For the 25 years I have written in this space I have always reserved the final column inches of the year to reflect on the top 10 meals I enjoyed over the previous 12 months. Here is this year’s list.
Poke Bowl, Oka, Barberino-Tavarnelle, Tuscany— the best poke I have ever eaten was not in Seattle, New York, or San Francisco, but in a tiny town in Tuscany. Oca is a small restaurant run by a local man and his Japanese chef wife. The food is amazing, and I eat there often on my days off from hardcore non-stop Italian dining.
Smoked Salmon, Pacific Eiland, Ypres, Belgium— Chef Robert Van Eygen is a force of nature on the Belgium restaurant scene. I first ate there nine years ago and wrote that the house-smoked salmon from his kitchen was the best I had ever tasted. That sentiment still rings true, as I found out in May. Though now he is serving his salmon all over the country.
10. BLT lunch, Big Bay Lake, Mississippi
How could a sandwich as simple as a BLT end up on this list one might ask? You had to be there to eat that particular BLT. It was peak season for tomatoes, the bacon was crisp, the Blue Plate was spread on heavily, and the weather was perfect.
9. La Bellotas, Jabugo, Spain
It was here— on my second visit in as many years— that I ate the finest cut of pork in a 62-year career of consuming all manner of swine. It wasn’t a paper-thin slice of Jamon Iberico, but the presa (a cut beneath the tenderloin and behind the shoulder). Most black Iberian pigs are raised for the hams. But all parts are used over there so there are always plenty of chops, tenderloins, bellies, and other cuts that benefit from that breed of pig that forages for acorns. A presa steak, left in the hands of a Spaniard who knows how to roast it properly, is a savory and buttery thing of beauty. Some say it tastes like a beef steak. I say it tastes better than that. It’s a rare crown jewel in the culinary world.
8. Risotto, Pietracupa, San Donato, Tuscany
On a night off from tour hosting, my wife and I took our friends Marina and Marco— and an American musician friend who was touring in Europe— to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Tuscany. It was a nice break between groups. The saffron risotto was served with a light parmesan custard on the side and was covered in truffles. Perfection.
7. Progressive Canal Dinner, Amsterdam
I added a tour through Belgium and The Netherlands this year. In Amsterdam— a city filled with canals that would rival many in Venice— I charted a boat for my guests, and we took a leisurely sunset cruise though the city. As the sun was setting, we tied the boat off, and a series of servers emerged from a Michelin-starred restaurant carrying trays high in the air. They passed the first course off to the boat crew, we pulled off, and the dinner cruise commenced. We made two more stops at fine dining restaurants in which the servers handed off food dockside. It was a memorable evening that ended up— as many of our travel days do— with the entire group spontaneously singing songs in unison.
6. First Bakery Breakfast, Loblolly Bakery, Hattiesburg
For 10 years I had been trying to open a bakery in my hometown of Hattiesburg MS. For six years I’d been coaxing Pastry Chef Martha Foose and Master Baker Donald Bender to come down and join me in that bakery. I finally succeeded and the process of opening that bakery took well over a year. There were many obstacles to overcome. We opened on August 2nd, and I ate the first croissant that came out of the oven. As I sat in the small dining room, an hour before we opened the doors, I took in all of the sounds and smells and had an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and gratitude all at once.
5. Birthday Dinner, Taormina, Sicily
The Fall tour schedule started in Sicily on my 62nd birthday. The guests were set to arrive the next day, and my co-hosts Jesse and Marina planned a nice birthday dinner with my wife and I overlooking the Ionian Sea. The meal was good, the view was stunning, the company was even better.
4. Picnic Breakfast with Cousins, Chapel of St. Michael, Semifonte, Tuscany
This year I was blessed to host a tour group filled with cousins from the Washington D.C. area. At the end of a morning walk through the Tuscan countryside we enjoyed a picnic breakfast outside a tiny 700-year old chapel on top of a hill. I was standing outside of the Chapel of St. Michael speaking to a local when I heard singing echoing from inside. It was beautiful. I abruptly excused myself from the conversation and walked in to see what was happening. A couple of my cousins, and several of their friends, had formed a semi-circle in the chapel and were singing the Doxology.
The acoustics in that tiny chapel rival any monastery I have visited. Their voices were resonating throughout the small, rounded room and out into the church grounds. It was mesmerizing. I knew the song well and had sung it in church all my life. I stood and listened to them finish. Then I asked, “Can y’all do that again and let me join in?” They did, and I did, and it was a magical, moving, and memorable moment.
3. Dinner with Harry, Swift & Sons, Chicago
My son flew to Chicago from his culinary school in New York and we met to attend the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show. I had taken him once before, but at 16-years-old it didn’t quite connect. Now, as a culinary student with his future set on the restaurant trade it was an altogether different trip.
He is “all in” on the restaurant business these days. He gets it now. Our thing has always been a steak dinner together, and the conversation that evening as we ate our steaks was much different than it was five years earlier with me cautiously trying to tell him about the aspects and “ins and outs” of the trade. This time it was a full give-and-take conversation. He had opinions, he had knowledge, the excitement was there. He’s becoming a restaurateur and a chef. I love that.
2. Family Dinner, Emeril’s, New Orleans
My son came home from culinary school and his sister, mother, and I traveled to New Orleans to eat at the newly renovated and re-concepted Emeril’s (details on that dinner in next week’s column). The dining experience was outstanding but the fact that we were sitting there, just the four of us— the original four— sharing a meal like we used to was more than enough to create the second most memorable dining experience I enjoyed this year. The fact that E.J. Lagasse’s food was otherworldly (again, to be covered next week) was a bonus.
1. Engagement Dinner, New Orleans
My daughter was engaged to be married this past September. Her fiancé chose a low-key proposal on the rooftop of our New Orleans apartment. Good move, that. It’s a building in which she lived when they first started dating. His family, their friends, and our family snuck in the apartment while the proposal was happening upstairs. She said, “Yes,” and when they came back down to our apartment, we surprised them. I made a reservation at Saint John a few blocks away in the Quarter. We enjoyed an excellent dinner where both families came together for the first time. We were also joined by friends of the engaged couple. There was joy in the air and excitement for the future. It was truly a night to remember.