Over the course of the 15 years that I have written this weekly column, I have always ended the year with a list of the top-10 dining experiences I enjoyed over the previous year.
Some years I am on the road a lot, others are spent close to home. The work schedule usually dictates the travel agenda. This year was spent close to home for the most part. I was the co-leader of a tour through Europe that offered several wonderful dining memories, but I didn’t make my annual trip to Chicago or San Francisco, and I haven’t been to New York in a couple of years.
An entry doesn’t have to be an over-the-top fine dining experience. The only qualification to be included on the list is that the meal be a memorable one. What are the meals that would make your list in 2014?
10.) Country Diner, Highway 35, Sandy Hook, MS— Co-collaborator, and watercolorist extraordinaire, Wyatt Waters and I are working on a new coffee table cookbook and a companion television project. I wanted to film an episode at Candia Love’s joint just south of Foxworth. While Waters painted a scene in the dining room, Love and I went into the kitchen to fry rabbit. The fried rabbit was good, but the rabbit with onions and gravy was better.
Love describes rabbit as, “A cross between turkey and pork.” I’ll go with that description. But what made this day special was working with my best friend and filming a lady who is an embodiment of the American dream and whose laugh should be one of the most treasured recordings in the National Archives.
9.) Chinese Cricket Club, London, England— I was in charge of the culinary fate of a group of 18-20 Americans travelling through England, Belgium, and France. On the second night I booked our group into the Chinese Cricket Club. Mississippi is virtually void of good Chinese food. London is filled with great Chinese and Indian restaurants. Between the two, Chinese seemed to be the safer bet for a diverse group. It was perfect. The restaurant was beautiful. The staff was all over it, and the food was spot on.
8.) Tasting dinner for the new menu rollout at the Purple Parrot Café— After 27 years, the chefs at the Parrot are still nailing it.
7.) Rolf and Daughters, Nashville, TN— I love restaurants. They are my livelihood and they are my hobby. I research restaurants like a marine biologist would study the daily habits, environment, and physiological make up of a squid. Rolf and Daughters is as perfect as a dining experience can get for me. From the atmosphere and design, to the hard surfaces, server hospitality, and the food. Philip Krajeck has touch and taste, and his food is original, real, and damn good. This restaurant is so appealing to me that I would make the seven-hour drive back to Nashville, eat at Rolf and Daughters, drive back home, and be content that I did everything I needed to do on that trip.
6.) Lunch with Mac Mc Anally, Hattiesburg, MS— While rehearsing for a concert to benefit Extra Table, I served one of my longtime musical heroes, Mac McAnally and Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, food from my Italian restaurant. We talked about Italy and made plans to visit.
5.) Dinner with my Mom, Gulfport, MS— We ate dinner at a steamed seafood joint, but the place doesn’t really matter. It wasn’t the food that made this evening special. My mother and I were in the middle of a book promotion tour and had just completed one of the early book signing events on the Coast. We had a nice meal of steamed Gulf seafood and talked about life when my brother and I were young and she— recently widowed— bought a small fish camp on the Coast. I learned how to fish, crab, troll for shrimp and water ski, and had one of the best childhoods a boy could imagine.
4.) Pacific Eiland, Ypres, Belgium— My group cooked their own dinner on a small, individual Spanish stones. We were served a plate of raw meats and sausages– marinated chicken, steak, lamb chops, pork skewers, vegetable skewers, lamb sausage, pork sausage, and white sausage. They were accompanied by three sauces (the best of which was a tangy curry), a tossed salad, and two different bowls of potatoes (fried and roasted).
There is something magical that happens when a group gets together to share a meal and everything goes as planned. This was one of those nights. The conversation was lively, loud and filled with energy. At the end of the meal, the chef— in a very European moment— manned the stereo system, cranked up some 30-year old British disco music, and our crew danced throughout the restaurant. It was a fitting end to a memorable meal.
3.) Au Moulin Au Vent, Paris, France— The quintessential Parisian café.
This place hasn’t changed a lick since it opened in 1946. We dined on sautéed frog legs, escargot, frisee salad, chateaubriand with all of the accompaniments and several desserts. Perfect.
2.) Family supper w Chicken Pot Pie— There was nothing special planned on this evening. It was a typical school night. My wife made a chicken potpie and the four of us sat around the dinner table sharing a meal as we have hundreds of times before. Yet something hit me mid-meal. I was looking at my daughter— a high school senior— and realizing that the days of the four of us sharing a meal in this manner on a school night were numbered. Just yesterday I was feeding her in a high chair. Now she is grown.
It wasn’t a morose moment, a little bittersweet maybe, though it fueled me to make sure and milk every moment out of the next few months.
1.) Dinner at Chef Robert Van Eygen’s home, Ypres, Belgium— The chef of Pacific Eiland in Ypres, Belgium invited me to his home for dinner. I invited a few friends to join us. It was a magical night. The meal started with cured ham and hard cheeses, which were passed, followed by oysters, freshly shucked by our host. Next the chef served shrimp croquettes, followed by foie gras with fig compote, and then a sampling of the best house-smoked salmon I have ever tasted. Ever. Period.
As the sun began to set we moved to another table across the lawn under a quaint pergola and were seated next to a roaring fire where we ate crab and rice. A very European cheese course was served after the entrees and the meal ended with homemade ice cream, brandied fruit and an apple tart that I had picked up from a baker one town over.
The dinner was very good, the company was better, the conversation was lively, and the entire experience was one of those moments that tend to happen when all of the stars align and people from two very different parts of the world come together over food. In that moment friendships are made and lifelong memories are established.
Here’s wishing you have many memorable meals in 2015