Best of 2017 (non-Pittsburgh category)

This year held some incredible meals both within and outside of Pittsburgh. I took one of the best (food) trips of my life with my wife to New Orleans and we also hit some wonderful places along the way. I’ll try not to spend too much time on each place as to not entice you too much to leave this magical food city we live in. That being said, if you’re looking for more information (or even suggestions) feel free to e-mail me at DavidTheGastronome@gmail.com. I tried hard not to overload this list with New Orleans, but that city is seriously ridiculous with their food history and offerings.

Stay tuned for the Best of 2017 Pittsburgh edition tomorrow!

10. Waterstone Pizza / 3-6-17 / Lynchburg, VA

I’m a sucker for a good wood-fired pizza and Waterstone is some of the best I’ve had outside of the city. We went simple sausage for the red pie and the sausage was a delicious house-made spicy and bold italian sausage with a blend of beef and pork. The sweet fresh tomatoes worked in great harmony with the earthy wood smoke of the crust and cheese. The Wild Mushroom pie had a basil pesto base, featuring crimini, portobello, and shiitake mushrooms, as well as goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. The smoke of the pizza was outstanding with the mushrooms and sweet creaminess of the cheese and acidic bite of the tomatoes to cut through the richness of the pesto and the cheese. A lovely find in such a small city as Lynchburg, Virginia.

9. Buddy Lou’s Eats Drinks & Antiques / 3-5-17 / Hancock, MD

Located right off of the turnpike, I’d wanted to find a stopping point for a meal on our trip down to Virginia and this place came up consistently on most lists I’d checked. Even before stepping inside this roadside destination, you can tell it’s going to be special. Kitsch and ephemera is all over this place, inside and out. This is like Cracker Barrel if Cracker Barrel was good. Handmade, local art and affordably priced antiques are all over the multiple floors of this enormous cabin restaurant and it’s wonderful. The food is exactly as it’s supposed to be, homemade, hearty, enormous portions, and in wild excess. the Cinnamon Walnut French Toast is buttery toasted and like two slices of brown sugar cinnamon crumble cake. The Big Breakfast is everything you need for a road trip meal: two eggs, white sausage gravy, red potatoes, bacon, and a biscuit. Enough to keep you full, no matter where you’re headed to.

8. Central Grocery & Deli / 6-19-17 /New Orleans, LA

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First off, if you’ve ever wanted a real, tried-and-true muffuletta, you’ve got to go to the Corner Grocery. These folks literally invented the sandwich in 1906 and I doubt it’s changed much since then. It’s a behemoth of a sandwich, a quarter is all you need for an entire meal (and I mean it). The bread is like a focaccia, but far less dense and much more like a sandwich loaf. Still crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, it has to be substantial to hold in all of the oil from the olive salad. That’s all the liquid you need for this Italian sub on steroids. Countless layers of salami, ham, and mortadella are interspersed with layers of swiss and provolone cheeses and pressed almost like a cuban (but still served cold). These sandwiches were so good, I ordered two for my Dad online and had them shipped to him for his birthday. One of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had in my LIFE.

7. Green Eggs Cafe / 11-18-17 / Philadelphia, PA

I am a sucker for a good breakfast to get me set for the rest of the day and Green Eggs Cafe in Philly (they have multiple locations) was the one to do it. Enormous portions of original and imaginative dishes are served alongside whimsical coffee creations (I got mine on nitrous!). I went with the Kitchen Sink, which was no joke: eggs, crumbled sausage, potatoes, peppers, onions, all topped with a biscuit and sausage gravy. The vegetables were a welcomed oasis of freshness in a giant skillet of heavy, dense and rich flavors and textures. It was easily enough for two people. While YMMV, Green Eggs provided a super friendly staff, a lovely building, and even with a packed house, the restaurant turned over quickly enough to get us in and out with plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the city. We had some wonderful meals in and around Philadelphia (quick shout out to John and Kara!) but this was one of the most memorable and easily the most filling.

6. Han Noodle Bar / 10-8-17 / Rochester, NY

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While in Rochester, NY (twice this year) we found a very highly recommended Asian noodle bar in the same lot as a highly recommended gourmet hot dog shop. While the hot dogs were nice, Han Noodle Bar was outstanding. A tiny little 10 table restaurant, I was blown away with the breadth and quality of the dishes we sampled. Although I know it’s not authentic in the slightest, my Singapore Rice Noodles were the best I’ve ever had. Bright yellow curry notes, with nice deep spicy red chili flavor, large plump and fresh shrimp, juicy coal grilled chicken, fatty unctuous chunks of red pork, egg and vegetables all intertwined within a heaping pile of fresh vermicelli noodles. A lovely hole in the wall kind of place off to the side in an unassuming parking lot, but if you’re only in Rochester for one meal, I have to recommend 1 other place..(#2 on our list this year).

