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All We Can Eat
Posted at 05:45 PM ET, 12/22/2011

The Food section’s best and worst dishes of 2011


Welcome back, friend: The miso ramen at Ren's in Bethesda. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The problem with picking your favorite dishes of the year — at least for me — is that my mind tends to recall, say, only the most recent meals, which handicaps the lunches and dinners I sampled earlier in the year. Or even last month.

Fortunately, the camera phone helps supplement what my brain can’t remember. (Or perhaps it helps create a brain with a faulty memory?) In reviewing my photos from the past 356 days, I discovered one thing:

The hits far outweighed the misses.

The same, it appears, could be said for my colleagues in the Food section, who graciously shared their favorite (and least favorite) meals and drinks from 2011, whether made at home or prepared at a restaurant.

Take a look:

Joe Yonan’s picks

Best

* Catfish salad at Little Serow

Some of the most complex, interesting food I’ve had lately has been at Johnny Monis’s new northern Thai place, one storefront over and downstairs from his Komi. The catfish dish (called laap pla duk on the menu) is fluffy and layered with shallots and chilis. Everything in the place is imbued with hits of glorious sourness, and since that’s my favorite of the basic tastes, I’ve gone back three times for more.

* Mexican Switch Blade at PS 7’s

Spending a night in the company of mixtress Gina Chersevani can be dangerous, and delicious. I’m a cilantro lover, not a hater, so this drink — which combines Partida Silver tequila, cilantro and lime — was one of the most fragrant, addictive, refreshing sips I had all year.

* Risotto at Bibiana

Chef Nick Stefanelli makes such great pastas that it wasn’t until I was dining with a couple of gluten-free friends that I tasted his risotto. It was one of the best I’ve had, with textbook-perfect texture and the hauntingly good combination of funky Taleggio cheese, apples and black peppercorns.


Thieves' Punch: You'll want to keep stealing more sips. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)
Thieves’ Punch, homemade

In an effort to clean out my liquor cabinet in preparation for a move, I took three punches to our office holiday party — Thieves’ Punch, Alchemist Punch and Honey Spiced Punch. They were all hits, but the first was my favorite, with its enticing combination of cachaca, port, lime, bitters and sugar. Cheers!

Worst

* Tacos at El Centro D.F.

My taco obsession is well-documented. Thanks to lessons from the fabulous Pati Jinich, I also love to make my own corn tortillas (from instant masa, but still). And when I went to El Centro, I thought they needed lessons from Pati, too, because the tortillas — the base of any good taco — were terrible: stale, cold and cracking.

Bonnie S. Benwick’s pick

[Insert Name Here] Roast Chicken


Thai Roast Chicken: bird with a kick. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
Ho-hum, big deal. She tested hundreds of recipes this year and comes up with this?

This summer I had probably the best restaurant meal I’ve had in a decade, at Town House in Chilhowie, Va., but I’ll leave the reviewing to experts. I did not have roast chicken there, but I can only imagine what the chef might do with it.

Making good food makes people happy, and my clan (including Vince, the world’s best cat) goes into a swoon when the house is filled with the oven aromas of a fresh bird on a Sunday afternoon. Never fails. Roast chicken offers as many riffing possibilities as the chocolate chip cookie, but for me, a lemon or two’s almost always involved. For a while I was stuck on Gastronomer Roast Chicken and Potatoes, but the recipe calls for a small bird and I prefer one slightly larger so we can get a second meal out of it. (Vince agrees.) The Thai Roast Chicken I found last May has become a favorite.

But honestly, no recipe’s required; perhaps that’s the edge I appreciate on a day of rest. I dry the bird with paper towels; season it inside and out with kosher salt and cracked black pepper; insert lemon halves and maybe fresh herbs into the cavity; slather the outside of the chicken with a great olive oil and season it again on the outside; stick it on a rack in a smallish roasting pan; start it on high heat, then reduce the temp till the meat thermometer — and the yowlings of a hungry predator — tell me all is well.

