its culinary craze back. Also 1994 called and it wants this joke back) there were a few genuinely pleasant surprises. An adorable mini hot dog featuring chicken Caesar sausage from Triniti's Dax McAnear was popular, while a aesar panna cotta with a parmesan macaron divided the judges, though I personally quite liked it.

This year's version of cotton candy was a Caesar popsicle from CK's Restaurant at Airport Marriott. As far as I can tell, the main difference between the popsicle and the cotton candy is that the caesar salad popsicle was absolutely as gross as it sounds, with a weird, sour flavor and thick, flaky texture.

In the end, the judges' favorite was the Caesar BLT from Ninfa's on Navigation — fitting, considering the salad's south-of-the-border origins. The dressed romaine, parmesan, bacon and tomato was served in a cheesy bacon and jalapeño-studded tuile. It was creative, easy to handle and delicious.

The people's choice award as well as the best table decoration went to The Inn at the Ballpark, which served an appealing island-style take on a Caesar, with roast pork, pineapple, crispy taro chips and a spicy-sweet "island" Caesar dressing.

When it came to the classic Caesar category, four restaurants created their salads live, Iron Chef-style, from the same pool of ingredients. While tasting the four salads could have been an exercise in déjà vu, it was interesting to see how big a role balance and proportion plays in creating an optimal salad. Without sounding too much like Goldilocks, one was a bit too sour and fishy, while another was overwhelmed by garlic.

Somewhere in the middle was the winning salad from Mockingbird Bistro's John Sheely, with a perfect mix of lemon, spice and anchovy.

When it comes to Caesar salad, sometimes you just can't beat the original.