Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 2, 2008

St. John counts down food Top 10

As is the tradition in this column, each year I compile a list of the top ten dining experiences I enjoyed over the past year. The list is never based on price or atmosphere. I believe that good food can be served in a fine-dining environment or in a run-down diner. The only considerations are good food and good friends, which always lead to a good time.

10.    Tie: Southbound Bagel, C’est La vie Bakery, Hattiesburg— Discovering a French bakery and a down-home downtown bagel shop in my hometown, in the same year sent me into a carb-loading frenzy. I loved every minute of it. C’est La Vie’s custard-raisin croissants and Southbound’s cinnamon-raisin bagels are a wonderful way to start the day.

9.    French Fries at Doe’s Eat Place, Greenwood— The hand-cut fries are cooked in cast-iron skillets that look as though they have been in constant use since the restaurant opened. I don’t need the steak. Just give me a plate of Doe’s fries and some garlic bread so I can sop up the steak sauce.

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8.     Thanksgiving, my home, Hattiesburg— After four crazy weeks of book tours and signings— with four more weeks on the horizon— I sat down with my family and ate a meal that came directly from the Thanksgiving menu in my new cookbook, Southern Seasons. I looked forward to cooking and serving the Christmas Eve menu, Christmas morning breakfast menu, New Year’s Eve menu, and many others throughout the upcoming year.

7.    Chef’s Tasting Menu, Purple Parrot Café, Hattiesburg— The tasting menu at the Parrot moved up into another level skill and taste this year. This summer I ate soft-shell crab, speckled trout, and foie gras all in one sitting.

6.    Bouchon, Las Vegas— Thomas Keller’s French Bistro is worth the visit for the bread basket, alone. It only goes uphill from there.

5.    Ristorate Paoletti, Highlands, N.C.— Risotto with grilled lobster, scallops, and shrimp. I also ate the first escargot dish I have eaten in two decades. Once a fine-dining restaurant staple of the 1950s, snails in garlic butter are delicious. Let’s bring them back.

4.    Restaurant August, New Orleans, La.— The heirloom beet salad with crabmeat, mustard greens, black-eyed pea croutons, Allen Benton’s cherry wood smoked bacon was perfect. The quail egg gnocchi with lump crab and truffle is a staple on Chef John Besh’s menu and is my wife’s favorite. The agnolotti with chestnut sage butter and country ham and the sugar and spice duckling with grits, roasted foie gras, and quince is my favorite.

3.    The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif. — This meal will go down as one of the strangest meals I have eaten— not because of the restaurant, but because of my guests. At our table of four there was a carnivorous contentious objector who passed on all foie gras and veal-type entrees, and next to her was my friend the web designer who is the pickiest eater I know. The Web guy ended up eating what amounted to a $250.00 basket of bread. In the end, less for them meant more for me.

2.    Ceviche at The Alhambra, Isla Mujeres, Mexico— The ceviche at Casa de los Suenos was indeed the best I have ever eaten— by a long shot. I asked the waiter what made it so good and he replied that it was “just a hint of freshly squeezed orange juice.” This dish is one I could eat several times each week, week in, and week out.

1.    A triple-decker peanut-butter and jelly sandwich made by my daughter one Sunday afternoon— The hand’s down winner. No question. Food tastes better when love is attached.