I was talking to my sister Hillary last night and she mentioned that she thinks the current season of Top Chef is the best season yet. I haven’t been watching it this season, but based on that as well as her recent experience eating at one of the contestant’s restaurants in historic Frederick, MD I decided to buy the season pass on iTunes and get caught up.
Hillary enjoying a memorable breakfast in Baltimore.
I admit, I’ve been totally sucked in. I stayed home from work today because I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather, so it was a perfect opportunity to watch, oh, 4 episodes in a row. I’ve watched Top Chef pretty regularly in past seasons, but I think she’s right. This season has grabbed my interest much more strongly than previous seasons and I think I know why. Michael and Bryan Voltaggio. I’m just a little bit in love with both of them. They are two of the best chefs on the show this season and have this kind of intense sibling rivalry that makes the challenges so much more interesting and entertaining. Throw into the mix an amazingly talented female chef this season and it makes for some very good TV.
I mention all of this because Hillary ate at Bryan’s restaurant, Volt, this past weekend and claims it has made it onto her top 10 list of most memorable meals, and possibly even onto her top 5. This summer, following a particularly memorable meal at Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria, Hillary and I both compiled a list of our top 5 most memorable meals. I’m lucky to have two sisters and a best friend who share my love of food and a willingness, upon occasion, to splurge on fine dining. This means that I have enjoyed some particularly amazing meals.
I don't have a picture of Regan and I at a restaurant but she gets double props for being my fellow NASCAR fan.
It also means that I have sometimes spent quite a bit of money on a meal that didn’t live up to my expectations (or the price). Restaurant food is such a complicated realm. So many different elements have to combine to create the ultimate experience you look for in fine dining. The ingredients have to be top notch, the execution perfect, the service flawless. If any one of those elements is out of balance or just not up to snuff, the experience as a whole fails. I suppose that is why the meals on my list continue to amaze me years later. Its always a minor miracle, in my opinion, when a restaurant gets it all right, and when it happens, the memory of the meal stays with me for a very long time.
Carri at Bellagio Taiwanese restaurant in Beijing.
The following is my personal top 5 list, in chronological order, as well as some honorable mentions.
— Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens, Quebec City, Quebec with Hillary (March 2004). What I remember: An amazing baked goat cheese salad with a maple vinaigrette and their maple syrup pie.
— Olives, Washington, DC with Hillary (sometime in 2005). What I remember: One of the most amazing steaks I’ve ever enjoyed and fantastic chocolate cake.
— Log Haven, Millcreek Canyon, Salt Lake City, UT, with Carri (November 2007). What I remember: I actually don’t remember what I ate, just that all of it was amazing and the ambiance was fantastic.
— Craftsteak at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, NV with Regan (December 2007). What I remember: Everything! Four courses to include a charcuterie platter, a truly amazing steak, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, broccolini, and to finish it off, a sorbet and ice cream sampler.
— The Tasting Room at Restaurant Eve, Old Town Alexandria, VA with Hillary (22 June 2009). What I remember: My first five course fine dining experience and every single element of the meal was amazing. They even give you a copy of the menu you ordered, rolled up and tied with a bow to help you remember you meal.
— The first time Hillary and I had the fire-roasted artichokes at Houstons. We were obsessed with these artichokes for months and would call the restaurant before driving up to Bethesda to make sure they were on the menu that day. Truth be told, I’m still obsessed with these artichokes and go out of my way with surprising regularity to enjoy them.
— The Polish restaurant in Montreal I ate at with Carri, Christy, Sara, and Lyn during our trip to Canada in November 2006.
— The first time I ate at Emmas. Still my favorite pizza place.
— Carri’s birthday dinner at Helmands, October 2003. I still crave their pumpkin appetizer.
— The Italian restaurant in Madison, WI Pops and I ate at during our cross country drive in April.
— Elways in Denver, November 2008. I ate at Elways alone on one of my many trips to Denver. I’m always a little bit skeptical of celebrity restaurants, but this one lived up to, and even exceeded, my expectations.
— Billy’s Chowder House in Wells, ME with Mom and Regan in September 2003. Unfortunately, this was probably not one of Regan’s favorite meals, but my lobster was fantastic and it’s hard to beat the view from the restaurant.
Now that you know most of my favorite foodie experiences of the past few years, I’ll share with you something much more mundane. The following recipe is my favorite new find of the past month. I made it for a girls night with some friends and it was a hit. Very simple, very tasty, and very easy to make. Perfect for those of us who can’t be out enjoying the local fine dining scene at the present time but still want a delicious meal at home.
Lemony Orzo with Tuna and Artichoke Hearts (adapted from Fine Cooking, Aug/Sep 2009)
1 1/2 c. dried orzo
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
freshly ground black pepper
1 T. dried basil
1/3 c. dry white wine
2 7 oz. jars of artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
1/2 c. oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and thinly sliced
1 5 oz. can water-packed solid white tuna, drained
3 T. sour cream
3 T. fresh lemon juice
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook according to the package until al dente. Drain well.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, 1/2 t. salt, and 1/8 t. pepper and cook, stirring often, until deep golden brown, about 7-8 minutes. Add the basil and cook for about a minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the wine. Return to the heat and stir well, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Add the artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes and cook just until tender and heated through, 2-3 minutes more. Off the heat, gently stir in the tuna.
Transfer the hot orzo to a large bowl and toss with the sour cream and lemon juice. Add the onion-artichoke mixture, mix well, and add salt and pepper to taste. Toss gently to combine and serve.