On this final day of 2017, I’ve decided to take a look back at my best dining experiences of the year and share them with you. My job affords me the opportunity to travel, and this year, I got to visit some really fun destinations, and eat some truly inspired food. My work took me to a few places I’d never been before, including Vegas, Ohio and Upstate New York. I also returned to a few familiar states, and at each location, I ate somewhere notable. Whether an appetizer, main course or dessert, each of these dishes were bursting with flavor and made an impressive presentation.
When I visit a restaurant for the first time, I almost always seek out the signature menu item or ask the wait staff about the chef’s best dish. My reasons for this are twofold: 1) For the thrill of eating it and 2) because I learn from it. I enjoy experiencing the flavor combinations and seeing how the chef plates each component. Creativity and art come together! Today, I’ll share my top 5 restaurant experiences from 2017, featuring the most memorable menu item of the evening. Maybe these dishes will inspire you to experiment in the kitchen, or book your next flight.
1. Flying Fish Café, Orlan-do, Florida: “Under the Sea”
If you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World, you may be familiar with the boardwalk area near Epcot. While there over the summer, I dined at the Flying Fish Cafe. This restaurant appealed to me on so many levels. From the moment you walk in, you feel as though you have stepped inside the sea. With immaculate ambiance and a sustainable seafood and contemporary American menu, I experienced a visually stunning and delectable meal.
The grand finale was the restaurant’s signature dessert titled, "Under the Sea," featuring Valrhona Manjari chocolate (that’s a dark chocolate brand which originates from Madagascar with notes of red and dried fruits), chocolate coral sponge, pistachio sand, dehydrated milk foam and tasting of three sea salts Contempo-rary cuisine at its finest. What a way to end dinner!
2. Wildflowers at Turning Stone, Verona, New York: Goat Cheese Panna Cotta
While in Verona in June, I ate at my first Forbes Travel Guide four-star rated restaurant. Wildflowers is tucked inside The Lodge at Turning Stone Resort and Casino. A 65-seat, intimate dining space, my colleague and I sat side-by-side at a booth which faced a large picture window overlooking a fountain and beautifully landscaped grounds.
As we awaited the main course, the chef sent us bites from the kitchen to tantalize our taste buds. On a single spoon, the most beautiful presentation of goat cheese panna cotta with a layer of red currant jam arrived, topped with none other than an edible wildflower. Warm cream and goat cheese are blended together with gelatin and flavored with red currant jam for a savory bite. That single bite set the tone for an unforgettable meal of Dover Sole a la Meuniere classically prepared with brown butter, lemon, capers and parsley.
The fish was perfectly cooked, light and beautifully presented. To cook something “a la Meuniere” simply means to first dredge it in flour. Everything sounds better in French.
3. Alligator Soul, Savannah, Georgia: Drunken Mussels
While we’re on this notion of fine dining, I couldn’t possibly forget to mention a local spot. Alligator Soul in Savannah is a must-visit dining destination. My sweet husband has taken me on a few special dates here, and this year, we celebrated our second wedding anniversary in the underground, romantic space. The menu changes seasonally, ensuring the freshest ingredients with a focus on local, regional and dayboat fare.
Among the menu selections is a special section for the wild and adventurous. You can order exotic meats such as elk, antelope, kangaroo, ostrich, game birds and red deer. We thoroughly enjoyed the Drunken Mussels in beer broth, presented with sweet peppadew peppers and smoked Tasso ham.
4. Kayne Prime, Nashville, Tennessee: Popcorn Buttered Lobster
You read that right…lobster popcorn! Have you ever heard of such? I love it when a chef combines a humble ingredient like popcorn with a fancy one like lobster. The name of the dish alone was enough to make me order it. Kayne Prime is an exquisite steakhouse located in The Gulch neighborhood of Nashville. If you’re ever in Music City, please eat here. The salty, crunchy popcorn was presented over succulent lobster meat, all drizzled with butter. It was mouthwatering on every level.
5. Village Social, Asheville, North Carolina: Frogmore Stew
You may have read my last food column about our winter wonderland vacation. I mentioned my favorite dish from the trip, which I experienced at Village Social, a restaurant on the Biltmore Estate. I ordered Frogmore Stew, or as many of you may know it, a Lowcountry Boil. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill sausage, potato and shrimp song though. Resting in the most flavorful, light broth I have ever tasted and served with two grilled slices of crusty French bread for dipping, the dish included shrimp, clams, lobster, corn, andouille sausage and a mixture of small purple and white tender potatoes. I enjoyed the dish so much, I requested the recipe. The sous chef himself sent it to me just last week, and it’s too good to keep to myself.
Recipe courtesy of Village Social Sous Chef Ronnie Collins, Biltmore
1 smoked onion (diced)
2 Andouille sausage (diced)
1 bunch leeks, sliced and washed
1 carrot, large and diced
1 celery, large and diced
2 corn cobs, halved
8 garlic cloves. whole
4 bay leaves
1 bunch thyme
1 bunch tarragon
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 quart shellfish stock
1 cup white wine
Tabasco to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon juice to taste
Sweat all veggies in olive oil. Add tomato paste and cook 1 minute. Deglaze with wine, reduce to au sec, or nearly dry. Add seafood stock and sausage, and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and season to taste.
To assemble the stew:
½ gallon Frogmore broth
8 oz. corn
8 oz. sliced Andouille sausage
8 oz. Little Neck clams
8 oz. lobster tail
8 oz. white wine
1 tbsp. minced shallot
1 tbsp. minced garlic
Simmer all ingredients in enough broth to cover, cook until clams are open and lobster tail is cooked through, serve.
In the words of English writer Virginia Woolf, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” May you dine well in 2018 and Happy New Year to you and yours!
Georgia native Rebekah Faulk Lingenfelser is a food enthusiast, writer and the cooking show host of SKG-TV on YouTube. The personality behind the blog, SomeKindaGood.com, she is a public relations graduate of Georgia Southern University and attended Savannah Technical College’s Culinary Institute of Savannah. Search Facebook for Some Kinda Good or tweet her @SKGFoodBlog.