Best Meals of 2016 (Non-Pittsburgh Edition)

Hey everyone! Sorry it’s been such a long hiatus since I’ve posted, life just has a way of getting away from you. I’ve decided to return with my two “Best Of” lists: first up is my top 5 meals of 2016 not in Pittsburgh. Tune in on Saturday the 31st for my top 15 best plates of 2016 in Pittsburgh. This was quite a fun adventurous year, with culinary adventures in Baltimore, Bedford Springs, and Las Vegas. Let’s get into it.

#5. Di Pasquale’s Marketplace / April 29, 2016 / Baltimore, MD

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Baked in their brick oven located within the dining room, the Fig Jam, Honey, and Mozzarella pizza was one of the most memorable bites my wife and I had in our trip to Baltimore in April. Overflowing with molten, gooey, creamy fresh cheese over the sweet bite of the fig and honey, with pillowy outer crust and cracker thin crunchy crush beneath. Unfortunately, I think this was one of the specials of the day, so it may not be available every day. That being said their grilled chicken caprese and meatball hoagies were outstanding and served on their fresh, homemade bread. Di Pasquale’s is a can’t-miss stop on any trip to Baltimore.

#4. Woodberry Kitchen / May 1, 2016 / Baltimore, MD

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Our last meal in Baltimore was Sunday brunch at the charming Woodberry Kitchen. Looking like a giant cabin, complete with open bakery, 20 foot tall stacks of firewood, and a lovely loft overlooking the entire restaurant, Woodberry was an outstanding meal from beginning to end. I was so impressed with their homemade ‘Batch 13’ hot sauce that I bought a bottle to take home with us. The magnificent stamp on the entire meal were their homemade pastries. We chose to sample the Blueberry Lavender donut and the Sour cream coffee cake, topped with blackberry jam and streusel. Perfectly balancing sweet toppings (the icing and jam) with savory, fresh, and light bodies to their pastries, it was the best ending to an incredible meal and even better trip. I would absolutely return to the Woodberry for brunch each time we’re in Baltimore. (PS –  They Might Be Giants fans be on the look out for the lyrics to “Women and Men” written on the walls where their restrooms are)

#3. Golden Eagle Inn / August 21, 2016 / Bedford Springs, PA

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You can read the full write-up here, but an absolute stand out of my trip with my wife to Bedford Springs for my birthday this year was brunch at the Bed and Breakfast we were staying at. From the make your own Bloody Mary Bar to the meatball frittata and tater tots, but the best was the fried chicken, biscuits, and sausage gravy. Hot, crispy fried chicken soared through this heavy as a brick (in a good way) dish of biscuits, savory sausage gravy replete with pan drippings, and herbed olive oil. Wonderfully seasoned and peppery bold, it was a confident and wonderfully composed dish. Just what you want to last you all day during a long road trip back home.

#2. Aburiya Raku / May 19, 2016 / Las Vegas, NV

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Unfortunately, I never took the time to write up the expansive and outstanding meal that we had our last night in Las Vegas at Aburiya Raku, where chef Mitsuo Endo has been a Semifinalist for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest 5 years in a row. The meal was a mix of skewers from their robata grill, made with such high quality ingredients as both Iberico and Kurobuta Pork as well as their hand-raised, humanely farmed Asajime Chicken, in addition to smoked pork ribs, sliced pork loin, Colorado Lamb, crispy asparagus (okaki), homemade tofu, grilled rice cakes (yaki onigiri), and Sake. An incredible dining experience, with over 15 courses, one of the finest and the course that made one of the biggest impressions, was the shishito pepper topped with smokey katsuobushi. The charred and grilled peppers combined their smokey spice and sweetness with the woody smoke of the bonito to create an incredible flavor and texture. It was the continuation of the (still-continuing) kick that I’ve been on, seeking out grilled shishito peppers wherever I go. However, where that started was on first night in Las Vegas, at…

#1. Carnevino Italian Steakhouse / May 13, 2016 / Las Vegas, NV

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As with the Golden Eagle Inn, you can read the full write-up here, but Carnevino was easily the finest meal that I had this year outside of Pittsburgh. The dry-aged, bone-in Ribeye for two was an enormous 16 oz ribeye that was carved and portioned tableside in a grand fashion. Perfectly cooked to a bloody medium rare, lightly finished with large flakes of sea salt, and magnificently savage with gorgeous layer of marbled fat, rich and flavorful dry-aged beef. It was a truly indulgent meal from start to dessert, one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

8-21-16 / Golden Eagle Inn / Bedford Springs, PA

The night of the meal at the Crystal Room, my wife and I checked into the bed and breakfast she’d made reservations for us at the Golden Eagle Inn. The room was spacious and well-accommodated, with  huge windows and high ceilings, a modern bathroom, and a wonderful king-sized bed. In the morning when we woke, we went downstairs to our brunch reservations. I was immediately intrigued by the original and unique takes on “traditional” brunch foods and after the meal, I can confidently say I will be making a concerted effort to return to the Golden Eagle Inn and their restaurant every time we’re in Bedford Springs, if only to try everything on their seasonal menu.

