NJ: Bar dining

Ho-Ho-Kus Inn & Tavern: Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ

Burger hohokus inn

Ho-Ho-Kus Inn continues to amaze me. In a "why did I return" way. A recent visit (to the "tavern," not the formal dining room) proved baffling and frustrating on too many levels.

Let's start with a cocktail.

The cocktail list consists of maybe four or five drinks. Hopefully you're not too concerned with money, because there are no prices. You'll just have to guess. We ordered something billed as a Tequila Old Fashioned. Ostensibly, this would be an Old Fashioned made with tequila instead of whiskey. Good in theory I suppose.

An Old Fashioned, to my mind, is simply whiskey, sugar, and bitters. Perhaps a garnish of fruit. Yet in this version, there's lime juice.  When I saw "lime juice" in the list of ingredients, I knew I had to ask if it was fresh lime juice. The friendly bartender said that she could put fresh lime in the drink if I wanted. Now I was really curious. "What would you put in it if I didn't ask?" She showed me this plastic bottle of neon green lime juice cordial from the rail. Good grief, why does a place of the level of Ho-Ho-Kus Inn even have that stuff, much less use it in one of their featured cocktails. Why? Because it's amateur hour here. Twenty-four-seven.

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Jockey Hollow: Chris Cannon's mansion restaurant in Morristown, NJ

Jockey hollow exterior

People had me convinced that I was supposed to know who Chris Cannon is. I had no idea. I read an article about this NYC restaurateur in the New York Times some months back, but didn't commit the information to memory. By the time I got around to sitting at one of the three bars at Jockey Hollow, I had forgotten that Cannon was a partner at L'Impero--one of my favorite NYC restaurants back in the day. Frankly, who cares. The restaurant is either good, or not good. While I can't judge a restaurant on one lunch visit (and not even in the dining room), I got the feeling that they're trying really hard at Jockey Hollow, are capable of producing some fine food, but have room for improvement.

How do you get in this place?

I don't know if it was the snow and the cold and the lack of visible signage, but the whole shebang looked desolate and closed when I pulled up. I knew there was a parking garage in the back of the mansion, so I figured that was a good a place to start as any. From the garage a quick elevator ride took me right to the Vail Bar, where I was greeted by a friendly bartender and a surprisingly bright and cheery space. My fear of dark woods and a clubby, stuffy bar melted away.

The Jockey Hollow complex has three bars. The front of the mansion, which is where the main entrance is, houses a dining area and the Oyster Bar--a sleek, modern space with a long bar displaying lots of wine (and oysters). The Vail Bar, just behind the Oyster Bar toward the back of the mansion, is a bit more casual, a bit more prohibition-era, with a long bar displaying lots of booze. I like looking at booze almost as much as I like drinking it, so I advised my girlfriend to meet me there. (The third bar, in the basement, is the Rathskeller, a space for private parties, which I'm told is also open to the public on Friday and Saturdays.)

Jockey hollow vail bar

Refreshingly, menus are presented on iPads. This means that everything you need to know is right in your hands. No dicking around asking for the cocktail list. No having the bartender recite the beer list (if I never have to sit through "Bud, Bud Light, Yuengling, Sam's Summer..." again in my life I'll be grateful). All of the information. In your hand. What a concept. Everything, with the exception of the quite wide and deep wine list. The wine list is printed and separate. The wines-by-the-glass, I would argue, should be on the iPad as well. Maybe they'll figure that out at some point.

While we're on wines-by-the-glass, I will note that the selection is long and varied. So much more than your too-standard three flavors of New World Chardonnay that most restaurants seem to implement (if I never hear the words "I'll have a Chardonnay" again in my life I'll be grateful).

The menu is broken down into sections, as you might expect, including crudo, raw bar, appetizers, entrees, salumi/cheese, and a prix fixe. Lots to choose from here, and more than a few things read really well.  We landed on some crudo and entrees.

But first, a cocktail...

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Best dishes: of 2014. Some were even in New Jersey.

Everyone loves a list. Especially when it contains pictures and brief, vague descriptions of food that someone else ate over the course of a year. Someone you don't even know. I mean come on. That's about as bad as suffering through a slide show of a coworker's vacation. But that won't stop me.

This is a list of the most memorable and exceptional dishes that my body processed into p**p during 2014.



