Our critic recalls the most memorable local meals of the year
The top slot for 2014 goes to Shadowbrook Restaurant, where we enjoyed the classic trifecta of great service, great ambience, and chef Roger Gowen’s exquisite food. A sophisticated version of fried calamari was followed by a dreamy dish of salmon cakes with ponzu sauce and wasabi ginger. Main dishes of tender beef short ribs in a rich star anise glaze and an authentic Niçoise salad paired with a spicy Georis Merlot utterly knocked us out. Some landmarks truly do deserve their reputations.
Next I have to praise a dinner at Soif involving a crisp, minerally Godello from Spain’s Abad dom Bueno estate, which expertly partnered chef Mark Denham’s pork schnitzel presented with a slaw of cabbages, apples, fennel and Everett Family Farm cider. The earthy sweetness of the veggies played against the salty crunch of the cutlet’s paper-thin golden crust. More than one fine dinner at Pizzeria Avanti showcased outstanding salads, such as a creation of succulent Bloomsdale spinach in a lemony vinaigrette, dotted with pears, avocado and goat cheese. With an entree of the house Avanti pizza topped with arugula and prosciutto, this is comfort dining at its best.
A lunch at Assembly remains among my most delicious memories of the year. One dish was an aromatic bowl of roasted mushroom ragout with hazelnuts, topped with a fried egg and polenta toasts. Another dish was a sensuous salad of baby spinach, tossed with carrots, barley, pistachios and green beans. Topped with roast pulled chicken the salad’s dressing was laced with fresh grated turmeric and ginger. Yeow! One favorite rainy day lunch at Ivéta offered the incomparable caprese sandwich ignited by spiced mayo on a soft ciabatta bun. Paired with the house-muddled lemonade and finished with one of those bittersweet gluten-free chocolate cookies. Perfection.
In late August, the al fresco Route 1 Farms Dinner combined the winemaking expertise of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s Jeff Emery with the flavor wit of Feel Good Foods. The results were course after course of late harvest flavors, starting with wild salmon dusted with fennel flowers and dill aioli. A vegetable minestrone produced summer in a bowl. Yellow potatoes and romano beans, platters of grilled eggplant with creamy feta and peppers, and a finale of Fogline chicken, grilled on the spot, on a cushion of grilled radicchio. A final wine, a gorgeous plum-intensive 2010 Pinot Noir from Bailey’s Vineyard, reinforced Emery’s genius. And sundown on the Wilder fields added incomparable atmosphere. In Bayreuth, Germany, during intermission for Wagner’s Lohengrin, I grabbed a flute of bone-dry Taittinger champagne along with hot grilled bratwurst on a kaiser roll. Consumed outdoors on a warm summer evening, in the company of opera connoisseurs speaking a dozen different languages, this was the snack of the year! And in Harvey Cedars, on the Jersey shore, I feasted on a sandwich of fresh-caught flounder that required two hands to lift. The place was the tiny, family-run Neptune Market on the northern end of Long Beach Island, where a big guy grilled up the fish, added lettuce, tomatoes and relish and threw the whole thing onto a warm hoagie bun the size of Atlantic City. Oh, and there was that appetizer of tiny meatballs and baby snap peas topped with huge shavings of grana cheese, one of many sensational dishes we enjoyed at Artisan, in Paso Robles. Also my mother’s homemade chicken soup, made for us on a pre-Christmas visit last week. The soup was rich with sauteed Shiitake mushrooms and swirled throughout with chicken shreds and tiny spinach leaves. A wintry soup made with love. Hard to beat. Yes, it was a good year dining wise, and 2015 already feels promising. Salut!
PHOTO: We’re still dreaming about the wild salmon dusted with fennel flowers and dill aioli served at Route 1 Farms’ late August 2014 dinner. ERIC BAILEY