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Monday, December 29, 2014

The 10 Best Bites of Food I Ate in 2014

I've had the chance to travel fairly extensively around Louisiana and across the country this year, and along the way I've tasted some extraordinary dishes. I wanted to end the year with a bang by sharing the ten best bites of food to come across my taste buds this year. It proved to be no easy task, but each of these culinary creations struck a chord within me. Each picture brings back fond memories similar to those you'd feel when reconnecting with an old friend. These dishes trigger automatic salivation, instant warmth, and big smiles. While to some this may sound dramatic, those who've experienced such a dish will understand completely. In descending order, I give you my ten favorite dishes of 2014.

1) The Black Drum at Village Café in Lafayette

While filming at Village Café for Louisiana Culinary Trails, I had the pleasure of trying Chef Jeremy Conner's stuffed fish: Louisiana black drum stuffed with lump crab meat and pan seared served over squash and topped with a lemon crab butter sauce. I can taste this dish all over again each time I look at this picture. It was one of the most perfectly cooked pieces of Gulf seafood I've ever had, and that's even after waiting for the cameras to stop rolling before taking a bite. The velvety butter sauce had a citrus tang that complimented the sweetness of the crab and mild flavors of the Black Drum. This dish, which is always on the menu in some form, represents Gulf fish the the way it is meant to be eaten and most certainly is a must try.

The Black Drum at Village Café in Lafayette
The Black Drum at Village Café in Lafayette

2) The Oyster Stuffed Quail over Pumpkin Purée at Le Foret in New Orleans

I had the opportunity to dine at Le Foret in New Orleans a couple of times this year. Each trip provided exceptional bites. The plating and flavor profiles of Chef Brandon Felder's dishes are off the charts. Packed with Gulf oysters and set atop a beautiful artwork of pumpkin puree and other delicious sauces, this quail dish was so quintessentially Fall I could hear leaves crisping under my every step.

The Oyster Stuffed Quail over Pumpkin Purée at Le Foret in New Orleans
The Oyster Stuffed Quail over Pumpkin Purée at Le Foret in New Orleans

3) The Chicken Curry at Dang's Vietnamese Restaurant in Baton Rouge

Over the course of several weeks, my Chief Confusion Coordinator, Blair Loup, and I visited the Vietnamese restaurants of Baton Rouge for a pho round-up post. In doing so, we stumbled upon a surprising and incredibly delicious bowl of chicken curry at Dang's Vietnamese Restaurant. In addition to having the best pho in town, they also have this golden beauty. Curry isn't something you see often in Vietnamese cuisine and while it caught me off guard to find it on their specials menu in the first place, the bowl of chicken curry with layers of citrus and coconut flavors served with rice noodles is something I will order time and time again.

The Chicken Curry at Dang's Vietnamese Restaurant in Baton Rouge
The Chicken Curry at Dang's Vietnamese Restaurant in Baton Rouge

4) The Japanese Kobe Beef at Ember Wine Bar & Grille in Lake Charles

I've never had steak like this before, and that's saying something. A few other steaks were in the running for my favorite chunk of beef this year. The bone-in ribeye from Doe's Eat Place in Baton Rouge, the classic Florentine porterhouse from Carnevino in Las Vegas, and the New York Strip from 33 Steak in New Orleans all placed highly on my beef-o-meter, but this beauty from Ember at the L'Auberge in Lake Charles, Louisiana wins the blue ribbon. The beauty of being based out of a casino is to be able to play within your food service outlets, and Chef Mark Chapman knows exactly what kind of fun to have. He imports this authentic Japanese Kobe Beef and sells it for $30/ounce with a minimum order of four ounces. For you people who struggle with math, that means that the cheapest you can get a taste of this steak butter is $120, and that's still not quite the size of a respectable petite filet. But damn is it worth it! The marbling in the beef is unlike any I've seen in person. Seared to a glorious rare temperature, the shingled beef is as close as you could imagine to a breathtaking bite of beef bacon packed with umami.

Japanese Kobe Beef at Ember Wine Bar & Grille in Lake Charles
The Japanese Kobe Beef at Ember Wine Bar & Grille in Lake Charles

5) The Crispy Pig Ear Salad at Sojourn in New Orleans

Sojourn chef Jeff Williams invited me via Twitter to attend his first tasting menu pop-up dinner in New Orleans. The courses were some of the more inspired dishes upon which I have feasted. As I'm sure you know, I'm not much of a salad guy, but Chef Jeff's crispy pig ear salad is something I could eat on a daily basis. Crisp, local greens sprinkled with strips of crunchy and salty pig ear and sweet baby carrots were brightened with a peppery horseradish vinaigrette and balanced brilliantly with grated egg yolk. The flavors erupted upon my taste buds in ways that very few salads ever have, making my only complaint to be that I haven't had it since that night.

