What Were the Best Dishes of 2016?
While I am pretty free with sharing everything that I eat, my thoughts on new menus and letting you know when new restaurants open, I try to keep things on a more editorial level. While my opinions certainly creep into my writing and I would never recommend, or even write about, a place that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, I mostly keep the gushing over various items to a minimum. Until today. I want to share with you my idea of the best dishes of 2016, ones that I sampled, anyway.
I started out intending to pick one dish that stood out above all others each month, but as I took a trip down culinary memory lane, I found that close to impossible. While there aren’t a ton of items that I wouldn’t turn down if offered to me again, there are a myriad of dishes that hold a permanent place in my heart and have me going back again and again.
Let’s dig in, shall we? Here is a list of my best dishes of 2016!
January | Char Pizzeria Napoletana | Classic Pesto Pizza
For those that know me well, you know that pizza is not my favorite. There have been a few that have really intrigued me and they are normally a huge departure from what one would consider traditional. When I visited Char, I had an idea what I was in for. My high school friend, Tommasina Mamola, created the spot to pay homage to her strong Italian heritage. I knew that I was in for authentic Napoletana pizza made with the best ingredients and an extra helping of love. I had an opportunity to try a few of their varieties but my stand out favorite was the Classic Pesto. I know, I know. They offer an array of ingredients to choose from to create a custom pizza, but sometimes the simplest combinations really allow you to tell how good an item truly is. This was the case with Char. The house-made pine nut and basil pesto was aromatic and rich. Pesto is one of my favorite sauces and this one held so much flavor and complexity, a true feat with such few ingredients. Add in the rich and creamy fior di latte mozzarella and briny pecorino romano and I was in a lactose wonderland. The pizza was simple yet flavorful, filling while still maintaining lightness. It was the perfect slice.
February | The Parlor | Pappardelle Bolognese
I feel bad for pasta and the bad rep that carbs get, so bad that I make a point to eat pasta as frequently as possible and I have no regrets. On a crisp February evening I made my way out of the East Valley and set out to Central Phoenix to meet a friend at The Parlor. Having never been before, I relied heavily on the knowledge of our server and my friend. I spied the pappardelle Bolognese and inquired how it was and there were smiles all around. I admire the intricacy of a Bolognese sauce, a hearty meaty sauce that everyone seems to make a little differently. I think that’s part of what I love about this particular sauce. You’ll have a general notion of the essence and consistency to expect, but there will be subtle nuances from recipe to recipe. The Bolognese at The Parlor is served atop full and delicate pappardelle noodles. The thick, luxuriant sauce settles I the folds of the perfectly prepared pasta and just in case you can’t scoop up every last bit of sauce you can use the warm rustic bread it comes with.
March | Cuisine & Wine Bistro | Magret de Canard
From the initial moment that I laid eyes on Mairead Buschtetz I knew I was going to adore her. Her radiant smile and kind eyes at once set you at ease and her light Irish brogue will keep you there. I first met her and her husband for an interview and throughout the course of our discussion I discovered that we have so much in common in our personal lives, and I have had a special place for her and her family in my heart since that day. I have enjoyed a few meals at both of their East Valley locations and the food has always been flawless, but if I had to choose a favorite dish, it would be the Magret de Canard. I must admit that I have not had too many encounters with duck, but this was one of the best dishes of my life. Seriously. The thick duck breast, with a healthy layer of fat, is served rare and sliced relatively thin. The sweet sauce that accompanies the dish is heady, rich and helps to counterbalance the natural fattiness of the meat. Chef Fabrice Buschetz is an artist at sauces and one taste of this sauce and I knew I had to try everything coming from his kitchen. The dish here comes with a duchesse potato (my current favorite potato preparation) and broiled tomato. Its perfection on a plate.
April | Toro Latin Restaurant and Rum Bar | Tuna Nikkei Ceviche
If you’ve been to the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, undoubtedly you’ve observed that their grounds are vast. Among the luscious landscape is a beacon of Latin feasting in one of their signature restaurants, Toro. The menu, crafted by Richard Sandoval, is permeated with festive flavors of Central and South America and don’t even get me started on the 151+ rums they have at the ready. I was present at an extraordinary, multi-course dinner at Toro and while the complete menu of the night was magnificent, my favorite of the evening was the Tuna Nikkei Ceviche. I have had a tuna obsession for years and anytime I see it integrated into a poke or ceviche on a menu my spidey-senses go into high alert. When I think of a traditional ceviche, I think lots of seafood, a little citrus juice, (hopefully) avocado and occasionally a little heat. This ceviche is more, in my judgment, like a poke. There is a little less liquid than conventional and the velvety base tacked on an additional layer of intricacy to the dish. To my joy there were substantial quantities of avocado and the nori it was crowned with gave it a pleasant briny taste and a variance of texture amongst all the tender elements.
