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Best of 2014.

It’s that time again. Since 2008 I’ve handed down golden forks to the best dishes in and around Charlottesville. But first, a few announcements. While I have your attention.

I’m published! In at least one other place beside this blog ;) Deep within the pages of the 2015 Virginia Travel Guide, page 22 to be exact and distributed in January, you’ll find an article about hidden food gems. Places serving incredible eats that don’t necessarily look “gourmet” from the street. Who did I write about? You’ll have to visit your friendly neighborhood Virginia Welcome Center to find out. Or check back here when I get my copy and crow a bit more. I will tell you this. I fought like hell for Sally Bell’s Kitchen but they wouldn’t allow it because Sally Bell’s has no seating area. Whatever. They’re still number one in my book.

Second announcement. This is major folks. I’m creating a podcast! Over the years I’ve been interviewed for a few (you can listen here and here) and I did several food segments for the Cville Podcasting Network. I miss it. A lot. From your emails I gather you’d like to read more about what’s happening in the Cville-area food scene. More food news, gossip, events and the like.

Well, I don’t want to write about that. But I’ll sure as hell talk about it. Loudly and with views. Until the cows come home drunk and repentant. I’m sure I’ll ruffle some feathers, wouldn’t be a good podcast otherwise. Where we live and what we eat is important. Folks got opinions. In fact my goal is to sound as LITTLE like an episode of SNL’s “Schweddy Balls” as possible. I want people laughing but not because I sound like a loaf of white bread served with plain rice, weak tea, and melba toast. Terry Gross I ain’t. Look for my new podcast, edacious, to debut here and on iTunes, Stitcher, and all the regular hangouts in February 2015.

Without further ado, here are my Best Dishes of 2014 in alphabetical order. Let me state, as I do every year, these are my opinions and you will probably have different ones. Variety makes the world go around. It’s like the Rock Hall of Fame. I’m pissed Green Day got in, but other people think Billie Joe is gold. We can still coexist. What we eat is important but in the end, it’s just food. Every December I sit at my desk and reminisce on what I ate. What I remember goes on the list. The very best dish I ate? The Chicken Congee at The Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas, which might say something about the state of my stomach slash appetite in 2014. But what were the dishes I remembered in Charlottesville? My 14 for 2014 are below.

Best Charlottesville Dishes of 2014

Barbecue Exchange – Fried Chicken
Chef Craig Hartman’s establishment seems to hit my list in some form or fashion every year, probably because he’s always trying out new ways to smoke, fry, and barbecue. This year it’s the fried chicken, only served at the yearly Porkapalooza gathering in February. Now, I’ve tasted every fried bird Charlottesville and its environs has to offer, even judged a contest, and this is hands down, the best. Crispy on the outside, juicy beyond belief on the inside. Plus it passes the “next-day” test by tasting even better cold. Grace Kelly would be proud to offer up a leg or breast to Mr. Grant.

Bizou – Crab Cakes
I ate this dish outdoors over the summer when the humidity was high and all I could think about was the beach and boat drinks. Bizou’s crab cakes took me right there. Delicate and sweet these crab cakes transported me to the Outer Banks. Instantly I’m in a lounger on vacation and the biggest decision I have to make today is what to eat for dinner. Easy! An entire bowl of the fried polenta bites they serve alongside. Now if I could just convince the chefs to put that on the menu.

Bodo’s Bagels – Pastrami & Swiss on an Everything Bagel
This one HAD to go on the list because I inhaled one at least 3 times a month the entire year. My go to “feel-better-lunch-because-the-day-has-been-shitty” sandwich. Four dollars and eight cents plain, and just a little more with lettuce, tomato, and mustard. Tender meat, melty Swiss, on a perfectly boiled and baked New York Everything. Half for lunch, the other half for dinner and my day goes from shitty to stellar.