5. Compere Lapin / 6-24-17 / New Orleans, LA

Without a doubt, the best brunch/breakfast I had all year was at Compere Lapin in New Orleans on our last day of the trip. Led by the incredible Nina Compton (one of Food and Wine’s Best Chefs of 2017) this simple but incredible menu had many treasures to discover, but easily my favorite was the Smoked Hamachi / Everything Doughnut. Stunning just to behold, this was truly a piece of art to be devoured with both the eyes and literally. The cake doughnut was just on the right side of sweet, with that wonderful density that a good New York bagel has, without any of the difficult chew or crispy outside that a bagel sandwich struggles with, The cream cheese, with the magical blend of “everything” spices (garlic, onion, poppyseed, salt, sesame seed, etc) was placed on top with some fresh salmon roe so that the delicate insides: thin slices of smoked hamachi, tomato, slivers of translucent pickled white onion, and capers, were able to shine independently. Altogether though, this was a symphony of all of the perfect flavors of a smoked salmon bagel, wood smoked fish, sweet tomato, salty pickled capers, bitter garlic, crunchy onion, earthy seeds and spices. A magical creation I will never forget.

4. L’Albatros / 1-8-17 / Cleveland, OH

One of the first trips we took this year was to Cleveland and I was delighted to discover a restaurant on the campus of my alma mater that had not been there when I graduated. Part of a larger restaurant empire, Zack Bruell has made an impact on the city of Cleveland, but being an outsider it’s hard to say if that’s for better or for worse. Amongst his 9 (!) ventures, L’Albatros is the French fine-dining excursion and I was absolutely the better for having experienced it. Very traditional in dining, in a stunning design with active fire places and a very modern open kitchen design, I was really taken with this lovely oasis in an urban setting. The cheese offerings were really what put this restaurant on this list, though. Nothing I’d seen before (until Casellulla) was as extravagant or as deep of an offering as far as what they had. A wonderfully friendly fromagier and outstanding offerings really put a wonderful button on this incredible meal.

3. Toups’ Meatery + Toups’ South / 6-20 + 6-24-17 / New Orleans, LA

On an extremely rainy night, my wife and I made a trek to the best meal we had in all of New Orleans, Toup’s Meatery in the heart of mid-city. This was real Cajun cooking from a guy born, bred, and batter-fried in it. The double-cooked pork chop that my wife enjoyed was one of the finest examples of that specific cut. Absolutely gargantuan, cooked perfectly both within to maintain the flavor and integrity of the meat, as well as the outside with that unmistakable cracklin texture. My lamb neck was very similar to an oxtail it its low-and-slow preparation, but the tender meat and wonderfully intense gamey flavor shone through the entire dish.

Before catching our flight home, we stopped at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum to walk around and see it. We’d have been remiss to not take the opportunity to have one last snack for the road and the cracklins were the perfect choice. Extremely crispy on one end where the skin had dried up and become like the perfect chicken wing skin, with a piece of that back bacon/pork belly tender and meaty, smokey and bacony still attached. Easily some of the best butchered and prepared meat I had in New Orleans and a shining example of why Southern cooking and cuisine has been such a source of pride and culture for so long.

2. Dinosaur BBQ / 6-7-17 / Rochester, NY

My favorite bite in the United States (outside of Pittsburgh) was at Dinosaur BBQ. Easily some of the best BBQ I’ve had anywhere, Dinosaur BBQ is a national treasure. It’s embarrassing how much I still think about this place and their offerings, especially considering this was just one of 9 (!) locations that they have nationwide. I don’t know if it was just the perfect storm of the right time and place, combined with me being really hungry and our server being absolutely perfect, but this meal was exquisite from start to finish. The combinations were all affordably priced and delivered above and beyond on flavor and variety. Overall we Enjoyed (with a capital “e”) the ribs, pulled pork, brisket, chicken wings, spicy peel and eat shrimp, and hot link sausage with sides of bbq baked beans, mac salad, macaroni and cheese, and cajun corn. These people have BBQ down to a science and it shows through all of their meats and incredible sauce offerings. Perfectly cooked and served at the right temperature, it may be a chain, but they got it right and that’s a very difficult thing to do when it comes to BBQ (I miss you Famous Dave’s).

1. Momofuku Daisho / 10-21-17 / Toronto, ON, Canada

My favorite meal outside of Pittsburgh required a trip across the border to our friendly hat to the north. An easy 6 hour drive, you could make it if you left right now. Just one of 5 (not 9!) retaurants in the same building, this three-floored magical food emporium was created and billed as the “Momofuku-plex”. Daisho on the third floor is the fanciest of the restaurants that still has a menu and offered a lot of the dishes that the momofuku empire has become famous for. The pork belly was on another level, with the caramel fish sauce and crunchy crispy skin, it was as thick as a pork chop and perfectly slow-roasted. The bone-in tenderloin from McGee Farms was expertly prepared and served with a velvety creamy rich parsnip sauce and beef jus sauce that would have thrown me out the third-story window were it not for the bright explosions of fresh citrus throughout. The service was impeccable, the surroundings sublime, and the company (my wife as always) was still the best part.