Sojourn's Crispy Pig Ear Salad in New Orleans
Sojourn's Crispy Pig Ear Salad in New Orleans

6) The Tuna and Grapefruit at Lucy B. Goode in Gulf Shores, Alabama

On a media trip to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach this past summer I had the pleasure of dining at Lucy B Goode. In an area ruled by tasty but all-too-often deep fried Gulf seafood, Lucy B Goode boasts contemporary dishes featuring locally sourced ingredients from area farms. Chef Randall Baldwin started us out with an off-menu appetizer which included only a few simple ingredients. Slices of fresh tuna and ripe grapefruit were adorned with celery leaves for a sharp contrast to the sweet juiciness of the dish which he finished with sea salt, cracked black pepper, and a light drizzling of sesame oil. The subtle flavors of the tuna and grapefruit fused together like the crescendo in a lovely score.

Tiled Fresh Tuna and Grapefruit Slices with Celery Stems at Lucy B. Goode in Gulf Shores
Tiled Fresh Tuna and Grapefruit Slices with Celery Stems at Lucy B. Goode in Gulf Shores

7) The Barbecue Spare Ribs at Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Missouri

A month before I launched Jay D's Louisiana Barbecue Sauce I found myself on a bachelor party adventure for my brother Eric. We just so happened to trek to the barbecue mecca that is Kansas City where I set my sights on the legendary smoked meats institution called Arthur Bryant's. Our hungover bachelor party gang showed up ready to devour some Que, so after ordering heaping portions of nearly everything on the menu, we sat down to chow down on heavenly swine and bovine. The pork spare ribs were of worthwhile wonder as if the pit-masters had wept tears of deliciousness over these bones. Few ribs have boasted the superior texture and flavor of these magically smoked morsels of pig.

Pork Ribs at Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City
Pork Spare Ribs at Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City

8) The Homemade Poptart at Magpie Cafe in Baton Rouge

All hail the Magpie poptart. Every kid who grew up in the 90's knows the Kelloggs version all too well. Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon could do me no wrong. Naturally, when I heard that Magpie Café  made a homemade rendition of the poptart, I knew I had to try it. They're typically made on Saturday mornings, but every now and then you can find the folks over at Magpie sneaking it into their weekday breakfast offerings. You may be saying, "Jay, a poptart? Really? With all of the wonderful things you've had to eat how did this make the list?" Well, I'll enlighten you. Not only is Magpie's version on the poptart euphorically delectable, it also gets bonus points on principle. The nostalgia it represents creates an experience that is at once memorable and triumphant above the original. Plus, the fact that someone thought up an idea like making a badass version of the poptart deserves recognition.

A Blueberry Poptart at Magpie Café in Baton Rouge
A Blueberry Poptart at Magpie Café in Baton Rouge

9) The Pork Belly Ramen at Bread and Circus Provisions in Lafayette

Lafayette has always had some amazing food, but right now their food scene seems to be exponentially exploding. Getting to experience some of the state's creations through filming the Louisiana Culinary Trails has been some of the most fun I've had this year. Shortly after visiting Village Café, we hopped over to Bread & Circus Provisions to see what Chef Manny Augello had going on in his kitchen. I sampled several of Chef's dishes, but this Pork Belly Ramen stole my heart. Legitimate ramen is hard to come by in Louisiana and it's exciting to find it in places you wouldn't expect. The vegetation gave an earthy taste to the creamy broth and I firmly believe that pork belly makes most things better. You'll definitely want to stop by Bread & Circus if you're anywhere around Lafayette area... you won't be disappointed!

The Pork Belly Ramen at Bread & Circus Provisions in Lafayette
The Pork Belly Ramen at Bread & Circus Provisions in Lafayette

10) The Hog Bone from Bacon Rouge's Chef Alex Hamman at Hogs for the Cause in New Orleans

One of the more underrated bites I've had this year came from Chef Alex Hamman's Hog Bone. I have competed in an all pork cook-off by the name of Hogs for the Cause for the past couple of years. Not only have our numbers increased for team Bacon Rouge, but so has the talent. Pastry Chef Instructor for the Louisiana Culinary Institute Alex Hamman created the Hog Bone for the Porkpouri (wild card) category in the 2014 competition. Our entire team watched in a state of shock when it didn't place in the top 10 because the flavors were so beautifully layered and innovative. Chef made a homemade cheese cracker as the base for a slightly spicy tasso and cracklin dust base that was then coated in velvety chocolate. The hog bone had all of the elements: sweet, crunchy, smoky, porky, and spicy, and they were devoured in no time. Chef Alex displayed some extreme skill in this whimsical creation and I can't wait to see what he comes up with for the 2015 Hogs for the Cause (which you can buy tickets for now... make sure to list "Bacon Rouge" as the team who referred you)!

The Hog Bone: Tasso, Cracklin Dust, Homemade Cheese Cracker invented by Alex Hamman for Team Bacon Rouge
The Hog Bone: Tasso, Cracklin Dust, Homemade Cheese Cracker invented by Alex Hamman for Team Bacon Rouge