Saturday, January 16, 2010

Best of 2009 Part II: 10 Places, 10 Recipes, 10 Items, and then some

I know it's taken a while. But as far as we are into the new year (half a month!), I've finally narrowed down my favorite eating experiences of 2009 down to tens: ten restaurants (and then some), ten recipes and ten foods.

Ten (Plus) Restaurants of Note

13.5% Wine Bar (Italian, American, wine - Hampden) - A smallish wine bar, hip but not in an in-your-face sort of way. But it's got so much more than that. It's got beers and cocktails. It's got appetizers, panini, salads, a roving cheese cart, and a massive wine selection. And you can buy whole bottles if you want. Even on Sunday. Plus, their desserts are walked over fresh from the nearby Puffs and Pastries (see below). My favorite dish: the "Mack N. Cheese PhD" which sports mascarpone and several other cheeses ($10 except on Sunday evenings, when it and several other small plates are 1/2 off).

Carlyle Club (Indian, coastal Indian - Roland Park) - The formerly Lebanese restaurant now serves haute coastal Indian food. Specifically try their dosas, though most things are good to eat. And much of it is local.

El Nayar (Mexican, Western Mexico - Catonsville, Elkridge) - It's very difficult to find particularly good Mexican food in the Baltimore area, but it is there. The favorite place I found this year has been sitting in Elkridge for a while now. I had the chance to eat at their new Catonsville location. I was impressed by the quality, variety and reasonable price of their soft tacos, a quality of which I just haven't found in Baltimore yet.

Grano (Italian - Hampden) - Not only has it stuck around (unlike most of the businesses in its same location on the Avenue) but it's expanded to a second location down the street. The mix-and-match pastas with sauces are a revelation to me, and you have to try very hard to spend more than $15 to $20 there. Their coconut flan is also tasty, more coconut milk than coconut flakes.

Joong Kak (Korean - Charles Village / Koreatown) - The filling, tender, flavorful Korean barbeque is just the tip of the iceberg. The soju, the pajeon, the panchan, the homey atmosphere, the pleasant and quick service - well, here's the rest of the delicious iceberg. A fave of my friends.

Kooper's Chowhound Burger Wagon (burgers - various locations, depending on the day) - I love a good burger, but lately they have gotten tiring. Kooper's has helped by delivering deceptively juicy burgers, available in beef, turkey, bison and veggie. I first found them at Tide Point, where I got a juicy, packed beefy hamburger for about $8. And they cook it to your taste. The next time I found them they were at the Rotunda, where I benefitted from their Rotunda lunch special: $5 for the burger of your choice, plus sweet potato fries.

Minato (Japanese - Mount Vernon) - This has become my favorite sushi restaurant, though certainly not my only favorite. It's more than just a flashy interior: their rolls, their selection of martinis, their sake and wine selections, and (especially) their sashimi are all consistently delicious, and their service is regularly friendly. My favorite thing to order: the sashimi, which is juicy and comforting.

Puffs and Pastries (bakery - Hampden) - Yes, there's a lot from Hampden. I am biased by the places I spend the most time, and I pass through often. This itty bitty and inviting bakery has some of the most amazing cookies I have ever eaten. They've had to raise the price of their humongous chocolate chip cookie, about 7" across, to $2. Considering most places would likely charge at least thrice as much for half the quality, I mean it's a steal, people. A delicious, buttery, sinful steal. I just hope they don't read this lest they raise the prices of their wonderful cookies.

Tamber's (diner, Indian - Charles Village) - I went here with a large group after a Christmas concert (I was in the concert). They all raved about this diner that I hadn't heard of before. Tamber's has two diverse sides to its menu: its diner side and its Indian side. the chicken tikka masala was buttery and wonderful, and the naan soft and hot. It's not difficult to please me with Indian, but in a place that makes it just one of its specialities, it was kind of a surprise to me. Plus, the service was pretty quick for a large groups such as ours.

Trinacria (Italian, deli - Downtown) - Why did I never stop in here before? They sell quality groceries from Italy, quality pre-made foods in their refrigerated section, and inexpensive wines, bulk pastas and ready-made sandwiches. Try their tiramisù, in the refrigerated section. It's rich and light at the same time, and I don't know how they manage to do that. Wonderful stuff.

Also deserving of high praise

Dukem (Ethiopian - Mount Vernon) - The service was a wee bit slow the last time, but still friendly. The food was rich and spicy as always.

Mughal Garden (Indian - Mount Vernon) - Now serving dosas! But their northern offerings are still filling and flavorful.