Crozet Pizza – Hero Pizza
“What’s the best pizza in Charlottesville?” is a volatile question around here. My assertion, and I’m willing to argue this until end of days, is a good slice holds its toppings. When you lift a slice, there should be no avalanche of cheese and sauce onto your plate. Avalanche = soggy crust. Crozet Pizza delivers. The housemade sausage on this pie is super, the peppers offer great acid and heat, and the crust holds its own, a nice thin crust with some crispiness and a good chew. Damn, now I want some.

Eppie’s – Pimento Cheese Grits
I’ve been a huge fan of Eppie’s since the day one. Their 3-veggie plate with a side of cornbread is a lunch staple. The ham on pumpkin bread biscuits are to die for. But this year they added pimento cheese grits and I heard an angel’s choir. I’ve eaten these before many places, but something about the grits at Eppie’s is just better. It’s like they took that machine Jeff Goldblum used in “The Fly”, threw some grits and pimento cheese into it, and created a new yummy organism. It’s not grits, it’s not pimento cheese, they are actually, irrevocably melded into one cheesy, creamy concoction. And the human race is all the better for it.

Kokoro – Sushi
When the former sushi chef from TEN opens a new restaurant with wife in tow, you go. Kokoro is less upscale, but only in price. Sushi portions are generous, tasty, and the menu so extensive I find myself torn with each visit. Will it be the omakase (chef’s choice), or some of my favorite rolls? Maybe a chirashi bowl? Or maybe this visit I’ll forgo sushi entirely in favor of their wonderful ramen (9 different kinds!), yakisoba, or kushikatsu skewers? Half the fun is trying to decide.

Mellow Mushroom – Holy Shitake Pie
A new pizza has usurped the Buffalo Chicken pie we usually get. The Holy Shitake is a glorious amalgamation of three kinds of mushrooms, three kinds of cheeses, sweet-like-candy caramelized onions, and a garlic aioli so luscious I want to stick my head in the bowl. It passes the “even better cold” test and all those shrooms play against the sweet onion and tang of the aioli to create something I find myself craving when I think “pizza”. Get you some.

Parallel 38 – Wine
This restaurant is fast-becoming a “to go” spot for our date nights, not only for its amazing food, but because owner Justin Ross knows wine. Really, really well. As an admitted beer fanatic I am woefully ignorant on wine’s language. But the first time I ordered a glass, the blinders on my eyes were lifted. My tastebuds opened up and declared a tiny hallelujah. THIS is what properly decanted wine is supposed to taste like! Ross and his staff have invested countless hours to make sure each glass of wine you order tastes like the cork was just popped from the bottle. He has ruined me for any other wine bar.

Pasture – Smoky Thai Whole Wings
Holy crow were they amazing! Served as a special for a few weeks last summer, these wings tasted of smoked birdy goodness through and through, fried golden, then topped with a sweet hot sauce I still dream about. Maybe if I close my eyes, click my heels together three times, spin around and wish really hard, Chef Jason Alley will make them at PastureQ sometime.

Red Pump Kitchen – Squid Ink Tagliatelle, Clams, PEI Mussels, Bay Scallops, Uni Butter
This dish was just stunning. Squid ink pasta? I can take it or leave it, but the combination of briny, sweet shellfish with the lovely umami of the pasta and uni butter is magic. The Hubby ordered this dish, and I spent the entire rest of the evening coveting his plate. And dipping my bread into the buttery sauce. It made uni butter my new favorite thing. Apparently a lot of folks agree. The waiter told us they tried to take it off the menu with the season’s change, and there was an uproar.

Rocksalt – Lamb and Clams
This was a dish I had heard about weeks before I tried it. Such a weird combination I was all set to hate it. I love when I’m wrong. The spicy chew of the merguez sausage blends wonderfully with the sweet mineral quality of the ale-roasted clams. The green harissa provides nice acid and bite and the grilled bread sops up all the good juices left over. As always, I requested seconds on the bread to soak up every last drop. Great with beer! I anticipate ordering this every time I visit.

Sedona Taphouse – Fish Tacos
Bright, bright, bright. That’s how I describe the taste of these wee beauties. I get two for dinner with a beer and it’s enough for me, but hungrier types might enjoy them as an appetizer. Broiled tilapia topped with avocado and pineapple/mango salsa. A tiny taste of summer. Sedona’s huge beer selection is just an extra added bonus.

