Best Bites

The Cuisines Staff Noshes Through 2000

Boggy Creek Farm Tomato Tonic
Boggy Creek Farm Tomato Tonic (Photo By John Anderson)

The 10 Best Things I Tasted All Year Long

1. The feast prepared by friends for my 50th birthday party in July at Spicewood Vineyards: Far and away the best things I ate all year because each and every dish was prepared with love and great talent. Antipasti and appetizers, salads, fresh salsas, dips, fresh roasted corn, focaccia, guacamole, tortilla Española, Tres Leches cake, Tomato Tonic Bloody Marys, Live Oak brews, watermelon lemonade, Spicewood Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. How blessed I am to know such good and generous cooks and winemakers.

2. Boggy Creek Farm Tomato Tonic: Boggy Creek farmer Larry Butler used the drought downtime this summer to create many wonderful new value-added products from the best little organic farm in the city (Pasta Sauce, Jalapeños Especiales, Spicy Tomato Ketchup) but the Tomato Tonic is my favorite. Rich and flavorful with a hint of smoke-dried tomatoes and peppers, it's marvelous for quaffing, warm or cold, makes a great vegetable soup base, and is the best Bloody Mary mix on the planet.

3. Veal Chop at Siena Ristorante Toscana: Meltingly moist and almost fork-tender, the huge grain-fed veal chop is simply grilled to order in chef Harvey Harris' kitchen with nothing more than fresh herbs and a little olive oil. The best meat dish I tasted all year.

4. Italian Breads in Providence, Rhode Island: Everywhere I ate in Providence while attending the annual IACP conference served incredible Italian bread, focaccia, even pizza crust and made-to-go pizza dough. I wanted to bring it all home by the suitcase-full.

5. Seared Scallops on a Bed of Cannellini Beans at La Traviata: My Independence Day weekend visit here proved to be the first of many where chef Marion Gillchrist's elegantly simple Italian food just knocked me out. The perfectly seared scallops were served on a bed of deliciously soupy beans flavored with garden-fresh herbs and wilted baby spinach dusted with chopped hazelnuts. Her Spaghetti Aglio Olio is yet another study in the power of simple, straightforward Italian food. Dynamite.

6. Cream of Crab Soup From the Tidewater Inn & Conference Center: No one was more surprised that I was to find an unsolicited upscale mail-order product on this list but the stellar lineup of fresh crab soups and entrées from this hotel on Maryland's Eastern Shore is really remarkable. The soup is rich liquid velvet studded with plenty of fresh, sweet crabmeat. This proves the maxim that it pays to go directly to the source for the best in regional food items.

7. Meatballs From Rao's: No, I didn't get to eat at the famed Rao's Italian restaurant in New York's East Harlem but I had the next best thing. Rao's third-generation proprietor, Sopranos' cast member Frank Pellegrino, taught a sold-out class at Central Market this fall and the enormous, moist meatballs in a simple homemade marinara were the best I've ever eaten. You can re-create them from the recipe in Rao's Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking. I certainly have.

8. Hazelnut Praline Gelato at ASTI Trattoria & Wine Bar: I've been a big fan of pastry chef Lisa Fox's skilled hand with frozen confections throughout her career in Austin. Three scoops of this divine concoction proved to me that she hasn't lost her touch.

9. Gnocci With Scallops in Lobster Buerre Blanc at Vespaio: Chef/owner Alan Lazarus chided me about ignoring my favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant in favor of all the newer places that opened this year and then blew me away two weeks ago with this show stopper: light, pillowy gnocchi napped in a rich seafood butter sauce with delicate scallops and huge, sweet chunks of lobster meat. I'll remember to eat in the neighborhood more often.

10. The Cuisines Staff Holiday Feast: What can I say? I'm incredibly lucky to have such a talented food staff, so I'll take another opportunity to tout them. We published the recipes and the photos in the December 22 issue and it was all every bit as good as it looked. I highly recommend that you add any of those dishes to your personal repertoire. I plan to.

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