Best Bites of 2018
I love year-end retrospectives and “best of” lists. That used to include the montage Facebook puts together as my “Year-End Review.” But for some reason Amazon, Apple and Netflix started showing me the exact same montage, so it’s lost some of its punch.
Which means I had to make my own year-end review. I just scrolled through the food pics on my phone for 2018. Not only did it bring back some wonderful sights, smells and tastes, it brings back wonderful moments with some wonderful people, including many of you.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Even misty-eyed, let me give you my favorite bites from 2018, which I’ve divided into three sections: my best DC bites (listed from lighter to heavier); my best DC “cheap eats”; and finally my best bites from my travels this year to Minneapolis, New York, Iceland and Germany.
Eggplant “Sushi” at Himitsu
A first bite at one of Himitsu’s Monday Night Supper Clubs. While the eggplant on Chef Tien’s regular menu is better, this was cooked to creamy perfection and I didn’t have to stand in line at 4:30 in the afternoon to eat it. (I know they now take same-day reservations for the bar; please don’t troll me on Twitter.)
Spicy Cucumber with Marcona almond and togarashi at Momofuku DC
Chef Tae Strain almost completely overhauled the menu in 2018, but thankfully one of the few things he kept are these spicy cucumbers. The key to the dish is that the cucumbers are roughed up like a Nats pitcher in the playoffs.
Buttermilk Biscuits with pimento cheese at St. Anselm
The closest thing to a bread course and a great table-setter at this buzzy new quasi-steakhouse near Union Market.
Grilled Oysters with smoked herb butter at St. Anselm
A godsend for those of us who like the taste of oysters but don’t love them raw. Kissed on the grill until barely cooked through and then given a little extra smoke with the smoked butter and herbs.
Fried Oysters at Izakaya Seki
Grilled oysters are good; fried oysters are fried. Your move, grilled.
Roasted Halloumi Cheese with honey and charred lemon at Sababa
Roasting rather than grilling is a smart move because the cheese heats evenly throughout. A quick turn on the griddle ensures a nicely browned exterior.
Celery, Celery, Celery and Walnut Salad at Etto
So simple and refreshing. Celery could be the next humble, almost retro ingredient, to be rediscovered — a la Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and radishes. Time to invest in celery futures.
Salade d’Ete at Primrose
My favorite salad of the year was this summer salad at my favorite neighborhood spot. The Bibb, endive, apple slaw and country bread hides a delicious melange of celery (!), red onion, chives and chervil lurking beneath.
Rutabaga Fondue at Fancy Radish
Vegan rutabaga fondue sounds like something they’d serve in the Bad Place cafeteria. But I swiped the bowl clean with the accompanying pretzel bread and pickled veggies.
Hummus Tahina at Sababa
It surprised me that this creamy, tahini-forward hummus is Sababa’s second entry on the list, since I wasn’t crazy about the restaurant overall. In my defense, the pita doesn’t live up to hummus.
Middleneck Clam Toast with Sichuan Sausage, oregano, dill mayo at Momofuku DC
Washingtonian magazine declared this dish the best thing their food team ate in June 2018. My food team would agree if I had one.
Einkorn Sourdough Toast with yogurt, grilled + raw cucumbers, smoked trout roe, and benne seeds at Tail Up Goat
Tail Up Goat is the James Carville and Mary Matalin of the toast world — the combinations seem odd but they work. This particular toast is not currently on the menu but it doesn’t matter. Order whatever they have with confidence.
Spanikopita with spinach, leek and feta at Kapnos Kouzina
A reminder that before all the misbehavior and mismanagement, Kapnos turned out some pretty good food. Like this lovely spanikopita with crispy phyllo and luscious spinach filling.
Fried Zucchini with cherry peppers, Parmigiana and lemon at I’m Eddie Cano
These crisp zucchini strips go down like good french fries. I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of trashing the restaurant’s name. But I will say It’s Reilly Ann Naying.
