by Alice Levitt
Fried chicken was hot from Stowe to Montgomery Center. After last year's glut, pizza was on the wane. A couple of stinkers in smaller cities made the term "gastropub" seem a whole lot less cool.
But my favorites this year triumphed over the trends. I ate so many delightful dishes in my travels around the state and beyond, it was nearly impossible to choose, and I'm sure as soon as this is published, I'll have regrets.
I'm a little bummed that so many of my picks seem to have landed in the Burlington area this year. Which means one thing: In 2014, I'm expecting big things from the rest of the state.
Marzipan bagel from the Bagel Place
In a bagel-icious year, the clear winner for both weirdest and most delicious o-shaped creation was the marzipan bagel at South Burlington's the Bagel Place.
The sticky layer of sweet, baked almond paste was countered by a plain bagel, which ensured that the treat wasn't saccharine. Until the Lithuanian owners start serving up šašlykai and bigos, this taste of Eastern Europe will have to do.
Few western chefs understand the value of making you work for a dish the way Asian cooks do. Luckily, the chefs at Misery Loves Co. in Winooski understand such rewards.
Their Chinatown Pig Tails left diners rooting around with their chopsticks for all kinds of tasty morsels: peanuts, bok choy and, most importantly, cross-cut sections of a pig's furthest reaches. The big flavor of ginger, smoked cayenne, hot long red chiles, cilantro and vinegar ensured that I wouldn't stop digging until every bite was gone.
Gnocchi at Juniper
Along with the recent cider boom, I've been tickled to see more ice ciders showing up in savory dishes. The best of the bunch was an appetizer on the opening menu at Hotel Vermont's flagship restaurant.
The gnocchi themselves were eminently fluffy, and strewn with tangy goat cheese and crunchy microgreens. Meaty mushrooms gave my flesh-loving teeth something to appreciate.
But in the end, the sauce made the dish: a rich and lightly tangy beurre blanc made with sweet ice cider. I hope this seasonal dish will reappear in the spring.
Hyde Away Inn & Restaurant
Risotto cake is a dish that's usually done badly, so over the years I have grown to fear it. Making them round and calling them arancini won't help you, either, if you don't have a stellar base. Luckily, the Parmesan-imbued risotto at the remade Hyde Away in Waitsfield was exactly that.
But the true secret was in the sauce, a smoky blend of local tomatoes topped with even more Parmesan and mushrooms sautéed in wine.
Summer poutine at Claire's
And he took a dish at which this food writer usually turns up her nose and made it one of my favorites of the year. That would be his Summer Poutine.
Instead of a heavy brown gravy, Littell's crispy, salty fries stayed that way under a light sauce of lemon fine herbes. Chicken braised in herb oil blended with cheese curds and a shower of scallions. And like a fine fascinator, an extra-large chunk of crunchy chicken skin told us this was a dish worth noticing.
I wasn't an instant convert to Winooski-based food truck the Lazy Farmer. The first time I tried a Korean barbecue taco, when it debuted early in the summer, I thought it was nearly flavorless. But a few weeks later, chef Chris Simard proved that he had earned his stripes at previous employer, Tiny Thai.
The dish in question was a simple noodle plate, made with slippery mung bean noodles. Marinated pork blended with a tangy fish sauce that paired surprisingly well with a glitteringly fresh salad of tiny tomatoes and herbs. You can bet I'll be the first in line when Simard returns in the warm months.
I respect food with a touch of wit. And none had more this year than chef Steve Sicinski's at Topnotch Resort & Spa's two new restaurants, Flannel and the Roost.
The latter's fennel- and farmers-cheese filled pierogi was a real contender, as was Flannel's burger topped with pork belly, an egg and Heady Topper-glazed onions.
But the standout was a dish of chicken with peas and carrots. The salty, crispy bird was accompanied by bright-green pea spaetzle resting in a pool of tangy carrot romesco. So clever and so delectable.
African Safari Store and Deli
I've always been a great lover of Ethiopian injera, the crêpe-like bread that's used in place of utensils in the African cuisine. But, it turns out, I love its stretchy, tangy cousin, Somali injera, even more.
The soft bread is perfect for picking up anything that Abukar Mohamed and his family cook up at the makeshift Burlington market and, chances are, whatever it is will be worth eating. But if you luck into their "jerk chicken," the gods have truly smiled.
Don't expect the bonnet-pepper-spiked Caribbean dish. Their cumin-scented fowl is the closest thing you're likely to find to great tandoori chicken in Vermont, other than the kebabs at Persian neighbor Farah's Place.
The Hindquarter's pork shank
I know, I know. I won't shut up about the damn pork shank. But the food truck's secret weapon at its ArtsRiot Kitchen Collective Friday night pop-up is that good.
It's so good that it trumps all the other delicacies that the truck/restaurant has impressed me with this year. Yep, it's even better than Indian-spiced monkfish or duck confit melt with pesto fries.
The confit-cooked-then-fried shank changes each time it's served, but the very first iteration was simply topped in gremolata, then served with creamy polenta and mushroom gravy.
But no matter how it appears, the dish's base is the same mindblowingly tender local pork with a crispy, salty exterior. It's like braised meat coated in pork rinds. You tell me if something more indulgent could ever exist.
Guild Fine Meats
...And last but not least, the cookie that made everything OK again.
Following last year's closure of Fresh Market (now the location of ArtsRiot and the aforementioned shank), my chocolate-chip-loving colleagues and I were adrift.
Until we tried pastry chef Samantha Noakes' version at Guild Fine Meats, that is. Its nutty, buttery base is as soft and chewy as the one at Fresh Market, and slightly more complex. But the chocolate chips, always suspended in a state just before melting, are darker and richer. It seems the Queen City's best chocolate chip cookie has grown up. And not a moment too soon.