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My wife had the chicken and biscuits, the classic southern dish with golden fried cutlets of white meat chicken, dense as a brick biscuits, sawmill (sausage) gravy, and a basil, garlic tarragon oil. The chicken was light, crispy, fresh, and delicious. Perfectly seasoned with the absolutely vital crunch to break up the heavy, dense dish, each bite of the chicken was superb. The biscuits, peppery and buttery, were the perfect consistency to not fall apart amongst the herbal oil or the smooth, thick gravy, which had that wonderful deep, earthy, pork flavor, without being overly salty or overpowering the biscuits and the chicken. The herbed oil was a masterful touch, providing a light, bright note that helped balance out the heavy and dense biscuits and gravy. An outstanding, stick-to-your-ribs kind of brunch dish that keeps you satisfied all day without making you feel overly indulgent.

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I went with the crushed meatball frittata, as their special of the day was a garden basil and fresh mozzarella frittata and I wanted to try some of their unique takes on protein (they also offered a meatloaf sandwich and a pastrami reuben, as well as a burger with candied bacon jam). The frittata was large and beautifully crispy on the edges, while perfectly cooked throughout. The melty mozzarella draped over the entire frittata added a lovely blanket of cheesiness, which as everyone knows is the best part of a meatball sub. Medium chunks of crushed meatballs, beautifully seasoned with a lot of garlic and fresh herbs (oregano, basil, and thyme) were dotted throughout the substantial open-faced omelet. The tater tots on the side were exceptional, hot and crispy, seasoned with some (well-appreciated restraint and) truffle salt and pepper.

Not pictured: the Build Your Own Bloody Mary that I built, or at least attempted to (100% my fault). The waiter brought me out a glass generously filled with Vodka and ice and I was free to add as much of the tomato juice, pickled vegetables (peppers, okra, tomatoes, gherkins), celery, bacon slices, and hot sauce as I wished. I really wasn’t thinking when I added those 4 shakes of the ghost pepper hot sauce, but that was completely on me and my inability to rationalize how far ghost pepper hot sauce goes in a glass. Next time, I’ll opt for one of their house-made cocktails and leave the cooking to the professionals.

8-20-16 / The Crystal Room at the Omni Hotel and Resort / Bedford Springs, PA

As a wonderful surprise for my birthday last month, my wife took me on a weekend trip to Bedford Springs, PA for dinner at The Crystal Room, followed by overnight accommodations, and brunch at the Golden Eagle Inn (more about that in the next post). I’d been very excited to dine at the Crystal Room for quite some time, since reading about it and the Omni in Bedford Springs a few years ago. The trip was very easy and straightforward, the resort itself was gorgeous, but quite a few elements kept the Crystal Room from being an establishment I can confidently recommend.

Unfortunately the cocktails were forgettable, lemon whiskey, cointreau on the left and a basil, gin, simple syrup on the right. The open kitchen was hidden behind a buffet. Our seat was great and the view was enjoyable, but it would have been nice to actually see them cook and prepare with an unimpeded view. The bread basket was fine: either crusty sourdough or poppyseed and sesame seeds on a softer roll. Unfortunately the hard butter balls served alongside were difficult to cut into and spread. Hard butter is never a good early sign.

We also had a dedicated “waiter’s assistant” focused on keeping our water glasses full (he didn’t) and checking to see if we had any problems (we did). The wine menu (a very large, heavy copper-covered binder) joined us for the entire meal, but alas our time with the bread basket was so short-lived that it was taken from us before its time (there was still bread in it) and never returned.

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My wife’s potato leek soup made with a local gouda and dressed with rosemary oil. Good, consistent flavor and texture throughout. It would have been a touch warmer, as my approach with soup is always serve it inedibly warm and allow it to cool at the table instead of serving it running towards room temperature and way from the warmth that a soup should provide. The flavors of potato and onion were all there without the grainy texture that a lot of lesser creamy potato soups have, so it was overall a win.

