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

8 new orleans muffaletta.jpg

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

6 han noodle bar singapore rice noodles

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!

8-23 and 10-03-17 / Casellula @ Alphabet City / Pittsburgh, PA (North Side)

Blue, Pressed & Cooked, Washed, Bloomy / Soft-Ripened, Fresh cheeses

Over on the Unplanned Comedy Podcast “Food Weirdos” you can listen to me chat about cuisine with hosts Steve and Josie. It was a wonderfully fun time and I reference this very review in it. I wanted to get it up before the podcast went live, but it was their diligence and my busy schedule that resulted in the situation ending up like it did.

I chose to go to Casellula this year for my birthday as I’d read a lot about it’s fascinating background and also the story behind Alphabet City. I wasn’t too concerned with making a meal out of cheese, but I quickly found myself enthralled with their incredible small plates and cocktail offerings. Our waitress and their in-house fromagier (like a sommelier but for cheese) both provided top-notch service during a wonderful meal enjoyed in a socially-conscious and modern respite on the border of the Mexican War Streets on the North Side.

Rose Colored Glasses
ROSE COLORED GLASSES – GIN, APEROL, ST. GERMAIN, LIME, CIDER, ABSINTHE, LEMON

Casellula has a great cocktail menu, with very inventive modern twists on classic cocktails. We enjoyed a few, but I only captured two of them. Front and center was my second cocktail, the Rose Colored Glasses. Made with Gin, Aperol, St. Germain, Lime, Cider, Absinthe, and Lemon this was the perfect summer spritz with a delicious sharp citrus bite and sweet finish from the Cider. I also had the Death Will Tremble, which was Bourbon, Ancho Reyes, Lime, Basil, and Celery. It had a wonderful smoke and earth notes from the basil and celery without being too strong or heavy-handed on the balance of bourbon and smoke from the chili. My wife enjoyed the Longhand which was Vodka, Ginger, Lime, and Lustau Sherry. It was also delicious, as were all of the cocktails, a wonderful balance between flavors of the herbs and fruit additions as well as the natural complexities of the liquors themselves.

With our cheeses, we ordered the assorted olives as well as the housemade pickled vegetable of the season (dilly beans). The olives were a nice mix of my personal favorite Castelvetrano (the huge meaty green ones), Kalamata, and various others. The dilly beans were super fresh, really crisp and with a wonderful vinegary tang to cut through the rich and creamy cheeses. Speaking of which…

The cheeses. Goodness me the cheeses. If you haven’t already, take a quick gander at what they’re currently offering. It’s a (positively) overwhelming list of ~30 rotating cheeses, the likes of which I haven’t seen anything close in Pittsburgh. They separate the cheeses out into 5 distinct categories: Fresh, Bloomy/Soft-Ripened, Washed, Pressed & Cooked, and Blue. The list, as well as how they were served (from right to left) is in order of complexity and depth of aging and flavors. We left it up to the fromagier to choose one cheese from each category and expected a delivery of five cheeses. A wonderful and dear friend knew that we were planning on dining there for my birthday and paid for one of our cheeses ahead of time so we enjoyed 6, with two from the Bloomy/Soft-Ripened list. It is with deep sadness that I can’t recall (and foolishly didn’t record) which cheeses they were, so the best I can do is talk about their paired side and the general flavors of what we enjoyed.

The far right was a fresh cheese, smooth and creamy-rich, with a sweet carrot puree. The earthiness of the sweet carrots was a nice low note to the high end of the heavy mouth feel of the creamy fresh cheese. Next was another wonderfully creamy milky cheese, with a beautiful gooey rind served with a strawberry jam and a gorgeous soft-ripened brie with sweet pickled red onions. Only slightly funky, with a wonderful gooey mouthfeel, the sweet and sour pairings helped bring them down to a beautiful creamy/acidic balance. The washed (rind) cheese was similar to a piave with a nice soapiness and good hard bite similar to a good cheddar. The pairing was an incredible pesto with powerful garlic and basil notes, joining together with its paired cheese to create the ultimate flavor (garlic bread, of course). Moving further left and deeper into the aged cheese category, the magically funky and melty-gooey Pressed category cheese were served with a far more vinegary and pickled onion, crunchy and bold enough to cut through that deep funk of a good aged pressed cheese. Finally, the blue was a jump-in-the-air-and-roundhouse-kick-you-in-the-face bold. Enormous veins of that outstanding bleu mold intertwined this incredible pile of cheese so creamy and crumbly and impossibly old that it couldn’t be properly sliced or hold any shape. It was served with house-made caramels and was so incredibly bold and rich, I was ready to be done right there. That would have been foolish, however as we hadn’t even received our main courses!

