My Favorite American Restaurants of 2013

Please keep in mind that I have been to select cities throughout the US this year so this list is far from comprehensive.  I have, however, been to enough to warrant a list paying homage to restaurants  which stood out during my travels.

10. Voulas Offshore Cafe– Seattle

This cute, old school diner is not far from the University of Washington’s beautiful campus.  The staff are friendly and courteous. Watching them set up the coffee station for the line of people who couldn’t get there early enough to beat the lines is endearing.  It has a great feel with an amazing biscuits and gravy you wouldn’t expect on the West Coast. The greek omelette was a reflection of good old fashioned family values.

9. Bop ‘n Grill– Chicago

Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this joint has burgers and bop plates (essentially rice plates topped with a number of choices). I went with asian flare and tried the umami and kimchi burgers although other unique combinations are available. The deep flavours lovingly punch you in the mouth while filling it with bite after bite of moist, meaty goodness. This ain’t McDonald’s.

8.  Tamale Place– Indianapolis

You wouldn’t expect Indianapolis to be a hotspot for Mexican food but the aptly named Tamale place is amazing.  The passion and care in the preparation of each one is clear with every bite.  If you can, try one of the dessert tamales. The nachos and salsa are brilliant too.  It’s clean but not fancy but with those tamales, it doesn’t need to be.

7. Pastabilities- Syracuse

A pasta lunch set up like a cafeteria in downtown Syracuse doesn’t sound like a top 10 candidate…until you eat there.  The place is always packed for a reason.  First, the food is amazing.  Whether it is the pasta bowl doused in their famous hot tomato oil, the moist and flavourful meatball sub, the freshly made side salads or the delicate but delicious pizza, this place would appeal to anybody from age 1 to 100. Second, the prices are terrific.   It’s open for a more formal sit down dinner at night which I imagine is just as good.

6. Roast– Detroit

Michael Symon offers a fine dining experience in downtown Detroit, especially for the carnivorous at heart. One highlight is the wood fired grill which, despite the volatility and unpredictability of the open flame, produced a fantastic medium rare new york strip. There’s something about slurping bone marrow and eating sweetbreads while watching a pig spin around on a spit that just works for me.  Oh, they have naughty deep fried brussel sprouts too.

5. Union Woodshop– Clarkston (Detroit)

Union woodshop in Clarkston (just north of Detroit) was featured on triple D in the Kid Rock episode. Although somewhat reluctant to take advice from somebody who wears fur coats yet married PETA-happy Pam Anderson, I was excited to try it. My best advice is to act like your parents and show up for dinner when this place opens at 4 pm.  There are two reasons for this.  First, you may have a chance at the sauce laden burnt ends (brisket) which are delicious but when they’re gone, they are gone.  Second, good luck getting a seat after 430 without having to wait an hour. Sorry, no reservations.  It has everything you would expect in a smokehouse and more.  It produced some of the best pulled pork I’ve had in while.  Otherwise, everything from the sauces (try the Chinese Char Siu) to the butterscotch pudding are delicious.  They also have a gluten free menu, pizza and even a steak if you want it. The price is right too.

4. Clarkston Union– Clarkston (Detroit)

Kid Rock also brought Guy down the Road to the Clarkston Union.  Built in an old church, it comes complete with church pews, a bingo board and yes, huge lines.  It sports one of the best craft beer menus in Detroit, offering regional and national brews in taster sizes if you want a variety. It has a gastropub menu with its famous mac and cheese (with or without lobster), sandwiches, burgers with  pot pie and meatloaf specials.  Even the plowshare platter, a delicious array of meat, cheese and veggies is abundant and delicious. This church offers the holy trinity of a great dining experience: Great service, great food and great atmosphere.

3. Lucky’s Cafe– Cleveland

I do not go to Cleveland without going to Lucky’s.  In fact, I think once I went to Cleveland to go to Lucky’s.  Also featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Michael Symon showed up to promote this local gem. It’s all about fresh.  The front is filled with fresh baked goods and the staff is busy picking ingredients out of the garden you see through the window during the summer months. The “biscuits” is one of the best breakfasts I have ever eaten.  From the fluffy cheddar biscuits and eggs to the sensual sausage gravy, it is complete nirvana.  In fact, I awake craving it at times.  In addition, there are great beverages and lovely lunch items like a delicious curried chicken sandwich and a made from scratch Reuben that’s to die for.

2. Topolobampo– Chicago

Rick Bayless is considered one of the best Mexican chefs in North America.  Now I know why.  Once you navigate through the loud and hectic sister restaurant Frontera, doors open and you enter the serenity of Topolobampo.  From the minute you are seated you are treated like royalty.  Hands down the best service I had all year.  The waitstaff part like the red sea when you walk through the front of the kitchen to get to the washroom. The sommelier was informative and not pushy.  Our waiter knew everything about every dish. The menu changes frequently but you can always count on a delicious selection of nouveau Mexican dishes with bold, explosive flavours. Even better is everybody at the table can order what they want without the need to have a complete consensus in order to opt for one of the many tasting menus ranging from vegetarian to one dedicated to mole, Mexico’s most prized dish. Topolobampo is proof that not all eateries run by celebrity chefs are overrated…some are just “increible”!

1. Girl and the Goat– Chicago

Stephanie Izard in many ways has redefined what a great chef is.  Her infectious smile, lovely attitude and commitment to working vigorously within the walls of her two West Randolph restaurants have been rewarded with numerous accolades including a James Beard award.  The menu is a mosaic of tastes and textures which tickles every sense.  Whether it’s the escargot ravioli,  the pig face which gets smothered in egg yolk or the goat belly confit, the attention to detail from both a visual and taste perspective were amazing.  Translating passion to a plate is an art and Izard is Picasso.  I’d tour this gallery anytime.

Chicago:Day 4:Part 2:After a few pints, riding the Goat to the Pinnacle of Food Supremacy

DISCLAIMER: No cows were harmed in the writing of this blog.  The same can’t be said for snails, goats, ducks, pigs, scallops, crabs, lobsters and rubber monkeys however.

There’s culinary comradery in Chicago.  On day one,  I hit Grahamwich and then hopped the transit up to Metropolis to experience the coffee Graham Elliot serves in his establishment.  The same thing exists along West Randolph St.  In addition to a few award winning restaurants, there are a number of pubs, cafes and diners lining the street…and many of them stick together. I read an article with Stephanie Izard’s favorite joints which included the Haymarket pub.  In addition to their own brews and restaurant, they have worked with the Girl and the Goat to  create a few unique pours using rhubarb and other local staples.  I figured in was a good idea to stop in for a pint..or two…or three….before settling in for dinner at the Goat  a couple of hours later.

It’s a good size brewpub with a good size selection and an affinity for sock monkeys. They not only serve their own pints but have a number of guest drafts from a number of small breweries across the USA.  The selection changes often but there will be something for every palate. Better yet, they have 4 ounce tasters available for all beer for as little as $1.50 each. Finally, the staff were EXTREMELY friendly and knowledgeable.  Our barkeep was clear and recommended the right beer for the right person:

From Haymarket’s own creations, we tried the following:

Oscar’s Pardon Dry-Hopped Belgian Pale Ale
Speakerswagon Pilsner- Heavy Pilsner
Buckledown Brewing Fiddlesticks Belgian I.P.A.
Haymarket Ombibulous Double IPA
Mash Made In Heaven
Rubber Monkey
Mathias Imperial IPA

The range was from light and citrusy wheat (Rubber Monkey) to the hardcore Mathias IPA and everything in between.  I was partial to the Buckledown, an IPA with a tasty twist.  It tasted like a spicy wheat beer on steroids.  The Oscar’s was a safe choice for those with less hoppy ambition.