Sotto Sopra (Italian - Downtown) - I haven't eaten there in a while, but I'm really, really looking forward to going back.

Wine Source (wine, beer - Hampden) - It's a market, not an eatery. But their constant tastings, extensive cheese section and always helpful staff have made it my favorite beer-wine-and-liquor store by far.

Woodberry Kitchen (Chesapeake, slow food - North Baltimore) - They really pride themselves on serving up local foods with local ingredients, in unique, somewhat pricey ways. I ordered a helping of their bacon wrapped Chincoteague clams ($9). Small, but every bite was lovely.

And if you're in...

Inland Empire and LA County: In addition to all the praise I must heap on Fresh and Easy (that is, Tesco stateside), I also have great things to say about Pepito's (Mexican - Riverside) who serves a darn fine soft taco, the Ocean Star (dim sum - Monterey Park) with all the dim sum you can eat (I think they undercharged us, too), and the consistently delicious tapas to be found at Café Sevilla (Spanish - Riverside).

New York City: My summer trip to NYC was actually the first trip where I was truly happy with everything I ate. Among the best things I found: the Northeast's answer to In-N-Out: the Shake Shack (burgers, shakes - Manhattan, Upper West Side), who make ALL their burgers from freshly ground meat and ALL their shakes from freshly made ice cream. La Carbonara (Italian - Manhattan, Chelsea) was also a good food find thanks to a lucky recommendation. I haven't been able to replicate those caramelized zucchini slices yet. Plus, for those of us who aren't from New York, we often forget how much great stuff can be found outside Manhattan. The spacious Jackson Diner (Indian - Queens, Jackson Heights) has a buffet that'll knock your socks off, including ready-to-order dosas.

Raleigh: The delicious Asian fusion of Duck & Dumpling (pan-Asian - Inside the Beltline) is a bargain in a beautiful space, just a few blocks away from the city's museums. I am now sold for good on cha chiang noodles. I just hope I can find some in my neck of the woods. I also enjoyed my stop at Flex (Inside the Beltline), one of the friendliest gay bars I've ever had the pleasure to set foot in.

Savannah and the Fort Stewart area: If in Savannah, pass on the Lady and Sons unless you've reserved a few months in advance, and head for the Moon River Brewing Company (Lowcountry, burgers, brewpub - Savannah), whose samplers of microbrew and selection of Lowcountry favorites should have a wait, since it's pretty damn good. And please don't leave Savannah until you stop by the Savannah Candy Kitchen (candy - Savannah and various other locations). Get a warm chocolate praline if you're able. There are also many, many places to find wonderful barbeque in the area, such as the Clubhouse at Rye Patch (Southern, Lowcountry, barbeque - Ludowici). But I am surprised to admit that the ribs and mac & cheese at the Kroger of all places (supermarket - various locations), though not nearly as good as at the Clubhouse or most other restaurants, is better than from any other supermarket.

Washington: ThaiPhoon (Thai - Dupont Circle) gives you some hearty tom kha gai and a hearty and satisfying pad thai. But they give you so much that you might not be able to finish it. Just a warning.

Ten Recipes
of Note

Cantonese style stir fried greens and/or seafood - I found myself stir-frying a lot of things this year, Cantonese-style, using Chinese rice wine, sesame oil, soy sauce and garlic, among other things. Sweet potato leaves, beet greens, bok choy, Boston lettuce all work quite well. Swiss chard? Well, okay, I don't like Swiss chard.

Hot Milk Cake - A classic Baltimore sponge cake, if done right it is velvety and moist and will keep for a while. It's also extremely sweet.

Irish Soda Bread - 2009 was a year that I started using the bread machine I bought from my landlady in California for eight bucks. She used it three times. I've already used it about ten times as much. I've made a dizzying variety of breads and rice dishes in this thing. My favorite was an Irish soda bread I found from a recipe on the ChefMom website. It was so much better than the store-bought version that comes out every St. Patrick's Day, with juicier raisins, softer bread and a strong caraway flavor that holds up ridiculously well to the pre-made stuff that I can only describe as "grainy" and "cardboard-flavored".

Mozzarella Cheese - What can I say? I made mozzarella! And it was much creamier than the store-bought kind. Again, it'll be difficult to go back.

Nataing - The first main dish I made in my new Food Ethnography project, this Cambodian meat dish from The Elephant Walk Cookbook is extremely rich with all that pork and coconut milk and fish sauce. I had to make a second for Dara's blogger dinner party.

