The Ten Most Memorable Meals and Bites of 2013

The last twelve months involved a lot of eating – a lot of eating out and a lot of eating in. Some of the best meals were at home – comforting dishes that took time, effort, and heart to make, but there were many in restaurants as well.

While I eat out in Denver a good amount, I try experience the culture of cities I visit through the local food scene. I was either pregnant or with an infant the entire 2013, but managed six trips: Seattle in February, Puerto Vallarta in March, Austin and New York City in May, back to New York in November, and Berlin and Bucharest in December. Each of these trips involved heavy eating out. My best meals of 2013 are listed in chronological order.

1. Lunch at Il Corvo in Seattle

The small working class Italian lunch place in Seattle was a hit with us- 2 frazzled parents and two five year old cousins. The menu is well-edited to the point of screaming choices are overrated. There was a prosciutto plate we ordered as an appetizer and three pasta dishes, all of which made their way to our table. That was it for the menu. No muss, no fuss: order your very hand made pasta at the counter, enjoy in the simple contemporary room, move on. I can’t wait to go back.

2. Mango Pie from Pie in the Sky in Puerto Vallarta

Ok, this is not exactly a meal, but after two full pies purchased and consumed with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it is the most memorable bite of this year’s trip to Mexico. The fruit was perfectly ripe, the hint of cinnamon brought on memories of apple pie, and the crust was the right balance of sweet, dry, soft, and baked. It did not hurt that 2013 for me was the year of obsession over pie.

3. Easter Brunch at Spuntino in Denver 

The truth is I like every meal at Spuntino. It’s hard to pin point where the magic comes from in every dish here. The food at Spuntino is beautiful because it is made with honest sustainable ingredients and an experienced hand, but there is more. This food comes from a good place, one where there’s respect for both ingredients and the diner, where pleasing the guest is the first priority, and where part of the targeted experience includes how you feel after you eat. It matters — a lot. I always get the pastry basket, pollo sandwich, and a cup of Boxcar coffee.

4. Tasting Dinner at Atera in New York City

Dessert course at Atera

It is unfair to choose one meal from a trip to New York City. I flew there solo in May for work and, along with friends, tried Carbone, Marea, Lafayette, and more. Atera though stole the show. From a kitchen that seems to spill into the intimate counter-height horseshoe shaped tasting room, chef Matt Lightner serves inventive and stunningly beautiful bites that surprise as much as they please. It’s a feast for the eyes that manages to distinguish itself from the molecular ultra modern gastronomy that many restaurants have adopted as their mantra. There’s connection and intimacy here that starts with the smallness of the dining room- 16 seats around the counter (a few more apart from the counter)- and ends with the eclectic music selection- apparently the staff all contributes to picking songs. The dishes are naturally playful- some hits, very few misses, all of them a piece of the puzzle in the three and a half hour dinner experience.

5. Barbecue at Franklin in Austin

The line at Franklin at 9:30 on a Saturday

When we first arrived at Franklin’s at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, the line was all the way wrapped in the parking lot. A restaurant employee came and pointed to the group about 10 people ahead of us. He said, “It will be about 2 o’clock for you and there’s no guarantee there will still be brisket.” Dismayed, we left. Came back Sunday at 8:15 with lawn chairs, the New York Times, a couple of lattes and some pastries. There was one guy already there who had driven from Houston that morning –yes, for barbecue. At 11:05, while ordering, I got handed a sample of the fatty part of the brisket. I have never had barbecue like that. I have never had anything like that. Rich, deep, salty, sweet, fat -heavenly. I had great meals in Austin, but the commitment to one thing only and the hard work that goes on at Franklin’s made that first bite (and each subsequent one) faultless.

6. Dinner at Acorn in Denver

The modern American restaurant is located in the Source, a food-centric market developed by my husband. My obsession with the dishes created by chef Steve Redzikowski and drinks mixed by bartender Bryan Dayton dates as far back as the days when the two worked at Frasca and as near as the dinners I’ve enjoyed at their first restaurant, Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder. Here’s what I always order: the hamachi collar and the Crossing the Tracks cocktail. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss: the beet salad and fried pickles.

7. The Michael Anthony Guest Chef Dinner at Frasca Food and Wine

The New York City chef who helms Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern hosted a dinner at Frasca to promote the new book of the restaurant. Each dish, with recipes included in the cookbook, seemed better than the previous one. Paired expertly with wine and gracious service, this was an experience that will stick with me for a long time. It made me cook the open ravioli dish served at the dinner just days later at home. And it also made me want to go eat at Gramercy Tavern, something I did just a couple of weeks after the dinner.

8. The Cronut in New York City

The Cronut

Sure there may be too much noise and hype around the croissant -donut hybrid pastry created by chef Dominique Ansel. But you know what? The cronut is good enough to warrant the buzz. First of all, there’s nothing not to like- croissant dough, fried, tossed in sugar (and sprinkled with salt for good balance), filled with a ridiculous cream, and glazed. It’s original, decadent, pleasing. Spoiler alert: you don’t actually need to wait in line. You can call two weeks ahead (details on the website) and place an order. Then you stroll in and pick up your cronuts.

9. Pauly Saal in Berlin

There has to be some form of modesty involved, but the Germans don’t seem to want to flash their food and wine too much. There’s a wide variety of cuisines represented in the city and it looks like at least one in four restaurants is Italian. I wanted German. The food here is German, but prepared by highly skilled cooks. If grandma was a Michelin star chef and used her old recipes and incredible knowledge, she would have made the chicken soup I had there. Every element was refined- the texture of julienned carrots, the nearly al dente angel-hair thin noodles, the tender not boiled-into-submission meat. But the overall recipe was the same- grandma’s recipe. Every dish was like that.

10. La Soupe Populaire in Berlin

Mustard egg with char caviar at La Soupe Populaire

I could not choose between Pauly Saal and La Soupe Populaire for a single meal in Berlin so two meals made it on this list. The casual restaurant from Michelin star chef Tim Rau is located in a reused industrial structure. The building, which doubles as art space for funky exhibits, is raw and harsh with little transformed to adapt to the new use. The environment adds to the scene and is not a reflection of the meal. The food is modern interpretations of classic German food. Highlights were the mustard egg with char caviar and a stunning veal soup.

You know what else I loved? Every soup made by chef Max MacKissock (right now, the French Onion Soup at Williams & Graham), the Sicilian feast at Frasca with chef Fabrizia Lanza, and the incredible treat that was the Best New Chefs dinner at this year’s Aspen Food & Wine Classic.

What did you love eating the last twelve months?

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