Ramen
Ramen Sora
Las Vegas, NV

Ramen sora spicy

I have to think this was my first “real” ramen experience. I guess I've had ramen in the past, but never gave it the serious consideration that it deserves. Ramen Sora changed my opinion on ramen, and got me thinking about it, a lot. Ramen just may be the perfect dish. Those gyoza were no slouches either.


Spaghetti with fennel pollen sausage and Calabrian chiles

Local Seasonal Kitchen
Ramsey, NJ

Spaghetti

I've been a big fan of Chef Steve Santoro since the late 90s, when he was producing fantastic and exciting food at the long-gone Dish in Passaic, NJ. He left Dish, and disappeared from New Jersey, for a good amount of time. I figured he'd never return. Recently, he did return to open the awkwardly-named Local Seasonal Kitchen. And once again he's producing fantastic and exciting food. At first bite I knew this dish would be on some sort of “best” list. And whaddayaknow, I was right. Clean clean flavors of spice, meat, and heat. Awwwww, yeah.


Cheeseburger
The Black Pig
Cleveland, OH

Black pig burger

I'm still thinking about this burger. It remains one of the best burgers that I've had. Anywhere. DB Bistro Moderne, The Spotted Pig, Blue Smoke, Minetta Tavern, J.G. Melon. All of them take a backseat to this burger. Cooked to a juicy medium rare, an appropriate and delicious bun, house-made pickles, great melted cheese. The execution was flawless, and the burger simply outstanding. I hate this picture because it mocks me. It sits there, and mocks me, as I cannot eat it right now.
 

Chilean Seabass
Chakra
Paramus, NJ

Chilean sea bass chakra_edited-1

Everything about this dish screams 1990s. The fish itself, the potato wrapped shrimp, the vaguely Asian preparation. But maybe the 90s weren't so bad after all? That potato wrapped shrimp, which I assumed would be a throw-away garnish, was excellent in its own right. Maybe nostalgia plays into it, but this dish is really fun. And visually appealing. Chef Ciszak is doing some very good work at Chakra. You and I should be going there more often than we do.


Ox tongue and tripe
Joyce Chinese Cuisine
River Edge, NJ

Tongue and tripe

A newcomer to the North Jersey Sichuan scene in 2014, and Joyce is bringing the goods. Their version of ox tongue and tripe is a good a version as I've had anywhere, with the added bonus of being slightly better for some reason I cannot explain. A great restaurant overall.   


Fat Gangnam Boy Hero
Kimchi Smoke BBQ
NJ-based Southern and Korean BBQ vendor

Fat gangnam boy2

That Kimchi fella is apparently known for his brisket, but don't let this sandwich slip through your paws. Bulgogi, pickled vegetables, scallions, processed American cheese, BBQ sauce, on a perfect hero roll. This thing is silly-good. Next time, I'll make sure a get a cold beer from neighboring vendor, which would just go so very, very perfectly.


Fish with carrots
Le Relais Des Trois Mas
Collioure, France

Fish at hotel

We had fun listening to the server describe this multi-component dish for 10 minutes, each of which had carrots incorporated some how some way. “Blah blah wis a puree of carrots, blah blah scented wis, ehhh, carrots, the feesh is blah blah wis carrots, a small glass of juice, made wis, ehhhh, carrots.” He wrapped up his explanation in his best possible English, sounding exhausted from saying “carrots” so many times, with “it's just a lot of carrots.” It's a good thing we like carrots. And sichuan peppercorn, which, to our surprise, made its way into one of the components.

The dish was a work of art. The view, sitting at Le Relais Des Trois Mas, overlooking the bay at Collioure, topless sunbathers and all, was glorious. This restaurant was very, very good. And every one of those carrots was perfect. I should also note that the hotel is just lovely as well.


Cassoulet (and ravioli)
Auberge du Vigneron
Cucugnan, France

Cassoulet Auberge du Vigneron ravioli

If you find yourself tooling around the Pyrenees, exploring ancient Cathar castles, and why wouldn't you, you'd do well to stop in the small commune of Cucugnan, nestled in the shadow of Chateau de Queribus. There didn't seem to be a whole lot going on in this tiny, tiny place, but Auberge du Vigneron is well worth a stop. Or even a detour. Especially if treacherous mountain roads lacking safety rails are your thing.

