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Feature Fri Dec 28 2007
Making end-of-the-year lists of superlatives is my one of my favorite things to do in December. I love looking back at the past three hundred and sixty-five days and listing my favorite TV, food, music and movies because it forces me to recall a year's worth of memories. For example, the songs that made my best of lists in 2006 were picked largely because of the way they sounded when I was driving through Wisconsin over Labor Day weekend with my husband and pal, Angela, or of how they could fill the dance floor at my wedding or how they made me feel when I had the apartment to myself for the weekend.
I'm known around my house for always commenting, "X doesn't exist in a vacuum, you know," and I definitely think it applies when recalling your favorite meal of the year. Don't agree? Just read how so many of the Drive Thru staff's favorite meals occurred thousands and thousands of miles from Chicago, some across oceans, others across the country. How can you not be haunted by fresh fish in Barcelona or "Auntie's" upma in India? And those of us who did enjoy our favorite meal right here in town share recollections of simplicity or special details. An amazing meal doesn't exist in a vacuum, you know? What makes it a favorite is usually all the surrounds it, the experience of it.
With that in mind, the staff of Drive Thru shares our superlatives of 2007.
Combining fantastic wines, artisan local ingredients and an extremely favorable exchange rate my hubby and I barely spoke during our favorite meal of 2007 at Francis Mallman 1884 in the Mendoza wine region of Argentina. Nestled in a sunny garden of Bodega Escorihuela Gascon, this luxurious spot pampers with deceptively simple dishes, exquisitely prepared, and expertly matched with wines from Argentina and around the world. The star of my meal was a perfectly toothsome, hand-formed ravioli with house-made ricotta and a light lemon cream sauce. In all honesty, I can say that this dish was better than any pasta I've enjoyed state-side or...(gulp) in Italy. There. I said it. Yes, I had better pasta in Argentina that I've encountered in any city or small town in Tuscany. Best of all, the U.S. dollar is actually quite strong against the AR peso, so our three-course meal with rock star wines, coffee and dessert was only $100 U.S. Don't cry for me...
As for here in the windy city, Copperblue continues to rock my world. All the little touches in service like your own little purse hanger, your favorite cocktail waiting at the table and coats and valet parking ready and waiting as you finish your meal make for stress-free dining, even in the shadows of Navy Pier. But it's definitely the food that keeps me coming back. I can't resist the "Ham 'n These" pork croquettes whenever they appear on the starters list, and I always enjoy Chef Tsonton's tribute to Alderman Moore as an act of tasty rebellion. This year, a braised lamb shank on parsnip puree with an amazing JL Chave Crozes Hermitage had to be the best French-style comfort food in town, and the star one of my favorite snowy evenings in the city.
In a city like Chicago, and in a home where both my fiancee and I love to cook, choosing my favorite meal of 2007 was tough. Runners up range from the delicious tempura shrimp stuffed with squash blossom to my husband-to-be's slow-cooked, hickory-smoked pork shoulder. I still dream about a sandwich I had at the Green City Market featuring local goat cheese on Red Hen bread brushed with olive oil and sea salt. We also bought an ice cream maker this year and created a bitchin' batch of peanut-butter-and-Nutella ice cream that can only be described as ohmygod.
All that said, my best meal of 2007, hands down, was the steak dinner I shared with my dude at Capital Grille. We ate heartily in celebration of his graduation, and the meal was perfection. We shared a lobster and crab cake appetizer, generously portioned and heavy on sweet bites of shellfish. For our entrée, we ordered a Porterhouse and a ribeye, with a side of luscious mushrooms roasted with thyme and rosemary. I distinctly remember Brian saying in awe, "These mushrooms taste like they have extra mushroom in them." Yes, they were that good.
My wife Sarah and I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and were being driven to lunch by our guide. The lunch was pre-paid, but we knew it'd be something bland and unadventurous that catered to tourists. No way were were going to come all the way to Thailand for something we could get around the corner from our home. We pleaded with our guide to take us somewhere local. He eventually gave in and took us to a local spot known for it's khao soi, a northern Thai specialty. We let him order for us, and he brought us over each a bowl of chicken khao soi, a dish made up of egg noodles, meat, a curry broth, chili paste, scallions, and topped with fried noodles, pickled cabbage, and lime juice.It was absolutely heavenly and precisely what we had in mind when we first booked this trip: eating the kind of Thai food we'd never had before. (It does turn out, though, that there are places in Chicago that serve khao soi, but not many.)