Tim Carman’s picks

Best

* Miso Ramen at Ren’s Ramen

When Ren’s announced last year that it was closing its original location in Bethesda, I thought I might suffer withdrawal symptoms without my regular fix of the noodle shop’s porktastic miso ramen. When Yoko and Eiji Nakamura reopened in Wheaton earlier this year, I felt something akin to reliving my youth. Every slurp of the piping-hot noodles, the strands lightly coated in rich broth, was a deep sensual pleasure in a cold electronic world.


Rockfish with colcannon at Virtue Feed & Grain: a simple dish, perfectly executed. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
* Rockfish with colcannon at Virtue Feed & Grain

I’d be lying if I said I was excited to order this dish at Cathal Armstrong’s casual new pub in Old Town, but at that time, nothing else spoke to me on the Irish-American menu. The beauty of the dish was not only its straight-forward combination of flavors — starchy Irish colcannon with mildly sweet mid-Atlantic rockfish draped in a white-wine beurre blanc — but also its pinpoint execution. The fish’s skin was crisp, its flesh silken and moist, providing contrasts in both texture and flavor to the accompanying mashed-potato-and-greens base.


The South is not the only region that knows how to cook black eyed peas. Check out this curry dish at Passage to India. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
* Kumbalanga payar olan (black eyed peas with white and red pumpkin) at Passage to India

The humble black eyed pea, for reasons not clear to me, has practically been relegated to a kitsch role in Southern cooking, trotted out mostly for the annual good-luck ceremony around New Year’s. The bean has a rich history, however, one that stretches back to West Africa and India. Sudhir Seth’s treatment is both provocative and elegant, blanketing the peas in a coconut-milk curry spiked with cumin and chunks of red and white pumpkin.


Chen plans to roll out an expanded menu soon after the New Year; it'll will include this delicious porcine take on kung pao chicken. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
* Ma la porkchops at Great Wall Szechuan House

Chef Yuan Chen’s dish is based on kung-pao chicken, in which he replaces the bird with bone-in pork chops and dumps the peanut garnish altogether. The sauce is nothing like the sweet gloppy stuff found at corner Yum’s everywhere, but a complex combination of flavors, most notably the cool, numbing pleasures of Szechuan peppercorns.

Worst

* Godfather’s Pizza in New Market, Va.

You can’t go home again, and with this pie, you shouldn’t even try.

Becky Krystal’s picks

Best


Chocolate-Dipped Peppermint Marshmallows: Ethereal treats you can make in your own kitchen. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
* Chocolate-Dipped Peppermint Marshmallows, homemade

Ever since we ran this recipe from Nancy Baggett last year, I have become obsessed with making my own marshmallows. The texture is silky, ethereal. People are frequently surprised when they find out the confection can be easily churned out in an ordinary kitchen: Boil, whip, pour. That’s about it.

* Chicago-Style Deep-Dish Pizza, homemade

I don’t get to Chicago all that often, but even if I did, I’m not sure I’d find a better deep-dish than this one from America’s Test Kitchen. Really. It’s that good. Lightweight this dish is not: My husband and I can get three meals out of the two pies the recipe makes. I also like to serve it for guests, who don’t seem to mind the decided un-fanciness of a dinner party centered around a slab of pizza. Both the dough and sauce are content to sit overnight in the fridge if you’d like to get as much done as possible before company arrives.

* Drunken noodles at Bangkok 54

There’s nothing particularly fancy about this dish. Still, I cannot get enough of Bangkok 54’s take on the Thai staple. Wide, slippery rice noodles combine with a spicy sauce and some mixed vegetables that have just enough char to add an extra pop to the flavor. It’s either very good or very bad that I live within minutes of the restaurant.

Worst

* “BLT” mac & cheese at Evening Star Cafe

While researching my mac and cheese roundup for The Post’s magazine, I came across this offering in my quest for something different. The combination of spinach gnocchi, tomato concasse, bacon, caramelized onions and cream held some initial appeal on paper. But it was a mess. Downright gross, to be honest. Now the restaurant has a new look and a new chef. My fingers are crossed.

By  |  05:45 PM ET, 12/22/2011

Categories:  Chefs, Recipes, Staff Favorites | Tags:  Tim Carman

 
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