It seems unfair to include two dishes from a single restaurant, especially when I couldn't figure out what made one of them so good, but I will anyway.

Not sure what the sauce on the ravioli was, but it was ethereal. Each of those ravioli was filled with a different meat product, including foie gras IIRC.

As for the cassoulet, well, what can I tell you. It was probably in the top 5 dishes of the year. Filled with various sausages and duck confit, this dish could have, and may have, warmed the stomachs of a Cathar slaughtering army. Hints of genocide never tasted so good.


Paella
Merendero de la Mari
Barcelona, Spain

Paella

It wasn't the only paella we ate in Catalonia, but it was first, and it confirmed my suspicions that what passes for paella in my part of the word is simply absolute crap. As I said here, “Every bite revealed a little piece of tender seafood or vegetable. Stuff I didn't recognize. I'm having a hard time thinking about this dish at this moment, because it was so outstanding, and I'm so hungry right now, and I know it will be some time until I have anything remotely as good as this. I don't know what else to say other than it was a revelation.”

 


Seppia
Gelonch
Barcelona, Spain

Speia

Gelonch wasn't the only place where we had seppia that was sliced into pasta-like ribbons during a trip to Barcelona, but it was my favorite. Linguini's got nothing on seppia. If anyone knows where to get a seppia ribbon-maker, or seppia for that matter, do let me know.


Slow roasted salmon
Cucina
Woodstock, NY

Salmon cucina woodstock_edited-1

I rarely order salmon, because typical Atlantic salmon is largely unexceptional. Wild Pacific salmon in season, of course, is an entirely different beast, and should be ordered whenever it's available. The slow-roasted salmon with corn pudding at Woodstock's Cucina, however, made me rethink everything I thought I knew.


Scallops
Escape Montclair
Montclair, NJ

Escape scallops

Chef Bryan Gregg has continued to impress the hell out of me in 2014. His commitment to seasonal, pristine ingredients squares nicely with the way I like to eat. One brunch at Escape included three scallops over corn. I believe this dish captured the essence of Escape Montclair. Simple, pure, perfect. A proper brunch, indeed.


Cauliflower ravioli
The Cookery
Dobb's Ferry, NY

The Cookery cauliflower ravioli

The Cookery has really impressed me with some dishes, while others have landed a bit flat. The cauliflower ravioli was one that impressed. Brown butter, of course.

 


Lion's Head Meatballs
Fu Restaurant
Fairfield, NJ

Lions head meatballs

A new Shanghainese restaurant in New Jersey, brought to you by the folks who run the excellent Chengdu 23 in Wayne. Maybe it was due to the fact taht I hadn't had this dish in close to 6 years, but diving into the Lion's Head meatballs were like nuzzling into the soft bosom of an old lover. Or something like that.


Cocktails
Stockade Tavern
Kingston, NY

Stockade kingston cocktail4

Stockade Tavern is a world-class cocktail bar run by a super nice husband and wife team. Every cocktail I had during various visits was interesting, mostly new-to-me, and eye-opening. There's a lot of craftsmanship here. No messing about. They've got ingredients that I've not so much as heard of, which is not easy to pull off. This is a great experience, and not to be missed. I cannot envision a time when I'll be near Kingston and not make time to spend an hour or two at Stockade Tavern.


Cocktails
Park West Tavern
Ridgewood, NJ

Andrew lasers
80s cheesy laser treatment courtesy of Duong L.


Andrew at Park West Tavern continues to grow and push the envelope with his cocktails. I rarely order anything specific here, and given my status as a semi-regular irregular, he generally has time to surprise me.  Just recently I had a new concoction. My comment after the first few sips was the somewhat absurd “this tastes like Christmas.” "That's what I was going for," he replied. Impressive.


Anchovies
Casa Leon
Collioure, France

Casa leon collioure anchovies

Collioure is known for anchovies. It has been argued that the world's best anchovies come from the waters here. Who am I to argue? I didn't even think I liked anchovies until eating them during almost every meal during a visit to this colorful, beautiful coastal town in the south of France. Before I left, I was a convert. Anchovies are magical.

Casa Leon is a lovely little restaurant serving pristine seafood, local wine, and, thankfully, anchovies. This plate of anchovies stood out, and went quite well with the bottle of Collioure rosé. Seek out Collioure AOC wines. You may be quite pleased.


