In revealing my picks for best new restaurant of 2012, I already expounded on my unholy affection for the salsa-verde-drenched tocino taco at El Cortijo Taqueria Y Cantina and, well, pretty much everything at Bluebird Barbecue.
Clearly, those are a couple of the best things I ate this year. But in an exceptionally good 12 months of restaurant openings, plenty of other dishes are worthy of mention. Here are 10 of my favorites.
A muffin? Huh?
No, seriously, a muffin was one of the best things I ate all year. The very first day that Next Door Bakery Café opened its doors in Shelburne, I was smitten.
The honeysuckle-blueberry muffin has a silky texture unlike anything I've ever experienced in a muffin before, and I'll never be satisfied with most versions again. But among the wonderful firsts of the streusel-topped pastry, my first (and second and third...) honeysuckle aftertaste was definitely the coolest.
If the muffins at Next Door Bakery made me rethink the breakfast pastry, the hot chocolate at Montpelier's newest food cart did the same for hot drinks.
More like thick, rich European drinking chocolates than Swiss Miss, texture was just one thing that separated Grünhaus' chocolate from the pack. A dark, complex flavor, courtesy of a mix of Swedish and Belgian chocolates, is another. But best of all is the opportunity to pair it with a lefse, a sandwich wrapped in ultra-thin potato bread. I recommend the Elvis, composed of chocolate-almond butter, cinnamon, blueberries and bananas.
My colleague Corin Hirsch pines for an Italian market in Burlington. We might not have that yet, but those of us craving a great Italian sub have finally found one at Stacks. Sharp Genoa salami, intense soppressata and mild, sweet ham combine with Provolone to create New Jersey in sandwich form. Ask for extra vinegar, and a trip south is rendered (mostly) unnecessary. Best of all, the sturdy, sesame-crusted rolls stand up to refrigeration, so get a large sandwich and have lunch the next day, too.
Believe it or not, a salad has made this list. That speaks volumes about both the craft and splendid ingredients with which the staff at Panadero Bakery made their weekly salad at the end of September.
Market-fresh ingredients that week included a forest-like bed of curly endive, thick, crisp bacon and crunchy pecans. Juicy slices of pear added sweetness to a creamy slice of Boucher Family Farm Gore-Dawn-Zola ready to be broken up into bite-sized chunks. With a light and tangy honey vinaigrette, the salad was much more than the sum of its parts.
The salads change weekly at the weekend-only dinner spot, but if that week's special was any indicator, they're all worth a trip.
The name of the game for Cloud 9 Caterers' hot dog cart is handcrafted sausage. And deservedly so. But even the brilliant Bacon & Blue dog (stuffed with house bacon, cherry-pepper relish and creamy chunks of Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm) wasn't the best thing I ate from the cart last summer.
That distinction belongs to the Belly Up.
On a sesame-seed-covered, homemade burger bun, thick, well-seasoned slabs of crisp pork belly were rendered so beautifully that they actually tasted lean. Bright, sweet pea shoots and kohlrabi were a great foil to the meat, but it was pickled watermelon slaw that really made the sandwich special. The crunchy melon rind had just a hint of vinegar and a thick coating of mayonnaise that made it a kind of relish and mayo hybrid — made out of watermelon. Hopefully, something like this fantastic sandwich will make its way to the menu of Cloud 9's new food truck this winter.
The chewy, lightly singed crust; fresh, homemade mozzarella and tangy San Marzano tomato sauce are just the beginning. I could eat the Margherita pie at Pizzeria Verità all day. But I would rather take it several steps further and go for the Cherry Amore.
What started as a special was so addictively delicious that it's now on the permanent menu. Start with the basic, basil-topped Margherita. Then add another of my favorites, the Rucola e Prosciutto (shown here), with sharp arugula and salty prosciutto. Finally, top it all off with dried cherries and a drizzle of hot honey.
If you're not turned on yet, you'd best get to a doctor.
From the start, there have been plenty of things to love about Prohibition Pig. Early on, I realized that nothing brought together all things wonderful about the Southern-inflected gastropub quite like the House Quarter Pounder.
The well-seasoned patty rests on a fluffy, egg-washed sweet potato bun, but that's just the beginning. The same bouncy pimiento cheese is spread thickly on top of the meat, often falling out and making a mini side dish of its own. House-smoked bacon is a salty pleasure, but the fried green tomato gives this burger its tangy, crunchy personality.
It's hard to choose just one dish from the tasting menu I enjoyed at the remade Common Man this year. Would it be the lightly dressed arugula salad that hid fresh basil and ruby-red strawberries? Perhaps the chilled Jerusalem artichoke soup dotted with couscous, sweet spring peas, zippy preserved lemon and a dollop of bright-red harissa oil?
In the end, I had to go with the perfectly seared halibut, fresh from Wood Mountain Fish.
Perched on a single, tender baby carrot placed delicately on buttery jasmine rice beside a smooth, gingery carrot purée, the kicker was an atomically delicious coconut-lemon emulsion. Months later, my taste buds still vibrate just thinking about it.
Another tough choice. Everything I had at the Cornerstone was delicious, and I've been telling anyone who will listen about the perfectly crisp duck confit over maple-flavored soldier beans. But I can't stop thinking about the pork shank.
Brined so it remained moist and delicious all the way down to the bone, the massive chunk of pig flesh was the best braise I ate all year. Flavors of honey and beer combined beautifully with an aged cheddar macaroni and cheese, which in turn paired perfectly with sweet, yielding collard greens. A dish of optimal balance and absolute indulgence.
S'mores Crêpe! S'mores Crêpe! S'mores Crêpe!
As soon as I tasted it, I knew it was my definitive dessert of the year. Forget about Nutella spread. The light, fluffy crêpes at the Church Street eatery contain real melted chocolate — from Belgium, natch — along with sticky marshmallow and crumbles of graham cracker.
There are few more utterly satisfying ways to end a meal.