Favorite Meals of 2016: Part 4

Scott & Al (Founders of In a DC Minute). The Red Hen – An unforgettable date night at this DC gem left us beyond satiated – from the handmade pasta to the unique take on gnocchi, the craft libations to the ambiance – this was our favorite meal of 2016.

Pony’s (formerly Mr. Ed’s) – Though this little drive bar is not going to earn a Michelin Star, it is a staple in Middleport, NY and we have spent our lives ordering take-out from this place. Scott and I would argue that this bar serves the best and most flavorful chicken fingers in all of WNY, and was the first meal we had when we moved home in August (and we have had it at least twice a month since then…)

Aro Bar de Tapas – Though we have been impressed with all our WNY date nights, we have been back to Aro 3 times already and we still can’t get enough. Presentation, quality, and a mean Gin & Tonic makes this one of our favorite dates in WNY.  The menu is constantly evolving, giving good reason to check back often. (Pictured above is a photo from their meal at Aro)

Alan Bedenko (Contributor at The Public). With thanks for your indulgence, there is no meaningful way to really pinpoint the best meal I had in 2016, so instead I’m going to give a broader retrospective. These are the most memorable things I ate this year.

Dessert at China Poblano, Las Vegas – Jose Andres’ Chinese/Mexican joint on the Strip is fun (try the pork belly and cilantro sandwich), but especially memorable here is the chocolate terra cotta warrior, filled with mouse, on a bed of ice cream and caramelized bananas, it was rich, delicious, and the sort of thing that you think about afterwards, wondering when you’ll have the chance to have one again.

Aro Bar de Tapas – Not only is it a significant thing to have such a delightfully modern, ever-changing, and innovative tapas place in town, but we’ve returned countless times and always had an outstanding experience. The service is attentive, the food has been consistently excellent, and there’s a touch of showmanship and whimsy here that is unique to WNY. Their arroz con pollo, served with chicken confit, English peas, and a black rice that is the stuff of dreams, is my go-to, although it’s seasonally absent now, replaced with something equally as interesting.

Suzy Q’s – The smoked Polish sausage at Suzy Q’s could very well be one of the best menu items anywhere in WNY, and to taste it is always like tasting food for the first time, all over again.

Frenchie Covent Garden – We tried the original Frenchie in Paris in 2011, after Bourdain highlighted it on his show. It was a tiny place run by Gregory “Frenchie” Marchand, who was assigned the nickname while working in New York, and everything was not just seasonally fresh, but dependent on what was available in the market on any given day. He recently opened this London location, and we enjoyed a wonderful meal there during a recent vacation. His Ibaiama pork, cooked pink and tender in a salt crust, was served with grilled eggplant, medjool dates, goat’s curd and zaatar, and it was a superb combination of North African flavors and textures. He also did some really memorable bacon scones with maple syrup and clotted cream as a starter.

Borough Market Picnic – When traveling, visiting markets and supermarkets just to see what’s available, what’s different, and what is unrecognizable, is one of my favorite things to do. In Dublin, we threw together picnic stuff from a few markets and got essentials at M&S, and that was great, but Borough Market is different. Here, everything is somehow special – whether it’s an English muffin that stands half a foot tall, or a breakfast sausage sandwich served in a brioche that makes you sort of re-assess how a hurried breakfast most days consists of something microwaved and a yogurt. We stocked up on incredible French bread, tomatoes from Holland, ham from Spain, and various cheeses from France for our last night of vacation. Everything was superb, we could eat in our room while we packed, and it was less than $30 for four people.

Notably absent from this list is an experience we had at Jose Andres’ famed é at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. It was a 20-course feast prepared with exquisite care right in front of us. It also cost close to $800, and that was without booze pairings. It was a wonderful experience, but not one I’m in a hurry to repeat. In fact, we ate at Jaleo in the same space the following day for 1/8th of the price and it was exponentially more enjoyable.