Tagliatelle with homemade bolognese sauce at Alta Strada
Whenever I need a plate of comforting pasta, I head to Alta Strada for their tagliatelle bolognese. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time at Alta Strada in 2018.
Squid Ink Linguini with lobster, tomatoes and Calabrian chiles at Sfoglina Downtown
I’ve never met a Sfoglina pasta I didn’t like, but this one stood out for its toothsome linguini and sauce that has a lot going on but never gets in the way of the seafood.
House Bavarian White Sausage with mustard spaetzle, savoy cabbage, golden raisins at Chloe
Haidar Karoum always has a sausage on the menu. This was his opening offering, a finely-ground sausage redolent of mace, coriander and white pepper. And I can never resist spaetzle, like an Internet link telling me I won’t believe what Loni Anderson looks like now.
“Gnocchi” Rice Cakes with white pepper onion soubise, crispy shiitake, egg yolk + pickled red onion at Himitsu
Faux gnocchi bathed in a sauce that tastes like the onion dip of your dreams. Stir in the egg yolk and the other ingredients and the dream becomes dreamier.
Sablefish at Chloe
Chloe’s buttery sablefish will make believers out of those who think of sablefish only as a smoked alternative to lox.
Seafood Paella with Maine lobster, wild calamari, PEI mussels and tiger prawns at Del Mar
A terrific paella with a premium price to match. This pan was $190 and supposedly served 4-6 people. While that was literally true because the waiter doled out six servings, the serving sizes must have been designed by the same Nutrition Facts guy who decided that a serving of ice cream is 1/2 cup.
Poulet Rouge with tarragon-vinegar sauce at Convivial
Convivial has so many good options that I only recently got around to trying this beautifully crispy chicken sitting in a pool of tasty tarragon sauce. They say you should never meet your heroes, but someday I’d love to shake hands with the prep chef who de-boned this whole chicken.
Special Kitfo at CherCher
Fresh raw beef cut with clarified butter and just enough spice to provide a low-level heat. Take a piece of injera and eat with some of the greens and cheese.
Roast Prime Rib at (where else) The Prime Rib
Sometimes old school is the best school.
Ax Handle Ribeye at St. Anselm
There are some excellent less expensive cuts on the menu at St. Anselm but this ribeye is worth the splurge.
Cheap Eats Best Bites
The Shyne Breakfast Bagel with bacon at Call Your Mother
DC’s best bagels make DC’s best breakfast sandwich.
Pepperoni Pizza at Frankly…Pizza!
Frankly…Pizza! must have been thrilled to see the opening of I’m Eddie Cano. Once bestowed, the mantle of worst restaurant name in the DC area rarely changes hands. And the pizza still rocks.
Delmonico Double Cheeseburger (with bacon and egg) at Unconventional Diner
2018 saw the full-flowering of flat-top burgers. This was my favorite higher-end version.
Shackburger and Fries, Shake Shack
And you can’t beat Shake Shack for the best flat-top burger in the fast-casual category.
Lechon Belly (with a side of Longanisa sausage) at Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly
The lechon belly’s bronzed skin shatters when you bite into it like pork brittle. The meat itself is unctuous but well-rendered. When you look in the dictionary under the word “porky” … well, you won’t see this. Why would you? Do you even know how dictionaries work?
Pork Belly Sisig with sautéed headcheese, house spices, onion, chiles at Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly
This is one of those dishes that can only have originated as an economical way to use left-over scraps of meat. First, turn the edible bits of a pig’s head into a terrine (called “head cheese” even though there’s no cheese involved). Then put the head cheese in a pan with leftover belly scraps and innards, add chiles, onion and egg and cook the whole thing until it crisps. Serve with rice, pickled vegetables and defibrillator paddles.
