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.

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5-17-16 / BabyStacks Cafe / Las Vegas, NV

The next morning, we arose from our dutiful slumbers and ventured out towards an aggressive breakfast. Ironically,  BabyStacks Cafe was also suggested by the same local who suggested Carson Kitchen. It was equally amazing (albeit differently) and was yet another magical food oasis off the strip.

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My wife chose the house specialty, the Lolo Rick’s Adobo Fried Rice. Described as the “locals’ favorite” and “a traditional Filipino fish”, this omelette was stuffed with marinated shredded chicken and fried rice and topped with green onions. To me, it was like a Mad Mex burrito with better tasting chicken and rice. The shredded chicken was spiced beautifully and stood up to the heavy egg (and was there ever a lot of it to stand up to).  She ended up having a quarter plate of eggs left when all was said and done. It was delicious, but it was a LOT.

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Never one to see a food challenge and back away like a normal person, I went with the Chili Skillet. Hawaiian-style chili, with white onions, topped with shredded cheddar and monterey jack cheeses, and two over medium eggs, all over crispy, skillet-fried potatoes. The chili wasn’t tomato-based and I really enjoyed the crumbled sausage, spicy kick of the raw white onion, and the beautiful crunch of the tiny cubed potatoes throughout. It was like a decadent bowl of chili cheese fries. They weren’t shy with the spice and I found myself grateful for the upgrades to the “standard” buttermilk pancakes that my wife and I made.

Of course we opted to go big (as we were on vacation and couldn’t go home just yet). My wife went with the Hazelnut pancakes, literal hazelnut pancake batter drizzled with fudgey Nutella, hazelnuts, and homemade whipped cream with more hazelnuts. It didn’t come with syrup and for that I am thankful. It was like eating Nutella Cake, with whipped cream, for breakfast, and it was amazing. I went with the more sensible, but equally insane (nutty?) White Chocolate Macadamia Nut pancakes. Within my buttermilk battered pancakes were melty, creamy white chocolate chips, and crunchy, buttery macadamia nut pieces. Atop my buttermilk pancakes with white chocolate chips and macadamia nut pieces were MORE white chocolate chips and macadamia nut pieces. It came with syrup.

I’d like to say we were never hungry again, but you know me well enough by now to know that wasn’t true. We were however, absolutely satiated, comforted body and soul, as we treated ourselves to a wonderfully rustic, home-style breakfast.

5-16-16 / Carson Kitchen / Las Vegas, NV

Now that I’m all caught up with the memorable meals I’ve had in Pittsburgh recently, I’m going to head back to Vegas and finish up those meals (there’s approximately 4 more including this one). The meal at Carson Kitchen was excellent, truly a special evening, and was even recommended to me by a local (thanks Steve!). Easily one of the best meals we had as an entire group the whole trip. The service was outstanding and it was evident the small menu played to the kitchen’s strengths without any fluff. Kudos to the entire staff.

Two of the cocktails we enjoyed were the Super Tuesday (barsol pisco, rhubarb, lychee, fresh lime, egg white) and the Daaaammmmnn, Daniel! (new amsterdam vodka, sage, fresh lemon, ginger simple syrup, fresh and muddled mint, powdered sugar). The Super Tuesday was nice and creamy but still light, very crisp with the citrus bite, like a strawberry lemonade spiked at a fancy-ass party. The DD was like a beautifully drinkable Moscow Mule, nice mint and ginger spice, with the kick of that vodka, freezing cold and refreshing.

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Shut Up and Jam!

We shared a lot of appetizers at the table (the crispy chicken skins with smoked honey were like chicken pork rinds times 100) and the bacon jam (pictured above) was sweet smokey magnificence. The gooey strip down the middle is baked brie, which worked to mellow out the sugary sweet bbq bacon jam, as we piled spoonful upon spoonful on those wonderful little toasted baguette pieces. If I had any complaint (goodness me) it would be that there was SO MUCH BACON JAM. If we’d asked for more bread, I’m positive they would have brought it, but as it was, we just overloaded those poor little discs until the jam was falling over the sides. It was decadent, it was delicious, it was smoky porky magic.

