Here are the 12 most satisfying dishes I ate in 2008, regardless of cuisine or price level, excluding Los Angeles. The Top 12 is listed by restaurant, in alphabetical order.
1. Egg – Brooklyn, NY – Country Ham Biscuit
North Carolina native George Weld partnered with Steve Tanner on this unassuming Williamsburg. Even without visible signage, the duo’s eatery has become a Williamsburg favorite due to its beyond-reasonable Southern-tinged menu. Egg may be my all-time favorite breakfast spot, in no small part due to Weld’s killer Country Ham Biscuit, which came with stellar Anson Mills grits from South Carolina and two chile-flecked, char-grilled sausage patties that delivered legitimate heat.
2. High Cotton – Charleston, SC – Pan-Fried Rabbit Livers
It took over eight years to have dinner at High Cotton, a downtown Charleston standby that delivered one of the only meals to elicit a rave review from my father in the past five years. The duck purloo that he loved so much wasn’t on the menu, but just about every other dish that Executive Chef Anthony Gray and his crew produced was excellent, especially the Pan Fried Rabbit Livers, a rich but terrific starter.
3. Incanto – San Francisco, CA – Pig’s Trotter, Bacon, Foie Gras and Figs [CLOSED]
Mark Pastore was such a hardcore food junkie that he decided to leave a successful tech career in 2002 to open Incanto. It took until 2003 for his Noe Valley Italian restaurant to really start churning, when offal-loving chef Chris Cosentino took the helm of the kitchen. Cosentino and Pastore have made it their mission to prove that no part of the animal should go to waste, and based on my appetizer, I’m a believer in their approach. A staggeringly good starter combined gelatinous pig’s trotter, foie gras slabs, bacon strips and roasted Calimyrna figs.
Our waiter suggested I pair the pig’s trotter with a glass of Verduzzo Friulano, 2004, La Tunella. The amber-hued dessert wine was sweet, but not over-the-top.
4. Cream Pan – Tustin, CA – Strawberry Croissant
Cream Pan has been a popular Japanese bakery for years. As a result, in 2008, the owners were able to buy the adjacent strip mall space, dubbing it Japonaise Bakery & Café. Now the original space, still labeled Cream Pan, churns out pastries to supply the next-door café. There’s always a line, and favorite baked goods are known to sell out by noon. Arrive early, since some pastries qualify as required eating. The pastry filled with sweet potato paste and black sesame seeds, topped with candied chestnut, was impressive, but the open-faced strawberry croissant was even more remarkable, featuring stunningly flaky pastry. My only quibble: strawberries are well out of season, and the discs had no flavor. In the summer, when strawberries are at their peak, the croissant is bound to be even better.
5. Lamberts – Austin, TX – Mustard and Brown Sugar Crusted Niman Ranch Ribeye
Décor at the best Texas barbecue places is typically limited to mounted animal heads, and some spots don’t even bother with modern luxuries like silverware, so the prospect of consuming “fancy barbecue” was a little daunting. Still, Louis Lambert and chef-partner Larry McGuire have generated plenty of national buzz from Austin’s reborn Second Street District. My concerns melted away when our waitress handed us menus. If a restaurant is willing to print the meat-cutting chart of a pig, they clearly have good intentions. Many oak grilled meats sounded delicious. My brother ordered the Mustard and Brown Sugar Crusted Niman Ranch Ribeye, served with a spreadable, caramelized, whole roasted garlic bulb.
6. Marche Moderne – Costa Mesa, CA – Bouillabaisse [Moved to Newport Coast]
Florent Marneau and wife Amelia opened this contemporary French bistro on the third floor of ritzy South Coast Plaza in spring 2007. Despite the location, the couple has managed to cultivate a loyal following at their culinary oasis. My Bouillabaisse could have easily fed two people. The ambrosia-like fish broth contained large portions of fresh seafood flown overnight from the Med, including John Dory, rouget (a crisp-skinned fish similar to red mullet), dorade grise, dorade rosé, calamaretti (minuscule calamari), mussels, clams, rouille (garlic paste), fingerling potatoes, fennel and leeks. The dish came with a few interesting accompaniments, including a pot of additional rouille, tapenade, roasted cherry tomatoes, lemon preserve and millimeters-thin toast.