Happy almost 2018! It was a great year for eating!
I am just going to bullet out my thoughts…
My wife and I both turned 40 this year, and as a celebration we had a blow-out weekend in NY. We saw Hamilton for a matinee, and then followed it up with the full on in the face chef’s tasting menu at Le Bernadin. There is not much that I can add to the thousands of writings already published about this place, but suffice to say that it surpassed any inkling of what I expected. I get why so many of my food industry friends hold this place in such reverence. There is something to be said for being so exact, and so spot on – that supercedes the food on itself, and transcends through the impeccable service by a staff you otherwise barely know is there, a world renowned wine program that the sommelier made accessible and welcoming to my under-experienced wine palate, and an all around experience that has until this point in my life, been un-parallelled. I can’t even pretend to humblebrag this meal.
(Side Note – if you ever want to have all of your celebrity chef fantasies smashed against the rocks, have a whiskey or several with Steve Gedra some night and let him ruin you with stories about when he was a superstar punk cook spending weekends in New England with what equates to the 1980 Miracle on Ice Hockey team of world renowned chefs.)
This was #1 Comfort Food of 2017.
Rewind to the coldest day you can imagine in winter of 2017. Now put yourself on a miserable “Santa Train out to the middle of Nowhere, NY, and then make it have no heat and fill it with screaming kids… Now, after your penance is complete… roll up to Elm Street Bakery on a weekday, sit down to a glass of wine, see Chef Jennifer Boye’s ever smiling face… and have her put Chicken and Biscuits in front of you. It was like a bowl of the inside of a chicken pot pie paired with what I believe are the finest biscuits I’ve ever had. It warmed me from the inside out and purged the sadness of that fit-throwing hellish train ride. Jen is gone from Elm Street Bakery these days, but I’m sure that whatever she ends up doing… those biscuits and her happy smile will be there with her.
My mom’s maternal side of the family were from Baltimore, and my great-uncles were crabbers in the Chesapeake Bay. In my youth, I spent countless weekends in Fells Point, remember going out on the crabbing boats, pulling in bushels…. and having these massive crab boils in the tiny backyard of my great aunt’s row house in Canton. Tearing into those blue crabs as the shells ripped my hands and the salty Old Bay burned… Making sure I got every morsel of meat out and catching looks from my dad if I left anything edible in the shell. I got to recreate this at a small crab shack with my wife and kids this summer at the height of blue crab season.
When my wife Summer and I first started dating, I was at her apartment and she had this business card on her bookshelf for a restaurant in Nashville called “Margo Cafe.” I asked her what it was, and she said “That’s my favorite restaurant.” Now, this is about a decade ago and we’ve had quite a few fantastic meals since, but it always intrigued me… what made this her “favorite restaurant.” We were in Nashville in spring, and managed to get in for dinner. I’ve never been to Paris, but to me, this place was everything a French bistro should be. Unassuming, comfortable and un-rushed service. A very accessible and well curated wine list. A small open kitchen where Chef Margot passionately worked her way through her orders. Dish after dish of just well prepared, balanced, and delicious food.
Every year I find one dish that is almost too damned pretty to eat, and that’s the dish that makes me want to figure out how to use the camera on my phone properly.
This year, the award goes to The Grange, for this gorgeous pumpkin stuffed doughnut. I had it in the middle of fall, when pumpkin spiced everything is at its full saturation point. The taste was awesome, and it was fantastic to taste real pumpkin in a world of chemical fake flavors.
I don’t get to The Grange enough, and usually when we do it’s a quick stop for breakfast or lunch, but everything we’ve had there has been great. There is a lot of solid talent over there, and it tops our list of “Places we need to go get something to eat in the evening sometime.”
At the start of spring, when local farmers start getting the first inkling of green again… some vegetable-minded local chefs grab whatever they can to signal the end of winter. I believe it was somewhere in April when Chef
Dan Borelli of Elm Street Bakery laid this beautiful bowl of peas in front of me. It was so vibrant and colorful… and just barely cooked so that you could still taste the new season on them. Buffalo is full of big meat/bacon everything /facepunch restaurants, but letting your talent shine through vegetables is reserved for only a handful of local chefs – I like Dan’s the best.
Haus of Poke in Palm Springs CA made the list because I legit ate there four times in one week… and also because it is a sign of things to come for Buffalo – and I am more excited for this than when we got our first Chipotle. Poke shops are one of the “new cool things” and rightfully so. They are delicious. With a Poke spot under construction on Main Street and a few restaurants already jumping on the Poke Bowl lunch… We’re going to see a lot of this trendy dish this summer. I’m willing to bet the forthcoming Chef James Roberts joint Dobutsu will be dishing this out as well.
In August of this year we attended my brother in law’s wedding in Maryland. We drove down and got the to the rehearsal dinner in a local park that was being hosted by his wife’s family. She happens to be Korean, and as I pulled up I saw her mom and all of her aunt’s working a Weber kettle in the middle of the park. I was handed the first of many shots of soju from her dad while I watched the ladies sear off homemade marinated bulgogi over super hot coals. This is one of my favorite foods and to have it so lovingly and authentically prepared after an 8 hour drive with kids was heaven.
Typically when I go to Carmelo’s, I prepare to go full court press with “all of the courses.” We planned an evening over the summer with the kids for dinner, but I had forgotten it was Tuesday – which is Burger night and a very limited menu. This pigeon-holed me, as I was expecting the usual Carm spread, so I ended up with Spaghetti & Meatballs… this is something I would have never ordered. I absolutely loved it… grandma style meatballs, barely sauced pasta… It was just so damned good and you could tell that it’s something that has been going on for a hundred years or so in the family.
Admittedly I was a complete asshole about this restaurant opening, and I am glad I got over myself and got in there when I did. One of my favorite meals was “Food is Art” at Aro de Tapas. It was a series of really gorgeous plates, and it was really well done. Jeremy and his wife Christina did what a lot of folks dream of… They left the regular grind and put their heart and soul into a restaurant. Aro is closed now, but props go out to them for taking the jump into one of the hardest gigs in the world. You have more courage than I – and I think that over-all, the goal of bringing real Spanish cuisine to Western NY was a success.
It was bittersweet year as we said so long to T-Meadow farm as our friend Rich Tilyou sold off his stock and transitioned into semi-retirement.
I think I have purchased a dozen T-Meadow hogs over the years. We had a T-Meadow pig roast at our wedding, and I butchered my first one in the basement of Bistro Europa with Steve Gedra and Jenny Boye.
I roasted my last pig from Rich over the summer, and it was one of the best. What a great program and something that really added to our unique food infrastructure. I learned so much about local food, butchery, and from Rich and his presence in Western NY. I’m glad to call him a friend and wish him well in his retirement.