It’s very safe bet that when you see a menu that features something as half of the menu (be it small plates, sushi, steak, or in this case cheese) that the other half is probably going to be just alright. No one is going to Capital Grill for their Fish if they’re looking for good fish. That all being said, if you’re looking for amazing pasta and incredible large plates, Casellula hits the grand slam with that one. The mac and cheese (an easy no-brainer at a restaurant that can do the sauce with expert precision) was outstanding. Studded with large chunks of pork lardon and baked in a cast-iron skillet, the incredibly creamy and cheesy sauce was filled with fresh-made gigli (bell-shaped) pasta. Wonderfully al-dente, the corn ravioli was equally outstanding. The sweet corn both outside and within the ricotta filling of the ravioli perfectly matched with the savory herbs and broth. The roasted grape tomatoes and the clams in the spaghettini elevated the rich and complex lightly salty seafood broth, definitely enjoyable as the ravioli was with both fork and spoon. Finally, the Pig’s Ass was bold in both nomenclature and flavor. A wonderful take on the classic cuban with pork loin, gooey melty emmentaler and cheddar cheeses, bread and butter pickles, and a chipotle aioli (on the side in case it was too spicy). The aioli was wonderfully creamy with heavy notes of garlic and smoky chipotle pepper without much of the spice from their seeds. All in all, four outstanding entrees from a restaurant that had already proven itself so much in their cheese selections.

The stunning selection of cheeses and pairings from that day. It was a marvel just to behold and I knew we’d have to return soon.

In October, my wife and I returned for an American Cheese tasting class. It was a treasured experience and led by an extremely intelligent graduate student. We learned about the history of cheese and how the American cheese movement started and grew through the exploration of 5 modern cheeses.

The cheeses were introduced and plated in order of age/complexity from left to right. We started with the Chevre from the Vermont Creamery in Vermont (naturally). A young cheese (aged only 2 weeks to up to 6 weeks), this chevre is one of the finest goat cheeses available. The perfectly light and milky, grassy flavors fall away to a wonderful richness and just the slightest almond end-notes. Aged around 6 weeks, the much bolder Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont was wonderfully stinky, but gooey and salty as a good soft-ripened cow’s milk should be. While the rind was edible, there were pieces that had spruce bark still connected to it which were very fibrous and woody. Up next, the wonderful triangle of Dirty Girl from Prodigal Farm in North Carolina. It was a goat’s milk washed-rind cheese, with a soft buttery texture and flavor. Still less than a year aged, it wasn’t very strong or pungent at all, very mellow and similar to a good havarti. The Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Creamery in Wisconsin is one of my favorite cheeses of all time. Not surprisingly, it’s the most awarded American artisan cheese currently available. Wonderfully aged, crumbly, salty and sharp in its crystallization, deep and rich, and tastes like an 14-20 months aged raw cow’s milk should. Finally, the Big Woods Blue from Shepherd’s Way Farm in Minnesota rounded out the plate. Powerfully sharp with complex notes of barnyard, grass, wet hay, and a deep saltiness, it’s the dictionary-perfect blue cheese. The mold in the Big Woods Blue was modeled after the original blue cheese Roquefort, so it’s not surprising the tastes are so similar.

The wines and beer were good, but nothing I would seek out on my own. The Matchbook Tino Rey (red) was a mix of Tempranillo, Syrah, and Cab from Lake County in California. It was dry but had a good balance due to the firm tannins. The Cave Spring (white) was a Riesling from Beamsville Bench in Ontario and had a nice balance of citrus and minerals due to the limestone clay soil that it’s grown in. The beer was a Troeges Solid Sender from the Troegs Brewing Company in Hershey. Made with mosaic and cascade hops, the IPA was perfectly fine, but I wasn’t crazy about the dry finish or heavy caramel hop flavor.

It was fascinating to learn that while other countries may have specific varietals of cheese protected by AOC or DOC (Parmigiano Reggiano, Camembert, Roquefort, etc) we can name our American cheeses pretty much whatever we want due to lab-created cultures and different affinages. Hence cheeses with names like “Dirty Girl” and “Rowdy Gentleman” from Prodigal Farms. I was so happy to have the opportunity to spend the time after class was over talking with the instructor and learning even more. If you’re a cheese lover, go subscribe to their newsletter  to find out when their next classes will be offered. You may not love your classmates, but I bet you’ll love the samplings and the instructor.

Whether for dinner, a quick drink, an informative class, or enough cheese to sink a small shipping vessel, make it a priority to get down to Alphabet City over on the North Side and check out Casellula.