This past year in dining and drinking saw my first Liquor Talking column on wine. I enjoyed the break from spirits and will continue tasting, learning and sharing with you. Not that I’m giving up on whiskey. There’s too much going on—in this area and nationwide—to walk away from brown liquor.
My family and I visited 17 restaurants for review in 2017. They were Grayton Seafood, Café Organic, Bella Sera, David’s Catfish, Bamboo Jamaican, Pho Eva, Surf Hut, Black Pearl, Dewey Destin Seafood (Crab Island), Pazzo Italiano, Al’s Beach Club and Burger Bar, The Perfect Pig, Guglielmo’s Ciao Italia Bistro, Mary’s Kitchen, La Crema Tapas, The Parson’s Son BBQ, and Half Shell Oyster House.
I also put together a meal from the prepared foods section of Whole Foods Market, profiled Chef Jim McManus’ Cooking with the Chef classes at HarborWalk Village, profiled and sampled the food at Everyday Gourmet to Go, Timber Creek Distillery (more samples), aquavit, sweet wines for Valentine’s Day, and Beaujolais.
I always enjoy trying a different cuisine. I will happily tour a distillery anytime, especially one with such dedicated and passionate artisans as Aaron Barnes and Camden Ford of Timber Creek. I learn something new with every liquor and wine column. It’s all good. Some is just a little better than others.
Favorite appetizer. Onion rings might not qualify, but if you order them to share, they get a conditional pass, especially those at David’s Catfish in Crestview. Black Pearl’s grouper cheeks with black-eyed peas, the porchetta at Pazzo Italiano, the Serrano-wrapped honey goat cheese-stuffed figs and sautéed caramelized Brussels sprouts with sesame vinaigrette at La Crema, were all memorable. There was no clear winner, but the fact that my six-year-old daughter Grace (the Tiny Diner) ate the sprouts is sufficiently miraculous to edge them front and center.
Favorite main course. The freshly made fish cakes at Café Organic with quinoa salad; wonderfully spiced goat curry and oxtail stew at Bamboo Jamaican; shrimp, beef and chicken thighs with chimichuri at Surf Hut; fried scallops at Dewey Destin; lamb chop lollipops at la Crema; and the pulled pork at Parson’s Son BBQ (with seven housemade sauces). It comes down to the fish cakes and the oxtail stew—and the fish cakes win, because I ate at Café Organic back in January and can still smell the ginger, soy and I don’t know what else, because the chef diplomatically declined my request for a recipe.
Favorite dessert. Sometimes we skip dessert, but there were some excellent ones when we did not. The peach cobbler shake at Al’s Beach Club and Burger Bar was big enough to share, and we watched it being made from scratch. Worth many happy returns were the cherry and apple cobbler from The Parson’s Son, flourless chocolate cake at Pazzo Italiano (my daughter and I were neck and neck on that one), churros with dipping chocolate and warm chocolate chip cookies at La Crema, and the bread puddings at Black Pearl and Half Shell. And the winner is (are) the desserts at La Crema. Warm chocolate is a formidable contender.
Service. Service this year was excellent overall. Perhaps the staffs tried to be more polite to offset the complete lack of civility in national politics and culture. There was the chef at Café Organic who persuaded me to try the fish cakes when I was going to get something else, Nicola at Mary’s Kitchen who wished us a blessed day, the staff at Dewey Destin’s who gave driving directions to an out-of-town customer while serving all the other customers, the meticulous packing of my to-go orders at Parson’s Son (and that great Blues soundtrack in the dining room), the waitress at Grayton Seafood Co. who handled a surprise party of 19 with professional aplomb, and the guys at Timber Creek (Aaron and Camden) who let me sample everything, gave me a ride around the property, and answered my fanboy questions about whiskey. Thanks to you all.
Favorite restaurant of the year. I love that there was a Jamaican place I could take my kid to, I am thankful every year to find great barbecue, I rejoice that fine spirits are being distilled less than an hour away from me, and I’m stalling because I can’t think of one place that was better than all the others.
I wrote this about Café Organic: “I have always been leery of restaurants calling themselves ‘organic’ or ‘natural.’ In my experience, they often serve food that tastes more like penance than lunch….” Having had a faultless, delicious meal there, I wrote this: “If I entered Café Organic slightly prejudiced, I came out well fed and very glad I’d eaten all my vegetables.” So, for the atmosphere, food, and gastronomic comeuppance I was asking for, it’s Café Organic.
Happy New Year’s eating.