In many ways, 2011 was a truly calamitous and difficult year, one many of us would rather forget. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, war, and the ongoing drudgery of the economy seemed to bombard the world with relentless, reckless cruelty and destruction.
This had to have had a powerful effect on our collective humanity consciousness. I feel like levels of compassion, kindness, and simple goodness were higher than I've sensed in a long time, and a lot of that was expressed through the many restaurant kitchens and meals I enjoyed this past year. Let's face it: there was a lot on my plate in 2011 and a lot of mandatory eating in both Charleston and Savannah as I was researching Food Lovers' Guide to Charleston and Savannah: the Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings (Globe Pequot) and for my upcoming The Savannah Chef's Table (Three Forks).
Time and again, my palate kept going back to simple things. The stuff that really wowed me was not necessarily "haute", but down-home, done really, really right. Think fried chicken and panna cotta; burgers and pimiento; crispy, crunchy salads; pickles and fried pig skin, and you're sort of on the same track I've been following all year here in the South. I call the style "Southern rustica" and I'm thrilled that chefs like Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Craig Deihl, and so many others are bringing it home, again and at last. Local, national, and international chefs heard our collective call for comfort and answered with a potent brew of meticulously sourced produce/products, prepared with simplicity and precision, and a generous dash of love.
I've been thinking about some of my favorite dishes that I've eaten this year, and the dishes that follow below are the ones that I'm still thinking about, in some cases, many months later. That's some powerful goodness. Thank you to all who helped make that happen!
What is it about this cooked cream that almost immediately transports me to that cocoon of safety and comfort that was my childhood? It seems like it was everywhere this year and that's a good thing. I don't have a photo of the creamy, just-right panna cotta layered with silky butterscotch and a mountain of whipped cream that I enjoyed at Husk, just a few short weeks ago, but it's one of the best things I had all year. A close second was this slightly more elegant version I had at sister restaurant, McCrady's.
McCrady's Bay Leaf Panna Cotta with Pomegranate and Vanilla
The panna cotta barely quivered, just as it should, and was infused with the subtlety of bay leaf. Crunchy bites of freeze-dried white chocolate and ruby red, tart/sweet pomegranate seeds were exquisite. And talk about beautiful to look at....
SIMPLE SALADS AND CRAB CAKES
EVO in Park Circle, North Charleston is nationally celebrated for their amazing, wood-fired pizzas, but their salads, always composed of the freshest ingredients from local purveyors and idyllically dressed, are some of the best around. This white melon beauty, dressed ever so slightly with ribbons of salty, savory prosciutto; fruity, extra virgin olive oil; and a dash of freshly ground black pepper, was a late summer menu special that remains perfectly fresh in my mind some six months later.
EVO's Summer Melon Salad with Prosciutto and Olive Oil
Another memorable salad moment was enjoyed on the sunny, back porch of The Starland Cafe on a hot, hot August day in Savannah. This colorfully painted Victorian house on the south side of town is widely recognized for its veggie/vegan magic, and The Kitchen Sink salad, dressed in a succulent tomato oil-infused buttermilk, miraculously marries ingredients as diverse as red grapes, artichoke hearts, asparagus, golden raisins, red onion, green apple, crunchy noodles, fire-roasted tomatoes, and more into a unified, heaping bowl of garden-fresh deliciousness.
Just because, I've indulged in Michelle Weaver's (of Charleston Grill fame) quite-possibly very-best-in-the-world crab cake on several occasions this past year. Binding-free chunks of sweet lump crab with a crackling, crunchy, caramelized sear and a puddle of a silky beurre blanc, fresh herbs, and candy sweet tomatoes are all great reasons to give this beauty a try!
Charleston Grill's Crab Cake with Creek Shrimp and Lime Tomato Dill Vinaigrette
Though I was born in 'Bama, I was deprived of real-deal fried chicken until I moved to Charleston 11 years ago. Its prevalence and perfection in these parts is one of the reasons why I personally thank God I live here at least 12 times a year, and that usually happens after I've visited Martha Lou's Kitchen in Charleston, or Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House in Savannah. One as succulent as the other, both are custom made to order, have a light, yielding, but toothsome crunch, and are deeply seasoned down to the very last bite.
This year, Husk and The Glass Onion, started doing their own versions of the stuff. The crispy fried chicken leg at The Glass Onion is always delicious and one of the best things I ate this year. Perched on a generous bed of whipped mashed potatoes and sautéed turnip greens, it's as good as fried, served piping hot from the pan with a zippy sauce that changes with the day and according to what's available.
BRANDADE PUFFS WITH ALABAMA BARBECUE SAUCE
Brandade, a French peasant food composed of salt cod and potatoes, takes on a new, rustic, elegant twist at The Macintosh, one of Charleston's newest and best restaurants. In the hands of super talented executive chef Jeremiah Bacon, the brandade is formed into individual little balls and puffed into ethereal lightness, breaded, and fried. Served with a creamy, vinegar rich sauce, it's another one of the best things I had the pleasure of eating this year.
The Macintosh's Brandade Puffs With Alabama Barbecue Sauce
Some of the best things in life are surprises, and that includes finding exquisite food at a time and a place you weren't really expecting it. That happened to me this year in a big way at the brand new Butcher and Bee. Predominantly a sandwich shop with a hyper fresh and local angle situated well uptown, I visited on a sleepy, lazy Sunday for what turned out to be the best meal I had all year, and with two of the best dishes in ONE place. The artist in the kitchen? Chef/Partner Stuart Tracy, and does he ever know and love his cooking stuff.
The burger, a softly packed patty of grass-fed beef is sandwiched between oven-fresh brioche they bake in-house (along with many other types of bread) and topped with a melting layer of gorgeous pimento cheese and an inch of cold, crunchy, tangy pickles. It is insanely delicious. I think it's the best burger I've ever had in my life.
Butcher & Bee's Burger of the Year
As if all that weren't enough, the ketchup is made in-house!
Before the burger, I enjoyed a gorgeous plate of nutty, roasted Brussel sprouts graced with a bit of bacon; crispy, tart Granny Smith apple slices; browned butter; a dusting of salty peanuts; and a sweet/spicy vinegar.
Butcher and Bee's Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Dessert was a cream puff dream. C'mon! Talk about comfort done right.
It's been a wonderful year for food and friends. Thank goodness, they're always there for us, even when the rest of the world gets crazy. Wishing you a healthy, happy and delicious 2012!
Food Favorites in order of appearance in this blog post: