A Taste for Every Bud

The year in food, 2003

Lemon Semifreddo with Mint Syrup at Asti
Lemon Semifreddo with Mint Syrup at Asti (Photo By John Anderson)

Virginia B. Wood's Best Sweet Bites

1) Lemon Semifreddo with Mint Syrup at Asti: For a devout lemon lover like myself, this was a divine little mound of heaven. So good I demanded a bigger spoon.

2) Gelatos and Sorbettos at Babbo's: Gelato man Matt Lee is justifiably proud of his voluptuous frozen treats. I've yet to sample one that isn't heavenly. Great coffee drinks, too.

3) Peach Fried Pies at the Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival Kickoff Party: Deep fried puff pastry filled with Texas peaches: What's not to love? We hope that Katherine Clapner will continue to make them now that she's moved to the Hilton.

4) Fresh Cherry Pie With Homemade Ice Cream at the Roaring Fork: Filling in the little individual fruit pies changes with the season, and I can't wait for cherry season to come again.

5) Water Oak Farm's Goat's-Milk Ice Creams: Some of the best ice cream on the planet. Regardless of the fact that it's hormone- and antibiotic-free, it's just plain marvelous.

6) Blackberry Cobbler at Cooper's in Llano: Simple and straightforward, the perfect ending to a big, meaty feast.

7) Blackberry Pie With Homemade Ice Cream at R.O.'s Outpost: Kathy Osban makes a helluva good pie!

8) Tortuga Rum Cakes: The sample pack of four flavors kept me in rum-cake heaven for a week.

9) Cajeta Rum Raisin Ice Cream at Wes and Emily Marshall's Dinner Party: Cream, cajeta, pine nuts, cinnamon, and rum-soaked raisins -- need I say more?

10) Travis Peak Muscato d'Arancia: A delicate and delightful dessert wine served at the same dinner party. An elegant ending to a totally sumptuous meal.

V.B.W.'s Best Savory Bites

1) Potluck Dishes at My July Birthday Party: The absolute best food in town, on any given evening. It pays to know so many talented cooks.

2) Beef Jerky and the Bigass Cheeseburger at the Roaring Fork: The distinctive jerky is like a spicy beef potato chip without the carbs, and that burger makes a mighty meal for $6 at happy hour.

3) Homemade Green Goddess Dressing, Hot Biscuits, and Pam's Funeral Eggs at Ranch 616: Katherine Clapner's excellent menu additions were pure retro heaven.

4) Buffalo Tenderloin From Hudson's on the Bend at the Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival Wild Game Party: Dishes from the visiting celebrity chefs couldn't hold a candle to the luscious, tender buffalo served by our own Jeff Blank.

5) Chipotle Scalloped Potatoes on the Fiesta Sunday Brunch Buffet at Fonda San Miguel: This new side dish is a keeper, with rich Manchego cheese and an earthy hint of smoky chipotles.

6) Giant Smoked Pork Chop From Cooper's in Llano: I'd forgotten just how good the mesquite-smoked specialties at Cooper's can be until we took the Epicurious crew up there this summer.

7) Eggplant Gratin at Kimmie Rhodes and Joe Gracey's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Dinner: Rustic, earthy casserole made with thin eggplant slices fried in olive oil, layered with plenty of Gruyère cheese, and a rich, homemade marinara redolent of garlic.

8) Jalapeño Black-Eyed Peas at R.O.'s Outpost: Just the right kick of spice. I hope I can copy them for New Year's Eve.

9) Fried Green Tomatoes in Panko Breadcrumbs From Lambert's at Eat, Drink, Watch Movies: I thought the baked chicken was my all-time Lambert's favorite until I tasted these beauties.

10) Dinner at the Mansion at Judges' Hill: From the duck ham appetizer to the duo of Fois Gras to the smoked red onion marmalade to the perfectly cooked sweetbreads and steak, the most nuanced meal I had all year.

Chicken-Fried Steak at Hoover's
Chicken-Fried Steak at Hoover's (Photo By John Anderson)

Rachel Feit's Best Fried Objects

Let's face it, we all love fried food. The fact is that the chemical process that takes place when raw foods meet hot fat makes everything yummy. So why deny yourself? Here are my top 10 fried objects of 2003.

1) Chicken-Fried Steak at Hoover's: Simply the best fried object in town. Crispy, well-spiced, and smothered with mouthwatering gravy, Hoover's chicken-fried steak is the type of stuff that has put Southern cooking on the culinary map.

2) Fried Cauliflower or Potato Dosa at Madras Pavilion: Try them with the lunch buffet. The fried cauliflower florets are divine; the dosa an incredible, crispy yogurt crepe wrapped around spiced potatoes.

