Burlington Food Crawl 2014

As a food writer, I tend to get tunnel vision when it comes to big cities. It’s especially noticeable when planning a food crawl. In a town like San Francisco, or New York, or Chicago, you’re spoiled for choice. Cities like these, where you could literally eat at an awesome restaurant every day and never repeat for years, don’t pose much of a challenge to the curator of a food tour. That’s why I love the small towns, especially the up and coming ones with blossoming food scenes.

Sometimes this is the result of big city chefs looking for an alternative to the old path of grinding through the hottest restaurants in town for years before getting their own gig. In a small town, they have the chance to strike out on their own early, when their minds are still fresh and foolish. Other times it can be chalked up to a young demographic. College towns like Burlington are full of a new generation of young adult, who are excited to support the new, the creative and even the strange. This has had a marked effect on the town’s food choices, and has brought some genuinely impressive restaurants to the shores of Lake Champlain.

Burlington Food Crawl 2014

So that’s why I decided, after sniffing around Burlington for over a decade now, that it was time to plan a proper food crawl. There have always been great places to eat in Burlington like Leunig’s, A Single Pebble, Bove’s and more. But those are familiar faces, you know what you’re in for before you step inside and I wanted to be surprised, to sample the new hotness, the young guns, the freshman.

We start our journey with a dark horse discovered by chance during a walk down Church Street. I’ve strolled down this beautiful walking street hundreds of times, so I notice when a new face appears. In this case it was cozy underground Italian spot, formerly known as Three Tomatoes Trattoria. I can’t recall many lasting memories from the latter, but the former made a strong impression with just two dishes.

Pascolo spread

I chose Pascolo partly out of curiosity, and partly because I like to patronize new restaurants at least once to support the business. It also didn’t hurt that they proudly tout their house made pasta. One thing that always makes me nervous though, is when the menu gives the diner the choice of sauce with a certain noodle. Other aspects of the menu put that worry at ease though, like the list of locally sourced charcuterie and produce from nearby farms. I went with a pair of house made pasta dishes, the tagliatelle bolognese and pappardelle funghi. I could tell at first bite that the noodles were home-made as advertised. Both sauces were well composed with a depth of flavor I haven’t found elsewhere in Burlington. For me, Pascolo is a welcome addition to Church Street.

Our second stop, Hen of the Wood, has been on my list for a few years now and has been a stalwart of food lovers in Waterbury, VT for even longer. Unfortunately, Waterbury is about a 30 min drive from Burlington. Happily for me, they’ve opened a second location right in downtown under the Hotel Vermont. Hen of the Wood, like many restaurants in and around Burlington, pride themselves on sourcing as much of their ingredients as possible from local farmers and growers. I noticed they look to the same growers as The Kitchen Table Bistrowhich can only bode well.

HotW has one of those menus where you have to make some hard decisions, especially on a food crawl. Appropriately, we chose the Hen of the Wood mushroom toast topped with house bacon and a poached farm egg. I can hardly think of a more perfect winter time dish. Here’s a pro tip, when you see beef tartare on a menu, order it. At HotW it comes with lemon, capers, farm egg yolk and some sunchoke chips for texture. Even a salad of baby gem lettuce gets its due attention with shaved goat cheese, walnut, Hakurei turnip and mint.

Hen of the Wood spread

If you walk out Hen of the Wood, turn left, walk about 20 yards and enter the Hotel Vermont lobby, you’ll find Juniper. In my experience, hotel lobbies are typically known for the fantastic restaurants. Usually you’ll find a dimly lit bar with tired businessmen downing your typical pub fare. Juniper is a wholly different thing. Braised rabbit with duck fat turnips, tamari and quince glazed wild salmon with kimchi and black risotto, cider glazed pulled pork shoulder with bacon, apple and duck egg, are only a small sampling of the creative dishes Juniper is capable of.

In an attempt to keep things light on our second to last stop, a roasted beet soup and autumn salad were requested. The former came with a sweet and tangy goat’s milk ricotta, violet gastrique and local Castleton crackers. I couldn’t detect much flavor from the violet gastrique, but the goat cheese was a perfect match for the earthy sweetness from the beets. As for the salad, I can honestly say it was an eye opener in a category that usually fails to stand out. Cranberries in two forms woke up the mixed greens. The deep, sweet, concentrated flavor from dried cranberries worked together with a cranberry vinaigrette that brought a sour component.

Juniper spread 1

Now Eat a Duck food crawl regulations stipulate a limit of three dishes or less at each stop. As co-founder and head of this particular food crawl, I made an executive decision to ignore this rule after I tasted Juniper’s amazing celeriac gnocchi. I try not to throw the word amazing around too much, but these little dumplings deserve the praise. Nearly everything in this dish comes from the underground. That’s not an attempt to be hip, three of the main ingredients literally grow underground, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes and black truffle. The binding agent in this case comes courtesy of luxurious raclette from Spring Brook Farms in Reading. The key to any impressive dish is balance. A dish with raclette at its base could easily stray into the sickeningly rich spectrum. The chef deftly offsets this with the sliced Jerusalem artichokes that bring an acidic, almost pickled flavor that keeps each bite fresh. It was so addictive we ordered a second dish for dessert.

Juniper spread 2

Juniper was such a hit we returned the next day for lunch. While my wife wasn’t looking, I quickly ordered a North Hollow Farm hot dog with tomato bacon jam, and the cider glazed pulled pork shoulder with bacon, frisée, apple and duck egg. I made quick work of the dog which was the perfect snack on a cold day. The tangy jam had enough sweetness to highlight the dog and a pronounced tang that hit you right in the jaw. The pork sandwich on the other hand was a beast that I sorely underestimated. It was slightly overloaded with ingredients and I wished the flavor of the pork was more front and center, maybe mixed with a maple based BBQ sauce or something. While delicious, it’s hard to follow that gnocchi!

Last stop on our tour of Burlington is a little joint that I’ve seen countless times on my way to town, Bluebird Tavern. They’ve since moved from their original location to make way for Bluebird BBQ (which is on the list for next time), and have settled right in the heart of downtown, just on the other side of the block from Pascolo. At this point my female crawlers were losing steam and running low on stomach space. It was up to me to finish on a high note. I started off with a trio of Cuban spoons, basically the deconstructed ingredients of a Cuban sandwich, minus the bread, on a spoon. There was only a small cube of each component, but the flavor was unmistakable. Next was a small pile of bay scallops in a parsnip purée with grapes and ham. The grapes sounded strange but they found their place in the dish, lending subtle sweetness to the creamy parsnip. They also had a similar texture to the scallops as they had been quickly tossed in the pan to firm them up a bit. To finish, fried sweetbreads, another item I always have to try when the opportunity presents itself.