After running the local taps, I asked for bartender for some suggestions from the guest taps. He seemed to light up with a slightly devious smile when I just said “Bring me three of your favorites”.

He answered with the following trio:

Revolution Crystal Hero IPA
Allagash Curieux
Lakefront 25th Anniversary Series #01 – Imperial Stout

The selections were brilliant.  Each was a lesson in aggressive yet satisfying beer variety.  The Crystal IPA had juicy fruit flavours to counter the traditional hoppiness.  The Allagash was a high alcohol beer which bathed in barrels of JIm Beam bourbon for a couple of months.  Finally, the Lakefront Imperial Stout  from Milwaukee was the highlight of the night, It had double digit ABV, a strong stout flavour which was laced with vanilla flavour.

My Take

Whether used as a holding tank while waiting for the Girl and the Goat (hell…why not visit a monkey before you go see a goat) or a stand alone place for a casual dinner , I wouldn’t hesitate to come back if in Chicago again. Although I didn’t try the food, those around me seemed to enjoy it. The menu is filled with pub favorites such as burgers, sandwiches and pizza.  A word of advice..trust the barkeep.  Open your mind to new flavours and take advantage of the 4 oz samples to test new horizons.  Just don’t drive…even 4oz beer catch up to you quickly, especially when some of them approach 10% ABV.  Just a word of advice,,,if the monkeys start talking you should probably stop.

Haymarket Pub & Brewery on Urbanspoon

After the purple pig earlier in the day, I had already experienced an array of carnivorous treats yet I had a long awaited reservation at the Girl and the Goat which I made 4 months prior.  Even since Stephanie Izard’s infectious smile hit Top Chef a few years back, she has received accolades for her Chicago restaurants, most recently winning the James Beard award for best chef in the great lake region.  Having dined at the Little Goat Diner across the street a few days before, I was looking forward to utter (or maybe udder?)  gluttony in this trendy small plate eatery. I checked in an hour before to make sure the time shift on my Microsoft outlook didn’t mess up my timing.  They assured me that my reservation for eight was intact, although they need to know immediately if even one person cancelled so they could make the necessary rearrangements. Hard core!

Luckily all eight showed and we were seated at  a large table with a great view of the kitchen (at least those of us facing the kitchen). Even though it was Sunday, it had the vibe of a Friday night (Stephanie normally takes Sunday off so if you stalk celebrity chefs you may want to consider another night).  The air was filled with a mix of music and the drone of the many voices that populated the other tables.  The menus were handed out and we were given the airline small plate speech, informing us that the V meant vegetable, the F meant fish and the M meant meat and that 2 to three dishes per person would suffice. There was a decent array of beer (eg. three floyds) and a few mainstream wines. We were talked into a eccentric white which I cannot remember the exact name of but according to the receipt it was a smoky Arbois (I think was a Chardonnay mixed with another grape). It was a bit reminiscent of a Gruner.   Given it’s unique taste, it caused  some controversy at the table but I thought it had enough complexity and range to pair well the spectrum of dishes I ate during the evening.  Speaking of food, choosing an array of  plates among 8 people when there are over 25 dishes available is a daunting task, so we agreed on one each and doubling it to ensure enough for the entire table.

There are countless reviews of countless dishes, so I’m doing to try my best to rank the dishes from best to worst. That being said, the whole experience was among the best I’ve had this year.

1. Escargot Ravioli– Yes, the lowly snail vaults to the top of the protein pyramid with this stellar dish infusing tender pasta fused with delicate Asain flavours.

Escargot Ravioli $15
Escargot Ravioli $15

2. Goat Belly Confit with Lobster and Crab– This dish moved me from goat reluctance  to goat indulgence in one bite.  Nothing about mixing goat belly and seafood makes sense until you eat it. I could lick the plate,

Goat Belly with Lobster and Crab
Goat Belly Confit with Lobster and Crab ($19)

3.  Duck tonguesDo chickens have lips?  Who cares because ducks have tongues and they are delicious…snacky and potato chip addictive. Betcha can’t eat just one.

