Putting together a year-end wrap-up list like this is sort of a pain-in-the-ass, I've come to realize. I have to figure out what dishes I want to include, find a photo, remember something halfway interesting or at least accurate to say about the dish, type it all in, spellcheck, look up web sites, etc. It takes a lot time, and at the end of the day very few people care what I put into my face. And I'm sure as shit not getting paid for it. But, it's a nice walk down memory lane for me, so once I get going, sifting through the photos and thinking about the experiences, it turns out to be quite a lot of fun, as I ignore the reality that you may not give a toss about any of it.
But then I have to type words and stuff, and I put it off for 3 weeks. It turns into a task. A task that I just recently tackled.
So why isn't this list New Jersey-focused you didn't ask and probably didn't even wonder? Well I'll tell ya. I used to include only New Jersey/NYC restaurants in these lists (I think), but I've been told that there is some value to some people to include stuff from other places. The fact that many of the dishes on this list are from outside of New Jersey shouldn't be a surprise. When I travel, I'm obviously carefully picking restaurants that I think will be outstanding. And let us not ignore the fact that when you're traveling, things just taste better. New experiences put more lead in my pencil than anything. When I'm stuck in New Jersey, conversely, I don't spend enough time eating out, and too often go back to the same places where I know I can get a good meal. But, there are several restaurants on this list within a stone's throw of New Jersey, so even if you don't ever plan on leaving the Garden State, perhaps something on this list will appeal to you.
Enough explaining. On with it.
Here's a list of exceptional dishes that I enjoyed in 2015. In no particular order other than perhaps chronological.
Aldine Restaurant : Philadelphia, PA
Chicken liver typically turns me off. That irony flavor and gritty texture does nothing for me. It turns out that the two chicken liver dishes that I recall fondly were in Philadelphia. Both this year. The first was at Abe Fisher, and I see I'm consistent since then I said this about that: “Chicken liver generally turns me off. Too often, it's metallic, gritty, and just unpleasant to my palate.”
While I really enjoyed Abe Fisher's dish, the chicken liver mousse at aldine restaurant edged it out. Perhaps because the photo is better.
Creamy and luscious and made with some wine, if you're to believe the menu. And I see no reason to not. It was a bright dish (odd, for chicken liver), with what seemed to me to be a Vietnamese twist. Peanuts and herbs (and were those fried shallots?) provided a great contrast. I'm sensing a Bánh mì pâté vibe here you people. Ya dig?
This is a great chef-owned restaurant, husband-and-wife team, with a thoughtful cocktail list. Go to it. Support people.
Lao Dong Bei : Flushing, Queens, NY
I said this, and I stand by it: “The stomach was cut with a good amount of julienned vegetables, which created a textural contrast, and a cooling effect. The dish was chock full of pickled, fermented flavors, with a big punch of spice. I thought it was outstanding. Simply outstanding.”
La Copa Llena : Rincon, Puerto Rico
This place is the tits. Super-lively, a big patio, a big outdoor bar, and right on the water. The food doesn't need to be good at all, quite frankly. With this view and location, they could serve Doritos. But they aren't taking the easy way out and serving crap. They're serving some super stuff, with a constantly rotating menu.
The burger, which was listed in the “smaller plates” section of the menu, and about 6 bucks if IIRC, was simply outstanding. Pickled onions, jalapeno, and cheese on some great beef. Perfect ratio of bun to burger. It blew all of us away. With another trip to Rincon coming up, I can hardly wait to get back here.
Thai Sausage Salad
Ayada Thai : Queens, NY
Probably the spiciest dish I ate all year. The heat on this sucker was no joke. A very Thai dish, what with the herbs and sour and spice and crunch. I said this, at the time, and if I was lyin' I'm dyin': “This dish was popping bright with acidity and herbs, crunchy vegetables, and packed a wallop of spice. So much so that we regretted ordering it that spicy. That spice stayed with us the rest of the meal (and the rest of the day). Painful, and delicious.”
House-made tagliatelle, ramps, black pepper, Parmigiano-Reggiano
The Grange Restaurant : Warwick, NY
The Grange is a fabulous little place (and market) focusing on fresh, local, seasonal foods. Real deal farm-to-table. It was ramp season when we popped in, and this pasta dish showcased those oniony things beautifully with its simplicity. This pasta was as good as any I've had in Italy. The Grange needs to go on everyone's list.
Jerusalem Artichoke Ravioli
Novo : Ridgewood, NJ
Novo is my favorite new restaurant in the area of earth where I live. I've enjoyed just about every dish I've had here. We keep going back to this ravioli dish. It's a work of art. Subtle, simple, vibrant, and delicious. I went on about it, and the rest of the great food, here (you have to click to make it work).