This year has been another exciting year in my life and I am so lucky to be able to enjoy it through these experiences and meals. Thank you so much for coming along with me on this journey around the country. I am so excited for tomorrow to share my Best of 2017 list for my meals enjoyed within Pittsburgh. See you then!

6-18-16 / Double Wide Grill / Pittsburgh, PA

The following night, my wife and I wanted to take advantage of the beautiful night and temperate weather, and dine al fresco. I’d never been to the Double Wide Grill  and it’d been years since she’d been there. I was still on a Barbecue kick from the previous night’s meal at Selma’s Barbeque, so I was quite optimistic walking in. Big Mistake.

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I decided to start with their “1st Place Wings”. The entire menu is a bit tongue-in-cheek (with options like “On-Trays” instead of “Entrees” and a “Cal-a-Forn-I-A Salad” amongst others), so I didn’t place a lot of belief in their claim. The wings were obviously cooked from frozen and were the standard, small wing you get at most places. I was, however, pleasantly surprised with the sauce. I went with the “Tearjerker”, which is their hottest sauce on the menu and even post-scripted on the menu with “How tuff are you?” It was spicy, with a nice middle-balance of chili and pepper. Appreciatively absent was the standard tang and burn of too much vinegar from the hot sauces used. These were almost earthy in their chili profile, which was a really nice change. The wings were crispy (as I’d requested “extra crispy” and lightly tossed in the flavorful sauce. Unfortunately, the meal went downhill from there.

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My wife went with the full order of Boneless Wings for her meal, dusted in their Cajun-Dry Rub. After waiting over 30 minutes for our meal, we were attempting to be realistic with the quality of the food and knew that not much could save it. Unfortunately, the tenders were the triple threat of overcooked, over-breaded, and underseasoned. The chicken, which seemed to come from fresh breast meat, suffered from being dry and tough. Although the coating was a consistent golden brown, there seemed to be a great disparity between superficial looks and inner beauty. The dust itself was sub-par, light on salt, garlic, paprika, cumin, and most anything else. The bleu cheese didn’t fare much better. Strongly acerbic and lacking chunks of bleu cheese, it provided no help to the flavorless and tough chicken bites. The three pieces each of carrots, cucumber slices, and 1/8ths of celery stalks were forced to just stand on the sidelines and shrug as if to say, “sorry, what do you want us to do about it?”

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My wife ordered a side of french fries and also pictured here is the Garlic Coleslaw I’d originally ordered with my On-Tray. The coleslaw was mostly vinegar and crunch from the white cabbage. The vinaigrette had pooled about 1/3rd of the way down the cup and provided nothing but further challenge as I attempted to enjoy the flavorless and now soggy slaw. The fries were lifeless and limp, flavorless and frozen. Tasting of much less than nothing, they were the shining holy beacon of warning on the night.

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For my meal, I was intrigued by the offering of “Authentic-Style Juicy Jerk Chicken”. The description from their menu reads “Cleaver-cut into small bone-in, wood grilled pieces. Truly authentic – be careful of the bones! Features imported Jamaican spices. This here item is served with red-pepper rice and the veggie of the day”. I don’t know if you can sue a menu for libel, but I’m sure you can make a pretty strong case on this one. The chicken was as “authentic-style” as Titanic was “based on a true story”. Flavorless, underseasoned, dripping with grease and fat, this chicken was never given a chance from the beginning. The rub, featuring I can only imagine a pinch of Jamaican spices, hung limply to the burnt and barely crispy, fatty, chewy skin. Each piece of chicken featured an assorted array of tiny crushed bones, gristle, and undercooked fat. One piece of the chicken (on the far left side) was literally just the lower half of the drumstick, cut in half. It’s like offering someone pork loin and just giving them the rib tips. It was a mess of a dish, heavy with grease from not being cooked for long enough at the right temperature. The asparagus was limp, greasy, and had given up long ago. The rice, which I didn’t even want, was mushy, overcooked, and tasted solely of black beans and cumin. I have great concern for anyone coming into one of the 4 locations, ordering this dish, and writing off Jamaican food. For shame.

 

To make it all worse, as these meals seem to have that trajectory, the service was awful. We sat for at least 10 minutes before getting our drink orders taken, delivered, and orders for food taken. The regular wings came out at the same time as the boneless wings, which were clearly ordered as my wife’s entree. The waitress just dropped and left many times, leaving us sitting there, waiting for her to swing back in the 5-10 minutes it took to correct whatever mistake or error had been made. The coleslaw and french fries arrived a good 15 minutes after my entree was delivered, ensuring that everything was approaching cold before we could start enjoying it. Finally, at the end of it all, I was forced to ask a busboy to grab our waitress so we could close our check and leave. It was a mess of an hour and a half and time I would not choose to spend in the same fashion ever again.