Duck Tongues $16
Duck Tongues $16

4. Wood oven roasted pig faceSounds odd, tastes delicious.  Like bacon and eggs for cool people…or people who think they’re cool.

Wood Roasted Pig Face $16
Wood Roasted Pig Face $16

5. Crispy Baked Ham ShankYou could have served this with mustard, relish and ketchup and it still would have been mind blowing.  That said, the naan,kimchi and sauces elevated this from Sunday roast to trendy feast. Ripping it apart makes you feel like a T-Rex for just a bit.

Baked Crispy Pork Shank $25
Baked Crispy Pork Shank $25

6. Ham Fries- Shoestring fries sprinkled with  smoky and salty intensity.  Could double as porcine crack.

Ham Fries $7
Ham Fries $7

7.  Strawberry Parfait– Just a beautiful and well orchestrated dish.  All flavours and textures combined to produce a symphony of mandible magnificence.

Strawberry Parfait $8
Strawberry Parfait $8

8.  Green Beans– A lesson in what I try to do at home when I make Asian inspired green beans. Simply prepared with fish sauce and cashews.

Sauteed Green Beans $9
Sauteed Green Beans $9

9.  Diver Scallops– Perfectly cooked. I enjoyed them but I wasn’t “shell-shocked” over the flavours.

Diver Scallops $17
Diver Scallops $17

10. Beet Salad– Much better than most of the normal offerings which simply throw a few beets on a plate, add some goat cheese and call it a salad.

Beet Salad
Beet Salad $9

11. Goat Cheese Bavarois– Table majority ruled on this one. Since I’m not a goat cheese fan, I’ll give this dish credit for tasting pretty good.

Goat Cheese Bavarois $8
Goat Cheese Bavarois $8

12. Goat Empanadas– I relished the belly but not the empanandas. That said, I’m not an empananda fan for the most part. Plus, I think 16 bucks for a snack food is a little steep.

Goat Empanadas $16
Goat Empanadas $16

My Take

In the last few years, the goat has gone from a can chewing vagrant to a star, due to both a hilarious cameo on the parody of Taylor Swift’s  “Trouble” and due to the focus as a protein mainstay on the menus of  James Beard award winning chef Stephanie Izard.  It’s a bit ironic you can stare at that cute goat rotating atop the Little Goat diner across the street and devour almost every part of one  at the same time.  Although It sounds a bit morbid, there’s solace in the fact that Stephanie respects the animal (and quite frankly every ingredient she touches).

The environment is hip and loud, the service is professional and smart and the menu is diverse and would make Animal Farm’s Napoleon drop to his knees. I’d recommend a reservation well in advance and try and bring a bigger group to experience as much of the menu as possible.  Listen to the waitstaff and take a chance, especially on the goat dishes and any odd wines recommended by the knowledgeable staff (if anything it will be a discussion point). So will duck tongues….

Girl & the Goat on Urbanspoon

Chicago:Day 2: A little goat, a billy goat, two Michelin stars and manlove

The early morning humidity didn’t stop me from taking a 30  minute walk to West Randolph, an interesting stretch known for an array of restaurants of all shapes and sizes.  After the first wave of high end places (including a few touting Michelin stars),  you hit a block of empty, spray-painted  buildings, cut in half by a highway running underneath.  Shorty after, the street becomes vibrant again, filled with microbreweries and eateries slapped with celebrity names like Graham Elliot.

The apex of this West Randolph landscape  is a cute spinning  goat overlooking the street.  This was destination number one.