It all goes to show you that a $16 chocolate dessert or $30 worth of finds at a market can outdo even the fanciest, most exclusive, and most expensive

Michael Khoury (Owner of The Washington Market). 2016 was a big year for me. On February 28th, after 6 years of living in New York City (and eating everything I possibly could), I packed up my tiny apartment into a small van and moved back home to Buffalo. Before I could leave NY, though, I had some mild panic about not getting the opportunity to try every restaurant that ever made it onto a list of places I needed to eat. I needed to catch up quickly but, as anyone who has ever tried to eat their way through NY knows, that’s impossible. There’s far too many restaurants and new ones are opening constantly. I had to face the fact that I would be leaving without eating at EVERY great restaurant in NY. I had done pretty well in my 6 years. Acceptance.

That’s not to say I didn’t try, though. I went on an eating spree during my last few months hitting up places old and new. There were many that were memorable on my farewell tour but, none more memorable than splurging on a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barnes, Dan Barber’s incredible and hyper-local, farm to table restaurant. The restaurant is situated on a scenic farmhouse property (owned by the Rockefellers) about an hour outside of NY. The property is actually part of a Rockefeller foundation whose goal is a “working farm practicing resilient, transparent, four-season agriculture and open to the public as a hub of learning, creativity and experimentation.” I had a chance to walk around the property before the meal and got to see the pigs, goats, guard dogs, and crop fields. Its a beautiful place.

I’d always seen the place show up on a list of top restaurants in the NY area but, what really compelled me to book a table was reading chef Barber’s important book on his experiences with sustainable farm/restaurant practices, The Third Plate. After reading all of Michael Pollen’s food sustainability books, along with a number of other books on the subject, I was completely surprised by the quality of the writing in Barber’s book. Its a worthy successor to Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and is written from the perspective of an actual chef who has the know-how for applying these practices in a real restaurant setting (albeit one he can charge a lot of money for). Just check out his WastED series he did in Manhattan. If there’s one thing you take from this post, its that you should definitely read his book. His episode on Chef’s Table doesn’t do him enough justice. READ THE BOOK!

Of course, the meal was incredible. We ate our way through roughly 20 fun, creative, and delicious courses that were just about all grown/raised/foraged on this Rockefeller estate or in upstate NY. This was particularly interesting given that it was a cold Wednesday night in January, not exactly prime growing season. My dimly lit pictures and descriptions wouldn’t do the meal justice so I won’t talk too much about the food. Just know that it was one of the best meals of my life, taste-wise. Add to that the context of it being sustainably sourced (an issue that’s become important to me) and it made me smile that much more.

Looking around the dining room I saw the usual crowd of people who seem to go to exclusive, $300+ per person meals in NY, of which I was lucky enough to eat at several in my time there. Next to us was a well-dressed, foreign couple that didn’t seem to care about anything the server was explaining to them, often ignoring him and continuing on with their own conversation. Then a large group of bro-ey, suited-up Ivy Leaguers came out of a private dining room.. a group of bankers or lawyers wooing a potential client or having their baller holiday party at the most baller place they could book? Maybe.

Around course number 10, our server came over and said “alright if you’ll come with me, the chef would like to serve you the next course in the kitchen”. Well that’s cool! So we were led from our table into this huge, beautiful kitchen past about 30 young chefs over to a small table where Dan Barber himself was cutting up some bread. He said hello and was pleasant but seemed to be going through a routine presentation that he probably does 40 times a night to people who might not really care all that much. He asked us what we were celebrating. We kind of shrugged and said “no reason. we’d just always wanted to come here.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”

I was a bit nervous but I finally blurted out that we’d both just read his book and I thanked him for it and I went on rambling about how I thought it was great and an important work followed by more nervous rambling. At this he lit up and announced to the entire kitchen “Hey, you guys hear that?! They read the book!” to which we got a small cheer and a few laughs (i guess the inside joke in the kitchen was that most of them hadn’t read it yet, either). He shook my hand and thanked me for reading it. He said that he doesn’t get many book readers as diners. He sighed in relief and seemed to act more natural, more comfortably after that. Relief from the fact that he knew that we’d “get it”, perhaps? That we’d at least get the point of his efforts at Stone Barns? That we weren’t just some rich folk here to check off a restaurant on a top 10 list, or trying to eat at every expensive restaurant just so that we could say that we did? Maybe. Hopefully. As we were being escorted out after the little bread presentation, he ran back over to shake our hands again and say good bye. It was a really nice moment.