Bluebird Tavern spread

After years of eating my way through Burlington, it was satisfying to finally put together a string of restaurants worthy of a crawl. I can confidently recommend Burlington to any traveling food lover, as the scene there is truly maturing with dishes and culinary ideas that showcase the town’s unique personality. Here’s hoping the trend continues and so we can hold round 2 of the Burlington food crawl. In the meantime, get out there and try these places, support the new guard and show them that we we’re hungry for more!

Pascolo Ristorante on Urbanspoon
Hen of the Wood (Burlington) on Urbanspoon
Juniper on Urbanspoon
Bluebird Tavern on Urbanspoon

The Dinner Party Project – Orlando, FL

Have you ever looked back at how a set of coincidental circumstances lead you to a certain moment? Considering that moment, did you think about how statistically unlikely it was to reach it? You’d think for me to find myself eating with seven other folks in a warehouse, in an undisclosed location somewhere in the urban throngs of Orlando, would take some planning. Nope, it was an utter fluke. A fold of the cloth in the other direction would have led me down another path without any knowledge of such an event.

The Dinner Party Project spread

This particular wormhole opened up while folding up fancy napkins with a lady in the middle of nowhere, on a farm, in a field where chickens are free to roam. We were both hired guns brought on to aid with service for one of Outstanding in the Fields Winter tour of Florida. (It deserves a post all to itself, but if you haven’t heard of OITF and you like fresh food from the sweat of a farmers loins, please check out their operation.) We worked in silence, intricately folding napkins, until she put on some tunes. I don’t think either of us could stand the lack of conversation, so she asked what I did for a living. No one wants to talk careers with a postal employee, so I deftly shifted the focus to her. This girl ran down an impressive list of pursuits and causes. Of course the only one that mattered to a person with such food focused pursuits such as myself, I zeroed in on the last one in her list. She casually explained of her involvement in a small, just born Orlando based dinner party club. I believe something like, “no way, that’s awesome,” so eloquently left my mouth. After chatting for a very short time, I was called away to do some grunt work.

The night ended and I never got the name of her project. I was however able to recall her last name, though how last names ever came up in the conversation I’m not sure. The only time I heard that particular family name was from acquaintances in my town. Wouldn’t you know they are related? She just so happened to be my friends’ sister-in-law. A few weeks went by and I started looking at some of the farm table photos online from that night and saw user _thedinnerpartyproject_ had posted a photo.

All was not lost. Things started haphazardly coming together.

I began following and became enthralled at what was going on with her venture. Two dinners a week with eight seats chosen by random lottery system, all of them appeared to be completely sold out since the project began. I wanted to be a part of this, I had to, but when would I ever realistically get the chance?

The Dinner Party Project spread 1

Last week while on a business trip requiring an overnight stay in Orlando, I noticed that they had a spot available the same night I was to be in town. I quickly responded and managed to be the guy who would fill the empty seat. I’d like to extend a hearty thank you to the person who decided to cancel the day of the dinner. I assume you regularly plan poorly. Thankfully, your bad planning really benefited me that day.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the only reason I wanted to join in on this supper club in the first place was for the food created by incredibly talented Orlando based chefs. Food for us is everything. We won’t write about anything if the taste just isn’t there, no matter what your cause is. Good food can cover over a multitude of sins. I would be glad to sit in silence with a group of disgusting eccentrics, if in exchange, I received a great meal. Conversation, networking, and general socializing is way down my list of priorities. Still, I feared I had committed myself to a night of eating with weirdos, as I anxiously drove from SushiPop in Oviedo, after pre-gaming on fatty bluefin tuna bellies and house smoked salmon nigiri. This turned out to be a small, albeit precautionary meal.

There was nothing to fear.

On this night of course, I ate well. The guest chef was a former crew member of some of my favorite spots in town. Michael Garcia, formerly of Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder and The Smiling Bison treated the eight of us to a Cuban inspired feast, with a hard nod to modern technique. The plates of food that came out were beautiful, though they tasted even better than they looked. Especially the work of art that was our first course. An heirloom tomato salad with charred onion and a streak of avocado marble brought me back to the first time I studied Van Gogh’s Water Lilies collection in person. I really took to the braised flank steak, made into ropa vieja that towered over a plateau of culantro rice. The complexity of reduced tomato sauce with a stellar balance of acidity and sweetness, it would have made my Nana proud. Though, she wouldn’t have gone to this event because she doesn’t drive at night. The last course, and arguably the best received by all, was coffee infused pots de crème, with a salty caramel apex and a custardy cinnamon sugared churro. I dug into that custard with my churro like Mikey, Mouth, Chunk and Data looking for One Eyed Willies treasure.

the-dinner-party-project-spread-2

If you were to take the food away, and asked me to come to a mixer in a warehouse, with a group of people I might not ever see again, the answer would be a polite, “no thank you.”

So, obviously it helped that the food was great. In all honesty, I think the experience of conversing with these new friends, making new connections, finding common ground with people who don’t necessarily have similar interests was more memorable than any meal I had had that week, and for the record, I ate well last week.

I think an event like this, if not exactly this, should be implemented in every city. Surely your town can drum up 16 random people a week to get things going. I feel as if society has been slowly losing their ability to converse and function on a casual level. We’ve all slowed down in our ability to get together for no good reason, adult and child alike. As my host graciously suggested, we ditched our phones for the evening, and it was a relief to many of the guests, myself included. Other than snapping a couple of shots that were preapproved, mine stayed right were it belongs, right under my butt. I don’t know, maybe I’m starting to sound like “drunk uncle,” but I remember when get a together meant something. Nowadays, it’s just could you e-mail me dinner, can you fax me a hug? Ipad, Ipod, Iphone Idontknowanymore!

It was a highly delightful and enlightening evening with a group of complete strangers, sharing stories and ideas that quite possibly wouldn’t have been told so freely, if at all, if it were just a group of old friends going through the motions of catching up. No one had to keep up appearances. Instead it was a chance to meet seven new friends in one shot. For someone who has been married for nearly 14 years, you sometimes take for granted getting to know new people intimately. This meal, in a way, gave me a chance to exercise my storytelling ability on subjects that didn’t involve food, an exercise I sort of miss. If you have the chance to get outside of your comfort zone and put yourself out there to be part of their random guest selection process, I can guarantee that you’ll gain a great deal of fulfilling memories afterward.

The Dinner Party Project serves the Orlando area every Tuesday and Wednesday, with a suggested $40-$70 donation per guest. It’s highly suggested that you attend the dinner alone, although they don’t discourage couples. They usually last around 3 hours, which includes passed appetizers, cocktail, wine, and a 3 or 4 course sit down meal with coffee service afterwards. You can go to www.thedinnerpartyproject.coin order to sign up and be registered for their lottery system.