3) Salt and Pepper Seafood at T&S Seafood: Though a number of restaurants around town offer the same dish, none can match T&S. These spicy, salty little pieces of shrimp, squid, or scallops are crispy on the outside, tender on the inside.

4) Fried Pies From Katherine Clapner: I love fried pies, and pastry chef Clapner has managed to make hers extra rich with a flaky puff pastry dough. I tried them during the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival; you might be lucky enough to have them at the new Hilton.

5) Fried Chicken From Gene's: Few restaurants these days bother to make fried chicken on the bone. Gene still remembers how, with a secret spice mix that makes his chicken memorable.

6) Fried Calamari From Lambert's: My own personal comfort food, Lambert's does calamari the way I like it: lightly floured, then served with creamy, spicy aioli.

7) Fish Tacos From Cafe Josie: Tender, crispy redfish wrapped with tangy spicy salsa in a flour tortilla. Surprisingly light, but very satisfying.

8) Deep Fried Corn at R.0.'s: A half-cob is flavored with salt and pepper, then deep fried. The result brings out the sweetness of the corn without making it heavy.

9) Onion Rings at Hut's: Homemade. Need I say more?

10) Deep Fried Bacon at Joe's Bakery: You have to give 'em credit for effort. As if bacon were not fatty enough, Joe's Bakery has found a way to make it even more heart-stopping.

Madam Mam's
Madam Mam's (Photo By John Anderson)

Mick Vann's Best Guilty Pleasures

1) Madam Mam's: Start with the taste-explosive Tom Kha soup, attack some of the refreshingly tart and zippy Num Tok salad in the middle, and finish with the incendiary green peppercorn Pud Cha Catfish. Soothe those tickled taste buds with Thai tea and sticky rice and mango. Best Thai food in the U.S.

2) Aquarelle: Order Teresa's outstanding tasting menu for a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of sinfully rich and proper French flavors (with matching wines), presented most artistically, in a gorgeous old house, with properly restrained service ... sacre bleu!

3) Suzi's Chinese Grill: Begin the feast with sushi: Uzaku eel skewers, Hamachi and Fatty Tuna sashimi, topped off with a scrumptious Dynamite Roll, then crescendo into unctuous Minced Chicken With Eggplant and piquant-orangey Mimosa Beef ... waddle out contentedly.

4) Phoenicia: Order one of Malek's incredible roasted-chicken wraps dripping in delectable garlic sauce. While you are waiting, grab a can of anchovy-stuffed olives, a tub of the ethereally spicy marinated green olives, a tub of hummus, and a stack of pita (right out of the oven). Pig out in the parking lot.

5) Sunflower: Settle in with a Bahn Xeo pancake stuffed with pork and shrimp, go lighter (for a brief break) with shrimp on sugar cane, build it back up with pork balls in rice paper, and then pack it all down with Shaking Beef nestling on a bed of sweet onion. Superb Vietnamese.

6) Backstage Steakhouse: First, you gotta have some lubrication in the form of aged single malt scotch, then a bowl of whatever Raymond's amazing soup of the day might be, one of the poached pear salads, then a fork-tender, succulent ribeye grilled medium rare with mashers and fried onion strings. Go early enough and you can mosey down the road just a bit for a slab of Austin's best pie at R.O.'s.

7) T&S Seafood: You have to start off at T&S with a hot, steaming bowl of Seafood With Fish Maw Soup, and follow with some crusty Pan Fried Dumplings and steamed Shrimp and Cilantro Dumplings just to get ready for the final table treat: Salt and Pepper Prawns and Squid done any way the waiter suggests. Squid is most divine at T&S.

8) El Meson Taqueria: Plop down at the table with a Modelo and an assortment of Marisela's fiery salsas while you wait on the huitlacoche taco, the tacos al carbon, and the seductive centerpiece, chiles rellenos en nogada, to arrive. Mentally drift from Burleson Road to the heart of Mexico with every bite.

9) Din Ho Chinese BBQ: Enter past the meats at the front door and think perfect pork ribs for a starter. Slide next into a platter of dried scallops with snow-pea leaves, rich roast duck with leeks, and top it all off with a lamb brisket hot pot. Yee-haw, now that's barbecue!

10) Alborz Persian: Trick them by starting with a ground beef kabob sprinkled with sumac, wrapped up in that incredible flat bread. Order a mountain of that amazing rice pilaf with lentils and sour cherries, with intensely spiced chicken Fesenjan and braised lamb shank on either side of the rice mountain ... mmmmm.

Wes Marshall's Best Happenings for Wine Lovers

1) Hill Country Wine & Food Foundation Wine Events: Twice this year, the Hill Country Wine & Food Foundation (not to be confused with the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, a separate entity) put on huge tastings at the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin. For an absolutely bargain price of $50, you could taste dozens of wonderful and often very expensive wines, paired up with some of Austin's best restaurant fare. Call 327-7555 and ask for Rebecca to make sure you know about their next soiree.

