Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Best Bites of 2016: Blair's Picks

by Blair Loup

I had the best of intentions for 2016. Full of existential expectations in my 25th year, I dubbed this the “Year of Blair." Well, if you know me, you know how that turned out. The year was filled with peaks and valleys, but I feel very fortunate to say that the majority of the peaks came from the opportunities afforded to me as a member of the Bite and Booze team.

On top of taking an epic road trip of a lifetime to the James Beard House in New York and their Chefs & Champagne event in the Hamptons, I took a lovely solo vacation to Georgia and we’re getting amped up for the opening of Gov’t Taco in the summer of 2017.

As per usual at this fantastic place of work, I did plenty of traveling this year and consequently ate a ton of amazing things. While this year-end post is one of my favorites to write, it’s also the most torturous. Here are the best things I ate this year:

Smoked Tomato Soup with Basil Oil

Pop-up at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, LA

Smoked Tomato Soup with Basil Oil
Smoked Tomato Soup with Basil Oil

I know…surprising that something as simple as a bowl of soup can make the list, but on this chilly January night at Tin Roof, this soup was ON TIME. Executive Chef at soon-to-be open Kahlurah St. Grill Kelley McCann and Masterchef Season 6 contestant and owner of Robear Ln. opening in White Star Market, Jesse Romero stole my heart with this one.

The soup’s consistency blew me away. It wasn’t too creamy, but just super velvety. The smoke flavor peeked through at all the right moments and the basil oil set it over the edge. It was a damn good bowl of soup.

Orange Zest and Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

Lunchbox on 10th in McCallen, TX

Orange Zest and Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta
Orange Zest and Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

I’m not one for sweets unless there’s chocolate involved, but this Panna Cotta had me dumbfounded. I had and still haven’t had another Panna Cotta this perfect in my life. Oftentimes I find them to be too firm or so loose they’re breaking on the plate into a pile of mush, but this one retained its structure and melted in my mouth.

Aside form the exquisite technical execution, the flavors were bright and perfectly balanced.

Chargrilled Oysters

Sac-a-Lait in New Orleans, LA

Chargrilled Oysters with a Green Garlic House-Pickled Jalapeño and Bacon Butter
Chargrilled Oysters with a Green Garlic House-Pickled Jalapeño and Bacon Butter

I feel like almost all chargrilled oysters are delicious, but these were different somehow. I will jump at any chance to dine at the beautiful, always stellar Sac-a-Lait. I have an enormous respect for Chefs Sam & Cody Carroll as friends and the utmost regard for them as some of the best chefs in the south. If you have not been, you must go, like, now.

Instead of the traditional garlic butter, the cook their oysters with a green garlic house-pickled jalapeño and bacon butter. I think the street name for it is crack.

Plated in a terra cotta plant saucer and river stones, the presentation fits the restaurant like a glove. Doing everything right always, that’s Sac-a-Lait.

Beet Sorbet

SALT New American Table in McAllen, TX

Beet Sorbet
Beet Sorbet

I love beets. They are so precious to me. I don’t know where it came from, but they are hands down my number one favorite. Having that said, I’ve had beets in about as many ways Bubba says you can cook shrimp, but it wasn’t until this year that I tasted a beet sorbet.

Several who read this will automatically turn your nose up at thinking about beets as a dessert, but you’re wrong.

This sorbet was a beet swan song. A gracious balance of sweetness while maintaining the full flavor characteristics of the beet is tricky, but they did it!

Som Tam Paa

Alfie’s in Washington, D.C.

Papaya Said with Fried Chilis and Lime
Papaya Salad with Fried Chilis and Lime

We had the pleasure of stopping by to visit Jay’s Food Network Star cast mate Alex McCoy at his pop-up restaurant, Alfie’s. As you might recall, Alex has an affinity for Asian and, more specifically, Thai cuisine. 

After mingling with the staff for a bit, Alex piled the dishes on one after one. It’s always special to be able to taste the love, and in Alex’s case, the authenticity and honor in his food. I could tell that he could back up every bit of his passion with dishes that showcase a culture.

Being the heat freak I am, this papaya salad rocked my world. Tart, refreshing and spicy as all Hell, this textural wonderland keeps you coming back for more heat every three seconds.

Open-Faced Tamale

Araña in New Orleans, LA

Open-Faced Tamale
Open-Faced Tamale

Araña is easily one of my favorite places to eat in New Orleans. Chef Richard is a magician with sauces and plates up some creative, re-imagined classics while still holding down the fort of some Mexican favorites.

This open–faced tamale is a fried rectangular prism of grits (instead of traditional tamale masa) dredged in a mildly spicy, insanely flavorful sauce and topped with tender chicken tinga, brightly pickled onions and queso fresco. Boom baby!

A shot of whiskey soaking with the fat of a 2 year cured ham, a drop of Poirier Cane Syrup and a bite of 2 year ham

Acre in Auburn, AL

2 Year Ham, Whiskey soaked with 2 Year Ham Fat and Poirier Cane Syrup

With a constant rain of accolades, Acre has become one of the top farm-to-table restaurants in the country.

Chef David Bancroft grows a lot of produce on site and throughout the parking lot of Acre. We were happy to stop by on our way back from New York for an incredible meal. Chef David wanted to “bring us back home” with some southern decadence and they took care of us big time.

While everything we had blew us away, I know Chef David’s charcuterie is a passion project of his. He treated us to some of his 2 year cured ham and brought out a special mason jar of whiskey that had been soaking with the trimmings of that ham. A shot of pig fat whiskey, a drop of Poirier Can Syrup and a bite of ham and we felt right at home.

Chilled Spicy Noodles

Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City, NY

Chilled Spicy Noodles with Thai Basil, Cashews, and Sichuan Sausage
Chilled Spicy Noodles with Thai Basil, Cashews, and Sichuan Sausage

David Chang means a lot to me. When I first got the job at Bite and Booze, I had no clue what I was in for. Like most freshly graduated 22 years olds, I knew that I had a job, but didn’t exactly know what I was doing with myself. I immediately started watching every beer and food related shows on Netflix imaginable (which in 2013 wasn’t many). I stumbled across season 1 of ‘Mind of a Chef’ and my world turned upside down. David Chang was the point person for most of that season and drove me to submerse myself in the culinary world.

Jay brought me to Momofuku Noodle Bar when we went to NYC for Sam & Cody Carroll’s James Beard Dinner a year ago, but we went back for a full on Momofuku day this summer when we were in town for our own James Beard Dinner.

This will probably always be one of the best days of my life, mostly because I decided to order differently than everyone at the table and go for these famously spicy noodles.

The entire bowl covered in these candied, crunchy cashews holds electric green, sweet, but spicy noodles. It’s the kind of good heat that you can’t put down. Bite after bite my love grew deeper and deeper. The rich basil flavor complimented by a crispy, savory Sichuan sausage peppered with the sweet, crunchy cashews still haunts my memory.

I legitimately think of these noodles every day. Every day. Still.

Check out Chuck P's Best Bites of 2016 (Burger Edition)

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