The best dishes of 2017

It’s a year to embrace diversity on the plate, from the green peppercorn-laced fish at Chengdu Gourmet, to the Persian love cake at Butterwood Bake Consortium. Here are the year’s most memorable dishes from the Post-Gazette’s food staff:

Crispy whole chicken with fried garlic at Vivo Kitchen

“Today in the industry, people are adding more and more to the foods. I’m taking the opposite path,” says chef owner Sam DiBattista. “I use whatever I have. This way, I keep the produce fresh, and my customers taste the vegetables and meats for what they are.”

Crispy whole chicken with fried garlic ($19) showcases an amazing interplay of textures. The small whole bird, which is first roasted and then flash-fried, is shatteringly crisp on the outside and succulently moist inside. It’s crowned with a small mound of crunchy fried garlic and sits on a bed of carrot-quinoa salad. Neither get in the way of the chicken, yet both are brilliant co-conspirators.  432 Beaver St., Sewickley — Arthi Subramaniam

Brisket at Pork & Beans

I spent a large chunk of the summer surveying the barbecue scene here and while a number of places stand tall for overall experience, the singular dish I can’t get out of my mind is the absolutely perfect brisket at Pork & Beans ($16). It’s a blend of meat and fat with a salt rub: It’s so tender that it nearly disintegrates in the mouth, yet retains an excellent bark that crackles with taste. The house sauces are excellent, but you don’t really need them on a piece of meat this good.136 Sixth St., Downtown — Dan Gigler

Green peppercorn fish filet at Chengdu Gourmet

This is a challenging menu to navigate, but once you find a few things you like, chances are you’ll return again and again. My favorites are the Chonqing beef stew and the pickled vegetables for sure, with dishes like Chinese sausage — a special available only in the winter — in my rotation.

A dish that’s new to me is the green peppercorn fish with three types of peppers — as it’s the dish that owner Wei Zhu featured on this video when he was nominated as a James Beard semi-finalist last year. It’s remarkable in part because of the unusual characteristics of green Sichuan peppercorns that lend a floral tone to a broth seasoned with Shaoxing wine, ginger and garlic. Fillets rest on a bed of bean sprouts and are dressed with green peppers, chiles and pickled red chiles. Ask for rice so that beguiling liquid doesn’t go to waste. 5840 Forward Ave., Squirrel Hill — Melissa McCart

Sausage Party at Whitfield in Ace Hotel

The bar menu at Whitfield is one of the best around, a collection of well-priced and fun dishes like snack mix, corn dogs and duck leg confit. A new favorite is called Sausage Party, that, for $14, includes a rotating collection of sausages made in-house from butcher Steve Beachy, former butcher at Marty’s Market in the Strip (now closed). Lately it’s been kase kreiner, kielbasa and bratwurst, served with a slice of Pullman bread and mustard. Each link is super savory and a bit pillowy with a casing that’s got snap. They’re my current favorite. 120 S. Whitfield St., East Liberty — MM

Elysian Fields lamb loin at Eleven in the Strip District

My better half and I celebrated our first anniversary on  11/11,  so the obvious choice to mark the milestone was at Eleven in the Strip District, which was also the site of our first “real” date some years ago. Everything, and I do mean everything, from the drinks to the dinner to dessert and the service was dead-on perfect. But to single out a dish from the night — the Elysian Fields Farm lamb loin for $39 — smoked lamb belly, celery root puree, roasted beets, Brussels sprouts, Anson Mills oats, whole-grain mustard jus — it was so clean and fresh and simple yet elegantly composed. Since it opened in the early aughts, new “hot” restaurants have come and gone but Eleven remains among the pinnacle of dining experiences in Pittsburgh. 1150 Smallman St., Strip District — DG

Cabbage and apple salad at Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette

Formerly at Cafe Carnegie and Dinette, last year’s semifinalist for the James Beard “Rising Star” chef and this year’s “30 under 30 chefs” for Zagat, Becca Hegarty has skill when it comes to dressing up basics, particularly in this cabbage and Gold Rush apple salad that’s crunchy, bright, sweet and vegetal ($5) served with a side of house-baked bread.  4613 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield -— MM 

Porchetta at DiAnoia’s Eatery 

Italian-roasted porchetta is akin to American barbecue in that it's an art that masters hone over a lifetime, and one might think that Chef Dave Anoia has been doing just that in a Piazza Navona storefront for years. It's a killer open-face sandwich served atop the moist and doughy house foccacia with au jus drippings. ($17). The deli sandwich version also holds its own on a crusty roll with rapini, provolone and a hot pepper relish ($10). 2549 Penn Ave., Strip District — DG

Pork tonnato at Bar Marco

Here’s a variation on veal tonnato that you’d think would be on every Italian-American menu but has all but disappeared. There are so many reasons to like this salty, creamy and bright meat dish: Comprised of anchovies, tuna, lemon juice, olive oil and egg, it’s a near perfect condiment for meat. It’s listed as a small plate but worth a double order. This is chef owner Justin Steel at his best. 2216 Penn Ave., Strip District — MM

Curry mussels at Meat & Potatoes

You have to be something of a weirdo to order seafood at a restaurant with “meat” in its name. Yet the Thai-inspired Prince Edward Island curry mussels ($16) at this Penn Avenue gastropub are so, so good. Steamed in a broth made from coconut milk, garlic, ginger and red curry and perfumed with lemongrass, they’ve got enough heat to induce a mild sweat (those are pickled bird’s eye chilies on top), but not so much that it overpowers the sweet taste of the sea. My only quibble is that because selections vary daily, they’re not always on the menu. That, and you never get enough toasted bread to soak up all the delicious sauce. But hey, that’s why they invented spoons, right? 649 Penn Ave., Downtown -— Gretchen McKay

Jerk pork at Leon’s Caribbean

Among the best news I received in 2017: the woman who has cut my hair for a decade moved her shop to the 800 block of Warrington Avenue – right across from Leon’s Caribbean. What was formerly a special trip to the Spartan greasy spoon can now be a monthly stop for an order of jerk pork along with a side of rice and beans and cabbage, which might possibly be my favorite thing to eat in the entire city. The spices are so fiery, yet the flavors are never lost in the heat, but rather pop from the juicy meat. 823 E. Warrington Ave., Allentown -— DG

Soup dumplings at Everyday Noodles

One of the restaurants I’d been looking forward to revisiting when I’d moved back to town has been Everyday Noodles for its rotating chefs from Taiwan who are versed in the art of noodle-pulling and the folds of soup dumplings. During a recent visit, the pork and crabmeat dumplings ($11) were fantastic: a pillow tucked with slightly sweet and savory meats and perfectly seasoned broth. Looking forward to a shrimp with loofah, Sundays only. 5875 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill — MM 

The Persian love cake at Butterwood Bake Consortium

Baker/owner Ally Slayden starts off with a cardamom-rose olive oil pound cake. She cuts two circles of the cake and places one as the base on a gold cake round. The cake is spongy and soft but yet comfortably shoulders a dollop of vanilla cream that is surrounded by fresh slices of strawberries. She tops it with the second cake round, pipes more of that airy cream and finishes the cake off by scattering edible red rose petals and giving it a dusting of powdered sugar. Cardamom and rose are an exquisite match made in heaven, and lift a cake already flying high to an ethereal level — for only $6. 5222 Butler St., Lawrenceville — AS

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