Robert’s Top Ten 2005
As is the tradition in this column, every December I compile a list of the top ten dining experiences I enjoyed over the past year. The list is never based on price or atmosphere. I believe that good food can be served in a fine-dining environment or in a run-down diner. The only considerations are good food and good friends, which always lead to a good time.
This year’s culinary experiences took me from dining in the top restaurants of New York and San Francisco to eating pressed meat sandwiches in the heat and the dark of the immediate aftermath of the worst natural disaster to hit American soil.
10.) Oysters on the Half Shell— Wintzell’s Oyster House, Mobile. My friend Bill Kirby and I drove 90 miles South with a single mission— to eat oysters. After slurping four dozen each, we skipped dessert, ate another dozen, and drove home. The Apalachicola oysters were cold and salty, not too big and not too small. I could eat another five dozen right now.
9. tie) BBQ Ribs— Leatha’s BBQ Inn, Hattiesburg, Miss. Typically, I cook Christmas dinner for my restaurant managers every year. This year we invited spouses and significant others and let the Queen of BBQ, Leatha Jackson, do the work. We won’t be going back to my house anytime soon.
9. tie) Blackbird restaurant— Chicago. Braised pork belly and seared hanger steak never tasted better.
8.) Watershed restaurant— Decatur, GA. Chef Scott Peacock has created one of the hippest Southern eateries in existence. I have extensive notes on all of the dishes we enjoyed, but the mashed potatoes stick with me to this day. Achieving culinary perfection by cooking the “perfect mashed potato” is not as easy as one would think.
7.) Breakfast in a friend’s remote cabin— Franklin, Tenn. We feasted on country ham, red-eye gravy, scrambled eggs with extra-sharp cheddar cheese, garlic grits, two versions of beaten biscuits, sautéed apples, cream cheese pound cake, banana-nut bread, orange juice topped with a scoop of orange sherbet, and the absolute best sausage I have ever— or will ever— put in my mouth.
6.) Lunch with my wife and children— K-Paul’s, New Orleans. The shrimp creole, jambalaya, and seafood gumbo, produced daily in the K-Paul’s kitchens are the finest examples of those dishes ever created. Period. Prudhomme is the most underestimated and underappreciated chef in America. Make no mistake, he is still the king. He packs more flavor and boldness into a dish that anyone. This meal turned out to be my last dining experience in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina changed the city forever.
5.) Anchovy Pasta— Trigiani residence, Jackson, Miss. My friend, and resident Italophile, David Trigiani, is an accomplished architect-turned-amateur-Italian cook, though his cooking is anything but amateurish. This evening he prepared a beautifully straightforward pasta dish by sautéing minced garlic in the finest quality extra virgin olive oil, he then added imported anchovies, and angel hair pasta. Simple, flavorful, beautiful.
4.) Seafood Luncheon— Puckett Home, Pass Christian, Miss. The Pucketts owned one of those century-old majestic homes on Scenic Highway 90 in Pass Christian. They prepared a beautiful meal of crabmeat au gratin, fresh fruit, and a cold shrimp salad. A row of brick steps— and memories— are all that remain of their home as Katrina tore through the coast two weeks later.
3.) Aureole— New York. A celebratory dinner with my agent after a successful day with book publishers. No one coddles foie gras like Charlie Palmer.
2.) Restaurant Gary Danko— San Francisco. Danko’s menu includes a five-course tasting menu and an unbelievably large selection of ala carte offerings including eight appetizers, caviar service, nine fish and seafood choices, seven meat and game-bird selections, a cheese course, and nine dessert options with one prepared tableside.
The most amazing feature of the menu was that all 34 of the ala carte items could be compiled into a personal tasting menu with a three-course, four-course, and five-course option. I opted for a four-course personally selected menu. First course: Seared foie gras with caramelized red onions and roasted peaches. Second course: Risotto with lobster, rock shrimp, roasted porcinis, tomato, fennel, and tomato oil. Third course: Branzini (farm-raised Mediterranean Sea Bass) with red pepper succotash, wilted arugula, and harissa. Fourth course: Herb-crusted loin of lamb with Israeli cous cous, yellow zucchini, and garam masala. The final course will rank as one of the top three lamb dishes I have ever eaten.
1.) Date with my daughter— Purple Parrot Café, Hattiesburg. No mom, no wife, no brother, no son, just my daughter and me. It wasn’t the five-course tasting menu that made it special, but the company. I may never top this one.