Clams
Los Toreros
Barcelona, Spain

Los Toreros clams

Clams aren't generally my thing, but the big bowl of sweet, tender, briny clams at Los Tereros in Barcelona filled me with joy, and reinforced my understanding of simple Catalan cooking. Los Toreros is a quaint, not-very-touristy Barcelona gem.


Northern Style larb
Lotus of Siam
Las Vegas, NV

Lotus of siam northern larb
This horrible photo hurts my eyes. Sorry.


I haven't missed an opporunity to visit Lotus of Siam since my first visit in 2002 or so. When we returned this year, we were surprised to see the place has more than doubled in size. And it is more popular than ever. So much for a little hidden secret.

The selection of German wines remains impressive (and those wines go perfectly with the spicy Thai food), and the Northern-style larb remains delicious. And powerful. This dish is much different than the typical larb you'll find on most Thai menus. It's a deep, dark, rich, masculine affair, probably made with some liver and blood, and doesn't include the acidic bit that its cousin does. And boy oh boy, is it spicy. If you go to Lotus of Siam, consider their separate Northern-style menu, which is filled with rare and exciting treats.


House-cured pork with leeks
Lan Sheng
Wallington, NJ

Lan sheng smoked pork

A version of this dish can be found at most Sichuan restaurants, but I recall really, really enjoying the dish at Lan Sheng. Slightly smoky, a bit salty, pure and porky. Lan Sheng's liquor license will likely keep me from ever returning, but if I do, I'll order this dish again.


Fried chicken
Peck Peck Chicken
Teaneck, NJ

Peck peck chicken1_edited-1

2014 marked the start of a more serious exploration of Korean food at the t:e organization. While one might foolishly dismiss fried chicken wings as being nothing more than a snack, Korean fried chicken is certainly one of Korea's greatest gifts to our collective food culture. Move over, southern states.



Crab cake
Chakra
Paramus, NJ

Chakra crabcake

Two dishes on this list from Chakra, a restaurant to which I really haven't given much consideration over the years? I'm more surprised than you. There's not denying the crab cake at Chakra is the tops.  The dish is perfect, right down to the lightly dressed snow pea shoots. There's a bit too much vodka on their cocktail menu, though.



Pasta with clams
Confetti
Piermont, NY

Confetti clams linguini

It's not easy finding a decent plate of pasta with clams in the North Jersey area. It's really not. All of those Italian-American restaurants really don't do a very good job.  Most versions suffer from any number of flaws. But not the dish at Confetti. It should be the standard to which all other restaurants aspire. Beautifully and functionally plated, as well.



House-made sausage
Mill House Brewing Company
Poughkeepsie, NY

Mill house sausage

As I've noted, several times, Mill House Brewing Company has really impressed me. Elevated pub grub, great cocktails, excellent staff, a beautiful room. Every town needs a Mill House Brewing Company.  The house-made sausage made an appearance on my plate on our most recent visit. Juicy, flavorful, cooked just north of that's-too-raw, and a great version of bangers and mash.



Breakfast taco
Destino II Cart Tacos at the Rhinebeck Farmers' Market
Rhinebeck, NY

Destino taco

On a whim and just because, I ordered a breakfast taco from Destino II during a quick run-through of the Rhinebeck farmers' market. And I'm glad I did. Was this a perfect breakfast taco? I don't have much experience with breakfast tacos, but I'd venture to say “yes, this was a perfect breakfast taco.” Fluffy eggs, ground chorizo, fresh corn tortillas, hot sauce, salsa. What's not to LOVE.

 

So there you have it. I'm sorry I put you through that. I hope this helps someone, somewhere, at some point.


tommy:eats is a freelance food writer, photographer and curmudgeon, based in North Jersey. When not making lists he can usually be found putting together slide shows of his trips.



Roots Steakhouse: Ridgewood, NJ: First look

Curiosity got the best of me so I popped into Roots in Ridgewood during opening week to take a peak peek.

Service was friendly, there were a few open spots at the bar, so I made a night of it. It was pretty good, so I figured a quick few words would be in order. I do this, for you. Unfortunately cell phone photos follow...