Any cocktail they made
The Bookstore Speakeasy : Bethlehem, PA
Stand at the door until they open it at 5pm, take a step down and the hostess will escort you through the curtain. And then be transported back in time. They do speakeasy very well at The Bookstore (it's in an old bookstore), just barely flirting with kitsch. Menus are presented in old hardcover books. It's dark as shit. Lots of candles. And the cocktails are top-notch. These guys aren't messing around.
Lolita : Philadelphia, PA
You don't have to tell me that street corn isn't exactly a revelation. It's a simple dish, and one which is popping up everywhere. Grilled corn, slathered in queso cotija, mayo, cilantro, and chili powder. Lolita does it quite well, and artfully plates the sum'bitch. It was a lovely afternoon snack to go with our afternoon cocktails. Tequila-based cocktails, of course. And some gin. And some bourbon if I'm being honest.
Pulled Pork Sandwich
Twisted Olive : Bethlehem, PA
Twisted Olive surprised the hell out of me. Humble and borderline ugly aesthetics in the room, but what's coming out of the kitchen was truly impressive and thoughtful. The tomatoes alone made the visit worthwhile. As I said, and I meant every word, “The Italian Pulled Pork sandwich would give DiNic's in Philly a run for their money. If you know that I know that the Roast Pork Italian from DiNic's is far superior to the cheesesteak and pretty much any other sandwich then you'll know that's high praise indeed. Tender, moist, smoked pork, great cheese and broccoli rabe. And piled on pretty good, too. No pussyfootin'. A seriously fabulous sandwich here.”
Osteria del Pavone : Rome, Italy
When in Rome. We ate pasta every day, and probably had carbonara once a day.
It was pissing down rain when we arrived, tired and hungry. I had no plan for lunch, for some reason. I just flaked out and figured we'd explore and find something. The pissing rain was not in the plan. I pulled out the phone and found the nearest place. How bad could it be? Probably not bad at all, we figured. And in this case, a wonderful little place. Menu on a blackboard, inexpensive local wine, pasta, artichokes, a bunch of locals and two obnoxious tourists (not us, as far as you know), well holy shit this was probably the best meal of the trip.
Vegan Foie Gras
La Locanda del Falco : Montefalco, Italy
I really should put pen to paper and write something about this place. This wine bar, and this town.
Montefalco is a small town in the hills of Umbria with a population of about 5000, maybe a few hundred of whom live within the walls of the city. It's off the beaten path, with very few tourists. There are about four restaurants with proper bars, and La Locanda del Falco happened to be steps from our hotel.
The first night, after a meal at the lovely L'Alchimista, we popped in for some wine. A quick nightcap. Well, five hours later and what the hell just happened to me. Getting back to it...
This is a wine bar with no kitchen. But that didn't stop the food. The bartender was busy cooking lamb and beef and vegetables and crostini with truffles and cheese in the open fireplace, to feed the staff and regulars, who were a feisty bunch of wine drinking young locals. They graciously insisted that we have some of the food, and kept bringing over little bites for us to try. They were sharing their meal with us. Complete strangers. If there's a more loving gesture I'd like to feel it.
Then they kept insisting I have wine. I just wanted a few beers. "BEER!?!? Only the French drink beer after dinner. Drink vino!" I was told, with much gusto. Well, when in Rome, and all of that. That part wasn't so loving. I'm not a wine drinker 'til all hours, and I paid for it the next day.
By the third night we were fixtures at the place. The owner, Ciara, couldn't have been more lovely and generous. I was sitting at one of the few outside tables, watching absolutely nothing go by, and she brought out a dish with some sort of crostini. I ate the hell out of it. It was foie gras, I assumed. I told her how great it was and thanked her for the generosity. She then told me she's a vegan, and that was a vegan foie gras that she made. Apparently foie gras was the hardest thing for her to give up, so she came up with this recipe. I still don't believe it didn't have animal fat in it. I mean, seeds and berries and shit? What the?
It was really something else, and this bar and these people were a highlight of our trip.
Ristorante Il Coccorone : Montefalco, Italy
It had been more than 10 years since I had proper Florentine beef. Steak from Chianina cattle. Grass fed. And nothing like the industrial stuff we get in the US. I have recalled, in my mind, over and over, the incredible steak that I had in Florence years before, and couldn't wait to get my hands on some during this trip. Unfortunately, not being near Florence, it was hard to come by. But Ristorante Il Coccorone had it on the menu.
You pick your steak from the glass case, and a woman who I was told is about 80 years old, trims it, and throws it in the fire pit. Cut, drizzled with olive oil and salt tableside, and served. It didn't quite make my eyes roll into the back of my head like that first steak did years ago, but it was was fantastic nonetheless. Paired with a mouthful of Sagrantino, the super-star grape of Umbria, it's hard to beat this meal.
Wild Boar Pasta
Mamma Pappa : Montefiascone, Italy
We drove out to Montefiascone, another medieval walled town, to do some exploring. We stumbled upon a somewhat modern looking restaurant called Mamma Pappa. The menu looked great, so down we sat.