Tavola – Pappardelle Bolognese
I found myself craving this comforting dish Christmas Week, when it seemed every day I had to pull on my waders to venture out, and the grey, rainy skies seemed like they’d never end. House made pasta, cooked to al dente perfection with some nice hearty meat sauce wrapped around it. Deep beefy flavor with just a touch of game from what I guess is organ meats. It reminds me of the best ragu I ever had at The White Boar in Florence, Italy. It reminds me that although the weather isn’t perfect, some dishes are.

The Shack – Crispy Soft Shell Crab, Greens, Chick Peas, Green Garlic
I’ll admit it. The Shack is my favorite restaurant right now. Not only does it fulfill my “diner” sensibilities by being a restaurant you can visit in jeans, and having the prerequisite mismatched dishes, chairs and tables, it fulfills the need for a fancy “Chef’s Tasting” gourmet experience on the few occasions I crave what I like to call “tweezer food”. Chef Ian Boden has created something special in Staunton, and every time I visit I send him good restaurant success juju for many years to come. Soft shell crabs are one of my absolute favorite dishes, and it’s rare they’re prepared right. The Shack’s version is beyond fresh, light and crispy on the outside, meaty and sweet on the inside, and the soft notes of the green garlic blend nicely with the creaminess of the chick peas and the light bitter of the greens. Delightful.

Honorable Mentions
Barbecue Exchange – Brunswick Stew
Comfort – The Appalachian Memoir Dinner at Comfort (not in the Cville area, but I’ll be remembering this meal for a long time)
El Tepeyac – Pupusa Con Loroco
Horse & Buggy Produce – Purple Sweet Potatoes
Kokoro – Tonkotsu Ramen
Now & Zen – Tonkotsu Ramen
Pasture – Black Bean Falafel (I miss them! * Sniff *)
Public Fish & Oyster House – Smoked Trout Dip
Red Pump Kitchen – Sourdough Bread
The Virginian – Reuben & Fries

Drool-Worthy Hall of Fame (3 or more golden forks)
Barbecue Exchange – Smoked Turkey

For the first time ever, I’ve decided if you earn three golden forks you get into my own little hall of fame of deliciousness. I’ve said it before about this turkey, and I’ll say it again. If I can help it, I will never cook another bird. Because it won’t be as good. The smoke permeates this bird so completely it’s as if each bite is infused with a cabin-in-the-woods homey quality that makes you want to snuggle in your flannel pajamas. And so sweet! Gah! Kept looking at the meat wondering if he used maple wood because I swear I tasted maple syrup. Definitely drool-worthy.

Disagree? Let me know in the comments. What did you eat that was memorable? Cheers, many thanks, and be edacious in 2015!

Friendsgiving.

I’ve got a love/hate relationship with potluck suppers. I do love the surprise. There’s no set menu. You arrive to find an entire buffet of homemade food, but you have no idea what each dish will be. Like Golden Corral without the spectre of salmonella.

But I hate them too. Because of the self-imposed pressure to perform. Whenever I’m invited to a potluck two thoughts come into my head: What can I bring that’s tasty. And what can I bring that takes almost no effort? While I realize these two things are not always compatible, they end up important because invariably I’m invited to a potluck during a week when I have a dentist appointment, three deadlines, two visitors, a dirty house, and I feel a cold coming on. My head understands no one is standing behind me with a “You Did Good” clipboard to check off. Still, a part of me wants to drop off a gorgeous golden-crusted concoction oozing deliciousness and have everyone exclaim, “You brought that?! Wow!” A part of me wants to win the potluck game.

Potlucks weren’t always so cutthroat in my head. When I was a poor college student and the larder was bare, I went to a few potlucks, not many, as my friends cocktailed, never cooked.* The ones I did attend were Stone Soup affairs. Folks brought what they had and we made do. Usually with cheap jug wine or Milwaukee’s “Beast”. I recall a special New Year’s Eve Gumbo Potluck in particular where everyone got drunk on sangria, then watched “When Buildings Collapse!” on Fox.

