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.

5-13-16 / Carnevino Italian Steakhouse / Las Vegas, NV

Easily the finest and most expensive meal that I enjoyed during my recent trip to Las Vegas was at Carnevino Italian Steakhouse, created and designed by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. The food and drinks were plentiful and all expertly crafted and delivered with excellent service by our two waiters. It was truly a team effort, with the entire floor-staff working in sync to ensure we had the perfect meal. The Rib-eye which I enjoyed is easily in my top 3 steaks I’ve ever had in my life.

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I started the night off with the Corpse Reviver #2, a lovely aperitif made with Botanist Gin, Lillet, Cointreau, a Pernod rinse, and wonderfully tart due to a liberal amount of lime juice. It was crisp and refreshing, with a nice alcoholic kick from the gin, lillet, and Cointreau.

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Accompanying our meal was fresh-from-the-oven, rosemary, and sea-salt focaccia. Deliciously crispy on the outside with a wonderful, soft warm interior, it was served with the choice of either a pork-fat spread (think lardon, but spreadable) or sweet cream salted butter. Both were combined for a meaty, sweet, salty spread. It was an excellent portent.

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We chose to start with the Affettati Misti, a fairly simple and well-done salumi platter. (From right to left) It was comprised of mortadella, peppered salami, duck speck, capicolo, and coppa de testa (a kind of headcheese). The capicolo was a stand-out, super porky, fatty, and strongly meaty, the best of all worlds when it comes to dried meats. I was fascinated by the inclusion of the headcheese over the standard prosciutto, but I was very happy with the choice. The coppa took all of the best parts of a rare roast beef and tongue or another organ meat. The meats were all served alongside grilled shishito peppers, roasted red peppers, and pickled banana peppers stuffed with cold salami and provolone. The shishito peppers added a nice vegetal and smoky flavor profile to complement the rich and fatty meats, while the cold and vibrant red peppers took the place of the standard olives by providing enough of an acidic bite to relieve the palate.

For the pasta course, we chose the Garganelli with Porcini Trifolati (sauteed porcini mushrooms) and one of the off-menu specials of the day, the Beef Cheek Ravioli. The garganelli were perfectly toothsome and cooked expertly with just a light butter sauce to marry the meaty and rich mushrooms with the light and eggy noodles, an exemplary plate of fresh pasta. We chose to have it topped table-side with the fresh-shaved peccorino romano. The Beef Cheek Ravioli were (somehow impossibly) even better. This award-winning dish featured lovely envelopes of fresh pasta filled with an incredibly deep and unctuous slow-cooked braised beef cheek which, if you’ve never had it before, is extremely reminiscent of short rib (although much stronger in flavor). They were all lightly drizzled with a 15 year old balsamic, which added another layer to their overall wonderfully earthy and rich flavor.

We decided on three side dishes for the table: Mascarpone & Guanciale Mashed Potatoes, Charred Baby Artichokes with a mint salsa verde, and (not pictured) Fiddlehead Ferns topped with a crunchy gremolata. The mashed potatoes were heavy with cream and marscapone cheese, with the salty and crispy guanciale standing in stead of the traditional bacon. The Fiddlehead Ferns, grilled and smokey, were seasoned simply with salt and pepper to allow the lovely notes of root vegetable and green vegetal flavors to shine through. A beautiful testament to the freshness of the ferns. The charred baby artichokes were full of deep flavor from the roasting but cooked well-enough that they were left still crispy and crunchy, with the light zip of the salsa verde provided a nice respite from the side of beef we were presented with.

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The Pitman Farm Chicken was served frenched over a bed of sauteed spring onions and vincotto, a slow-cooked red wine sauce. The greens and onions paired nicely with the flavorful and fresh portion of chicken. A nice hold-over from late winter, early spring, it could have benefited from other crispy vegetables other than the spring onions, but it was a nice combination with the sweet caramelized onions and salty chicken skin.

For our beef entrees, a huge cart was wheeled over to our table. From there, the floor manager presented our cuts of meat, whole, and still sizzling from the kitchen. He expertly cut our pieces of beef and served them to us as quickly as possible, losing none of the precious juices that run out from lack of the beef being allowed to sit. It was a luxurious presentation and made the enjoyment of the meat just that much greater.

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The 12 oz Grilled Hangar Steak was an excellent preparation of a oft-maligned cut of beef. With nary a spot of fat to be found, the steak still managed to remain flavorful and tender, a testament to the butchery and cooking. The crust was expertly crispy and delicious, rubbed with a simple combination of salt, pepper, and rosemary.

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The 16 oz Rib-eye for 2 was a behemoth of meat and truly a “Vegas” style portion. Almost two full chops and gorgeously marbled with layers of fat, it was an exceptional cut of beef. Removed from the bone table-side, as previously mentioned, and sliced into 1 oz portions, each piece was a magnificent combination of soft, rich fat that had been roasted at such a high temperature and for so long, that it practically melted in your mouth and became a sauce for the outrageously flavorful beef and crispy crunch of the exterior. We were invited to rip the meat from the bone, as was communicated to us through an anecdote that when Mario comes to cook/visit, he’s oft to wander the dining room with a Flinstonian bone, chewing and tearing the meat off of the bone. It was a savage experience, to say the least. As a pairing with my steak, I enjoyed (not pictured) a glass of the Brunello di Montalcino, Ciacci Piccolomino. A 2009 from Toscana, it was a luxurious Brunello with none of the dryness or bitter wooden notes of a Cab. Sweet, crisp, slightly tart, but overall wonderfully drinkable. A spectacular wine for a spectacular steak.

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Often overlooked or considered an afterthought at a prime steakhouse, the dessert was absolutely outstanding, thanks to their extremely talented pastry chef. Along with our (not pictured) Cafe Americano, espresso, and double espresso we enjoyed the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Torte, the (not pictured) Tiramisu, and Strawberry Crespelle. The tiramisu was anything but standard with an amaretto cream and fudge sauce in place of the standard simple dipped ladyfingers and chocolate sauce. The Crespelle, filled with lemon ricotta and topped with a luscious butterscotch, it was all of the best parts of a blintz and a crepe. Light and vibrant from the fresh strawberries and lemon, it was a nice and light finish to a very heavy meal. Finally, but certainly not least, was the outstanding Chocolate and Peanut Butter Torte. It was layered like a candy bar, filled with peanut brittle and a salted peanut butter caramel, all atop a crunchy fudge wafer crust.

This was a memorable meal, to say the least. As always, the best part was the company and the opportunity to share such an unforgettable experience with friends .