Japanese gastropub delivers quality fare at reasonable prices.
The foods that make up my 10 tastes of 2008 wowed me from the first bite. They stood out in my memory weeks, even months, after I ate them (although a few have become a more constant presence in my life). Surveying them as a group I was struck by the diversity of cuisines and price points these foods represent. At a time when too many people consider it a luxury just to have enough to eat, it's important to remember that delicious food is not synonymous with expensive or rare. At the same time, the ratio of cost to pleasure of even relatively expensive dishes seems more in reach, at least occasionally, than most other luxury goods.
Looking back on the many delicious meals I've eaten this year was a nice reminder that hunger is the mother of invention and over the years human beings have discovered some pretty miraculous ways to make eating a tremendous pleasure rather than a tremendous chore.
This year, the dishes are listed in approximate temporal order.
Pecan-Raisin Bread from MediTerra Bakehouse: This bread and a cup of coffee are my idea of a perfect morning. Whoever said we couldn't live on bread alone clearly didn't taste this loaf. Packed with pecans and raisins (a whole half pound per loaf), the dough develops its flavor over 17 hours. The crust is thin and almost flaky, but substantial at the same time. It's also a great bread to serve with a cheese course (it's delicious with Tallegio, and generally goes well with pungent blues and goat cheeses). Best of all, it keeps far longer than you'll ever manage to keep it around -- even after a week on my counter, this bread still tasted great.
Chicken livers from Lidia's Pittsburgh: This dish transformed me from someone who merely liked chicken livers to someone who absolutely adores them. Maybe it was the way they were cooked just enough, so that the middle was still pink and juices dripped into the crispy polenta cake. Or the way the cheesy polenta perfectly balanced the rich gaminess of the livers. Or it could have been the pile of crispy onions on top that were so good they could practically be a dish all by themselves.
Bone marrow at Legume Bistro: There's a strangely physical pleasure to be found in digging a small spoon into a roasted shank bone to pull out the quivering mass of marrow. The taste of marrow alone is an unearthly pleasure: rich, meaty, buttery. It is even better when set off by toasted baguette and a light sprinkling of salt, as it's served at Legume. There's something amazing about the fact that a substance so delicious can be found only inside bones, and that's part of the pleasure as well.
Avocado tempura from Kaya: Kaya does vegetarian food really well, and this dish especially is a standout. Thick slices of avocado are dipped in tempura batter, fried and served on top of a spicy aioli with a garnish of tomatillo salsa that contributes another pleasant hint of sourness. The tempura shell was so crisp and delicate, and the heat of the frying had given the avocado the perfect consistency of softened butter -- still firm but yielding instantly to the touch and coating the mouth in avocado's loamy, rich flavor.
Green Mango Salad at Typhoon: The first time I ordered this salad, a companion asked if we could get it without the coconut and not too spicy. Our server suggested that we try something else, explaining that adaptations would ruin the balance of the salad. We ordered something else -- for the coconut-hater! -- while I savored every morsel of this incredible salad. Each bite of shredded young mango tossed with coconut and dried shrimp is vibrant with contrasting flavors. Cilantro and lime juice contribute sourness, a chile sauce, spiciness, and peanuts add an extra crunch and sweetness.
Seafood Pancakes from Korea Garden: Served sizzling on a hot stone platter, this is a dish that practically sings its own praises. An ocean's worth of fresh seafood always including shrimp and squid tastes miraculously fresh, protected by a light flour batter. Though scallions, zucchini and carrots may seem like odd companions, they bring contrasting flavors and textures that keep the pancake from becoming too homogenous.
Tuna sashimi from Richard Chen: This dish reminded me of the elaborate cold seafood platters prepared at Chinese banquets but with creative twists (and luxury ingredients) picked up in Japan and Europe. The tuna brings a substantial meatiness to the dish that stands up to the strong flavors of the ponzu and a truffle vinaigrette so aromatic it hit me from two feet away. Every bite revealed another surprise -- the sweetness of snow pea, the cool slipperiness of the jellyfish, the slight spiciness of the daikon radish.
Coconut Tapioca with tropical fruit and passion glaze from Richard Chen: I hesitated over selecting two dishes from one restaurant for this list, but I simply couldn't choose between the tuna sashimi and this dessert. Dessert is one of life's great pleasures, and this dish is one of Richard Chen's great pleasures. The balance of sweet and sour flavors is perfect, as is the contrast between the creaminess of the coconut custard and the chewiness of the pearl tapioca. Even on a full stomach, this dessert is refreshing -- a palate cleanser and a sweet finish all in one.
Butter Masala Dosa from Bayleaf Indian Cuisine: What better comfort food could there be than a pancake filled with mashed potatoes? Dosa are actually more like crepes, made from a batter of rice and lentil flour. This dosa is fried in clarified butter, or ghee, which gives it a taste quite remarkably similar to the edges of a well-browned, very good croissant. Green chiles mixed into the mashed potatoes add lovely heat, which can be deliciously cooled by sambhar (ground coconut) chutney served on the side.
Sevre & Belle Cow's Milk Butter: This butter is reason enough for anyone to get over a fear of fat. The taste is incomparably rich, a little grassy and full of true butter flavor that is enhanced rather than overwhelmed by the sea salt crystals spread throughout the butter. Although it would be spectacular incorporated into any number of dishes, it's best appreciated simply. Let it soften, then spread it on slices of good bread. Or try the simple French hors d'oeuvre of a bowl of trimmed radishes dipped in butter.
• MediTerra Bakehouse, Robinson, www.mediterrabakehouse.com, 412-490-9130
• Lidia's Pittsburgh, Strip District, www.lidias-pittsburgh.com, 412-552-0150
• Legume Bistro, Regent Square, www.legumebistro.com, 412-371-1815
• Kaya, Strip District, www.bigburrito.com/kaya, 412-261-6565,
• Typhoon, Shadyside, 412-362-2005
• Korea Garden, Oakland, 412-681-6460
• Richard Chen, East Liberty, www.richard-chen.com, 412-924-0080
• Bayleaf Indian Cuisine, Oakland, 412-605-0400
• Sevre & Belle, www.coop-sevrebelle.fr (available at Market District in Shadyside)
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1198.