Born + Bread Bakehouse – Lakeland, FL

As cooks, we steal. No one in the field can claim to be 100% original all the time. Maybe Escoffier? I’ll ask around. Someone had to teach us basic technique, perhaps peppered with a few tricks here and there to make us what we are but not what we can become. A good cook doesn’t stop at simple thievery, no, he borrows, gains inspiration and makes it his own. In the immortal words of Frank Black, try this trick, and spin it…yeah.

Here is the difference between us and them. We don’t usually open a cookbook or periodical of note and recreate a recipe verbatim. If you’re in that habit, the results are generally poor. We all have different palates and taste buds. We also live in different unique climates. Then again, when we find a recipe or interesting combination of ingredients, we steal it anyway. When you steal, you should do so for only these three reasons.

1. To learn a technique
2. To spin a plate you love while using your own style
3. To make something better than the “original”

Born & Bread logo

The moment you sink your teeth in the mignon of Jennifer Smurr’s interpretation of the baked good known nationally as a  morning bun, you’ll instantly realize that this form of appropriation is perfectly acceptable. This city is at long last progressing. I’ve campaigned for competent bakers in town ever since my first real adult trip to New York City, when I finally experienced a real baguette, not to mention pastry and now we have them. To taste a thousand flaky layers all in one bite is the result of science, math and art all being tied together like a perfect braided apple strudel. It takes a special set of hands to delicately craft baked goods in a way that can change the landscape of an entire community. To sustain people and make them smile in the same bite. I have a feeling the hands attached to Jenn have the passion to achieve these things.

Born & Bread 1

A classic American beauty with hair adorned in golden braids like something you’d read about in Greek mythology, the life of a model would be an easy career choice for her to make. One that actually played out to fruition. There was one problem. The passion, the spark, and the desire to create something she wanted to create just wasn’t there. By no means is modeling an easy career. As an outsider, due to my grotesque physical prowess, I can assure you that field is as cut throat as it gets. As a friend and ex-postal supervisor of her delivery area, I have had the opportunity to sample some of her early experiments. From the sweet potato biscuits with bacon jam, to the all the pastries and breads, she has totally immersed herself into the art of baking, taking cues from her travels all over the world. Nothing depicts her individuality better than the triumphant spin on the classic morning bun made famous by San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery. An item she fell in love with during recent a trip to the west coast. She made it her own and made it better than the original in my opinion. There are artisans who have created empires based on one thing. If that were the case in this instance the morning bun would be her rise to power.

 There is a flawless bite nestled into each one to help focus your oral aperture. In what is in theory, a croissant shaped to mimic a cinnamon roll perfection is found. The lead up to that one perfect bite literally unwinds like a king cobra striking its prey, and like a king cobra, this French pastry has an enormous range as it is flaky, buttery, crisp, chewy, bright, spicy and sticky sweet all in the same bite. And like a king cobra they can be deadly. Really if you think about it a certain way, these are more weapon than breakfast item. This perfect representation of a classic morning treat reminds me of one the best of the very best NOFX songs, “And Now For Something Completely Similar” from the album – Pump up the Valuum. Compare the progression of the bun with that of a song. Better yet, get a bun and play the song in unison while eating. Whatever you do, do not play the song backwards or you run the risk of pulling yourself into a Faul McCartney-esque vortex.  As it starts off with the singular driving force of a guitar track. As the song unravels (physically start eating your bun by pulling apart the pieces from the outside in) you are greeted with the harmonious beat of a double kick pedal on the drums in time with the lead (the cinnamon sugar swirl with a hint of orange zest). As you reach the crescendo, right before the lyrics come in, a pulsating slap of the bass bombards your speakers (taking a bite from the center in all its ooey goodness). Finally, Fat Mike’s angelic voice comes in (savoring the combined efforts of all flavors involved) and everything begins to move so fast you can barely stand it!

Born & Bread 2

Fast forward through a stint in an intense 3 month-long training program in Miami at ZTB Bakery, and then another few more months working on her business plan. She has zero need to carry the persona “Jenn the apprentice” any longer. She’s got her technique down to rival any patisserie in the country, with flavors that are going to leave few heads unturned. After a few more months of business planning has passed, she is ready to knock you down and make you curse all the days in which you unknowingly went without her goods. “Born + Bread,” her first foray into public legitimacy as a professional baker has finally risen. If you can breathe you should go find it.

And find it you shall, in two incarnations. She will be setting up a spot at the Lakeland downtown curb market on Saturdays to give people a taste of what’s in store. Secondly, look for her work showcased prominently at another exciting endeavor coming this spring to the Dixieland village. Concord Coffee is soon to be Lakeland’s truest version of a craft coffee shop, with Born + Bread on full display.

 

 

Locale Market – St. Petersburg, FL

On my right, sits an older woman, a wiser woman, quietly scarfing down duck confit and potato gratin out of a takeout container. It’s obvious that she’s eavesdropping on the conversation my dear friend Jeff Houck (Marketing and PR Director of Locale Market) and I are having regarding the evolving beast that is Locale Market. As I surveyed the frenzy of activity, I realized what this was, an enormous “choose your adventure” book, played out over flat tops and fryers. With such an enormous and dynamic enterprise as this, it’s easy to see how every person that comes through the door experiences a unique eating adventure.

Locale Market spread

A couple of young fledgling’s across the way, both eating burgers, are moaning as if this were more than just a mid-day nutrient injection to them. That’s because it is. It’s partly entertainment. While Thing 1 gives out a slow “ohhhh myyyyyy gaaaaaahd” like a younger, less annoying Janice Litman-Goralnik née Hosenstein, Thing 2 exclaims ever so braggadociously, “This is…like…oh em gee…the foodie version of Disney World”.

In the future I’m really going to attempt to be less argumentative, as I really am getting sick and tired of people being outwardly negative just for the sake of it. Still, it’s in my genes, and because of that, I must wholeheartedly disagree with Thing 2’s statement, though I can’t fault her for making it. Locale Market is an amazing place, and she was just so excited she couldn’t find a more eloquent way to express herself. My new unofficial home base is better than Disney World, or D23, it’s even better than getting three fast passes for Toy Story Mania in the same trip, which is now physically impossible thanks to Fastpass+ armbands. Disney World has the ability to leave you wanting more or at least wanting a better experience. If you want a fantastical telling of how a Disney getaway can cause you to think it’s going to be one thing and then it turns out to be something completely inverted, watch the low-budget movie that was made entirely in the park incognito, “Escape From Tomorrow.*” (*Watch the first 30 minutes, maybe 45, after that it gets weird and falls apart like a loaf of gluten-free millet bread.) At Locale, no sane person could ever be disappointed. Let me reiterate. This is better than Disney World.

