During a most extraordinary dinner this past summer, at a magical restaurant called Rundles, in Stratford, Ontario, I asked my waitress to bring me a side of vegetables to augment my already perfect meal; I had three hours of the Bard ahead of me, and I needed to fuel myself. What she returned with was the most exquisite plate of veggies I have ever sampled: eight identical tiny baby bok choy, simply steamed and sprinkled with a dash of sea salt. It was a revelation. They were so simple in their presentation, so delicious in their lack of adornment, they linger still in my mind––a highlight on a list of the fantastic food that has crossed my lips this year.
My career motto for 2012 has been, “Nice work if you can get it.” To be able to write about the food, chefs and foodies that I love is truly the cream of my vocation. And though I love to travel and dine around the world, I know, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that the best is in my own backyard. There truly is no place like home!
Tune Up Café
Sometimes, what’s wrong with the world can be fixed with a big fat juicy burger, and if you happen to be in New Mexico, there just has to be green chile on top. At Tune Up Café, there are three burgers on offer: a beef version, a surprisingly delicious (given that I’m a carnivore) brown rice–nut burger, and my favorite, the Buffalo Burger. It’s made with meat from Bosque Farms and served on a brioche bun with garlic mayo, green chile and cheese (of course!), as well as hand-cut fries. It’s a two-hander, which makes it all the more fun to eat. The bun is the best in town, and the fries are pretty damn great, to boot. I love the new cozy bar and can never seem to get out of the place without a peanut butter–Nutella cookie sandwich in tow. Plus Charlotte and Jesus Rivera couldn’t be more hospitable, as evidenced by the friendly neighborhood feel of the joint.
Poached Egg, Warm Frisée, and Danish Blue Cheese Salad
Now that Joseph Wrede has taken up the stoves at Tomme, he seems more relaxed, more in his element in this intimate setting. His Poached Egg, Frisée, and Danish Blue Cheese Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette and Duck Liver Toast perfectly exemplifies the talents of the guy who catapulted Taos into the national culinary spotlight a decade ago at Joseph’s Table. There is something extremely sensual about a runny egg yolk in a dish; it pulls together the other elements of the classic French salad, and, with the help of a zippy vinaigrette, ups the yum factor. The addition of English peas is a pure Wrede touch, while the duck liver toast is a rich sit-in for a crouton and the creative gild to an already luscious lily. Kudos to owner Maria “Max” Renteria for giving Joe a table here to show off his talents.
The casual atmosphere and downtown setting make Mucho Gusto a much-loved neighborhood hangout; I suspect tourists are told, “It’s where the locals eat.” It’s touted as a Mexican restaurant and offers up the usual suspects: chips, salsa, tacos, burritos et al., but it’s the Stuffed Chicken Breast (aka “The Bomb”) that keeps me going back. Stuffed with jack cheese, roasted poblanos, almonds and sun-dried tomatoes, and then sauced with a decadent mushroom and chipotle sauce, it is certainly gourmet Mexican and worth every calorie. Forget your diet: order their perfect guacamole starter and end with the Chocolate Ice Cream Pie!
Vermont Maple-Scented Teriyaki Scottish Salmon
I created a bit of a stir when I went on record last month and deemed Geronimo my favorite restaurant of the year. (Well, a stir among my chef friends, at least.) One of the dishes that caused me to cast my vote that way is the Vermont Maple–Scented Teriyaki Scottish Salmon with Sweet Pea Israeli Couscous Risotto and Asian Pineapple Chutney. On a menu that celebrates Global French Asian cuisine and sits beside other DiStefano hits (elk tenderloin, grilled lobster tails, heavenly lamb chops), the salmon lets you think you’re eating healthy but spoils you with the extremely creamy couscous and sweet and tart chutney. I defend my vote and thank Chef Eric, backed by Chef de Cuisine Paul Novak, for their culinary landslide. In a word, delish!
Buttermilk Roast Chicken
Just up the block at The Compound Restaurant, Mark Kiffin gives comfort food a makeover with his Buttermilk Roast Chicken with Foie Gras Pan Gravy and Creamed Spinach. Gussying up this classic dish is pure invention—downtown food getting an uptown spin. Foie gras is mostly fat, and clever Kiffin uses it for the pan gravy roux. I love lunch here during the winter months; the multitude of windows let in plenty of sunshine, and the Chicken Schnitzel with Capers and Lemon is another personal favorite.
Mu Du Noodles
What we love about Asian food is how it tickles and delights the four important elements of taste: hot, sweet, salty and sour. Add crunch to the mix, and your taste buds go crazy. At Mu Du Noodles the Daikon Cakes have it all (minus the sour). I have them every time I go there. Every time. The giant radish is grated, steamed, formed and pan-seared to a golden finish, then swirled with oyster sauce. The resulting dish is warm and creamy in the center and crispy on the outside. Mu has to make the mixture buckets at a time; clearly I am not its only fan.
Brett Sparman is doing a fantastic job since taking over Luminaria at The Inn and Spa at Loretto. His talent for food play is evident in his Lobster Tacos. Sparman’s motto may well be, “Take something simple and make it soar.” White corn tortillas are topped with tender achiote citrus–glazed lobster chunks, cabbage escabeche, yogurt and micro basil. I like that Sparman is taking street food and giving it a luxurious spin. It’s as if your taco cart were parked in a very good neighborhood. I’ve said it before: this young chef is one to watch.
Santa Fe Bar & Grill
A Vollertsen family tradition when I visit Rochester is a meal at a rural restaurant called The Red Osier. Great honking sides of prime rib are wheeled around the dining room and carved at the table. Much closer to home and just as delicious is the Santa Fe Bar & Grill’s Friday Night Prime Rib Special. It’s a nice 10 oz. cut of prime rib served appropriately au jus, with creamy horseradish sauce and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. It’s a pocket-friendly price, as well, and I’m such a fan that this dish appears on the menu for the Las Cosas Christmas party held at the grill every year. Thanks to owner, Robbie Day, and manager, Sean Ewy, for making their restaurant my local hangout 365 days a year.
I generally don’t like pancakes. Never order ‘em, don’t care what’s in ‘em. Not a fan. Except at Café Fina, where the Cloud Cakes with Berries seem to originate from some heavenly place (hence the name). The secret is the addition of ricotta and the separation of the eggs; the whites are whipped before being folding into the batter. Light, fluffy and almost ethereal, these lofty wonders will make you forget every Shrove Tuesday meal you suffered through as a child. Café Fina is the darling hangout of the Eldorado crowd, but downtowners love it too. Husband-and-wife team, Murphy and Annamaria O’Brien, keep it simple but delicious with a concise breakfast and lunch menu, with ever-changing pastries and other baked goodies. (I also love the Eldorado omelet.)
Taberna La Boca
Many cuisines have a version of fried meatballs. In Bulgaria they are called kyufte; in Denmark, frikadeller; in the Philippines, bola bola. But under Chef James Campbell Caruso’s deft hand at Taberna La Boca, the pork meatballs are bathed in a smokey Morocco-esque tomato-cum-cinnamon broth. Carrying the Spanish name Albondigas, they are available as tapas or as a main course. There is so much to love at this hopping new spot I find myself going again and again just to explore the huge menu.
Writing this story reminds me of the Italian word abbondanza, which means abundance, wealth, richness and affluence. I can’t think of a better description of our town’s culinary scene––or a better wish—to ring the New Year in with. I also can’t wait to see what our town’s talented chefs have in store for us in 2013. Have a delicious holiday! JV
story by Chef Johnny Vee
photos by Kitty Leaken