Wednesday, January 5, 2011
The Big Night Review of My Big Year
Shifting over to the Big Night part of my Big Year, as long time followers of this blog know food was an integral element of my birding adventure. I particularly was focused on a few special meals around the country and as it turns out, Italy too, plus hamburgers and wood-fired pizzas.
Except for the burger category, I think in the end I did well with this part of my year long agenda.
In the pizza category, I probably had fewer wood-fired pizzas than I had hamburgers, but I had much better luck at finding great pizza, and wished that I had found more. The photo at the top, taken at Via Tribunali in Seattle, is of one of the 5 best pizzas I ate last year. My overall ranking of pizza places would be Cafe Italiano in Florence and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix tied for 1st, followed by Via Tribunali, Il Pizzaiolo in Oakland, and Franny's in Brooklyn. All of these have the key elements of a great wood-fired pizza--a perfectly cooked chewy but not too thick crust, a simple tomato sauce that is not over applied, fresh mozzarella cheese, and a modest use of toppings all baked quickly in a very hot oven.
On the burger front, I did try lots of hamburgers all around the US but many times I was disappointed in the quality of the burger. As a result, I winnowed down the burger joints I visited to Matt's bar in Minneapolis, home of the juicy lucy, for the best "down home burger" of the year; and Taylor's Refresher in Napa Valley for my best "gourmet burger" of the year.
As for Big Night splurges, I did get to eat many fine meals around the US this year, as well as some at my own home when I was there. I have selected 5 of them as my favorites of the year. The fifth on the list is the chinese dinner I had in December with Bob Ake and Wes Fritz at Hunan in San Francisco. I picked this because for me it was great to share a restaurant that I have eaten at for over 30 years with 2 of my birding friends. The dishes that nite were ones that I have loved for years and qualify for me as comfort food.
Fourth would be the dinner I shared with my 2 grown children, Caleb and Jess, and my wife, CKay, at 112 Eatery in downtown Minneapolis. We had never eaten there, and had one of those very special meals/family sharings. The space was very inviting, the wait staff was excellent, and the food and wine were delightful. This is a restaurant that I wish I could eat at more often.
The 3rd restaurant is Buca dell 'Orafo in Florence, Italy. When I visited Italy in late October/early November with my wife and friends Craig and Renee, we ate 2 meals at this small trattoria that has been in the same family for 50 years. We first discovered Buca in 1996, and have eaten easily over 100 meals there because we were able to live in Florence for 10 months from 2003-04. Giordano is the current generation chef/owner, and like his father and mother who we knew, he continues to please both locals and tourists with his rendition of tuscan food. I had one of the 3 best risotto--featuring finerli mushrooms--that I have ever eaten when we were there in October.
The second place spot goes to Alle Testiere in Venice, Italy. The other photos above were taken last fall when we spent 2 days in that amazing city. There really is no other place quite like Venice, so we always enjoy spending some time there, and particularly because of Alle Testiere, and a second restaurant called Vini da Gigio. We also love visiting the fish market (last 2 photos above) to see the incredible diversity of fish from the Venice lagoon, as well as other parts of the world. We ate twice at Alle which only serves seafood. The perfectly cooked flounder, and the lovely razor clams were just 2 of the many fine dishes we had this last time. One night we arrived at 8 PM and did not leave until after midnite, eating, drinking and for the last 90 minutes visiting with Luca, one of the 2 owners.
The top spot for the year is held by the Magnolia Grill which is owned by our neighbors and good friends, Ben and Karen. My wife and I feel so blessed to know Ben and Karen, and to be able to eat at the Grill as well as at their home. I can say in all honesty that I always expect the best at the Grill, and have never been disappointed eating there for over 20 years. When we went most recently in December, we had in my opinion the best overall combination of 2 appetizers and 2 entrees that I have ever had there, and Karen's 2 desserts were equally outstanding. I only wished that the wine I brought from my cellar that evening had been as good.
My final comment on food for the year is that I did eat more than my share of not great fast food when pressed for time by the birding agenda. I worked hard to keep it to a minimum. And in between the Big Night splurges and Taco Bell, I had many good "small" meals, lots of fresh oysters, steamers and lobster rolls, breakfast tacos, and the delights found at the taquerias that fortunately can be found in many places in Arizona, Texas and Florida where birders spend a lot of time. And most importantly, I was able to share food with friends from all over the US.
Next up will be a discussion of some of the bird and birding highlights of my big year. Stay tuned!