May | St. Francis | Roasted Carrot & Avocado Salad
I’m not typically one to propose a salad when dining out for the very reason that some people refrain from ordering chicken from a restaurant menu. There are some things that you can duplicate at home, so why not go for the more elaborate dishes? After being drawn in by the description of the new Summer menu salad and later actually trying it for myself, I may be changing my tune. Summers here are hot anda stifling and call for some lighter fare. As soon as I saw this roasted carrot and avocado salad, I knew I had to try it. I love the sweetness that roasting carrots brings out and I can never say no to avocado. The salad is dressed with an orange poppy seed vinaigrette that really adds a tart element to the carrots and the creamy nature of perfectly ripe avocados added a fresh, creamy flavor. It was my favorite salad of the summer, without a doubt!
June | Stock & Stable | Smoked Corn Manti
And we arrive back at pasta, my first true love. The gorgeous Turkish dumplings are traditionally loaded with minced meat, onions, and spices and then steamed, baked, boiled, or fried. The summer version at Stock & Stable was filled with a luscious creamy corn base and then dressed with feta, brown butter, roasted corn, pepitas, and delicately sliced radishes and asparagus. All the fresh, crisp vegetables make for an excellent contrast to the light, pillowy dumpling. There is a subtle smoky quality that really shines with the peppery features of the radish. It tasted just like summer in the Midwest and brought me back to my childhood there. Anytime that a dish or meal can lead you back in time that’s something extraordinarily special.
July | J & G Steakhouse | Tuna Tartare
This was tough, because the entire meal that I had at J & G was extraordinary, but as you may have picked up from this list, my heart goes pitter pat when I see tuna anything on a menu. You would assume that a fine-dining, classy joint like J&G would have a tuna tartare that would be untouchable by most restaurants. You would be right. This is the best tuna tartare interpretation I have ever had. Ever. You could taste the quality of the tuna in each and every bite. It was so perfect that I ate it uncommonly slow. Take a bite, gaze out the panoramic windows as the sun was setting and took every characteristic in. The dish was perfectly stacked, with the avocado on the base in a calm sea of ginger marmalade and then topped with a graceful unfolding of radishes. Radishes aren’t my favorite vegetable, but in the pursuit of trying everything I made sure to integrate some with each bite and it was like a symphony in my mouth. The layers of flavor began gradually, sounding off all of my tastebuds and when blended together ended in a stunning crescendo. That reminds me, I need to get back there for some more. Would it be weird to go by myself and order three of these? No? Cool.
August | Nico Heirloom Kitchen | Pork Ragu
August marks my and my husband’s birthdays, only three days apart. While the kids were at school, we slipped away off to downtown Gilbert to visit Nico’s. I had been a few times before, but my husband had never been. We caught their lunch service, and I was thrilled with the menu, and while they offer a collection of tempting possibilities, when I saw the pork ragu I gave up looking. I have yet to find a dish that Chef Gio Osso has produced that I wasn’t at once captivated with, and the pork ragu was no exception. The mascarpone polenta is velvety and luscious, making it an ideal match for the tender pork. The ragu held a slight heat and was intoxicating. I took the toasted Noble bread and sopped up every last bit of it. The two fried eggs on top were like the icing on my birthday cake, you know because absolutely everything is instantly better when you put an egg on it!
September | Pretty much everything
This was the toughest month to choose only one item. I went on an unbelievable trip where I basically ate my way through Flagstaff, I tried House of Eggroll for the first time and had just about everything on the menu at Pho King Kitchen. So, it truly wouldn’t be fair for me to choose between them.
House of Eggroll | Shaanxi-style Handmade Noodles
Simple but magnificent! This dish had the longest noodles I have ever seen in my life. You should have seen me trying to grab a bite with my chopsticks; the noodles just kept coming! There was a substantial quantity of steamed cabbage, green onions, bean sprouts and the most glorious mixture of chilis, spices, and a light oil. There was some serious heat in this dish, but I cannot begin to relay the depth of the flavor. It was magical and you need to try it, soon and often.
