LaBan: The 15 best things I ate in 2014
You have to be one hungry caterpillar to be a restaurant critic. By conservative calculations, I ate 300 meals out this year for Sunday reviews, Good Taste features, Crumb Tracker clue-hunting missions and other stories. That means I tasted somewhere around 2,200 different dishes over the past 365 days, so imagine trying whittle all those great (and some not-so-great) food memories down to the 15 best bites. Yeah, yeah, I know…tough work. But it’s really hard! It was such a great chapter for Philly restaurants (food carts, cafes, bakeries and cheese shops), that these ultimate favorites from 2014 – arranged in no particular order - reflect one of my best-fed years ever. I guess that means it’s time for “one green leaf” before I rest and start again.
You have to be one hungry caterpillar to be a restaurant critic.
By conservative calculations, I ate 300 meals out this year for Sunday reviews, "Good Taste" features, Crumb Tracker clue-hunting missions, and other stories.
That means I tasted somewhere around 2,200 different dishes over the last 365 days, so imagine trying whittle all those great (and some not-so-great) food memories down to the 15 best bites.
Yeah, yeah, I know…tough work. But it's really hard!
It was such a great chapter for Philly restaurants (food carts, cafes, bakeries and cheese shops), that these ultimate favorites from 2014 reflect one of my best-fed years ever. I guess that means it's time for "one green leaf" before I rest and start again.
The 15 favorites from 2014, arranged in no particular order:
Abe Fisher's Montreal-smoked pastrami short rib was so good, the 10-day cured, glistening pink, deeply smoky, peppery meat radiated pleasure to my knees at first bite. It's also the anchor for my Feast of the Year:
Alex Bois' Anadama bread was just one of many great grain creations at High Street on Market, my Best New Restaurant of 2014. But this one is the sublimely earthy, rustic-crusted poster-loaf for Philly's new generation of artisan bakers.
The refined elegance of the modern French cooking at Townsend, including this black bass with cockles and a froth of zucchini sauce, helped earn long-time scene vet Townsend "Tod" Wentz well-deserved accolades in his chef-owner debut:
Onion rava dosa at Bangles Indian Cuisine in Downingtown is just one of the many South Indian flavors that lured me out to the Dosa Belt of Philly's far-western 'burbs
Who knew hummus could be so…well, humm-azing? Among Dizengoff's ever-changing menu, I still dream about this one topped with Persian lamb:
The pike quenelles at Le Chéri, the height of deliciously rich "Bistro Ugly" beauty that makes Pierre and Charlotte Calmels' Rittenhouse sibling to Bibou essential.
The "live lettuce from Luna Garden" course was one of the most successful dishes on the tasting menu at Volvér, the Jose Garces showplace at the Kimmel Center. More goat cheese "dirt," please.
The handmade mole tamales at Mole Poblano was good enough to get me out of bed early on a weekend to visit one of the best new taquerias in "Puebladelfia" South Philly.
Philly's food truck boom continued, so it's no surprise that some of my favorite flavors this year – these barbacoa lamb and pancita tacos with an earthy side of chickpea consomme - came from the Barbacoa cart, parked weekend mornings only in Deep South Philly on Watkins at 8th Street.
Philly's Chinatown this year got more diverse, and more authentic, with a focus on fiery Northern flavors. This spicy stir-fry bowl for sharing from Sakura-Mandarin became one of the neighborhood's "hot" new must-order dishes: (See LaBan's major Chinatown feature here.)
Philly's coffee scene exploded with more stylish cafes and ambitious projects from local roasters – and none bigger than La Colombe's big new Fishtown space. But it's the bakery, and the shatteringly crisp baguette used for this simple jambon-beurre sandwich, that has me obsessed.
My favorite "Cheese of the Month" this year was Tunworth, an oozy, pungent Brit-style Camembert at Di Bruno Bros. that's my new "happy birthday to me" splurge. I even got to split this one with a certain Frenchman named Georges Perrier.
Talented chef Eli Kulp has been everywhere these days from his home kitchens at Fork and neighboring High St. on Market to revamping a.kitchen and finally a.bar, where he delivered one of the most satisfyingly perfect takes on a classic salad from his native Northwest: the shrimp Louis.
This was the year of the Big Steak, when indie chefs gave corporate chophouses real competition by throwing seriously dry-aged beef on the grill (many of them huge for sharing), with awesome luxury cuts from a.Kitchen , Bank & Bourbon, Volvér and Palladino's. This 20-ounce strip loin at Petruce et al., dry-aged for 28 days, drizzled with disky chimichurri, and served with side of crispy chips and Bibb lettuce salad, was the highest calling for the live fires of Petruce's wood hearth.
There were creative desserts this year (the chocolate egg cream with bacon and smoked maple syrup at Abe Fisher), and there were spoon-magnet revamps of traditional sweets (the tres leches at both Lolita and Rosa Blanca). But nothing matched the visceral pleasure of holding a warm glazed apple fritter fresh from the fryer at Beiler's Donuts in Reading Terminal Market. As a young British guest at the market said one day, licking her fingers: "Ooh, my gawd…that's the greatest anything I've ever eaten."