2) Mirabelle Wine Dinners: About 15 times a year, this shrine to wine offers their best shot at matching up amazing wine with the best possible pairing of food. A joint venture between wine dude Michael Villim and his talented chef, David Apthorpe, these dinners never fail to spotlight new and interesting ways to pair wine and food. Somehow, on top of all the terrific wine and extravagant food, they still manage to keep their wine dinner prices below others in town. 346-7900.

3) Hill Country Wine & Food Festival: The big daddy of Central Texas wine. If you want to know about the hot trends and taste the best wines, this is the place. During the past few years, the festival has gone from simply being a great party to being an important and relevant event, now in conjunction with Saveur magazine. They have even shouldered a significant part of the responsibility of educating Texans about our own wine and food. For the coming year, more planning has gone in than ever. Mark your calendar and don't miss it. April 1-4, 2004; call 542-WINE.

4) Les Amis du Vin: The brainchild of two of Austin's smartest wine people, Sam Kindred and John Baggett, Les Amis du Vin is top-notch wine education masquerading as a huge party. Between courses, Sam offers a minimasters-level talk on the wines. Lest this sound too erudite, I should add you can only hear about two-thirds of what he says, because everyone is laughing so loud. They do their thing about 15 times per year, going around to various restaurants, developing themes for both the food and wine. Sam and John do this for fun, not money, so the dinners are always fairly priced. Call 925-3985.

5) Texas Hill Country Wine Trails: There is no better way to learn about wine than to meet the folks that make it. There are 22 wineries within a two-hour drive of Austin, and each has some wonderful wines just waiting to be discovered. Five times during 2004, they will be offering a plethora of new and distinctive wines during their Wine Trails. Not only do you get a fun drive through the gorgeous Texas Hill Country, but you will learn so much about Texas wines. Pay special attention to the wineries that will allow you to taste barrel samples, a great way to understand how wine develops over time. www.texaswinetrail.com.

6) Wine Tastings at Grape Vine Market and Austin Wine Merchant: I don't know why there aren't lines wrapping around the block when these two places do their premium wine tastings. I guess it's because not enough people know. Both offer numerous opportunities to taste wines that most of us will never be able to afford, and the tastings are always free! Do yourself a favor and make sure you are in the know about the tastings. Call and get on their e-mail lists. Grape Vine Market: 323-5900. Austin Wine Merchant: 499-0512.

7) Central Market Cooking School Wine Classes: Each year, the CM Cooking School at the original location offers more than 20 classes aimed at educating both the new and experienced wine lover. They use a number of different teachers and always offer both great wines and intelligent commentary. The prices are fair, and the amount of wine offered is generous without going overboard. Pay special attention to the classes with Seth Pollard teaching. He really knows his stuff. 458-3068.

8) Fredericksburg Food & Wine Fest: They had me right in the middle of the pedestrian traffic flow signing books at this year's festival, so I had a good opportunity to see the folks as they walked in and left. First surprise was the sheer number (in the thousands), but what really surprised me was how far people had come for the festival. Besides all the expected Texas urban escapees, there were many people speaking foreign languages! A great party with lots of wine and great food. www.fbgfoodandwinefest.com.

9) Bargain at the Roaring Fork Bar: People don't live by wine alone, and we all need a drink now and then. Where to go? Believe it or not, the Roaring Fork's bar at the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin sells drinks after 4:30pm for $3.50 each, and they offer some of the best bar food in Austin, where everything is priced at $6. Want one of the biggest (12 ounces) and best burgers you'll ever taste? Eat it at the bar and it's $6. Match it up with your favorite hard drink, and it's under $10 (before tax and tip)! Good food and booze at great prices -- what a concept for a hotel! 583-0000.

10) Winning an Auction: I obviously can't recommend that you go out and spend several thousand dollars at a charity auction. But try to get to know someone who does! My old college mate and successful attorney Steve Tipton took home the Hill Country Wine & Food Foundation auction offered by Michael Villim for a meal paired with some of the most sublime Rhone wines from the producer Guigal. Besides the wonderful food, great wine, and assortment of old college buddies, Villim decided to keep costs down by doing the serving himself, offering lots of great insights into the wines (favorite line about a dessert wine: "We call this a half and half wine ... half you drink and the other half you pour on your lover"). This event was the best of the Mirabelle tastings for the year. We can only hope that they will re-create it for the general public.

Claudia Alarcón's Favorite Foods

1) Tuna and Watermelon Sashimi at Uchi: This taste sensation -- created by chunks of high-quality raw tuna skewered with cubes of summer-sweet watermelon, drizzled with salty Vietnamese fish sauce and sprinkled with golden tobiko in a perfect contrast of flavors and textures -- was one I won't soon forget.

