This was my third trip to the Got Gumbo? event benefitting the United Way and it’s fast becoming one of my favorite annual evenings. This year, 17 chefs and restaurants provided up to 4 dishes each to compete in the categories of Best Traditional Gumbo, Best Seafood Gumbo and Best Exotic Gumbo as well as the People’s Choice for Best Dessert, Best Float (decorated table display) and Best Gumbo. Do the math and you see that it’s an evening of eating yourself silly surrounded by whimsical tables and charitable gumbo-lovers (United Way receives the $25 ticket price as well as the bar). The event is held at the Royal Sonesta. You may recall that my last trip to the Sonesta involved dropping my hoop skirt and greasing a pole to kick off the final weekend of Mardi Gras.
Though we usually save him for last, we decided to start our evening with Chef Raymond Signal. I first met Signal at the 2011 Got Gumbo? when he blew me away with his duck, andouille and oyster gumbo with duck cracklins “that drove me from cloud 9 straight to heaven.” In 2012, he served the same gumbo and I loved it again. This year, he decided to enter a seafood gumbo and had the biggest shrimp in the room. Like the duck, andouille and oyster gumbo, the seafood was “sophisticated and humble all at once” and had a just-like-Mama-makes flavor. I went back to tell him his rice was perfectly cooked then found that in 2011 I’d written, “Even his rice was perfectly cooked with each grain distinct.” Yep. He sponsors himself and this year he even cooked the giant portion at home on his electric stove. Get catered at the Superdome or the Arena if you want to taste his flavors.
And that was just the first dish! I liked the filé gumbo at Coach’s Yumbeaux Gumbeaux, another self-sponsored chef. Bistreaux at the Bank had an interesting mix of kale and mustard greens and I liked the smoked turkey and andouille in a blonde roux from Deanie’s Seafood. The Royal Omni’s Rib Room broke the gumbo down to the components with a roulade on a skewer atop a shot with a chocolate-brown roux ( a very hard color to achieve without burning). Hyatt’s 8 Block Kitchen, newcomers to the competition, provided a beautiful “float” of fresh meats, breads and vegetables. I liked the little button of bread in my gumbo and the rice was cooked perfectly. The Westin brought the heat with the evening’s only spicy offering and 5 Fifty 5 reprised their winning bread bowl dish.
For me the highlights of the evening were Restaurant R’evolution and Desire Oyster Bar, both housed in the Royal Sonesta coincidentally enough. Home court advantage? R’evolution just recently opened so this was my first time tasting any of their food. Their smoked pheasant oyster andouille gumbo was so smoky and hearty, I felt like I was sitting in a comfy chair with a blanket over my lap and my feet at the fireplace in a cabin surrounded by snow. Yankee gumbo? Maybe. All I know is it was super tasty – memorable and distinct. I wished I could send a bowl to my dad and brother’s families while they sit in the stormy snow just south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Desire Oyster Bar outdid themselves this year. They entered every category and cooked to win. I don’t know how “traditional” it was, but the char-grilled oyster they sat atop their gumbo is a city favorite. Their seafood gumbo had generous helpings of shrimp, crawfish and andouille with a fried crab claw. For several minutes after tasting it, I kept repeating, “That was really good.” But the stand-out was Chef Christian Rossit’s exotic Hopping Gumbo with rabbit and frog legs. It was just soaked with wine and jam-packed with layers of flavor. Yum. Even the dessert was great – a banana parfait layered with butterscotch creme brulé in a chocolate torte topped with a slice of decorated chocolate. They decorated the table with a sign/sculpture made entirely of chocolate. I never tried the mini King Cakes but Tulane’s bread pudding was like a big bowl of butter – in the best possible way.
The evenings winners were:
Best Traditional Gumbo #1 Desire #2 8 Block #3 5 Fifty 5
People’s Choice Best Dessert – Tulane! (even our universities have good food)
People’s Choice Best Float – Desire
People’s Choice Best Gumbo #1 8 Block #2 Charlie’s #3 Desire
That’s bragging rights for a year for newcomers 8 Block and R’evolution, and annual entrants Desire and Charlie’s certainly had a big night as well. But the big winners are the attendees who get to taste dozens of tasty treats from some of the city’s most amazing chefs bringing their best old recipes and new innovations to compete head to head for votes. What a night!