I doubt he remembers us but I’ll always remember what a great night, and a great meal I had. (Photo above from Eater.com)

Source: Buffalo News

Thomas Jablonski (Partner at Lockhouse Distillery) I’ve spent a couple days agonizing over this post, since opening Lockhouse Bar while retaining my day job has removed for nearly an entire year my ability to be a full citizen of “New Buffalo”. Many allegedly amazing restaurants keep opening, and I remain on the sidelines taking other peoples word regarding their prescience and skill. I wish my schedule allowed for me to enjoy them more, and hope and expect that I will be able to sample their virtues in the coming year.

My own favorite meal of the year, given these constraints, is far more basic. On Cinco de Mayo, I met both Rayna (one of my Lockhouse bartenders), my roommate Bentley and others at Savoy. Bentley, mensch that she is, decided to be our sober sister for the evening. After a brief stint at Pasión, we tapped out early, and she decided to extract Rayna and I utilizing my Jeep for a much needed meal at Jim’s Steakout.

I will not pretend the results were pretty.

After ordering, Rayna promptly fell asleep several times. Each time she woke up, she returned to the counter and re-ordered the same plain chicken finger sub (her plain order making Bentley who is not native feel like less of an outsider). This recurred at least 5 or 6 times. Maybe 7. The gracious staff humored her each subsequent order. Their diplomacy remains commendable.

Now, allegedly I also fell asleep whilst waiting. While I dispute this version of events, I’m willing to grant the possibility that it may be true.

Bentley drove us home, and I slept like a rock. One the way to work the following morning, I discovered a perfect artifact from the previous night’s indiscretions: Rayna’s uneaten plain chicken finger sub placed hardened and undisturbed upright in my front cupholder.

No, I did not attempt eat it, for fear of death. But I do remain impressed by its longevity and stamina.

For it’s sitcom qualities alone, this certainly qualifies as my favorite meal of 2016.

Sorry mom!

Chris Lindstrom (Rochester Food Blogger/Podcaster). I was in the Boston area for a curling tournament and was able to step away for an evening to have what turned out to be an eye opening experience. My friend from the area came up to Woburn for a dinner at the Baldwin Bar. The Baldwin Mansion is like a set of Russian nesting dolls with an old school Sichuan restaurant called Sichuan Garden II, the original and high end Baldwin Bar and then a related lounge upstairs each with their own separate menus. What made this special was the combination of Sichuan dry fried chicken and a duo of rye based cocktails that our bartender came up with at our request.. One of them worked to enhance the spice and the other to tame it – they showed a true knowledge of their food and were able to pair on the fly. Traditional Sichuan food taken seriously with high end cocktails is what I’ve been thinking of ever since.

Fiorella has become my go to local dinner spot when I am just in the mood for simple food executed well. I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about cacio e pepe before starting to eat there, but it has quickly become my favorite dish they serve. Housemade spaghetti right at that perfect doneness covered in a pan thickened cheesy, salty, nutty and pepper filled sauce. I ordered it once and haven’t stopped since.

Edward Forster (Founder of The Workshop Buffalo). 2k16 was weird. I didn’t travel that much. I didn’t eat out at the fancy places that much. There were plenty of days I spent cooking that fill my black tiny heart with joy more than you can know, and since everyone else is expounding about the meals they consumed that filled them with joy, I want to talk about meals I enjoyed making.

I cooked a tasting dinner for a friends birthday last winter. The idea was to cook everything over one source, to dine around it, and to share laughs with one another around the center of the action- an outdoor fire in winter. It pushed me outside of my comfort zone, it brought everyone out into the cold, and brought laughs and smiles into the snow. It was an amazing way to spend an evening that I long to replicate.