2) Risotto at Vespaio: I have tried three different variations, all at the same degree of deliciousness. The risotto is consistently cooked al dente, perfectly creamy, and expertly flavored with exciting combinations of seasonal ingredients. Bravo!

3) Orange, Fennel, and Duck Confit Salad at Aquarelle: I love the fresh spring flavors that chef Terry Wilson combined to create this delicious and refreshing salad. Crisp textures, vibrant flavors, and an excellent vinaigrette make this one of my absolute favorite dishes of the year.

4) Malaysian Hot and Sour Ramen at Noodle-ism: This soup takes hot and sour to a new level. The Ramen-style noodles are enhanced by a rich shrimp broth, flavored with lemongrass, coconut milk, and Thai chiles. Not only delicious, but a perfect way to clear the sinuses and soothe the soul of allergy and flu sufferers.

5) Cheese Thins From High Cotton Bakery: Thanks to the folks in Brenham, I am addicted to these spicy, cheesy bites of goodness. They are the best thing to come out of a Mason jar in a long time. Try them with a glass of red or white wine of your choice. I dare you not to finish the whole jar in one sitting.

6) Spicy Beef Jerky at Roaring Fork: I am a fanatic for cured meats and jerky made of all kinds of beasts, so I naturally fell in love with the crisp, thin, super-spicy version of beef jerky offered as a snack at the Roaring Fork bar. Another Shiner Bock, please.

7) Apple Strudel at European Bistro: This delicious version of the classic German pastry is the best I've had in many years: incredibly thin layers of flaky pastry surrounding a generous portion of finely grated apples flavored with cinnamon and spice. Served warm, and with ice cream if you like, it is heavenly.

8) Coconut-Curry Herb Ice Cream From Out of a Flower: Dallas' Out of a Flower, a company specializing in unique flavors of ice creams with fresh herbs and flowers, makes this light sorbet, packed with complex, exotic flavors. Among their many incredible selections, this one stands out as my current favorite.

9) Muffaletta at Cypress Grill: A nice, crusty bread stuffed full of grilled ham, salami, melted Swiss cheese, and loaded with tangy olive salad. The muffaletta at Cypress Grill is the best I've had outside of its birthplace at Central Grocery in New Orleans.

10) Garlic Soup at Shoal Creek Saloon: During football season, I start every Sunday morning with a cup of hot, homemade garlic soup at Shoal Creek. It is comfort food at its best: simple but super tasty. And with a cold beer on the side, it's an excellent remedy for even the worst Sunday morning hangover. Thanks, Reynaldo. Go, Saints!

Sisters' Sesame-Garlic Sass sauce
Sisters' Sesame-Garlic Sass sauce (Photo By John Anderson)

Barbara Chisholm's Best Things to Put on Top

1) Sisters' Sesame-Garlic Sass sauce: It was born as a salad dressing, but users quickly learned pasta, potatoes, stir fry, dips, etc., etc., were improved by a douse of the addictive season-everything sauce made right here.

2) Fischer-Wieser Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce: We love it on top for its gorgeous, jewel-like color, and its even more gorgeous sweet, spicy, smoky flavor. Jalapeño jelly fell way back in the pack when this beauty came along.

3) The Wild Mushroom, Sherry, Sharp White Cheddar Cream Gravy, Topped With a Green Apple Puree and a Fig Slaw Atop the Sage-Crusted Pork Tenderloin at Mirabelle: Atop the pork it's heavenly, but we suspect a dollop would improve just about any meat.

4) Sabor Salsa Hot: It's just hot enough, it's just snapping fresh enough (get it in the fridge toots sweet in summer or it's a goner), it's just garlicky enough, it's just about perfect on your chip.

5) Poached Egg on Salade Lyonaisse, Chez Nous: Is the best part piercing the yolk or sampling the vinaigrette now made rich by the infusion of egg?

6) Salpicon at Lambert's: And you thought sloppy joes were good. This is the beef that tortillas have been longing for.

7) Plugra: There's butter, and then there's butter. And then there's Plugra, the king of fats. If it can transform a slice of pedestrian bread to ambrosia; imagine what it does for a croissant.

8) Tabasco: You'll appreciate this standard-bearer when you're facing a plate of mystery meat or a jar of generic pasta sauce as you wander far from home. We pack it with our toothpaste for just such emergencies.

9) Central Market Spicy Dipping Sauce: As one woman sampling the stuff at the Market observed, "You know what this is good on? Shoe leather." Amen.

10) Baleine Sel de Mer Fin: You know that slightly metallic, tangy taste your ordinary salt has? It's not a property of all salt. The smooth, pure flavor of this French sea salt elevates everything it tops elegantly.

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READ MORE
More by Virginia B. Wood
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