There was no cocktail list at that point, although I was told one would be coming. I suspect it won't be all that exciting.

The bar and restaurant are beautiful, as one would expect from The Harvest restaurant group. There are hooks under the bar, and perhaps even more exciting, no TVs. I'm not sure how the type of people who I think will want to go here are going to feel about no TVs, but I think it's great. Unfortunately the music was absolutely horrible. Just atrocious. Was it Muzak? It was completely out-of-it, not hip, not interesting, completely lacking in any taste, soul, heart or imagination. I've heard better music at the dentist.

Roots intererior2

The kitchen is open with the broilers visible from the front dining room and bar. The bar area has a few high-backed booths for two, along with two large tables at the front windows. The back room holds another dining room, and a third which may be used for private parties.

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Roots in Ridgewood: set to open

Roots

Update: We made our way over to Roots for a first look. Here are some details of the meal (click me!)

Update: Roots has opened, per The Booziest of all the Burbs.

A sign on Roots Steakhouse's door notes that it is planning on opening June 9.

I took a peak inside and see that they designed the front room just as I had wanted. A long bar on the left wall, almost from front to back, and a very sophisticated loungy vibe. I'm not sure what they did with the back rooms.

Bartender

I spied a silly looking fellow with a handlebar moustache rocking this bold look at his ankles walking through the parking lot. I was hoping he was applying for a bartending job, as handlebar mustaches are a sure sign of a proper cocktail program. But he went into a coffee shop--which would have been my second guess.

So the opening is upon us. Buckle up for the Park West Tavern-Roots Steakhouse showdown, and don't get too used to the relatively easy parking that you've been enjoying in Ridgewood since Blend closed.

Roots Steakhouse : 17 Chestnut Street : Ridgewood, NJ

 


Chakra: Paramus, NJ

Boy oh boy, I can sure hold a grudge.

I was an early supporter of Chakra (shit music autoplay alert), the large, square, windowless "romantic" restaurant on Route 4 in Paramus, when it opened 10 years and several owner/chefs ago. Unnnnnntil. During one visit in 2004, we finished up our dinner, and wanted to take dessert home to enjoy on the couch in front of the TV. Here's what I wrote about this back then:

"we were a bit fatigued by the end of the meal, but we wanted to take home dessert to have with some sherry on the couch. i asked the waiter if we could take home dessert, and which ones would travel for 5 minutes, and we made our decisions. he came back and said he was sorry but "the chef won't do take-out."

i asked him if he told the chef that we had dinner and ordered wine and the whole deal, and he assured me that he did but the answer was "no." he then said that if we wanted to order dessert for the table, he could then wrap anything that we didn't finish, effectively suggesting that we order it, he brings it to the table, he then brings it back and has it wrapped to go. i told him to "tell the chef that i don't want to play games." i can appreciate "rules," but this one seemed to be applied without a consideration for customer service. tsk tsk."

For some reason I begrudgingly returned two additional times, each getting worse than the previous. I didn't return to Chakra, largely based on that chef's handling of that situation, and the rest of the ensuing kitchen and management issues, for many, many years after 2004. He simply did not deserve my money or support.

Under the latest chef/owner, Thomas Ciszak, I did visit once a few years back with a large group, and more recently about a year ago solo, but wasn't compelled enough to return. I think the above transaction was still in the forefront of my mind, tainting my opinion of the place, even though it was under a different chef and management. In fact there's no denying that's the case. Not to mention the spicy margarita was much too spicy, and the tuna tartare had an unpleasant bitter flavor.

Fast forward to Chakra's recent 10 year anniversary party, when local bloggers/media and regulars were treated to a Monday night party in celebration of the dance of receiving free meals for publicity, in the case of the media/bloggers, and being regulars, in the case of the regulars--as I sat at home making Chinese food, completely not invited. Intent on tempering the water of any gushing reviews coming out of this warm oil massage of an event, Chakra went back on my list.

More importantly, a few people whose opinions I trust are regulars and tell me that they're really, truly, doing a good job at Chakra, even when you have to pay for the food. Based on this recent visit, I can largely agree, with the exception of a few missteps.

But first, a cocktail.

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Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza: Fair Lawn, NJ

Anthonys coal fired pizza

Curiosity got the best of me. I sorta knew that Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza wasn't producing the type of pizza that I'm interested in, but something about a sunny 68 degree day and hearing about a bar that opens to the outside motivated me to give it a shot.