The competitive spirit creeped in the older I got. Maybe it was some twisted leftover childhood trauma from how I used to brag excessively about my mother’s cooking, then for our French dinner in middle school she dropped off a sad-looking green bean casserole. I recall a Christmas party in my twenties where I made chocolate paté from the “Great Chefs of San Francisco”. It took hours. And it made a shit-ton. I was eating chocolate paté in July. Not that’s a bad thing. Then there were the neighborhood picnics where I sweated and slaved over massaged kale like it was an Olympic hopeful before saying, “Fuck It!” and making a cold semi-Asian chicken salad from my Dinner Doctor cookbook.

I blame Food Porn, or what I lovingly call “Food Pron”. Ever since food became fetish it has to be camera ready. Dripping in delicious succulence and ready for its closeup. Which means it probably has to be fancy. Or at least involve bacon or tweezers. Because comforting casseroles and deviled eggs don’t scream, “Do me now! Do me hard!”

Case in point. The Friendsgiving event I attended a few weeks ago hosted by Our Local Commons. Now I love this event. I look forward to it every year. Local food purveyors, restaurant folks, and enthusiasts gather with their potluck offerings to give thanks, to drink local cider and beer, to gorge, and to collect funds for a local charity. And every year I sweat what to bring. Because these guys are professionals. And I’m just a scribbler who aligns herself with the professionals and hopes they’ll allow her to join the party.

And every year the food is stunning. Just Bon Appétit meets Gourmet magazine stunning. Without the benefit of food stylists. This year was no exception. Sizzling bacon-wrapped dates from Mas Tapas. Mushroom Tarragon Pithivier from The Spice Diva. Succulent roasted goat from The Ivy Inn. Buttery cauliflower paté, yes foie gras tasting stuff made from cauliflower! Gorgeous Pumpkin Cake with Salted Caramel Cream from Maliha Creations. Perfectly fondanted (fondant? seriously?) Hummingbird Cake. Just to name a few. And the taste? So good I want to give up.

So what’s a poor scribbler to do? Give up. Well, okay not give up, but settle for dishes I know at least taste good. They may not win any food stylist awards, but they’ll make your tummy happy. Last year I brought Cathy Fields’s Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding which doesn’t look like much but is guaranteed to add 5 pounds to your frame. This year I brought my Muddy’s Pound Cake. With some fancy schmancy apple butter from Paul Virant that I got from Fire, Flour, & Fork to slather on top. He’s a Michelin-starred chef from Chicago. I figured a little highbrow butter on some homespun cake couldn’t hurt.

How did the Friendsgiving turn out? I ate my weight in succulent bacon-wrapped dates and drank about a gallon of bourbon apple cider. Marveled at how gorgeously delicious a mushroom tarragon pithivier can be. Roasted mushrooms marry themselves with the licorice of the tarragon and the flake of the pastry (pithivier is a puff pastry pie, yes, I had to look it up) and make your tummy happy.

The ultimate chagrin? I went to cut a slab of Muddy’s Pound Cake to find only one thin sliver missing. But the apple butter was GONE. G-O-N-E gone. Sigh. Fancy-schmancy wins again. Sure, Muddy’s Bundt is homely. But in taste? It’s fucking gorgeous. Buttery, light, with the best part the chewy-browned outside layer. Like the best Blondie you ever had. Even better topped with the last vestiges of the apple butter. It added about 5 pounds to my frame. Which seems to be my new criteria for a good potluck addition.

So sure, the good-looking cakes cleared out pretty quick, while once again my homely contribution sat on its Dixie paper plate. That’s fine. Because at the end of the night there was more for me to take home. You can have your fancy cakes. I’ll pick my Muddy’s recipe every time. Not only is it a way to remember and honor her memory, in my humble opinion, it just tastes better.