Stop #1- The Little Goat Diner

This Stephanie Izard spin-off offers a bit more versatility than the flagship Girl and the Goat.  You can grab a quick breakfast, feast on a hearty dinner and everything in between.  You can buy of loaf of bread or drink on the roof. This particular visit was of the breakfast variety.   It was about half full and we were seated quickly at a booth.  The place had a definite diner vibe.  I felt like John Travolta in Pulp fiction.  The waiters and waitresses were current and hip and bad-ass  despite donning trendy yet old school diner uniforms. There’s something about raven tattoos and dainty dresses that works for me. Coffee flowed, served with smiles and poured from  old school pots into mugs stamped with that cute, smiling goat.

A Good Ol' Fashioned Coffee
A Good Ol’ Fashioned Coffee

The menu is equally dichotomous. One can simply grab bacon and eggs or venture into the creative realm of a number of more exotic options.  I didn’t come to Chicago to eat standard fare, so I did what any warm-blooded Irish dude would do; I ordered spaghetti.  Presented like a cross between a seafood pasta and an omelette, it was boldly flavoured and sat in a delicious broth.  I asked for some hot sauce and was offered a housemade smoky chipotle and an apricot flavoured option which had a little more bite.  Both were delicious although I feel the former more suited for the dish. It’s not for everybody, but I’d shelve the home fries any day to dig into this seafood medley.

Breakfast spaghetti 'n clams 'n crab
Breakfast spaghetti ‘n clams ‘n crab $15

My colleague went for the bull’ s eye  french toast, a crafty demonstration of Korea meets chicken and waffles meets toad in the hole.  The sweet dueled with the savory in every bite to create a stimulating battlefield on the tongue. Underneath the chicken, two slightly overcooked eggs stared up from the comfort of the thick brioche.  In the end, the savory prevailed, so don’t order it if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Otherwise, It’s delicious.

Bull's eye french toast
Bull’s eye french toast $16

My Take: With so many choices, I’ll have to come back whether it be breakfast, lunch, dinner or sucking back drinks on the rooftop.  It’s full of innovation and choices that only makes sense when you read them on a menu.  Plus, I enjoy feeling like a Chicago gangster as I sip coffee in an old school diner surrounded by tattooed staff and riffraff such as myself. Don’t expect diner prices, however. It’s not a cheap, unless you come for the experience and settle for one of the daily breakfast specials.

Little Goat Diner on Urbanspoon

Stop #2– Naha

A lunch appointment kept me downtown for a trip to Naha, a Michelin star restaurant with a bit of a middle eastern flare.  It’s  spacious and modest, reminiscent of a Moroccan villa. The waitstaff were courteous, although many were wearing these oddly large uniforms that just didn’t seem to fit. A full lunch menu is offered in what seemed to be Chicago fashion: a prix fixe menu for $22.      After consuming the Little Goat breakfast earlier that day, I was sort of hoping for Blackbird type portions sizes to save the embarrassment of the ramifications of overindulgence. When asked if I wanted a beverage, I  found that the beer selection was quite lame…..a bit of a cardinal sin in the heart of the craft brew craze which consumes the Midwest.

I started with the cannelloni which was stuffed with housemade ricotta and garnished with snap peas, jerusalem artichokes and a bit of fregola (small pasta balls).  Nothing like some pasta on pasta action.  It was a very delicate, had great texture contrast and fresh flavour….an ideal lunchtime starter.

Spinach Cannelloni
Spinach Cannelloni

For the main, I opted for the sea loup de mer (sea bass) which wasn’t much bigger than the starter. It appeared to be a twist on a bagna cauda(  a dip with strong Mediterranean flavours) which served as a salad dressing on romaine lettuce instead of being served in the typical vessel.    The fish was a bit dry and the flavours reminded me of  a well-disguised ceasar salad.  It was a little bit of a yawn.

Loup de Mer
Loup de Mer

My colleague opted for a mezze (ie sampler) of Mediterranean goodies which included hummus, babaganoush, string cheese, spiced beef etc.  It offered a true experience minus the salt water smell one might experience if eating the same thing in the homeland itself (I don’t think the smell off of Lake Michigan could mimic…even if the windows were open).