Locale meats

You need to prepare yourself for the first trip to Locale Market. It can be completely overwhelming if you’re not familiar with the concept of mega food halls. Each time I’ve gone, my company gets lost in it all. My advice is to focus on the first thing you see that looks good and order it, then immediately plan your next trip so you can try the next thing down the line. The next stop for me is the fish station.

If you had enough people, you could each tackle one area per person. Then after each team member has found something good, pick a rendezvous point and share the haul with everyone. There are at least a dozen unique food stations to visit and order things to either eat right away or take home. You can also do real grocery shopping as well, although I still don’t think the normal consumer has quite figured out that part of the storefront just yet.

Locale spread 2

If you’re looking to have a full meal without the need to shop for it, you can take a little hike upstairs to the wine bar. It’s a place where cheeseboards rule the day and the steaks come served on slabs of wood with bones intact. All the items have been curated from the minds of Michael Mina and Don Pintabona, so you are guaranteed to have fantastic food in a very casual relaxed environment. Speaking of the partners of Locale, they seem to be very hands on with this passion project. I’ve seen Mr. Mina a few times, not including the night of the Grand Opening ceremony, which is a pretty impressive thing since honestly; he has an empire to run. They are completely involved in the operation, so much so that Mr. Pintabona has been spotted in his chef whites every single time I’ve visited. Don’t just think it’s because he knew we were coming. We always arrive as unannounced guests. He even comically ran into one of my friends on our way to the liquid nitrogen enriched ice cream and shake shoppe.

Locale spread 3

Not only that, you can take a seat at the full service restaurant called FarmTable which opened earlier this year and features a ticketing system unique to the bay area. Similar concepts have had great success at places like the renowned Alinea in Chicago, Trois Mec in L.A and é by Jose Andres in Vegas. Expect to see as much hoopla as the rush to get floor seats for Queen’s 1981 “THE GAME” tour.

Locale at home

As the fever of the first few months has died down a little, I would like to give some advice to those who have yet to go or who have gone and maybe had a shaky experience. Internet trolls tend to only highlight the negative aspects without appreciating how much awesome is all around them. This concept on such a large-scale is entirely new to Florida. It’s the first of its kind from the Mina Group, so even an experienced group of food and business people have to deal with a slight learning curve. Sure, there are a couple of things that could be handled a little better, like clearly indicating where the lines begin for each station. It might be because nobody figured this kind of place would stick so incredibly fast. For goodness sake, the lines for the burger station rival those of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves Mine train. The biggest difference is after Snow White is done with you, you’ve got no St. Petersburger to make out with, and speaking of a burger bound for stardom, it’s made out of a house-ground dry aged beef from the Locale butcher. With a salad tossed in In-n-Out sauce, topped with smoked Gouda, bacon, caramelized onions and mushrooms to boot. This comes in between a brioche bun straight out of Locale’s bakery. It also comes with a molten cheese sauce which I will always omit because of my disdain for American cheese. Yet, if you want it all, I don’t blame you.

Locale meats 2

Another thing many people can’t take is crowds. These kind of people probably also don’t like Disney World or waiting in general. They want it all, they want it all, they want it all and they want it now and if they have to be around the general population, they’ll avoid it like the plague. Don’t go between 11:45 a.m.-2:00 p.m. because you’ll be swarmed and I really do want you to enjoy yourself. Lunch rush gets crazy. Please bear with everyone’s uncharacteristic way pushing and shoving while stumbling around like fashion zombies, looking for grilled persimmons on warm ricotta toast, as if grilled persimmons on ricotta toast were Daryl and Merle Dixon’s brains.

Locale Italian

Last thing, this isn’t Eataly, Gotham West Market, The San Francisco Ferry Building or any other example of the gourmet food court. It’s also nothing like Mazzaro’s; a larger Italian focused market on the other side of the city. If Locale, is Disney World, Mazzaro’s is Dollywood. So please, let’s stop with those silly comparisons people. I’ve said already but it bears repeating, this is the first of its kind in the state. The name is Locale for a reason. I couldn’t think of many things they sell that are not either made in-house or sourced locally. That goes for the meat, cheese, produce and the seafood. Even the water that bears Locale’s name is from Florida. The only things I can think that doesn’t fall in line are the packaged items that simply can’t be done in these climates, or because there is a far superior product elsewhere, such as pints of Cool Haus ice cream from L.A. or bottled cold-brew coffee from Stumptown in Portland, OR. Arguably the best bottled coffee in the country and the only place I’ve found it nearby is Locale.

Locale sweets

If treating your body like a temple sounds fun, you can be that person and still enjoy yourself here as most things are either organic, sustainable or wholesome and, if possible, all three. If treating your body like are amusement park is more your style, Locale market is your Magic Kingdom.

Garde Manger Revisited

After only two visits, Garde Manger has entrenched itself deep in my heart. It’s not simply because the food hits the mark with near perfect accuracy, or that they’ve achieved such a warm and inviting atmosphere, but because it has quickly become forever linked to happy times with friends and family. On my most recent visit, I was bestowed the honor of minting two new oyster lovers. Only Garde Manger, with a constant supply of the most pristine bivalves North America has to offer, has the power to turn people’s preferences around on a dime. I ordered a beginners pack of oysters, featuring a pair each of Cooke from PEI, Chipaganne from New Brunswick and Montreal’s own Trésor du Large (thanks to Meggie for the spelling!). I’ve said it before, but in my opinion the oysters here set the bar, no where else even comes close. As a tasty accompaniment, we chose a tidy bowl of buttery smoked salmon and pickled onion.

Garde Manger spread 1

With five people, we planned on sampling a majority of the menu if possible, starting with a crisp beet salad with apple radishes in a buttermilk dressing. As you’ll tend to do at Garde Manger, especially in the winter, we left the light dishes behind and dove headlong into a plate of pork and mushroom bread pudding topped with mizuna and a soft-boiled quail egg. Keeping the rich train rolling was a hot reisten brioche topped with foie gras and cranberry sauce. The thick lobes of buttery foie linked up perfectly with the tangy cranberries. The brioche standing by to soak up all the glorious drippings.

Garde Manger spread 2

Everyone at the table, all loved ones of mine, did me proud with their selections. As this was Montreal, the lobster poutine was an automatic choice. Fresh cheese curds, thick gravy and a sprinkling of chives were mounded over succulent chunks of lobster meat. Somehow the frites managed to sustain the moist barrage and kept things crisp and salty, flavoring the crustacean nicely. On the other side of the table, the walleye with quinoa, artichoke and rosemary crisps was a hit with the ladies.