Neapolitan Tomato Sauce - I haven't used a jarred tomato sauce since I learned how easy it was to make it from scratch, and to freeze it so I can have more later. It freezes very well.

Old Bay Boiled Peanuts - After eating so many boiled peanuts and driving in Georgia this past summer, I had to make my own, with a Chesapeake twist. But you have to add a lot of Old Bay to get the flavor. These also freeze very well.

Old Bay Caramels - I swapped out the sea salt in a Fleur de Sal Caramel recipe for some Old Bay, in a kitchen experiment. While it didn't turn out at first, particularly the ones that I added extra Old Bay to since I couldn't taste it at first, the ones with less Old Bay ended up tasting quite nice after sitting for a week or two - the perfect blend of crumbly, sweet caramel and salty, spicy Old Bay. A strange mix, to be sure, but an interesting one.

Pan-Fried Soft Crabs - Most Baltimore families have a soft crab recipe, I imagine. My mother's mother pan-fried hers with nothing more than some flour and butter. I added cornmeal since I like the taste. Even better in a soft taco with some sliced onions or scallions.

Roasted Vegetables (peppers, chilis, tomatoes, broccoli) - Quite simply, there are fewer things more satisfying than a nice oven-roasted tomato or flame-roasted pepper. Don't even need bread crumbs or anything like that. Just drizzle in olive oil and salt and bake for about an hour at 350°F.

Ten Other Food Items
of Note

anything made by Fresh and Easy - Despite their almost-Scientological zeal, the folks at Fresh and Easy (supermarket - various locations throughout Southern California) have every reason to be enthusiastic about their wonderful products, which often end up half-priced in a special, prominent aisle when they are a day or two old. Their lemon bars, brownies, and many of their bottled sauces are sorely missed in my apartment.

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale - On tap during the fall months at the Hippo!

Farmers' Market Milk - Like most milks bought at a farmers' market or CSA, South Mountain Creamery's rich homogenized and cream top milks (available year-round at Waverly Farmers' Market on 33rd Street) have spoiled me for supermarket milk in the same way that Fractured Prune donuts have spoiled me for Krispy Kremes. Just tastes like water now.

Fat Tire (and beers like it) - Since we still can't get Fat Tire in Maryland, the best we can do is the Gordon Biersch Märzen out of San Jose. It has a similar fatty and rich feel in the mouth, I have found.

Fresh Berger's Cookies - The fresh ones you buy at the booth in Lexington Market have now spoiled me for the Berger's Cookies you buy at the store. But if I can't make it downtown, the ones at the store'll do, hon.

Mo's Milk and Dark Bacon Bars - The Dark Bacon Bar (available at Ma Petite Shoe and Whole Foods, among other locations) is better, but the Milk Bacon Bar is still pretty good.

Mrs. Holmes Boiled Peanuts - Fresh out of South Carolina, you had best stop in almost any convenience store to buy some to eat along the way to wherever you're going. Plentiful in Georgia.

Palmiers from Sarabeth's Kitchen at Chelsea Market - I know, I'm the last foodie to ever realize that the Chelsea Market is where the Food Network offices are located (and I'm the first one to accidentally stumble upon the place without that knowledge). The wing-shaped (or "elephant ear") palmiers cookie is the only palmiers cookie I have ever eaten that is, well, edible. And its buttery flakiness makes up for all those other nasty, gummy, sticky, cardboard-flavored ones I've eaten in the past.

Southern Tier Choklit Stout - My favorite part of Baltimore Beer Week was a beer from a brewery I already knew quite well. Southern Tier's Choklit Stout is among the best from a brewery that puts out some of the best beers on the East Coast.

Whoopie Pies - My first exposure to whoopie pies, ever, was this year. Before I just thought they were some type of moon pie. Silly me! They really are tasty, with a rich buttercream filling (or marshmallow, or "bettercreme" - yekhkh - depending on where you get yours) sandwiched between two soft and moist devil's food buns. I guess this Yankee-slash-Amish dessert has crossed the Mason-Dixon Line for good! My favorite is the one Trader Joe's puts out in a six pack (regular or pumpkin). Not so good: the one from Giant, but hey, Marylanders are just learning about whoopie pies, okay?

That's it for what I liked the most in food in '09. Coming soon: what I disliked the most.


DAS said...

Not only Dukem, but for some reason EVERY Ethiopian restaurant I've ever eaten in has slow service, whether crowded or empty. Maybe it's the Ethiopian equivalent of manana.