Naha Mezze
Naha Mezze

The dessert menu  incorporated concepts from this side of the ocean, ignoring the expected tiramisu and baklava and replacing with American classics such as ice cream, malt and caramel corn.   I went with the sundae, served with with porter ice cream topped with a crackling chocolate topping and a bit of European infusion with the use of  toasted hazelnuts and a couple of triangles of  nutella panini.    The other choice at the table was a chocolate pave with the aforementioned sprinkles of Americana and a gold leaf as a tribute to capitalism.  Both were a fitting end to a meal. There were no surprises…just well constructed and executed desserts which would be deemed delicious by anybody on the either side of the ocean.

Sundae
Sundae
Chocolate Pave
Chocolate Pave

My Take: Naha offers a well-executed lunch by fusing strong Mediterranean flavours and techniques with beloved elements of Americana.  For the most part, the execution was  on the mark and the portion sizes were acceptable, at least for lunch.  The North American inspired desserts were the star, an irony for a place whose concepts are rooted in elements of the Middle East.  The meal was well paced, the service was decent and the decor was spacious and fresh.

NAHA on Urbanspoon

Stop #3– Billy Goat Tavern

Between the Billy Goat curse and the famed SNL appearance, it’s a foregone conclusion that one has to  drop  by this tavern during a trip to Chicago (especially on the heels of a visit to Wrigley). I won’t go into the details of the curse (you can look it up on the website, wikipedia etc.) but it involves a goat and a bunch of  men….enough said.

Basically, it’s a place with the burgers, coke, beer and a spattering of other snack foods. The walls are plastered with faded newspaper articles and signed pictures and accolades from generations past. The grey-haired bartender looks like he’s won a trivia contest or two in his time and courteous staff pan the floors looking for empty steins to refill.

I ordered a burger for three bucks and change and a beer for about the same.  The thin, pre-made  patty  is served on an oversized bun.  The condiment station has the standard toppings,  although I found the onions two ways rather intriguing. You could choose finally diced  or thick (and I mean thick) rings.  I loaded up with a pile of pickles as well. It was exactly was I expected and exactly what I wanted; a burger which brought me back to the days when it didn’t cost twenty bucks and wasn’t served with pineapple, mango, fried egg, short rib, pulled pork,  bone marrow, avocado or housemade BBQ sauce. It’s just a  freaking $3 burger.

Billy Goat Tavern burger and Beer
Billy Goat Tavern burger and Beer

Neither the burger nor the beer will win any culinary awards, but I consider the $6 cost  the price of admission for a small bite of Chicago history.

Billy Goat Tavern on Urbanspoon

Stop #4- Topolobampo

I’ve been eying Rick Bayless’ Michelin star Topolobampo even since I ate tortilla soup at his place in the airport a couple of years ago.  Plus, I’ve been mesmerized by his soothing voice while  watching “Mexico: One plate at a time” and even attempted one of his moles as well as a short rib recipe, both with good success and a lot of sweat.  I routed for him on Top Chef Masters and follow him on twitter.  Ya..maybe it’s manlove but I was longing to experience Mexican in an environment other than the numerous taquerias which have appeared throughout Toronto.

Showing up was like entering a busy Mexican market…buzzing people all over place and busy servers navigating nachos and guacamole through the streaming crowds. I was very loud and I wondering how I would hear myself think I was went to the desk to check in. I was greeted by two gentlemen who barely looked twenty; dressed in bright colours, trendy ties and the look of either a beachfront Tommy model or a member of One Direction.  They confirmed the reservation I had 4 months before and we were notified of the token short wait as they got the table ready.  With the announcement, I was prepared to deal with the abundant noise that was in store for the evening.  Instead, a magic door open and we were whisked into a room with half the decibels of the waiting area.  We were seated, the door was shut and it felt as if we were transformed in to a secret VIP space. Water was immediately served in large, heavy blue glasses and the night began, but that’s another story…..