Tonight, I attended the 11th Annual Got Gumbo? cook-off at the Royal Sonesta in the French Quarter. My taste-buds are still after-glowing. The ballroom was lined with tables from 20 different local restaurants competing in up to 6 categories. Half were judged by a panel and the other half were determined by our votes. There was even a Jazz band. What fun!
Each table was to be decorated like a Mardi Gras float. The stand-out was the Royal Sonesta’s own (home team advantaged) restaurant, Desire Oyster Bar.
Using scaffolding, they created the illusion of an actual float, complete with women throwing beads and plastic seafood toys. They easily won the People’s Choice Award. I was also a fan of the beautiful live floral displays offered by 700 Club.
The judges’ categories were Best Traditional Gumbo, Best Seafood Gumbo and Best Exotic Gumbo. The traditional and seafood categories were very well represented by several restaurants. 5 Fifty 5 was selected by the judges as the Best Traditional. Hampered by my small stomach, the table’s placement and a prejudice against hotel restaurants, I must admit I failed to taste it. Quel dommage.
Second place went to Desire Oyster Bar. I liked the judges’ third choice for Best Traditional Gumbo, Intercontinental Hotel, but I tried their seafood gumbo.With plump shrimp, a crab leg, oysters, crawfish, smoked sausage, the flavors played good back-up to some of the best seafood offered.
I was also a fan of the Steamboat Natchez Cruise choice to pour their gumbo over oyster dirty rice.
My favorite category by far was the Exotic Gumbo. Third place winners, Palace Cafe, used duck and sage sausage, smoked duck, quail, rabbit, squirrel, boudin balls, duck, and gator sausage.
For those not in the know, boudin is white pork rice dressing stuffed into casings. It is also one of the best things you could put in your mouth. I thought this gumbo would be the clear winner, but it was only the second I tasted and there were SO many more to come.
First place for Best Exotic Gumbo went to Charlie’s Restaurant and Catering’s hearty quail, boar, rabbit, and duck/gator sausage over a dirty-rice. But, my by-far favorite was Loew’s Hotel. I’ll admit I was fairly full when we got to their near-the-end table. I was getting selective on what to taste and I’ve already copped to a prejudice against hotels. But Chef Raymond Signal was so warm and welcoming and his table was fancifully decorated with a dozen wooden ducks so we stopped a minute to debate. His duck, andouille, and oyster gumbo was insanely tasty, but it was his duck cracklins that drove me from cloud 9 straight to heaven. Even his rice was perfectly cooked with each grain distinct.
Apparently, Mr. Signal, the Banquet Sous Chef, has entered for years as an independent chef and this year asked his employers if they’d like to sponsor him. Wise decision Loews, and I guess we’ll have to be invited to a catered event to taste his divine food again. Oh, and for non-foodies, andouille is smoked meat sausage made with pork, pepper, onions, wine, and spicy seasonings.
Other restaurants deserve a mention. Red Fish had a very tasty gumbo with alligator sausage and the other best, plump, fresh seafood in the room.
Broussard’s added the nice touch of sprinkling fresh filé, a spice normally made from dried sassafras leaves, on top of their traditional gumbo.
Bourbon House, the restaurant I’ve been telling people has the best traditional gumbo in the French Quarter, used a yummy combination of fried crawfish, boudin boullettes (fried balls), shrimp and sausage.
La Cote Brasserie’s duck and andouille gumbo was hearty and comforting.
And the most outlandish was Desire Oyster Bar’s Gumbo Mambo Italiano. A scoop of parmigiano reggiano risotto topped smoky sausage gumbo. It reminded me of gouda cheese – in a good way, but the flavors were a stretch for the idea of gumbo, like when my friend, Doug from Lafayette poured his gumbo over potato salad (surprisingly awesome) with pickles in it (not good).
There were also 5 restaurants offering desserts, a category we got to judge. Most were long gone by the time we got around to sweets, but I did try a few. Desire Oyster Bars’ Banana Parfait Ball was tasty – part chocolate cookie, part fluffy yumminess, all covered in chocolate. But I liked Intercontinental Hotel’s inventive idea to offer an actual gumbo of chocolate and roasted hazelnuts with tapioca.
Alas, the winner’s table was bare when I hit it so I’ll have to imagine what 5 Fifty 5 served to garner the People’s Choice Award. They also won the People’s Choice for Best Gumbo. Seems I missed quite the meal at that table.
There was a raffle and lots of socializing as well as free purple go-cups so we could take our drinks onto Bourbon Street and join the party. It was a wonderful evening and a rare treat all for $20 ($25 at the door and cash bar) with the proceeds benefitting the United Way. Gotta love being charitable in New Orleans.