Thank you to Our Local Commons, and all of the folks who made Friendsgiving possible this year. I truly enjoyed it. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Remember, whether your dishes are gorgeous or homely, no one is standing behind you with a clipboard. You’re fine. As long as the dish tastes good, everybody wins. Cheers!

*Ironically, one is now a chef while the other owns a restaurant. Go figure.

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2012 Best Dishes. (Top 3!)

All week I’ve been describing my top Charlottesville Dishes of 2012. This was not the year of the “Best Restaurant” but the year of memorable bites and brews. The stuff I crave when I get hungry for something special. The dishes I immediately remember without even thinking. Looking back over the list, they’ve run the gamut from appetizers to mains to condiments. And now we arrive at the Top 3.

Numbers 12-10

Numbers 9-7

Numbers 6-4

3. Almond Cake. I gained weight this year. And I blame Jenny Peterson of Paradox Pastry. Seriously, I go in there for one little sweet treat and a tea, and I end up going home with a bagful of goodies. Her Spice Cake made me tear up it reminded me so much of my grandma’s. But her Almond Cake? It made me slap the table. Hard. It’s my favorite kind of cake because it’s SO dense and chockfull of almond flavor. Cakey cake ;) But the kind I make at home with almond paste comes NOWHERE NEAR the perfection she reaches. And it’s served as a giant slab which makes you feel like a naughty child who’s eating dessert before dinner. What’s better than that?

2. Bibimbap. Imagine a huge piping hot stone bowl of rice, veggies, meat, and sauce all topped with a fried egg. The meat is sliced thin and is secondary, acting as a condiment to the veggies and rice underneath. The sauce is spicy, but sweet as well. The rice on the bottom is getting crispy because the stone bowl is browning it up nicely. When you take your chopsticks and blend it all together, the egg yolk runs all through this delicious mixture, turning it into one big gorgeous heap of comfort. In your mouth the crispy rice, the sizzling meat, the creamy egg and crispy vegetables blend into a perfect morsel of happiness. There is seriously nothing better to eat on a cold day. The Bibimbap they serve at The Korean House on Carlton Avenue is unstoppable. Suffering from the flu? The blues? A serious case of “There’s nothing new to eat in this town” syndrome? Eat this. Now.

1. Potter’s Craft Oak Barrel Reserve Cider. I love this stuff. Adore it. People have begun to get sick of hearing me wax poetic on how beautiful it is. The checkout guys at Whole Foods roll their eyes when they see me coming because they know I’m about to go off on the merits of Potter’s Craft Oak Barrel Reserve Cider. Again.

I’ve spent years telling anyone who’ll listen about the wonderfulness that is cider, and to my glee, 2012 was definitely “The Year of Cider” in Charlottesville. There are 6 cideries in the area at last count, numerous cider tastings and events, and November saw our first Cider Week in Virginia. So what makes Potter’s Craft Oak Barrel Reserve so special?

It seriously tastes like nothing else I’ve had. Ever. And I’m what you call a cider enthusiast. Nothing is more refreshing on a hot day, cold day, hell, any day. Dan Potter and Tim Edmond have really invented something new. I’m convinced of this. By aging their blend of cider in used Laird’s Apple Brandy oak casks for 6 months, they’ve allowed a dry, crisp, refreshing beverage to acquire undertones of mellow roundness, caramel, vanilla, and well. . .bourbon! It has replaced Calvados as the after dinner drink of choice in our house. It’s lighter, but with the same “kick” a nice digestif offers after a big meal. What did we crack open on New Year’s? Not champagne my friend. It was this cider. Sipped slowly. Sipped often. Congratulations Dan and Tim. This was the best, greatest thing I had in Charlottesville all year. By far.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Must admit, it was tough to have only 12. So I include these additional as honorable mentions. Thank you Charlottesville for keeping my belly full this past year, and here’s to a scrumptious 2013. Cheers!

Honorable Mentions:
Smoked Turkey from BBQ Exchange (only available Thanksgiving & Christmas)
“The Burger” at Brookville Restaurant
Sticky Toffee Pudding at The Ivy Inn
Dolmas at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
Blondies at Great Harvest Charlottesville

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