Garde Manger spread 3

A handsome plate of seared scallops soon arrived joined by Romanesco broccoli, buttercup squash and bacon topped with healthy slices of black truffle. Scallops are a tricky protein to get right. The chefs at Garde Manger will take you to school in the art of scallop searing, achieving a perfect caramelized layer on the outside, while leaving the interior pearly and loose, sort of like a medium rare steak. Speaking of medium rare, a grouping of slice venison looked like little targets, their deep crimson centers indicating where the choicest bites would be found. The sometimes gamey nature of venison was noticeably absent here. A smooth Jerusalem artichoke purée and crispy bits of kale gave contrasting textures to the beautiful meat. I was leery of the last seafood dish, a seared fillet of cod surrounded by clams in a fennel purée. I’m a notorious fennel hater, but I have full trust in Chuck Hughes and company, and with good reason. The purée was delicious, maybe it was the mixture of saffron and butter that tamed the licorice tinge that I so abhor, or it could have been the sweet caramelized endives. Either way I found a preparation for fennel that I could swallow, and dare I say, enjoy.

Garde Manger spread 4

Nothing could have prepared me for the dish I chose. Whole Cornish game hen, swaddled with winter veggies, stuffed with foie gras, mushrooms and red cabbage topped with truffle butter. The smell coming off this bird was enough to induce a truffle aroma coma. I will admit, I was simultaneously excited and intimidated by the fowl. The prospect of an entire bird, with ribcage and all replaced with a foie gras, mushroom mixture was almost too much to resist. Needless to say, I dispatched the bird along with the truffle infused veggies.

Loyal readers, I feel that I’ve made this clear in last post on the subject, but if there’s one restaurant you visit while in Montreal, make sure it’s Garde Manger.

Fodder & Shine – Tampa, FL

People sometimes don’t understand why we love food so much. It’s a great debate that I don’t usually have a well-constructed position on, save for one exception. Unlike anything people involve themselves in that isn’t a form of secular work or family time, things considered as hobbies, extra-curricular activity, even time wasters aren’t a basic human need the way eating is. We just choose to survive in a more taste conscious manner. Everyone in the world has to eat, but not all take it in as a possible existential experience. I will never share the philosophy that life, whether free or not, is just about three hots and a cot.

This leads me to my own personal heritage. I’ve lived smack dab in the center of Florida my entire life. According to our tree and the U.S. Census, my father’s side migrated to Polk County from Georgia in the early 1800’s. Before that was South Carolina for a stint. Before that we landed in Virginia around 1665. It’s safe to say I have deep seeded roots planted in the South. As any self-respecting son of a Florida cracker (my Dad actually worked much of his early life on different farms and cattle yards, raised his own livestock and studied veterinary medicine, so he was the real deal), the cuisine I love, the food I crave like a magnet are the things my mother fed me, the recipes she learned from my dad’s mom, who was taught by his grandmother, the person we affectionately referred to as little meemaw due to her slight stature. I think there’s only one photo I have of us together as she died shortly after my birth, yet I think of that photo every time I eat cornbread and black-eyed peas as she was the touchstone for the cooking history of the Crumpton family in the modern era.

I can’t speak for them, but I do know a bit about Greg and Michelle Baker. Not enough to be a stalker but almost enough to be a newspaper restaurant reviewer. They too are Florida natives and hold their history and that of each of their families history very dear to their hearts and stomachs. I don’t mean to speak out of turn regarding family matters I know nothing about, but I can’t help to think they might share a similar fondness for each of their Meemaws home cooking. If I had to wager a bet, I would guess much of it was done on well-seasoned cast iron skillets.

FS Logo

Obviously, Florida cracker cuisine is dear to them. They just opened a shrine to honor the cuisine that I feel has been recreated oh so poorly in our area over the course of my adult life.

I had to leave the Raschke brothers sitting at the table immediately after the inaugural meal on opening night at Fodder and Shine. They without question were probably still debating old school punk rock and hardcore, wondering if there were other punk rock foodies in the Bay area other than ourselves.

While they were still seated, I walked to my car and just sat there for a couple of minutes in silence, thinking mostly about my dad and how much I was still missing him after nearly 2 rough years without him. Wondering how much he might have liked eating all the food of his life encapsulated in this single restaurant, and how he definitely would not have written this place off his list. He introduced me to fried gizzards, smoked mullet roe, frog’s legs and many more things F&S have added to their repertoire. I began to drive away with tears in my eyes, moved by the thought of food and how it has been such a large part of what I hold near to remember all those loved ones who have passed away.

Fodder Spread

Our recipes are sometimes the only thing we have that helps keeps those memories alive. I’ll never be a wealthy person because I don’t come from money. I don’t plan on having some large inheritance somewhere down the line, yet I feel rich with recipes that have been passed down through my family. Now that I finally pried it from my mom’s hands after about a decade of begging, I sure as heck will never be without my meemaw’s chewy cake recipe or the way my Nana makes her neck bone spaghetti.

The Bakers have captured the feel of centuries old Florida cooking with every keystroke of that menu, and they’ve succeeded in executing the cooking process, even in things that might seem small to the untrained eye. Right down to the perfect coloring and doneness on a side of sautéed zucchini squash, it’s all as I remembered it. It’s not 100% old school though and it shouldn’t be. Greg is still a chef for goodness sakes, and for me, good cheffing is about three key things, which he possesses moreso than almost anyone I’ve met.

1. Constant progression

2.Teaching others what you know

3. Respect for tradition.

Fodder and shine is the perfect place to use as equilibrium.

Fodder Spread 2

The feel and size of the space is our main and only concern. It’s massive and feels like a modern restaurant and not a place my meemaw might be cooking back in the kitchen. I think this kind of restaurant really belongs in a more intimate setting, more like in a house turned into dining establishment. My idea is flip-flop The Refinery and Fodder.

If you are a Florida native, I hope you have your own wonderful food registry that’s been passed down from generation to generation. If not, take a trip over to Fodder and Shine to see what you’ve more than likely been missing. And if you are a transplant just putting down roots down here, or maybe you’re just passing by, I sincerely hope you get it, even if these traditional preparations are not in your taste memory bank.

Momofuku Noodle Bar – New York City, NY

Waiting in line is rarely an enjoyable experience. I know from experience how baffling it can be for some to fathom that you’d ever choose to wait, and for something as simple as food no less. Somehow though, certain places continuously attract throngs of people to form incredibly long lines with the hope of securing a meal. There’s a soup kitchen/first world problems joke in there somewhere, but I’ll let that one lie.