Pho King Kitchen | Lemongrass Curry Coconut Shrimp
With seven different types of pho, there are some tough choices that need to be made. They all are full flavored and made up of interesting fusion combinations. Even though it was crazy hot outside, the lemongrass curry coconut shrimp was calling my name. Every single part of this dish would have been a star on its own, but when brought together, it’s a taste explosion. He coconut curry provides an excellent base for the pho and the lemongrass shrimp, bean sprouts, Thai basil, cilantro and rice noodles create great texture and a novel sequence of flavors. Its so good, you have to check it out – no matter the weather.
Tinderbox Kitchen | Duck Leg Confit
And here is where duck makes its second appearance on the list! The entire menu that we had, crafted by Chef Derek Christensen, was thought provoking and dynamic, but that duck. I have daydreams about this dish. The duck leg was fall-apart tender and had an additional layer of flavor due not only to the cooking process but the inclusion of the juniper duck broth. Chef Christensen also incorporated yam dumplings and braised greens. I feel like my picture and words could never do this dish the justice it is worthy of.
October | Growler USA | Buffalo Chicken Dip
Yep. You read that right. It’s not all five star dinners in swanky restaurants. I’m a corn-fed, meat and potatoes girl from the Midwest and while I have the good fortune to dine at some of the finest spots in our glorious state, I still can recognize the simpler things. Put a rich, spicy and tangy buffalo sauce on anything at all and I will eat it. Add it to some chicken and cheese and I might ask you to marry me. The buffalo chicken dip at Growler USA is outstanding, and while it’s difficult to say it, it’s better than the dip that I make. I think part of that has to do with the two different types of chicken that they use. Much like my version, there is chicken that is finely blended in with the cheese and sauce, but they also use chunks of chicken which gives a distinct texture. They also use three distinctive varieties of cheese; cream cheese, mozzarella and cheddar. You’re able to get a proper measure of the thick and creamy dip on the provided warm pita wedges. The heat will grow, bite after bite, but fortunately you have a vast amount of craft brews at your disposal to soothe the burn.
November | Ginger Monkey | Pesto Deviled Eggs
Touching back on my Midwest roots, deviled eggs are essentially a rite of passage where I am from. I love that there are so many interpretations to be found on menus around town. There was even a recipe contest in January that Hickman’s held in which local chef’s came up with innovative iterations. A friend and I stumbled upon upon Ginger Monkey after an extraordinarily weird event and when one owner came over to check in on us he noted that we hadn’t ordered the pesto deviled eggs and went straight back to the kitchen to get us an order. Out. Freaking. Standing. We ate the order he brought out and got another to go. Pesto has that familiar nutty and salty characteristic due to the Parm and pine nuts along with the herbaceousness of basil, add that to the deviled egg filling, add a nice dusting of crisp pancetta to the top and you have a bite sized bit of salty heaven. All you need to pair with that is a glass of their house wine (jager bomb!) and you are on your way to some genuine happiness.
December | Palo Verde | San Marzano Braised Cuttlefish
At a recent wine dinner, Chef Brian Archibald and his culinary team produced an epic dinner that was like a love letter to the flavors of fall. This autumnal feast featured pork cheek pansotti, a caramelized persimmon tart, San Marzano braised cuttlefish, cervena venison and an elegant lady apple crostata. Each course was masterfully conceived and transitioned perfectly into the subsequent course. That cuttlefish though. Chef Archibald told us that the chorizo verde was created in house and I would have begged for the recipe had I imagined he might share it. It was layered and subtleties and the texture was in total contrast to the melt-in-your-mouth structure of the cuttlefish. The sweet accents of the San Marzano tomatoes were accentuated by a modest heat. When you scooped up a bite that included each particular element, there were fireworks. Big, lively flavors exploding in your mouth. The perfect dish to head out of 2016 with a bang!
Honorable Mention | Mr. Bites
Each and every meal that my husband prepares for our family. I love when he begins asking if we have certain ingredients because I now that means that he either saw something delicious on Facebook or he’s been binging on Gordon Ramsay videos. He has great ideas and intuition when it comes to the kitchen and keeps our little family extremely well fed! His are the real best dishes of 2016, because he made them all with love for his people. I love his face off!
I can’t wait to see what 2017 has in store for my palate and my waistline, but with an exciting new development that I plan to announce very shortly I can only imagine it will be epic!
What were some of your best dishes of 2016? Share in the comments or send me a message so I can try them out too!