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It’s not often, when you go out to eat, that you get to eat something “fun”. The Hot Oysters, were for me, a very whimsical, adventurous dish. I apologize for the discoloration in the remoulade, as I quickly ate one without thinking and dipped it in the creamy, herby, light sauce. It was like a less garlicky, fresher ranch than a tartar sauce, and worked with the habanero kick of the deep fried “oysters”. I say “oysters” because in that lovely silver cylinder were not just deep fried and hot sauce tossed traditional oysters, but also pork oysters (cut from the eye, no fat, pure meat) and chicken oysters (arguably the best part of the chicken, these oysters are oval pieces of dark meat that lay on either part of the chicken’s backbone). You didn’t know what you were going to get before you picked them up, so to the rest of the table that meant “they’re all yours, Dave”. It wasn’t until I’d bitten into them and revealed the protein that I could know what I’d be eating. It was a nice mixture, not relying too heavily on the cheaper, traditional oyster to fill out the bucket. The hot sauce was bold and full-bodied, far from the vinegar snap one gets with Frank’s Red Hot or cayenne. Perfect, fun, bar food.

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Their “standard” baked mac and cheese was listed as being a secret on the menu, which didn’t really come up as a red flag, until we dug in. Intermixed between the al dente noodles, the rich, creamy mixture of cheeses, the sharp tangs of the cheddar and smooth mellow of the fontina, was the unmistakable flavor of truffle. Expertly mixed throughout, this homestyle baked mac and cheese was anything but. Superb mastery and talent of flavor, this was like going to take a bite of your favorite cupcake only to realize there was another, smaller cupcake already inside of it. Kraft can kiss this dish’s ass.

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My entree was the bone-in lamb chops (you can see the curve along the top of the rightmost chop), topped with a crunchy pecan crust, and served over a mint chimichurri. These gorgeous chops were butchered beautifully, with hardly any fat other than the gorgeous charred crust around the entire pieces of meat. The crust was beautifully broiled and added a wonderfully nuttiness to compliment the chimichurri almost like a meat pesto, with the smoky lamb singing through. Perfectly cooked to a medium rare, this was the best lamb I had the entire trip.

Finally, but certainly not least, oh god nowhere near least, were the unbelievable desserts. We decided on the Bourbon Fudge Brownie, served with a brown butter bacon maple ice cream and a slice of bacon on it as well as the Rhubarb Sammy, a stunning rhubarb macaron filled with rhubarb sorbet, and elderflower whipped cream. Unbeknownst to us, we had ordered to perfectly complimentary desserts. The first, the brownie sundae, was like diving head first (toddler style) into a chocolate cake. Fudge layers packed with butter packed with chocolate brownie, topped with a crust that was out of this world, mixed with bourbon, next to melty, sweet, salty brown butter bacon ice cream. It was rich, it was decadent, it was ALMOST too much. Almost, I say, because of the tart, sharp, crisp citrus bite of the rhubarb macaron and sorbet and that soft, pillowy bridge between the two, the elderflower whipped cream. Smooth and herbal and lusciously creamy, the whipped cream was the key to unlocking that dish. Perfect ends to a perfect meal.

5-15-16 / Javier’s / Las Vegas, NV

Sunday for lunch we went to In N Out Burger  around the corner from our hotel. Unfortunately, I demolished my double double with tomato, mustard, and fried onions with animal style fries before I could think to take a picture. I’m just glad there aren’t any close locations, not that I would make it a regular thing, but it could be very, very dangerous on certain occasions.

 

Sunday night we found ourselves in a difficult position. It was late (around 10:30) and it was Sunday night. Baffling as it seems, places in Vegas (especially restaurants of worth) close on Sunday nights. We found our options limited, but luckily the list I’d prepared beforehand had a couple of opportunities still available. Not wanting to break the streak of eating almost solely at the Aria, we went back to hit up Javier’s. Super hip and far too cool for us (even on a Sunday night) they shoved us in a table in the back and stopped by as infrequently as possible. It’s hard to judge a place on its service when they’re closing within the hour, but it was pretty rough. We only got to enjoy half of our (incredibly fresh and flavorful) chips and salsa, before they were taken away while we were enjoying our appetizer of the (not pictured) Queso Fundido. Far from the traditional, gooey and flavorful dip, it was more a plate of melted monterey jack cheese with some roasted onions, mushrooms, and chiles mixed in. The tortillas served on the side were stale (possibly cooked earlier in the week or off-site) and did the dip no favors. I was looking forward to returning to the delicious chips and salsa afterwards, but as I mentioned earlier, they were taken away.

