For the 17 years that this column has been published I have ended the year with a list of the best meals I had eaten throughout the previous 12 months. Typically, the list is filled with fine-dining restaurants and meals incorporating over-the-top presentations and exotic ingredients.
This year I’m going in a different direction. In 2015 I spent a lot of time getting back to basics. Whereas I ate a lot of fine-dining meals, this was also the year I heavily researched a burger joint we are about to open.
This year’s Top 10 List will cover the best of the basics of 2015, encompassing the single entrees or food items that— as I sit at my desk looking back on a year’s worth of meals— left an impression on me, even to this day. Nothing fancy, just “real food,” real memorable food.
10.) Chicken Salad Sandwich at Cater’s Market, Meridian, Miss— I have written often about my grandmother’s chicken salad. Hers was the best, ever. Though I am glad that my grandmother is not around to read the following sentence: Jami Cater’s chicken salad is better. That hurt. It’s close, but it’s better. I’m not sure what it is, but the chicken salad served in that small market is the best I’ve ever eaten.
9.) Chili-Cheese Nachos, Commodore Bob’s, Starkville, Miss— Andres Duany gets most of the credit for starting the new urbanist movement in America. Though the truth is that Dan Camp’s Cotton District in Starkville was the first new-urbanist player in the late 1970s. Camp and his sons opened Commodore Bob’s in the Cotton District a couple of years ago. The menu is small and limited like the space the restaurant occupies. The chili on the nachos is good, but the addition of the pickled peppers is what makes this appetizer.
8.) BBQ Ribs, Donanelli’s US 49 South of Hattiesburg, Miss— I’ve eaten ribs all over the country. I’ve written often about the ribs at Leatha’s and how tender and sweet they are. The ribs at Donanelli’s are possibly the best I’ve eaten anywhere. Period. When eaten immediately off of the smoker (all pecan wood, no artificial fuel) I believe that they— on any given day— would win any national barbeque cook-off competition.
7.) Wedge Salad at Seafood R’evolution, Ridgeland, Miss— I know that I said I wasn’t including fine-dining meals in this year’s list, but it’s a wedge salad. Nothing fancy there, even though the restaurant is one of Mississippi’s premiere fine dining spots. I am not typically a salad guy, but this is the most memorable salad I’ve eaten since a frisee masterpiece at Gotham Bar and Grill in New York.
6.) Oysters on the Half Shell, Crescent City Grill, Hattiesburg, Miss— In the early fall the oysters were small and we had a hard time finding ones that met our standards. This December the tide turned and the oysters we’ve been getting for the past several weeks are perfect. My 14-year old son loves raw oysters. He and I enjoyed a lunch together in which we each ate a dozen, just us guys. I remember looking up at him some time during that meal and offering a quick, silent prayer of gratitude that he likes oysters and that he likes eating them with me.
5.) Salt and Pepper Calamari, R&G Lounge, Chinatown, San Francisco— This is my go-to Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. They never disappoint. The salt and pepper crab is their claim to fame, but the salt and pepper calamari can’t be beat. It’s a classic Chinese dish that is simple and pure.
4.) Pecan Pie, Arnold’s, Nashville— My son and I ate lunch at this Nashville meat-and-three institution the day after attending a Rolling Stones concert. Two Nashville friends recommended it and joined us there. As we were standing in line to get served, my friend casually said, “The first time I ate here, Chet Atkins brought me.” You know a meal is going to be memorable after a statement such as that. It was.
Blackened Tripletail catch of the day, Purple Parrot Café, Hattiesburg, Miss— The Parrot usually offers four or five fresh fish selections every day. Triple tail is my favorite of the lot. Earlier this year, after Paul Prudhomme died, we offered a tribute menu featuring many of his classic dishes. As I sat with my family and ate the blackened tripletail, I though of Chef Paul and the impact he made on our nation’s food culture. I still believe that the full effect of his career won’t be appreciated for another decade or so. He was “the man” and he will be missed.
2.) The Sam sandwich, Stein’s Deli, New Orleans— Hot pastrami, cole slaw, swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on the ryiest rye bread they offer is pure sandwich perfection. My family asked what I wanted for Father’s Day. I told them, “A Sam sandwich from Stein’s.” We hopped in the car, drove the 90 minutes to New Orleans, ate lunch at Stein’s, and then drove home. Just the four of us. One of my best days all year.
1.) Cheeseburger, Au Cheval, Chicago— While researching this new burger joint, I have spent two years eating burgers all over the country. In May I made a return trip to Chicago and ate, what I consider to be, the best burger on the planet (Bon Appetit magazine agrees with me). The burger consists of two 4 oz patties of prime beef (two small patties are ALWAYS better than one thick patty), American cheese, house-made pickles and a freshly baked and toasted bun. It doesn’t sound like anything special, but it’s burger perfection and it’s worth the wait.