This weekend San Antonio's Pearl Brewery complex played host to the first Texas edition of Meatopia, the ode to meat-eating and live-fire cooking conceived by James Beard Award-winning food writer Josh Ozersky.
At Saturday night's kick-off event, a dinner for 300 called The Beefsteak, Ozersky neatly summed up the motivation for and philosophy behind the two-day event. "I came to Texas to eat meat with people who like to eat meat," Ozersky proclaimed to cheers and applause.
Indeed, the meat did flow. Three chefs, Tim Rattray of San Antonio's The Granary, Tim Byres from Smoke in Dallas and New York chef Andrew Toscano prepared steak dishes that came out sliced and ready to eat to the communal tables. To quench their thirst, diners had their choice of wine, beer and cocktails from the event's sponsors. Together with live music, excess was the theme; even the small, token bowl of vegetables presented to each table had a root beer glaze.
"I came to Texas to eat meat with people who like to eat meat," founder Josh Ozersky proclaimed to cheers and applause.
Of the dishes, Rattray's steak with barbecue butter had the best crust, which made for an excellent contrast with the fatty, properly medium-rare meat. But everything was delicious.
Two quibbles. First, there didn't seem to be a system in place for evenly distributing the entrees. After checking in with friends, they never received Byres' coffee-cured steak with relish; because our table had an extra plate, we sent it their way.
At my table, we only received one plate of Toscano's Calabrian chile-rubbed steak. Second, for an event which is inspired by Gilded Age excess, none of us reported being as ridiculously over-the-top full as we expected. A couple more plates of meat per table would have finished us off, although our cardiologists probably approve of the organizer's relative restraint.
Choosing from among 32 chefs
With an extra hour of sleep, I arrived at Meatopia Sunday morning ready to attack the 32 chefs who were serving meat in all its forms across the Pearl complex. For a first-time event, I thought it was extremely well-organized.
Only the highest profile chefs, like Austin's Paul Qui, Dallas's John Tesar and San Antonio's Johnny Hernandez attracted significant lines, and they moved quickly. Also, the model of paying one price that includes all food and beverages is a welcome respite from other festivals that require constantly paying additional money for food or coupons.
Although I made a heroic effort to sample all 32 options, I gave up with five or six to go. Sadly, that meant I missed San Antonio chef Jason Dady's porchetta, which looked absolutely spectacular and attracted a consistent crowd. I also didn't try cookbook author Adam Perry Lang's barbecue sandwich, but his rig and setup were among the most impressive-looking displays of the day. There's always next year.
Underbelly was Houston's sole representative, but Chris Shepherd and his crew acquitted themselves well with a whole roasted pig prepared with Korean spices. The restaurant brought enough people that they were able to sample some of the other dishes between tending to the booth. In particular, Shepherd enjoyed the lamb neck gyro prepared by California chef John Fink.
My top 6 dishes of Meatopia
Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria in San Antonio: There was something almost medieval-looking about Hernandez's stretched-out roasted cabrito. He served the tender goat meat on freshly made tortillas with an array of salsas. "Best taco I ever had," Ozersky tweeted.
Rene Ortiz, formerly of Sway in Austin, and Ford Fry of The Optimist (among others) in Atlanta: Amid the beef heart, lamb necks and bison, anyone preparing chicken has to be pretty impressive to be memorable. Ortiz's grilled chicken with chile paste and other spices delivered in a big way: moist, flavorful, spicy. If not for this tweet from Eater National's Paula Forbes, I might have missed it. Although Fry has made his name in Atlanta, he's a Houston native who graduated from Lamar High School. His chicken parts included feet and breast. Asked about how to eat it, Fry told one diner "just gnaw on it." Yes, chef.
Geronimo Lopez of Nao in San Antonio: Lopez serves as both executive chef and instructor at this restaurant that's part of the Culinary Institute of America's campus at Pearl; he made the most of his home-field advantage. The large, hanging veal legs cooked at Nao's outdoor kitchen was among the day's most impressive displays, and the side of creamy polenta was so delicious I briefly pondered a second helping.
Andrew Weissman of Il Sogno Osteria in San Antonio: The chef's braised, stuffed breast of veal was tender, juicy and beautifully cooked. Among a lot of chefs with bold flavors, Weissman stood out with his subtlety. Well played.
Ned Elliot of Foreign & Domestic in Austin: Which isn't to say there wasn't a place for bold flavors. Elliot's crispy lamb ribs were spicy, intensely flavored and a total mess to eat. Isn't that half the fun of attending an event called Meatopia?