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My wife’s entree was the “Milanesa de Pollo” (Chicken Milanese) one of the “Especiales de la Casa” (House Specialties). It was served with pure de papas (the mashed potatoes featured above) and chile en rajas, featured closer to the camera. The chicken and mashed potatoes were fine, nothing special, certainly not deserving an esteemed location as a house special. The standout was the cheesy, sweet, and spicy chile en rajas, a dish I wasn’t previously familiar with. Smoked and grilled chiles, with fresh corn and grilled green pepper, all mixed with a queso fresco and topped with cotija cheese. It was an excellent side dish and deserved far more from its compatriots.

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Unfortunately, my dish was wildly uneven as well. I ordered the Trio de Enchilades del Mar, featuring one crab, lobster, and shrimp enchilada, each topped with their own sauce and filled with their own fillings. At least, that’s how it was described. It ended up all melding together into a citrusy, green chile flavor, that was again, fine. The standouts were the fresh, succulent shrimp and huge chunks of fresh, jumbo lump crab meat. With proteins this delicious and fresh, something far more expressive should have come through the dish. The tortillas and sour cream and shredded radish and BLACK OLIVES(?) all just seemed to be sitting around, waiting for their turn to either be thrown out or on this dish. It was so strange for me to have such a wide variance in quality of ingredients on such a plate, but it was unfortunately the case. Again, none of it was particularly bad, it just didn’t seem to want to come together to work cohesively.

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The true MVP of the night (other than the truly delicious chips and salsa) was the Fried Ice Cream for dessert. A softball-sized orb of homemade vanilla bean ice cream sat completely studded with corn flakes, tortilla pieces, and peanuts atop a salad bowl made of fried dough covered in sugar, cinnamon, and honey. A giant melty ball of crunch and sweet, this was everything I’ve ever wanted in fried ice cream and more. This was the poster that the dessert of the same name that I ate growing up used to keep on its ceiling. This is the dessert that the dessert I’d thought I’d enjoyed previously only fantasized of being. This is “Las Vegas” in a dessert: too big, too sweet, too crunchy, too much, much too much, but oh so sinfully good. Also enjoyed, but not pictured or truly recommended, were the drinks (the Javier’s Martini on the rocks, a tequila mix with citrus that was fairly standard and a Jalapeno Margarita that would have benefitted from being far spicier and less sweet).

So if you find yourself wandering the Aria some night, long after the other restaurants have closed and you have a hole in your stomach the size of a volleyball that smells faintly of fried ice cream, then stop on down to Javier’s and order yourself one. I can make no promises on how many chips and how much salsa you’ll get, so eat quickly!

5-14-16 / Slice of Vegas / Las Vegas, NV

Finally finding ourselves hungry again around 1am, we decided to make the short walk from the Luxor over to the Mandalay Shoppes, right next to Burger Bar, to Slice of Vegas. We did quick work of Mamma’s Garlic Bread, 5 slices of toasted Italian bread served with a roasted head of garlic. It was messy, but the garlic was roasted enough to make it easily spreadable on the slices of bread. Neither the bread nor the garlic was that spectacular, but it got the job done.2016-05-14 23.49.52.jpg

The real star was the 4 Cheese Truffle Pizza. Thin, New York style crust, covered in a garlic alfredo sauce, topped with your standard mozzarella, tangy and creamy fontina, generous globs of rich and luscious ricotta, and a sharp and salty parmigiano reggiano. The star of the pizza was the white truffle oil, drizzled liberally over the entire pizza, adding that wonderfully earthy, meaty flavor to the gooey cheeses and buttery alfredo sauce. It was the perfect meal for the time and place we found ourselves in.

5-14-16 / Jean-Philippe Patisserie / Las Vegas, NV

Finding ourselves wandering around the Aria looking for an afternoon treat, we made a bee-line to Jean Philippe PatisserieEnormous glass cases full of over 20 different types of pastries and sweets. Each individual pastry looked like a work of art and it was very difficult to narrow the decision. Ultimately, we decided on the Imperial and a Nutella Brioche.

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The Imperial was a chocolate mousse cake, filled with a hazelnut cream, over chopped hazelnuts and toffee, draped in a dark chocolate and topped with a white chocolate truffle. Everything (other than the gold saucer) in this image is edible. It was rich, velvety-smooth chocolate studded with crunchy bits of salty and sweet toffee. Luscious and gorgeous to look at and enjoy.