You will likely be greeted by a full restaurant. Filled with families, anti-social loners like me, and groups of young professionals from the surrounding offices. To say it was doing a brisk business at 12:15 on a Thursday would be an understatement. The place was really jumpin'.

For good reason. I got the sense the place is run well and managed well. A very welcoming restaurant.

I was greeted at the door, both on the way in and out. There are several TVs all around the dining room, which has a view into the pizza-making kitchen. The restaurant is cheerful and comfortable. Music was on the sound system, at just the right volume. The classic rock selections seemingly from a page out of a WNEW playlist from the early 80s. A large communal table in the bar area separates the dining room from the rowdies, and some outside tables--along with half the bar seating actually being outside--make for some interesting seating options. Certainly this is a family-friendly restaurant, but with just enough sophistication and stimulation to maintain a crowd of couples and groups of friends.

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The Counter: Burgers in Clifton, NJ

Counter burger2

As I sat at the bar, looking around, commiserating with other customers who were feeling just as neglected and baffled as I was, I tweeted:

I was debating whether or not to post about this place. The experience was horrible. The burger, conversely, was quite decent. But now that I see that The Counter extended special invites to local bloggers (and possibly Yelpers), from which positive "reviews" will very likely come (that's the dance, folks--positive press, bought and paid for), I figured it would be a good idea to temper the water with the experience of a paying customer. You know, someone like you. Someone who didn't have special treatment, special access, or free food.

Back to that experience.

I sat at the bar for 5 minutes (I timed it, because I could immediately sense things weren't going to go well), completely ignored by the bartender, who was of course standing only 3 feet away, before I got up to ask the people at the hostess stand if I was supposed to take one of those paper menus that they have there. I wasn't. They gave me a regular menu and I sat back down at the bar. Another 5 minutes went by before I was acknowledged.

"Five minutes, well huh that's not a lot of time, Mr. Important-pants" you say. Any business owner, or business-minded individual, will tell you that 5 minutes (well, 10 minutes in this case, technically), is quite a long time to not acknowledge a customer. At a bar, especially.

A cocktail list exists, which I suppose is a positive, and that was as good a place to start as any to. Yowza. It's populated with concoctions that would be best consumed by 22 year olds. Sweet, horrible-sounding drinks they seemed. The Counter is certainly not trying to appeal to people who are even vaguely interested in cocktails. With the exception, perhaps, of the "Margarita Fresca" (Sauza Hornitos, agave, lime juice, per the menu). Aside from not containing triple sec, and therefore not actually being a Margarita, in the "Fresca" style or otherwise, it was certainly the obvious choice for me, and the best-sounding on the list. I also figured I should watch it being made, just in case things went south. They did.

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The Monk Room: Newark, NJ [CLOSED]

Pizza1 monk room

Update: The Monk room closed at the end of September, 2015.


A visit to Porta in early 2013 yielded some information that just about floored me: the Porta people were looking to expand, big time, and some locations in the works were Newark and Jersey City. Hey that's near me!

Fast forward a few short months and The Monk Room opened in Newark right by the Pru Center, and the opening of a Porta in Jersey City has been announced, slated to open in probably just a few months. Look for a multi-level space, with music and a lively atmosphere.

I was really keen on getting to The Monk Room to see what was doin', so I hussled down 21 during their first week of operation for lunch. I walked away very pleased indeed.

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Notable dishes of 2012: the 2014 edition

File under: better late than never?

Try as I may to muster the energy to leave the warm, cozy house on this freezing cold day, I'm finding there are many obstacles. Not least of all being screwing around on the computer, looking through some old photos. I noticed that I have a couple blurry pictures of food, and figured "Hey, why waste these beauties on just me. I'll make another list!"

I kinda like putting together lists. Any sort of non-list post takes a lot of effort, although you probably wouldn't believe it if you read any of mine. The list-oriented posts are super easy, because let's face it, people have low to zero expectations with a list. They just want to see the list. And I have very low expectations for a list. Just show me the list. Most importantly, I'm a navel-gazer from way back, and lists provide a vehicle to look deeply into the glory that is me.

So here's the list of Notable dishes of 2012: the 2014 edition:

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