In the past twelve months, I've reviewed 62 restaurants (and one minor-league baseball stadium). I've traveled to Columbia and the Metro East. I've sampled the cuisines of Korea, Japan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Iran, Thailand, Bosnia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Vietnam (twice), Mexico (thrice) and India (four times). I've feasted on wild-mushroom ravioli with shaved black truffle, gorged on cupcakes and even tried a bacon-cheeseburger served between two halves of a glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut.
I've gained a few pounds.
This week I present my ten favorite dishes of 2007 — and the absolute, no-holds-barred worst.
10. Kitfo at Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant
Without doubt, the most exotic food I ate this year. Meskerem's menu compares kitfo to steak tartare. The dishes certainly look more or less identical: A mound of chopped raw beef resembles nothing but a mound of chopped raw beef. But the flavor of kitfo is something else entirely, a pure iron tang that smacks you in the mouth and then peppers the wound. The meat is so luscious that it almost dissolves within its pocket of thin, sour injera bread.
9. Cupcakes at the Cupcakery
The cake, whether vanilla, yellow or chocolate, is perfect: moist and flavorful. The frosting is terrific, its simplicity a virtue. My favorite of the regular cupcakes is the "Peanut Butter Cup," dark chocolate cake topped with peanut-butter buttercream that tastes exactly like the peanut butter inside a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Pieces of an actual peanut-butter cup are crumbled over the frosting.
8. Baby Back Ribs at 17th Street Bar & Grill
Mike Mills' award-winning ribs are smoked in a pit over apple- and cherrywood for as long as seven hours. The result is a wonderful exterior — a little crisp, but not overly charred — and a tender, pink-hued interior that tastes like it came from a pig raised on pure autumn sunshine. They are served with just a squiggle of the restaurant's signature tangy-sweet sauce.
7. Small plates at Erato
Chef Kevin Willmann's menu changes frequently, so the dishes I had might not be available on your visit. Still, nearly every small plate I had at Erato succeeded, so your odds are good. Marinated tuna was my favorite: six plump cubes of raw tuna arranged in a row, a toothpick stuck in each; next to that, a golden streak of truffle mustard; in one corner, a jumble of diced purple potatoes. The fresh, sweet flavor of the tuna, sparked by the truffle mustard, carried this dish.
6. Nihari at Indian Food
Nihari doesn't look extraordinary. A dark stew, chopped cilantro scattered across its surface, chunks of beef shank bobbing ever so gently. First there's an explosion of lime, cilantro and — more than anything else — ginger. A breathtakingly sharp combination of flavors. Then the beef, a tough cut stewed tender, full of savor, with the buttery note of ghee. Then, on the finish, a hint of toasted cumin and cardamom that lingers just long enough to spice the next burst of ginger, lime and cilantro.
5. The "South Side Smoke" sandwich at Stellina Pasta Café
The "South Side Smoke" is both a sandwich and a marvel of architecture, a great mass of pulled pork (braised for five and a half hours, then smoked over hickory and a little applewood for two and a half more), caramelized onion and creamy, still-melting smoked Gouda that somehow holds together between slices of fresh ciabatta until the moment you try to pick it up. The pork has a gentle, autumnal sweetness — a little breeze of brown sugar — and is so luscious you might consider visiting a cardiologist immediately after finishing it.
4. Pasta at Acero
Another spot where the menu changes frequently, but you can't go wrong with the pasta at Jim Fiala's contemporary Italian restaurant. Of those I tried this spring, the best was a single raviolo, about the size of an egg and containing — surprise! — a poached egg. The raviolo was surrounded by a swirl of puréed spinach. Also good was linguini tossed with chopped tomatoes, onions and guanciale, cured pork jowls. The guanciale gave the dish an extraordinary depth of porky flavor, with a definite edge of heat.
3. Tacos al Pastor at La Vallesana
A taqueria staple: pork seasoned a dusky red, grilled pineapple, diced onion and fresh cilantro sitting atop corn tortillas; on the side, a wedge of lime. The pork has a wonderfully smoky flavor; not exactly like pork that has been smoked in a pit, it's more like meat from a pig that spent a long winter's night curled up next to the fire. And while there may be culinary sensations as exquisite as a hunk of hot, sweet pineapple bursting between your teeth and drowning the savory meat in sweetness, I can't think of any that are better.
2. Pork at Niche
Pork cheeks are served as a cake (as in a crab cake), letting the cheeks' fat soften the deeply flavored meat. For an even more indulgent version of this effect, try the pork belly entrée. The sinfully fatty meat — you know it in its cured form: bacon — is braised overnight for ten hours and then served over baby Brussels sprouts and chopped apple in a cider jus. The amount of fat might strike you as overwhelming, but it acts as a second sauce, seeming to melt over the meat as you chew. The crisp apple and the sharp, but not at all bitter, Brussels sprouts provide the ideal counterpoint to all this richness.
It's safe to say that if you remove barbecue from consideration, Niche is now the mecca for pork lovers in St. Louis. Excellent house-made pappardelle with mascarpone, lemon, pear and parsley is taken to a nearly ethereal level by the addition of smoked pork shank.
1. Sweetbreads at Franco
I loved the sautéed sweetbreads I had on my first visit to Franco (the RFT's and our readers' pick for Best New Restaurant 2007) so much that I tried to order them again when I returned a few days later. (They were sold out.) That was almost one year ago now, and on the first draft of this list, I had the sweetbreads penciled at No. 2. But then I decided to pay another visit to Franco (where, I must admit, they have figured out who I am) and try executive chef Justin Keimon's current sweetbreads dish.
This was fantastic, even better than the original: sweetbreads and mushrooms in a Madeira glaze between two thin layers of pastry shell and sitting atop a cauliflower purée. The composition looks an awful lot like biscuits and gravy, and the flavor is incredibly rich — meaty, yes, with the sweetbreads' mild earthy notes and a passing sweetness from the Madeira glaze.
And the worst?
"Baseball's Best Slider" at GCS Stadium
Baseball's Best Slider is the sort of thing you should order only when drunk or on a dare. It's a White Castle cheeseburger breaded and deep-fried, served with a side of cheese sauce for dipping. It looks more or less like what you'd imagine a breaded and deep-fried White Castle Slyder® would look like: dark brown and crusty, generally burger-shaped — albeit with knobs of gnarled batter that give it the appearance of a fried chicken thigh.
It tasted like ass. Love them Grizzlies, though!
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For more about food and St. Louis restaurants, visit Gut Check: blogs.riverfronttimes.com/gutcheck.
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