Best eats of ’08

by Brian Clarey

Best eats of ‘08

Being a food writer is a great job, possibly the most secure position in journalism these days. Sure, they can outsource film and television writers, cut corners in metro desks and wipe out foreign bureaus to save a buck, but every publication needs some feet on the ground to chronicle the local restaurant scene. Also, food writers know they’re going to be able to eat… their job depends on it. And it’s fun, at the end of the year, for food writers to rattle off some of the best things they’ve eaten all year, to measure 12 months’ worth of indulgence, surprises and memorable bites. The best meals I’ve eaten this year happened all over the Triad, in joints with white linen on the tables and produce by the pound. Let’s start with the most unhealthy thing I think I ate all year: the bacon-cheddar dog at Gray’s Tavern in Greensboro, reviewed Jan. 23: “It is more complex than its name implies: a half-pound hot dog sliced lengthwise and stuffed with cheddar, then wrapped with bacon, deep fried in batter and then placed into a sub roll. It’s enough to make Homer Simpson kick in a window.” Perhaps the healthiest meal I ate all year was at the best Asian restaurant I visited: Taste of Vietnam, also in Greensboro, for the Feb. 13 issue. “Pho tai is the national soup of Vietnam, a version of comfort food with zesty broth, copious noodles, fresh herbs and thinly sliced, raw beef that cooks in the steaming stew. Hanoi penicillin, if you will.” The best buffet or cafeteria that I visited was in Kernersville, the C&H, where I absolutely went to town on home-cooked goodness. From the Oct. 22 piece: “a Caesar salad for the leafy greens; fried chicken, because it looks delicious; beef livers with gravy, because they are a cafeteria staple. To this I add small bowls of creamed potatoes and broccoli with cheese, as well as a shiny yeast roll. I intended to top the whole thing off with a slice of pecan pie, or maybe custard, but at the last minute I call an audible and slide a big hunk of chocolate peanutbutter pie onto the remaining corner of my tray. And how about some sweet tea with that?” Kernersville was also home to the best take-out meal I ate all year, a Moravian chicken pie from the Salem Kitchen Cafe. I opted for the non-traditional version, with peas and diced carrots, and my kids wiped it out in 10 minutes.

I ate two exemplary forms of pizza this year, one at the Winston-Salem Mellow Mushroom. The pizzas here are absolutely loaded with creative topping blends and, really, an incomparable amount of cheese. I also had a few woodfired pies at Greensboro’s Sticks & Stones which, while not what I generally think of when I think pizza, were rustic and delicious. Try the Firecracker, with bacon and anchovies. The best food I ate in a gas station was at Greensboro’s Cafe Potato Workz, where Louisiana native Roger Devall opened his outpost of the Boudin Trail. I ate his jambalaya, his etouffee and one of his muffalettas, and all pass the test of authenticity. I ate two great steaks this year, one cooked in the impossibly hot ovens at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. I had the New York strip, cooked at 1,800 degrees and served on a very hot plate, sizzling with melted butter. The other was a two-inch ribeye purchased from Sam’s Old Fashion Meat Market in Greensboro, which I cooked at home and devoured with my sons. I cannot pin down the best sit-down meals I had this year, but there were many highlights. The best Italian food I ate was at Riva’s Trattoria in downtown Greensboro. The best lunch I ate was at Bleu in Winston-Salem, where the French dip variation was too strong to ignore. The best appetizer was at Table 16 — a traditional carpaccio made with excellent ingredients and a bit of restraint. The most attention to detail goes to a sevencourse seafood event at 223 South Elm in Greensboro, where all of the fish was hand-selected at Pike Place Fish Market by a guy named Mike. The best soup I ate was a beef burgundy at the apartment of Charlie and Ruth Jones. And the best pairing I experienced was a four-course wine dinner paired with the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Vertigo. The best dessert I ate was a dark chocolate truffle with sea salt, purchased for me by an exuberant young woman at Loco for Coco in Greensboro. “You can’t eat it in one bite,” she said. “Men always want to do that. You need to take two bites to savor it.” And the biggest loss for the Triad’s culinary scene is the shuttering of Crush 1345, once the restaurant of Ronnie and Noel Stevens, one of many great Triad eateries lost in 2008.

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Bleu in Winston-Salem served the best sitdown lunch I had all year.

Roger Devall, of Cafe Potato Workz, makes his own olive salad for the muffalettas.

A piece of fried okra artfully placed atop a crab cake was but one of the highlights of a seven-course meal at 223 South Elm.