Momofuku Logo

I ran into this situation recently in New York. It was getting close to dinner time and, as is usually the case, I’d procrastinated and failed to procure a reservation. It’s Saturday around 5 pm, we have to make it to Governor’s Island in a few hours for a show, hey why don’t we try to get into Momofuku! Brilliant.

Momfuku crowd

We arrived at quarter past to a line of more than 30 people eagerly waiting for the doors to open like so many suburban garage sale hunters. Not long after we assumed our place at the back of the line, we were approached by a German tourist and his family. “So is this place worth the wait?”, he asked, “these people certainly seem to think so”, I replied with a gesture to the patient crowd in front of us. Apparently that answer was enough for him to stick around, good man.

If you manage to pass through the doors, and if your party is small enough, you may be seated at the bar. I highly recommend this if you have any say at all, as the entertainment value of watching the chefs assemble the various dishes of the moment is worth the wait alone. We managed to catch a beautiful bowl of shrimp and grits being plated with military precision right before our eyes.

After my recent experience with shrimp and grits on our Orlando crawl, I wish I would’ve ordered it here, but I have no regrets. My choice of buns, in the shiitake and shrimp variety were more than satisfying. The former dressed simply with hoisin, scallion and shreds of cucumber was like a vegetarian Peking Duck. The latter topped a seared shrimp patty with spicy mayo, tart pickled red onion and crisp iceberg (I’m not usually a fan, but it worked here, well-played Mr. Chang).

Momofuku apps

Not to be overlooked were the pig tails which give you everything you want in a pork product. Fatty, gooey flavor packed cartilage hanging precariously off shards of crisped flesh.  A humble sprinkling of scallion and chili is enough to highlight the taste and wake up the tongue. The small bowl of pickled Asian pear helped to calm the spice with a little sweetness. Little did I know how much I’d miss those soothing pears as the next two dishes whipped my little gaijin behind.

Momofuku chilled spicy noodles

This bowl here, it’s sneaky. Do not be fooled by the word “chilled”. There’s nothing chilled about this dish except for the temperature of the noodles and maybe the nonchalant manner of the waitress as she places it in front of you knowing full well what you’re in for.

The chilled spicy noodle bowl is one of those dishes that lures you in with addicting flavors, sweet glazed cashews and savory bits of Sichuan sausage. You feel a small burn starting in the back of your throat, but it won’t stop you from greedily shoveling more of that taste into your mouth. But the burn keeps building with each bite, and not even the perfectly fresh spinach can quench the inferno that’s engulfing your insides…and yet, you return to the noodle siren as it calls you back again and again, no regrets.

Momofuku rice cakes

There’s a saying about fighting fire with fire. I can tell you, it doesn’t apply to food, as ordering a spicy dish and following it up with an even hotter one, is ill advised. Momofuku’s rice cakes are like little Japanese gnocchi from hell. They arrive piping hot and drenched in an angry red chili sauce that will turn your tongue to ash. Ok so it’s not quite that hot, but popping a couple of these guys in your mouth while it’s still in re-entry from the atomic noodles is not a smart idea. David Chang doesn’t mess around, he’s managed to balance the flavor and spice so carefully so that you won’t be able to stop eating it no matter how much you wish you could. Pro tip, do not order these two dishes back to back, but definitely do order them.

For all the hype, Momofuku delivered a meal that met, and at times exceeded my expectations. This is simply Asian fare done right, and if you appreciate that sort of thing, a 45 min wait is no big deal. I look forward to visiting Chef Chang’s nearby hideaway, Momofuku Ko, but there are no cameras allowed, so no post for you!

Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part II

ead-orlando-food-crawl-2014 2.0

We arrived early at East End Market just in time for Sangria Hour over at the adjoining Txokos. While most of the crew had to cure their shakes, I set out to explore the market while waiting for a couple of chumpy stragglers to vacate our spot at Kappo. Not that any of us are big tymers like Bird Man or Mannie Fresh, but we “still fresh” and because of that, reserved the entire restaurant…all eight seats. (For an introduction to Kappo, see our review)

For those who don’t know, East End Market is a food-centric co-op/incubator for small upstarts. The owner has provided a handful of spaces for small business owners to develop and demonstrate their concepts. It’s been a proven success as pretty much every booth is always buzzing with shoppers. I decided to do another mini cleanse with a small glass of lemongrass, starfruit Kombucha from Joybird Juicery.

Out of all the places on the crawl, the crew was most looking forward to Kappo. All eight members of said crew are live free or die harder with a vengeance sushi connoisseurs. If you want to experience the experience we experienced, you need to set it up through their email process. I’ve had a nice back and forth with the reservations department coordinating this and previous visits with excellent results. They have hospitality down on all fronts in a dynamic way, from planning to meal execution.

Let me reiterate, if you’re looking for the girlfriend experience in a way that only food can provide, phrases such as, “money is no object”, “foie-forward”, “don’t hold back”, “bring the uni” and “its imperative you make it rain shaved truffles” need to be part of your conversation when you set up meal.

Just so we’re clear, you may or may not be able to have a meal in a similar scope to what we had. We ate omakase style. There are no menus. We have no say. The whole idea is to trust the chef. If you want to order off of their pretty incredible menu, I think your best bet is to go to the first come first served weekday hour where everything can be had a la carte. If you want a meal only a small group of people will ever have, do what we did. You’ll feel like Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones in the 1994 action thriller, “Blown Away.”

Starting with the first course, they were definitely “foie-forward” with a lavish preparation of cured duck liver torchon, hidden inside a caviar jar with dollop of beluga, and a small layer of preserved kumquat marmalade underneath to add some sweetness as well as acidity.

Kappo spread 1

And so began the debate of which course was best at Kappo. It would be hard to top to the silky foie, except maybe with the most luxurious chawan mushi ever assembled. The custard, flavored with dashi, had a deep mahogany layer of truffle demi-glace that was so heavily reduced it approached life-threatening levels of pungency and earthiness. I almost started believing in umami. The custard itself was nice and wobbly, not too dense, which played perfectly with a couple of tongues of Atlantic uni that hovered gently over the truffle sauce. We assumed that the dish set in front of us was complete as is. We were dead wrong. The chef started walking around with a handful of whole black Alba winter truffles, shaving them with a microplane in the general direction of our bowls, without fear of consequence. This might have been the moment where my, “It’s imperative you make it rain shaved truffles” comment came into play. James wasted no time positioning himself to have truffles shorn straight into his mouth. Chef obliged with some paper-thin wafers as he pulled out the industrial strength slicer. I felt like Kurt Russell in the 1992 fire related action-thriller motion picture, when I was surprised to find truffles floating in my sake due to the “Backdraft”. Studying shaved truffles up close is such a beautiful and mesmerizing thing, like the most delicious Catacomb you could ever traverse. You should try it sometime.