The Wild Boar Pasta would take quite some time to make we were told (were they catching the boar?) And it was worth every minute. Homemade pasta, deftly dressed with a deep, rich meat sauce. Simple, perfect. Just as Italian food so often is. Interesting to note the portion sizes, compared to what we see in the US.
Montefiascone is a magical little town, worth a detour.
Altarocca Wine Resort : Orvieto, Italy
Speaking of simple, when the plate of mushrooms, greens, and fresh cheese hit the table, I thought “that's it?” I mean, the mushrooms were raw and nothing was done to them other than some salt and olive oil. After a bite I was able to rewire my fat head and realized that's the f*cking point.
Any cocktail this guy made
Anima Mundi : Rome, Italy
There's only such much wine a guy like me can take. I really wanted a cocktail as we entered our last days in Rome. I didn't have much luck finding a cocktail bar on the internet that was near the hotel (it was pissing down rain, of course) and that looked halfway interesting. I was really about to give up and just head back to the hotel. But there was a bar right on the corner and the missus said “let's see what that place is about.” I figured it would be some shitty bar serving beer and wine. And I was wrong. Serious freakin' cocktails at Anima Mundi, and within steps of the hotel.
This kid knew his stuff and didn't know his English, but we managed to communicate pretty well, and he made several stellar cocktails for us with stuff I hadn't even heard of. The owner, I should note, is super-friendly and gracious. What a nice experience. I'll be back without a doubt.
Triple Pepper Chicken, I think
Hua Yi Yuan : Rome, Italy
There's only so much pasta a guy can take.
We had one more meal in Rome, and it was going to be Sichuan. Unfortunately, finding a Sichuan restaurant in Rome wasn't very easy. First, most reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor were written by people who clearly didn't know anything about Chinese food. Some places that looked stellar from the reviews, upon closer inspection, were upscale and serving Americanized (Italianized?) crap. We dug deep into the internet (hell I think I ended up on the dark web) and found Hua Yi Yuan. The concierge called to make reservations, as I figured there was no way I was going to get through the English-to-Italian-to-Chinese-to-English translation train. Did I mention it was pissing down rain?
Once I saw the menu I knew we were in the right place. All sorts of Sichuan (and Thai) dishes. We wanted something to kick us in the throat, so we ordered what we figured was a Triple Pepper Chicken. Hot peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, dried chiles, tossed with fried nuggets of chicken. This was one of the most memorable meals of that trip. Just what we needed (although my body felt differently about that the next morning as I was sitting on the plane with a very long flight ahead of me).
New York Italian Style Bakery : Philadelphia, PA
I can't believe how much I thought about this pizza. While eating it, after eating it, and while writing the boatload of drivel on the blog. I'll spare both of us the pain of new drivel, and say that I said this: “This tomato pie is a complex enigma. The sauce looks as though it's over-powering and plodding, but it's light, bright, with just enough sweetness and herbal undertones, and applied with a deft hand. The crust appears thick, dry, and lifeless--and quite unexceptional if you share my Neapolitan-bias--but it's thinner than you'd think, and delightfully crisp and chewy at the same time. This is a perfectly conceived and executed pizza.”
Jockey Hollow : Morristown, NJ
I really need to get back to Jockey Hollow. I saw a lot of promise and there were a few shining stars during my one meal there (not least of which being the fantastic cocktail list), and the yellowtail crudo was tops. It didn't hurt that they put fried chicken skin on it.
Abe Fisher : Philadelphia, PA
Take it way, me from a year ago: “The hot-smoked Sable cake immediately earned a place on a Best Dishes of 2015 list. Here we go again with smoked fish and dill, two things I wasn't a fan of until this meal. This crisp, moist cake of fish made my brain think I was biting into tender, slightly fishy brisket in Hill Country. And that's a good thing. Topped with pickled cucumbers and set in a creamy base. Salt, smoke, and sour elements.”
With the exceptional cocktails, excellent and friendly service, and food that is always new (to me), Abe Fisher remains one of my favorite restaurants, ever.
Bogie's Hoagies : Hawthorne, NJ
Since discovering Bogie's Hoagies I've eaten way more subs that I need to.
I've been searching for a place like this for years. Jersey Mike's was the only place that could come close to the excellent subs I'd get "down the shore" at what was then simply called "Mike's Subs," in Point Pleasant. The Jersey Mike's franchise starting expanding to north Jersey last year, and I was very pleased. Until I found Bogie's Hoagies. It's closer, and better. This is exactly what a sub should be. Lots of lettuce, lots of oil and vinegar, a good portion of meat and cheese. Perfect bread for the sandwich. And don't forget that their hot subs are tops. Try the panko crusted chicken.
I hope you all continue to eat and live well.