Robert St. John Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 30, 2008

St. John

Food Columnist reveals annual Top 10 list of food experiences from trips

Each year, my final column is a list of the top ten dining experiences I enjoyed over the previous twelve months. 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.

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10.    Drago’s, New Orleans— Drago’s invented the charbroiled oyster and they do it better than anyone. The oysters are placed on the grill, doused with pepper and garlic-spiked butter, then topped with a mixture of parmesan and romano cheese, and doused with the butter again. The flames rise up and surround the oysters every time the butter is applied. The shells get charred and the oysters, smoky. Simple. Flavorful. Excellent.

9.)    Table Fifty-Two, Chicago. Art Smith opened his signature restaurant in Chicago earlier this year. He serves updated Southern classics in the Windy City. The highlight of the meal came as a chef’s treat, amuse bouche— Art’s Drop Biscuits with Goat Cheese and Parmesan. Of all the meals I have eaten, in all of the cities, and all of the fine dining restaurants over the years, this meal will go down as the first time I have ever requested seconds on an amuse bouche.

8.)    The Modern, New York— Danny Meyer is the most talented restaurateur in the country. The Modern is located on the first floor of the Museum of Modern Art and the food’s presentation is as artful as the works hanging in the galleries above. The Chilled Maine Lobster Salad with Soy Sprouts and Button Mushrooms in a Lobster Vinaigrette was a highlight, as was the Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod with White Coco Bean Puree and Harissa Oil. Long live Mr. Meyer.

7.)    Frontera Grill, Chicago— For those who love Mexican food, Frontera Grill is the American Mecca. Bayless knows more about Mexican food, Mexican ingredients, and Mexican culinary customs than 99% of the chefs in Mexico. He is truly a student of the cuisine. I ate the best guacamole I’ve ever eaten and a ceviche that was out-of-this world.

6.    Balthazar, New York— I usually eat at Balthazar in SoHo for late-night, post-theatre meals. A lot of the city’s chefs hang out there after work. Breakfast at Balthazar is great. The bustle feels more like “New York” than any other place I visit. The Scrambled Eggs in Puff Pastry with Wild Mushrooms and Asparagus are almost worth the three-hour flight, alone.

5.)    Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tenn.— Every meal eaten over a four-day visit. Blackberry Farm is the most civilized 4,200 acres on the planet. The Beall family has fostered an environment in which the organization’s sole purpose is to cater to guest’s every whim. Nothing goes unnoticed at Blackberry Farm. My wife and I dropped our kids off at summer camp in Arkansas and headed east to Blackberry Farm— summer camp for adults.

4.)    Nobu 57 New York— Nobu Matsuhisa is the ninja master of sushi. The original New York restaurant, Nobu, is a tough ticket, but Nobu 57 is an easily made reservation, and the food is just as good. The Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeño is a signature dish and not to be missed. The miso-glazed fish craze started here. The surprise hit of the dinner— though slightly out of place on a Japanese menu— were the crab and ceviche miniature tacos.

3.)    Bouchon, Las Vegas— I have eaten at Thomas Keller’s homage to the French bistro several times. This trip I was in town for one reason only— to take my two children to see Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles Love. The dinner was great. The show was great. The company was beyond great.

2.)    Restaurant August, New Orleans— I hosted a dinner for 14 of my friends in Chef John Besh’s former office, upstairs at August. The highlight of the meal for me was the fellowship, but the Slow-Roasted Kobe Beef Short Rib with Salsify, Potato Gnocchi, and Black Truffle came in a very close second.

1.)    Gwyn’s High Alpine Lodge, Snowmass, Colo.— My six-year-old son and I took a father-son ski trip together. It was the first time the two guys had taken a trip without the two girls. After a few days of lessons he and I spent all day— just the two of us— skiing down the mountain. We stopped for lunch and I had a bowl of vegetable soup. It was the best soup meal I have ever eaten. Actually, the soup itself was average; the company and the setting were wonderful. That day was filled with several of my all-time greatest memories.

For this week’s recipe, Art Smith’s Drop Biscuits with Goat Cheese and Parmesan, go to the column link on www.robertstjohn.com.