The chefs kept the pace with a warm and cold sunomuno style salad with a heaping pile of cured salmon roe and marinated then seared scallop as the base. More uni fulfilled the request to “bring the uni”, this one coming from the Pacific. You could really tasty the subtle nuances between the different regions the sea urchins hail from. The Atlantic was more buttery, almost without that sense of coming from the sea at all, which did pair well with the custard. The Pacific was briny, with a stronger presence which worked just as well with in the sunomuno preparation. No salad would be complete without roughage. Chef placed a single nasturtium leaf coated in spritzing of kaffir lime essence. It reminded me of the way morning dew sticks to a flower just before sunrise.

The next dish was a fried enigma. What was this? One bite of the milky interior and I knew immediately. Milk poached sweetbreads fried in coarse panko crumbs for maximum texture. They were served with small heap of pickled julienned Asian pear, and a pungent nutta sauce of hot mustard, vinegar and blanched baby bok choy to create perfect harmony.

Kappo spread 2

Next was the sushi course. We were treated with a sampling of Artic char, flounder and waqyu strip loin, all topping the most succulent nubs of tranquil rice at just the right lukewarm temperature. I imagine if I ever got a chance to try out a 3 Michelin star sushi joint, the rice would be similar. The fish and beef weren’t ice cold and neither was the rice. I think serving cold sushi masks the true flavor, thankfully they were both at a more resting temperature. It goes to show that if you’re working with a superior product, you don’t need to put it into a cryogenic sleep to keep it fresh.  I can confirm  our resident “rice” guy Thai was spotted shedding tears of joy.

Yes, you can go to Kappo and only eat sushi, and I know that you’d go home praising yourself for the amazing decisions you’ve made. With that said, if you don’t allow the chef to breathe in a way that promotes creativity, you’ll miss out on a rare experience. The meal was inherently Japanese, as this is technically a Japanese food stall. Though, the influence of French, Korean, Italian and American for that matter, all played out seamlessly during the course of the meal.

Finally, as part of the chefs tasting we were served dessert. The chef handling pastry is a master. She keeps the flow of the meal intact by not killing the senses with overly sweet morsels, and she presents the final treats like a goodbye kiss. Not with a lame handshake, but with two kisses on each cheek. Starfruit paté de fruit, green tea mochi, pistachio and cocoa-matcha truffles were all delightful in their own unique way. Together they formed a Voltron bonbon.

It was time to say goodbye to the four chef team of Kappo to hit our last stop.

With our bellies distended, we saddled up to a hightop at the ever-loving Cask & Larder. Fullness never stops a true eater from ordering something that sounds tasty. Pogo eyed a scrumptious tamale with roasted goat, buttermilk curds, and pickled sweet peppers, while me and James couldn’t resist the lamb ribs, with a sticky BBQ sauce, smoked collard greens and quick B&B pickles. The rest of the table was not going to let us down.

Cask & Larder goat tamale

They pooled together what room they had left in their tummies and ordered an impressive tower from the raw bar. Rock shrimp scampi, roasted oysters with slivers of uni, oysters on the half with mignonette, steamed cherrystone clams with tostones and an aji amarillo aioli, and slabs of raw tuna coated with tahini, chiles, Asian pear and crispy maitake mushroom threads.

Cask & Larder spread

We had a round a victory drinks to mark another successful conquest, one of which happened to be the best gin and tonic in town. It’s always sad saying goodbye, but then again we’ve already begun plans for the next adventure, so that softened the blow. We all miss Todd, and while we’re glad he’s living his dream with his dreamgirl, it doesn’t diminish the fact that a big part of what made the Tampa food scene so lively, isn’t in Tampa anymore.  We miss him so much, we miss his scent. When this all gets sorted out, I think we should all get an apartment together. Til’ next time, old friend.

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part I

The triumphant return of an original  member of the Four Coursemen gave us an excuse to plan an all-out attack on the flourishing Orlando food scene. I don’t want to give him a Big Head Todd, but in all honestly, he was a true forerunner of social eating and food blogging in the Tampa area. He was the first person to really reach out and try to help us get our name out to a larger audience, without trying to buy our stomachs, and for that I give him 5 stars. So what can you do for a man who eats everything? Feed him.

I like to think we toured Orlando thoroughly the first time, especially since we were dining at the height of the city’s food revival. At that time, places such as East End Market, Cask & Larder and Pharmacy were in their infancy, still working out the kinks, but that didn’t stop them from serving up tasty food. For the most part, the main goal of our last trip was eating at places that none of the Tampa crew had tried.

ead-orlando-food-crawl-2014 2.0

I think of my two Orlando food crawls as Paul McCartney albums. The first one was like “Band on the Run”, a masterful effort from start to finish. Our most recent one was something of a greatest hits collection. I feel comfortable saying that they were “All the Best.”

What would be considered “The Lakeland crew” got a late start. I realize punctuality is important, especially when you’ve got half a dozen full service restaurants to visit. However by 10 AM, our bellies were beginning to grumble, so we swung by The Bread Pedlar for a morning bun to prepare our stomachs. It’s not our fault we happened across a random pincho stand raise up like a phoenix, setting fire to the sun. Or should I say, setting fire to our plans of making it on time to Highball & Harvest to meet the rest of the crew. The pincho pusher told me that it would take 2 minutes, which turned into 20. Finally, with a skewer of BBQ’d Chicken and a couple of Plátano Relleno con Carne hand pies in hand, we finally got out-of-town.

Meanwhile, at Highball & Harvest, Kurt, Todd and Thai wasted no time and began eating and drinking with gusto. The highly regarded “Chicken and the Egg,” a fantastic take on chicken & waffles with a sunny side up egg and house made hot sauce, didn’t survive long enough for us to sample. They also ordered “Pig-n-Potatoes”, which was their version of hash for a highly sophisticated southern gentleman. Instead of corned beef, braised pork cheeks were used.

Highball & Harvest spread 1

We were greeted with hisses for our tardiness which quickly morphed into warm greetings as everyone was just so happy to see each other again. There were a few scraps left of the hash we gobbled up like Oliver Twist scrounging about for another bowl of gruel. There were a couple of fantastic Parker House rolls left with a side of apple butter butter. You really must order them with any meal at H&H. The only way I can properly describe these rolls, would be to flash back to the days when we all used to go to buffets as youngsters and eat our weight in those awesome yeast rolls, which is pretty much the only redeeming quality of said establishments. The H&H rolls were like that, only x10 better.