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My wife and I ordered soup (see previous) a salad (see next) and an appetizer to share (see this). I was very confused as they served the soup and appetizer at the same time and I had to inquire about my salad (after I’d eaten half of the appetizer) before it was served. The Grilled Asparagus and Egg appetizer, served with roasted mushrooms, hard cooked quail eggs, and Truffle Salt was a misstep. The grilled asparagus was fresh and delicious, crunchy, smokey, and nicely trimmed. The mushrooms were good, a nice sampling of shiitake, miyataki, and crimini, earthy with enough of their meaty texture intact. The quail eggs were a strange addition, overcooked without enough body to add much to the dish. The greatest error in this dish (already apparent to those of you with astute vision) is the heavy heavy hand that was taken with the truffle salt. The salt overpowered the entire dish and made it difficult to enjoy. Ironically, the eggs seemed to be added last and avoid any kind of seasoning at all. Unfortunately, oversalting wasn’t prepared to leave us just yet.

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The “Crystal Caesar” arrived after my wife had finished her soup and was staring at her half of the asparagus appetizer. Half of a head of endive, dressed with shaved parmesan, and a garlic crouton all over a thick and creamy roasted garlic dressing. This whole dish screamed “deconstructed concept” to me. It was annoying. After preparing it and mixing it all up, it was fine. I ‘d hoped for some nice notes of anchovy or differing texture, but the crunch of the endive (mostly yellow stalk) and the inconsistent crouton (more of a garlic bread with very hard ends, soft inside, and over-buttering), forced the dish to “passable” from the great potential that it had started with.

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My wife ordered the Ratatouille Risotto, described as containing “garden vegetables, crispy chick peas, and garden basil”. As anyone who watches Top Chef can tell you, risotto is a very difficult dish to do right. Proper cooking times, proper seasoning, and a proper approach are so paramount to keep this dish from being a mushy, pastey chore. The zucchini, tomato, and onion added far more liquid than it seems the chef was prepared for, creating a very wet, thick consistency. The risotto itself was very unevenly cooked, with some pieces crunchy and uncooked and others soft and mushy. The crispy chick peas quickly succumbed to peer pressure and become soft and chewy. The garden basil never made it from the dirt to the plate and that’s quite unfortunate, as some more flavor and seasoning would have made a huge difference.

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I was very excited to read about the Berkshire Boneless Pork Chop. The menu listed “Bacon-Cheddar Grits, Wigle Whiskey Roasted Peaches, and Roasted Tomatoes” as accompanying this dish. It’s not good to get your hopes up sometimes. The roasted tomatoes were pretty cold and wilted by the time the dish was served. The peaches were canned peaches soaked in whiskey. The result was rough, sweet syrupy mushy peaches with an alcoholic finish. The pork itself was fine, cooked far closer to medium or medium well than the medium rare requested and very underseasoned. The grits looks amazing, studded with pieces of crunchy pork belly, smelling strongly of cheddar and pork. All I can assume happened was that the chef had come down with a sinus infection and was unable to taste. After salting the grits, they then turned around to take care of something else. Not remembering if they’d salted the grits, they then turned back to the pot and decided to salt them lightly. This then repeated itself over the next 20 minutes. I was very close to saying something (and I regret not), but I was just so disappointed with the entire dish, and didn’t want to wait the 20 minutes while my wife moved her risotto around her plate bowl with her fork for them to bring me out something else.

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In an attempt to turn the meal around, we both ordered two different alcoholic coffee drinks. Let me reiterate that, two different drinks. We asked the waitress if she was sure that these were different and she assured us they were. Flavor assured us that they weren’t. I was supposed to have sambuca and my wife was supposed to have shaved dark chocolate over hers, made with bourbon. It was another disappointment. We asked if we could order the hazelnut bomb for dessert, after seeing it listed on the prix fixe meal. We were told we could not and had to pick something else.

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The finale arrived, a flourless chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream, fresh berries, and fresh whipped cream. Now I know what you’re thinking, “oh god, how did they manage to screw this up?” I don’t know if it was just in comparison with the rest of the meal the entire night, but I think this was one of the best flourless chocolate cakes I’ve ever had. A ring of crushed and chopped hazelnuts were surrounded and enveloped in a dark, smooth, deep chocolate cake. The glaze was a sweeter, albeit still dark chocolate. The ice cream was cool, light, and not too sweet, providing an outstanding counterbalance to the richness of the cake and icing. The chocolate bark and sauces were of different cacao and sugar ratios as well, creating a complex and varied chocolate tour across the entire plate. The berries were fresh and vibrant and cut through the sweet richness beautifully. This dessert was an oasis in a desert meal of disappointment.

 

The last thing I want to do is seem ungrateful for this incredible gift and the amount of preparation and work that went into making this meal happen. My wife is an incredibly kind and thoughtful woman and I am so lucky to have her make arrangements like this for me. The first thing I want to do is provide a cautionary tale as to what kind of experience you might have if you followed in my footsteps. Go to the Omni Bedford Springs to take in the hiking trails, lush nature, gorgeous accommodations, and then reward yourself with some dessert before heading  back into town to enjoy the city of Bedford Springs itself.