Potato Leaves with Beef, Peanut Butter Stew with Chicken, and Egusi Soup with Goat at Sumah’s West African Restaurant
Hearty West African fare, the potato and jut leaves providing a welcome departure from usual greens. Unfortunately Sumah’s is currently closed due to fire, although the owner is committed to re-opening.
Lechon Asado at Mi Cuba Cafe
The roast pork is succulent with crispy bits. But the sleeper on the plate are the excellent sweet plantains — deeply caramelized with crisp, slightly chewy edges that taste like plantain-banana candy.
Travel Best Bites
Sourdough Bread and Whipped Butter at Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, MN
Chef-Owner Gavin Kaysen trained under Daniel Boulud before he moved back home to Minneapolis and opened two restaurants that would be top-tier anywhere — Spoon and Stable and Bellecour. Lucky them.
Griddle Hash Browns, Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis, MN
These brunch hash browns are above reproach.
Dorothy’s Pot Roast, Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis, MN
Chef Kaysen’s mom’s pot roast was re-printed in the New York Times. Google it if you want to make it.
My Sha-Roni! (Pepperoni and Sausage) Pizza at Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis, MN
If I’m Eddie Cano served pizza, this is what they’d call it.
Corn Dog at Minnesota State Fair
Anyone who follows this blog knows one of my best bites of any year will be a corn dog at the Minnesota State Fair. And you’ll also know that when I say corn dog, I mean corn dog. Pronto pups and hot-dogs-on-a-stick are phony corn dog wannabees.
Cinnamon Rolls at Braud & Co., Reykjavik, Iceland
Food in Iceland can be expensive. So if you’re planning a trip, let me take care of breakfast for you — the cinnamon rolls at Braud & Co. bakery. The other baked goods are pretty great, too. And they serve coffee. Done-zo.
Soup at Efstidalur II in Laugarvatn, Iceland
Somewhere out in the Golden Circle lies a dairy farm that started selling ice cream and eventually opened a cafe. It’s a typical order-at-the-counter-and-take-a-number operation, with bread, soup and water available in a self-serve area. This was the soup of the day. I’m pretty sure it was a version of traditional Icelandic lamb soup but I don’t really know. All I can tell you is it was delicious and that I had seconds.
Halibut at Snaps Bistro in Reykjavik, Iceland
The best advice for eating in Iceland is to go local, like this uber-fresh halibut. The two exceptions are (1) fermented shark, which is vile, and (2) the local hot dogs, which are ok but overrated.
Sheeps Milk Agnolotti with saffron, dried tomato and honey at Lilia in Brooklyn, NY
Missy Robbins does wonders with pasta at her flagship Lilia and newly-opened Misi. This was my first opportunity to eat one of her most iconic dishes and it lived up to its billing. It’s a feat of engineering comparable to the Hoover Dam that a pasta this thin and supple can contain the filling without breaking.
Anson Mills Polenta with Crescendo cheese, maitake mushrooms, pesto at Union Square Cafe in New York, NY.
A dish of polenta sounds pedestrian but this version is as rich and decadent as foie gras.
Smoked Eggplant Carpaccio with feta, raw tahini, dates, pistachio and rose water at Nur in New York, NY
A sweet, smoky combination melding cultural influences that define modern Israeli cuisine. Personally, I could do without the rose water, which to me always adds a hint of Renuzit to whatever it touches.
Wiener Schnitzel at Zum Durnbrau in Munich, Germany
The most reliable traditional German fare on my trip was always schnitzel. I love long-cooked meats like sauerbraten too, but found that they were often overcooked. Shnitzel is almost always cooked to order.
Doner Kabob in Vilshofen, Germany
The best thing I ate in Germany, as readers of the blog know, were Turkish doner kabobs from small shops on the street.
Dinner of the Year
Finally, my dinner of the year has to be my birthday dinner cooked by these two aspiring chefs. I didn’t catch their names but everything was exquisite. If you’re in the neighborhood, and it’s during a school break, ring the bell and see if they’re cooking that night. You won’t be sorry.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
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