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The Nutella Brioche was a stunning behemoth of soft, buttery pastry that just flaked apart, filled with easily a golf-ball sized portion of creamy, homemade hazelnut chocolate fudge. It was topped with milk chocolate crispy bites. Incredibly fresh and perfectly crafted, with just a light dusting of powdered sugar, I was thankful for the strong iced coffee I enjoyed alongside it to cut through the sweet richness of the two desserts.

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Our friends also enjoyed desserts (from left to right): A Vanilla Egg Custard, Raspberry and White Chocolate Tart, and Lemon Meringue Tart. The egg custard was very mild in  flavor, lacking in strong vanilla or egg flavors, but the crispy and flaky phyllo dough shell, did a nice job counterbalancing the heavy and thick pudding interior. The Raspberry and White Chocolate Tart was stunning in it’s rich and powerful layer of white chocolate beneath the sugar-syrup enrobed raspberries. The punch of tart and sweet fruit rose beautifully above the incredible white chocolate and cakey shell. Easily, my favorite bite of the three options. Finally, the Lemon Meringue Tart had a gorgeous crispy meringue that broke apart from the custardy lemon filling in both texture and taste. Unfortunately, the tart shell was very hard to cut into and made taking a bite of the beautiful pastry quite a feat.

Hard to miss and even harder to pass up, you owe it to yourself to enjoy a feast for both the eyes and stomach.

5-14-16 / Lemongrass / Las Vegas, NV

For the morning of Saturday, May 14th we had reservations made for brunch at Bardot Brasserie in the Aria. Unfortunately, when we were in the car on the way over we received a call informing us that there was a problem in the kitchen and they would be closing for brunch. Forced with a quick decision, I suggested we go to Lemongrass (also located within the Aria Resort & Casino) instead. It wasn’t a traditional brunch, but it was still enjoyable.

We decided to take advantage of the rotating dim sum cart and ordered the above pictured BBQ Pork Bun, Pork and Shrimp Sui Mai, and Bean Curd Wrapped Pork and Shrimp. Also (not pictured) the BBQ Pork Ribs, and two Chicken Basil Buns. The BBQ Pork Bun were the highlight with big chunks of succulent pork in a sweet and vinegary sauce, encased in a sweet steamed bun. The bun was substantial enough to make the dumpling into an almost stuffed sandwich of sorts, with a far sweeter dough than I’m used to, but it was a welcome foil to the spicy and vinegary pork. The sui mai also fared well from a very rough chop, far from the usual sausage-like texture of most dumpling fillings. Large chunks of sweet shrimp and salty pork were held lightly by the egg noodle wrapper. The bean curd wrapper on the pork and shrimp suffered from over-steaming, causing the wrapper to be limp and reject most of the caramel sweet and sour sauce. The ribs were excellent, steamed and chopped up into small pieces to allow the gristle and bones to be separated and discarded, but far from the traditional “american” concept of a rib. The chicken basil buns were fairly standard flat discs of dough, similar to what you may see an open-faced pork belly bun served in, with an incredibly flavorful mixture of tiny pieces of ground, seasoned chicken, and large pieces of fried basil. They turned out to be quite difficult to eat, but well-worth the effort.

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After the heavy meal of the night before, I opted for something much lighter for brunch: the Thai Crab Omelette. Overstuffed with large chunks of jumbo lump crab meat, egg, and chopped with fried thai basil, this dish was simple, but effective in its goal. Extremely filling, the sweet crab and herbal basil balanced the crispy and salty fried egg omelette out beautifully. The garlic chili hot sauce (their homemade version of a sriracha) provided a nice zip of vinegar and punch to an otherwise sweet and salty dish. It was a huge portion and kept me full all day.

My wife enjoyed the Three Cups Chicken, a standard basil chicken hot pot dish far more familiar in Chinese cuisine than Thai. That didn’t stop the huge chunks of fresh white breast meat, ginger, basil, sesame oil, and Shaoxing wine from all working together in symphony to provide a harmonious and balanced hot pot. The sauce was so luxurious and thick, I was tempted to drink it from the bowl, but I opted for a Thai Iced Coffee instead. The heavy, powerful coffee drink with the thick, sweet syrup, was more like a coffee milkshake than a standard drink, but it was excellent nonetheless.

Overall, it wasn’t our first choice in dining for that specific meal, but it was a very enjoyable experience nonetheless.