I was fortunate enough to be honored to cook at The James Beard House for a second time. With two awesome Nates, my buddy Jon, and the assistance of Derek D and Joe F, we made dinner. When everything is reduced to its core, we made food. But the memories and the love and adoration I have for all the remarkable people that helped make that day a true north star of my culinary days will never be forgotten. that was fucking rad. Also we had a truly remarkable meal at a Michelin star restaurant where we all got to eat foie gras, caviar, and still make fart noises in our chair- so that was cool.

Our guys and I were featured in a national magazine- Plate. Its super cool to be featured in that range of forum but that’s not what made it awesome. I was able to do it collaboratively with our kitchen guys at work- Nate made a caramelized whey gelato, someone else came up with garnishes etc. Truly seeing your friends and colleagues rise to the occasion was fan fucking-tastic.

Cali style burritos are the truth. Also the owners legally pay taxes and their employees so I enjoyed that. Campfire cooking makes me feel masculine. I am not masculine, but a fire helps stoke the flame if you will.

Beyond that The Grange is perfect in every way. Pastrami on rye has to be laced with heroine because its fucking addictive. The Dapper Goose ( aka Fussy Fin Fish, or the Persnickety Dolphin, or Ostentatious Otter all depending on my mood and level of creativity with adjectives) is the restaurant I want to hang out in everyday and hope to run something similar soon. If you do the half chili/ half mac combo at Ballyhoo its the best $4 in the city. Joe’s vegetable dishes at Toutant are miraculous and a hidden gem in this town. William Club, or Billy Club as he is known to his friends, has great food and drink in the comfiest of places. and also I’m still ushering in hopes of my first heart attack to arrive soon so I try to consume a stinger taco with blue cheese at Colossal Taco at the dirtiest dive in WNY at least monthly.

Matt Carlucci (Founder of Buffalo Soupfest). Over the course of the last few years, I’ve come to be friends with some Buffalo legends. Through social media and events that I work in, I had the honor of meeting and befriending one of my all time heroes, Darryl Talley.

Before a Bills home game early in the season (when there was still some promise of a post season) I received a text message from Mrs. Talley looking for a place for dinner while they were in town. They wanted a patio, a nice ambiance, and walkability from the hotel they were staying at.

After speaking with my foodie friends and checking availability, we came to the conclusion that the best option was Tappo on Ellicott Street. There were 8 of us and it was a busy Saturday night so we needed to wait a few minutes for our table. The bar is quite big and well stocked, so my wife and I posted up there and I proceeded to have a couple of excellent cocktails while we waited.  Once we were seated, the wine started. Tappo has a fantasticly affordable and approachable wine list so we ordered a few bottles of red and white.

I had a fantastic risotto and my wife had meatballs, but the food didn’t matter. The conversation with friends and the joy of sharing a meal with someone I’ve admired all my life was the best thing about the whole evening.

After dinner we were walking back to our cars and happened to mention Toutant’s “Ooey Gooey Cake” to Darryl. It was not a hard sell and we found our posse in a relatively quiet Toutant bar around midnight. Apparently, we had just missed last call for the kitchen, but Chef Roberts heard that Darryl was in the house and came to visit. Before we knew it, a giant plate of Ooey Gooey Cake and fresh made ice cream were in front of us. There were moans and sighs of delight all around. It was a perfect end to a perfect evening.

I still have a lot of local food to try, but the company of friends and family make it all the better.

Honorable mentions:

  • Carbonara with mushrooms from Marble + Rye. I’ve been eating/making carbonara in various forms for most of my life. The team and M+R managed to create a unique version that blew me away. The addition of smoked mushrooms in place of the traditional pork product was insanely creative and delicious.
  • Seafood Chowder from Toutant. I’m a soup guy. This is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted in a bowl. Just perfect.
  • Cocktails at Buffalo Proper. Just perfect adult entertainment.
  • My Anniversary Dinner at Russell’s. This place still gets my nod for old school steak and service. Mr. Salvatore himself greets me and it just feels like I’m transported to a time when people dressed up for dinner and Sinatra was the coolest guy in the World.