As the year comes to a close, it’s always fun to look back at the best dishes of the year — or at least my favorites.
Choosing the best from hundreds of meals isn’t easy, and admittedly is rather subjective, but a few dozen rise to the top as truly special.
Anyone who’s dined with me knows the gratified look I reserve for these remarkable, memorable dishes and the hand clapping that usually accompanies it (I’m not subtle). So, what makes a great dish for me? It’s a combination of flavor, mouthfeel and elements of surprise that I find most delightful — which can come in almost any form, and at any price point.
Some are from fancy restaurants you know, others from food trucks or strip mall finds, or even a standout dish from a restaurant that I didn’t otherwise find memorable. For example, on the affordable end of the spectrum, I fell in love with a vegan chia parfait from Seed on the Go, Indian flatbread at the Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco and a bowl of shakshouka (basically eggs in a spicy, Mediterranean tomato sauce) from Goodman’s Jewish Deli. At the luxe end, a beautiful plate of seared foie gras at Valette captured my heart.
In the end, however, there had to be a single winner, and this year it was a Liberty Farms duck leg with pomegranate, baba ganoush and pistachio dukkah at SHED Cafe in Healdsburg. A perfect Mediterranean dish influenced by local ingredients with kicks of flavor — smoky, sweet, herbaceous and loaded with personality.
“Many dishes on the menu are vegetable-centric,” said Chef Perry Hoffman, who recently took over as Culinary Director, and created the dish. “The duck is almost an afterthought, but it works perfectly,” he said.
It was hard to pick a single favorite dish from Hoffman’s menu, with each course a surprise and delighted featuring root vegetables from nearby farms, fresh herbs and high-end plating, including dry farmed roasted potatoes with garlic aioli, carrot salad with bee balm and yogurt; wild fennel soup with smoked salmon (now off the menu until April) and braised beef cheeks with persimmons.
After multiple courses, I remember getting up from the meal and thinking it was one of the most intriguing and unexpectedly wonderful experiences of the year. Prices range from $9 to $25 for dinner.
Here are some of my other favorite dishes of the year:
– House granola with stewed prunes: Fork Roadhouse, $$ (9890 Bodega Hwy, Sebastopol, forkcatering.com)
– Wakame and Ahi tuna, seared Kobe beef with foie gras butter: Valette, $$$ (344 Center St., Healdsburg, valettehealdsburg.com)
– Grits with preserved egg, hen of the woods mushrooms, schmaltz; “craft” mac and cheese with mortadella and fried Brussels sprouts: Bird and The Bottle, $$ (1055 Fourth St., Santa Rosa)
– BBQ pork banh mi: Simply Vietnam Express, $ (3381 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa, simply-vietnam.com)
– Bacon scone from Dominique’s Sweets: Franchetti’s Kitchen, $-$$ (1229 Dutton Ave., Santa Rosa)
– Mixed mezze platter: Grape Leaf Mediterranean Grill $-$$ (101 East Cotati Ave., Cotati, grapeleafecafeandgrill.com)
– Spleen mousse (served at a special no-waste dinner): Backyard Restaurant, $$ (6566 Front St., Forestville, backyardforestville.com)
– Ribs, hush puppies, cornbread and Brussels sprouts at KINSmoke, $$ (304 Center St., Healdsburg, kinsmoke.com)
– Pork belly Yakitori: Ramen Gaijin $$ (6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, ramengaijin.com)
– Candy Cap mushroom churros: Sam’s Social Club, $$ (1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, samssocialclub.com)
– BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato): Wishbone, $$ (841 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma, wishbonepetaluma.com)
– Short ribs and polenta: Hazel Restaurant, $$ (3782 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental, restauranthazel.com)