As everyone got comfortable, another round of drinks were ordered by the boys as us late comers played catch up by ordering some food. Coming out of the kitchen first was a  Southern sampler spread, consisting of smoked fish dip, pickled root vegetables and pimento cheese with various crackers. Also ordered was a canister of fried pickles and onion strips with secret sauce. The smoked fish dip was great as were the pickles. We also got a single baby pork belly slider with BBQ kimchi from the bar menu to sample between six of us. The thing was no bigger than a silver dollar, but it managed to round the table twice as each of us attempted to take smaller and smaller bites so as not to be the glutton.

After we slowed on the sampler, our main plates arrived. I must have gone through burger withdrawal, as it had been nearly 2 weeks since #ApocalypseCow. James and I went with their burger, made with ground short rib topped with pimento cheese, smoky bacon, B&B Pickles and mustard. There was something eerily familiar and comforting to me; as if it were a burger I had from many years past.

Highball & Harvest spread 2

Pogo chose a beautiful bowl of red Canaveral shrimp and grits with a thinned out tomato based BBQ gravy. The rest of the boys shared a plate of chicken fried chicken with silky potato purée, sweet pickled green beans and watermelon rind. What a happy accident it was to try the shrimp and grits. For me it was the best plate of food we had at H&H, though we heard rumors that the chicken and waffles was in fact the best, we may never know. I don’t think any one of us expected to love this place as much as we did. I’m very excited to go back for more. Just make sure to validate your parking before you leave the hotel, because it’s pretty steep otherwise.

After some McLaren ogling, we headed to Winter Park, the center of our food crawl battleground. Of course this exercise was obviously first about eating good food. However, the more subtle theme of the day was reconnecting with friends. We took a slower, more relaxed approach and decided to trim off a couple of places we just simply did not have time for, which also gave us an excuse to hit Prato sooner. If you haven’t heard of Prato by now, you either: 1. Don’t like Italian food, or 2. Don’t know us. We’ve covered what I firmly consider the best Italian restaurant in state at length; with not one but two posts as well as the myriad Instagram photo bombs. At this juncture, we were joined by Theresa and Joel, a couple more Bay area peeps who really know their stuff.

Prato apps

Between the eight of us, we nearly ordered the entire menu. Not only did the waiter gift us some of their signature meatballs, but with eight people ordering, real estate on our table was at a premium. We have a rule that forbids the ordering of more than one dish at each place to avoid overfilling. That that rule quickly went out the window as multiple pasta courses were checked off by James and Kurt. If I had to guess, they had nearly half a dozen between them, and they weren’t the only ones. There was pizza covered with cured meats, fresh mozzarella, herbs and an over easy egg for dunking the crust into. Theresa pulled a rabbit out of her hat with her smokey, Italian style Reuben sandwich. Joel, who we found out is indeed a real person (long story), snuck in some soft stracciatella bathing in a pool of warm olive oil with perfectly placed droplets of aged balsamic. Spread that stuff over some crunchy bread and it will make you go crazy enough that your tongue will try to beat your brains out.

Prato spread

I kind of lost track of all the pasta we ate. Whatever they had, we ordered it. If you’re looking for the best pasta area, made in-house and by hand, Prato is the place for you. Just take a look at this rundown.

  1. Giant raviolo filled with soft ricotta and a yolk with parm and brown buttered bread crumbs
  2. Squid ink campanelle with New Smyrna Beach clams, Canaveral shrimp and roasted cherry tomatoes
  3. Cavatelli with beef cheek ragu, butternut squash, greens with a runny horseradish crema
  4. Beet ravioli stuffed with goat cheese then topped with crushed tomatoes, herbs and toasted pine nuts
  5. Chive bagli amatrciana dusted with buttery bread crumbs

Prato pasta

That tied up the first half of our crawl like a nice farfalle. Stay tuned for Part II, featuring the incomparable Kappo and the young gun, Cask & Larder!

Eat a Duck’s Top Meals of 2014: Part II

I finally had the opportunity to travel a good amount in 2014 after years of being grounded. Naturally this led to of amazing meals. Apart from the food which, let’s face it, I wouldn’t be talking about if it weren’t unbelievable, the company with which I shared these dishes is really what bring these dishes to the forefront of my mind. While these five dishes run the gamut of price from nearly free to exorbitant, each one delivered something new and special. I chose my list based on how badly I want to go back and have them again. It was a difficult task, but here are my entries for the best of 2014!

  1. Spicy Chive and Pork Dumplings at Shanghai Dumpling King – San Francisco, CA

spicy-chive-pork-dumplings

Very few dishes bring a smile to my face as easily as steaming hot dumplings. Shanghai Dumpling King served up this beautiful bowl of tender, savory and spicy pork and chive dumplings, swimming in a sea of sesame and chili oil and it was a wonder to behold. They’ve got their mixture down perfect and it’s habit forming as all great Chinese food should be. Logan may not believe in umami, but that’s exactly what we experienced that night in San Francisco.

  1. Thresher Shark Nugget at é – Las Vegas, NV

Thresher Shark Nugget

Have you had thresher shark? Have you had any shark? Yeah neither had I. I’m usually one to question the ethics of killing such a beautiful animal, sadly however, my moral compass went haywire when this thresher shark nugget, fried in a sherry vinegar tinged batter was presented to me. Think pork belly, but just the fat. That’s what this was like, gelatinous but tender with a depth of flavor rarely seen in most seafood.

  1. Veal Sweetbreads with Gnocchi Parisienne at Rooster and the Till – Tampa, FL

Sweetbreads

I feel like we talk about the “Anton Ego” moment around here a lot. How that one bite of food can instantly transport you through time. This veal sweetbread dish from Rooster and the Till did just that. As it touched my tongue I was somehow taken back to my mothers turkey dinner, albeit with much more finely composed flavors. Very few dishes can match the balance of flavors and textures that this one achieved.

  1. Basil Pesto Ravioli at Beauty & Essex – New York, NY

Basil Pesto Ravioli from Beauty & Essex

Speaking of flavor, these precious little pockets of pesto contained a flavor so intense you’d be forgiven for thinking you were eating basil straight out of the garden. Aside from the freshness, who puts tomato sauce and pesto together? Chris Santos, that’s who, and it works so shut it. Too bad it’s not on the menu anymore!

  1. Sea Cucumber Roe at NAOE – Miami, FL

Sea Cucumber Roe from NAOE

Sea cucumber gonads…are you listening? The reproductive system…of a sea cucumber. Just so you understand how incredibly delicious this delicacy is, I’m going to completely ignore the beautiful tongue of uni sitting just to its right. This tiny morsel gave me an experience that I haven’t felt since my first taste of foie gras. A completely new and luxurious flavor like nothing I’ve ever eaten, silky, sweet, melt in your mouth, like if foie and crème brulée had a baby. I seriously considered a move to Hokkaido so I could hoard these little guys for myself, as if they aren’t rare enough as it is.