Despite the spectacular experience of eating at Charlie Trotter's with Nick this year, my favorite meal of 2007 was one that we made together on a balmy, late April day. After scouting a course for the upcoming CUDGEL urban golf event we were planning with friends, we arrived home with a large appetite and very little food. We eventually matched pantry items with two ripe avocados to create a simple and satisfying meal: handmade corn tortillas, fried and filled with spanish rice (made from Nick's family recipe), black beans and avocado. We moved a small table and two chairs out on to my porch, opened two cans of Pabst and enjoyed a delicious, quick and cheap homemade meal.
Meghan Murphy Gill
There is one meal that immediately springs to the front of my mind when I think of those I enjoyed the most this year. I'm aware that snacking on steamed mussels and frites at the Hopleaf hardly counts as a bona fide "meal," but for me, salty morsels washed down with gulps of Belgian ales is nothing short of perfection. Throw in a noisy bar and a corner table packed with a handful of good friends, and the world outside could have ended without a single care from me.
In February of 2007, I was at a kitchen table outside of Bombay proper (now Mumbai, but still Bombay). My friend's mom was serving breakfast, Visak style. She had sautéed cashews in groundnut (peanut) oil for upma. I sat with my back to a window that revealed long chilies and curry leaves that she had diced and crushed into our upma. That is the Indian meal I think about most often in Chicago. Auntie's coconut chutney was more tender than I can hope for at home, and her upma was vibrantly fragrant.
Downtown we bought toasted sandwiches made before us on the sidewalk. Fillings were stacked between two slices of white bread slathered with cilantro chutney: cooked potato and beet, cucumber, red onions, and fresh tomato. A dusting of spice went with each layer. One of the three men working the stand compressed each sandwich into a handheld metal box with long handles and put it onto a heat source. They topped the toasty sandwiches with more chutney, a more tangy ketchup than in the U.S., fried curly bits and chips, and served them on metal plates covered with a cutting of re-used white office paper printed on one side (other vendors served on newsprint without a plate). At another stand a few feet to our left, a man smashed fillings on a dosa that was cooking on his griddle. To our right, plantains were fried over an open flame in a kadhai, a traditional Indian iron wok. Men peeled plantains beneath the bubbling oil and bagged the finished product onto a table. That type of scene repeated itself later in Bangalore, where I grabbed pakodas on the sidewalk and a cob of corn that had been rolled in charcoal on a pushcart, without its husk to protect it, until it tasted chalky.
At El Lobito in Barcelona, just off the Port de Mar, revelation and epiphany come to mind. Not since working in Japan have I witnessed such pristine simplicity elevated to this degree. The fixed menu for 55 Euros included Ensalada con Atun, Jamon Serrano Iberico (even better than Parma and not available in the States), Boquerones, Mejillones, Tallarinas, Calamares, Cigalas, Chipirones, Pescadilla, Rape, Lenguado, Lubina a la Sal and assorted pastries for dessert. Here the ingredient is king. The freshest fish from the Mediterranean, often alive until cooked for your meal, prepared simply ala plancha or fried, then drizzled with local olive oil and sea salt. Finito. No stacks. No foams. Just the freshest possible food on a plate. The menu changes daily. They buy what’s best at the mercado every morning and close when they run out of food. This is a meal I keep going back to in my head. It literally haunts me.
My favorite meal of 2007 was full of seafood. This paella wasn't prepared in Chicago, but in California, where fresh fish is much easier to come by, even though none of the fish we added was really local. Paella
comes in many different shapes and sizes, but for me, the shellfish is what it's all about. I've rediscovered mussels this year, having eaten delicious ones in Chicago, at both the Hopleaf and English. The sweet, juicy meat of a fresh mussel makes any meal a great one.