Best Dining of 2009


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This year, a number of selections for my Top 10 Tastes for 2009 are no longer available, either because they existed only in limited quantities, or because they went out of season and the people who made them have moved on to other things.

I considered trying to limit myself to more dishes that people could try for themselves, but that seemed counter to the ideas of seasonality and creativity so central to producing great food and drinks.

For some, there is great comfort in knowing they can return for the same meal over and over. For me, knowing that an experience is ephemeral enhances the pleasure I take in it and ultimately sweetens the memory.

Here are my top 10 tastes for 2009:

49th Parallel's Organic Ethiopia Yergacheffe Beloya Micro-Lot No. 3, brewed on a French Press at Voluto Coffee


Sources

49th Parallel's tasting notes described this coffee as full-bodied and balanced, with aromas of vanilla and blueberries, intense berry-toned flavors and citrus characteristics. Sometimes, tasting notes are a sort of sensory prop, helping the mind latch on to one or two useful adjectives to nudge the nose and mouth along. In this case, no props were necessary. One whiff of a well-brewed cup was like smooshing my face into a bowl of wild blueberries. Sip after sip, it became hard to hold on to old ideas of what coffee was supposed to taste like, as my concept stretched to encompass flavors of lemon tea and hibiscus.

Walleye taco at Yo Rita

This flaky, freshwater fish taco extraordinaire had a clean flavor that was the perfect foil for diced pineapple, watermelon and cucumber. If chef Kevin Sousa bottled the sweet and salty tamarind-soy sauce that added just the right savory note to this taco, he might take over the world.

Beet salad at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen

I've tasted well over a dozen versions of beet salad this year alone, but I'm still craving one I haven't tasted since February. Toasted brioche was a perfect platform for flavor, each ingredient getting a boost from its buttery sweetness. Warm red and golden roasted beets, slices of sweet, crisp Fuji apple and nutty toasted pumpkin seeds overflowed onto the plate. Gooey chunks of potent Mont St. Francis, an aged goat cheese from Capriole Farms in Greenville, Ind., added an extra dose of earthiness that balanced the sweetness of a sticky, spicy blackstrap molasses vinaigrette. There's a new beet salad this winter, but the extraordinary Mont St. Francis is still on the cheese list.

Guilty Rose cocktail at Embury

Created by Freddie Sarkis, formerly of Embury, the Guilty Rose was a true gin drinker's cocktail. The elegant punch of Hendrick's was tempered by the evocative perfume of St. Germaine with its hints of rosewater. Since every rose must have its thorn, a few dashes of Peychaud's bitters and a Campari rinse ensured this drink was merely flirting with sweetness.

Mancake at Legume Bistro

The mancake is large and fluffy, and plunging a fork into its middle elicited some of the pleasure of deflating a souffle or cracking the crust of a creme brulee. The mancake, however, didn't deflate. It had the tender consistency of a pancake, along with the fluffy crumb of an excellent muffin. Whole wheat and ground oats gave it a slightly nutty flavor that kept each bite interesting. A topping of caramelized apples and real whipped cream took this dish from delicious to downright dreamy.

Chicken liver mousse at Le Pommier

This silky-smooth spread is perfectly balanced between sweetness and funkyness. The not-so-secret ingredient -- chef Mark Collins frequently gives out the recipe -- is butter, equal parts butter and chicken liver in fact, along with half as much caramelized onion and apple, and a little bit of brandy and nutmeg to give it that je ne sais quoi. Seemingly simple, it still required a ton of effort, which all paid off in the taste. Julia Child would approve.

Beef carpaccio at Plum Pan-Asian Kitchen

This Asian-style beef carpaccio made a stylistic departure, as it wasn't technically raw. Filet mignon is sliced thin, but not too thin, lightly pounded and then dressed in a mix of hot oil and yuzu juice. The hot oil just barely cooks the exterior of the meat, giving it a texture like velvet. The heat from the oil also takes the chill off the meat, which, along with the intensely aromatic citrus juice, enhanced its flavor tremendously.

Red Bourbon turkey from The Farmer's Wife Farm

Roasted at home, this was one Thanksgiving turkey that tasted as good as it looked. The meat was firmer, more flavorful, and more evenly divided between dark and light. Local heritage birds might be expensive and require some back-up planning, but the difference in taste alone was worth every penny.

Sausage ravioli from Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar

Chef Matthew Porco's menu successfully encompasses a wide variety of culinary influences, but his cooking finds its clearest, most fluent expression in dishes of Italian origin. His pastas especially seem to spring from the soul of an Italian nonna. House-made sausage ravioli were wrapped up as beautifully as holiday packages; paper-thin sheets of tender yet toothsome pasta clung to perfect coins of sweet sausage. A gentle bath of truffle cream sauce was lightened by a scattering of sauteed shiitake mushrooms and plump sweet green peas.

Apple raisin crisp with walnut granola and maple syrup ice cream from Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar

Always seasonal and always perfectly executed, pastry chef Barbara Ferguson's desserts balance sophistication and creativity with a child-like glee. This dessert wasn't the showiest of the bunch, but its understated perfection made me long for another taste. Each bite tasted a little different, some emphasizing the crispy-crunchy texture of toasted oats and walnuts, others, the contrast between the hot crisp and the rich, creamy cold ice cream. The tartness of apples was mellowed but not overwhelmed by sugar, which made different elements of natural sweetness more prominent, especially the musky sweetness of the raisins, grown plump on the cooked apples' juices.


China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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