My Top Ten Culinary Experiences of 2014

In 2014, I was very fortunate to have experienced some of the greatest meals I have ever had in my life. In my world, food and wine go hand in hand, “like a wink and a smile.

 

I believe that a marriage of great meal and fabulous bottle of wine, like in all great couples, enhance one another and create a whole other entity, exponential in its nature.

 

The following medley of meals, listed in alphabetical order, stood out in the string of many other meaningful ones, and created the lasting impression.

 

Ad Hoc – Yountville, California

 

Ad Hoc is a relatively low profile restaurant that belongs to Thomas Keller. Keller purchased this Yountville restaurant, formerly known as Wine Garden, several years ago. At first, he couldn’t figure out which direction to take his new acquisition. In the interim, he opened a family style eatery that served generous portions of elevated comfort food, utilizing fresh produce sourced from his garden and local farms. I have eaten at Ad Hoc dozens of times. Invariably delicious, every meal there is memorable. I particularly enjoy Sunday brunch, which features the best Bloody Mary made in America.

 

Wine pairing: Ad Hoc has a small, but smart wine list showcasing some local producers, along with a handful of imports. It’s well priced and versatile. If you can’t find anything to your liking, opt for a $25 corkage fee and BYOB.

 

Ad Hoc

 

Basque Kitchen and Bar – Auckland, New Zealand

 

I’ve had a number of great meals in New Zealand, but this was a standout. Inspired by Spanish fare of the famed Basque province, owner and chef James King turns out authentic tapas and hearty, traditional Spanish meals that keep patrons coming back for more. I loved every bite.

 

Wine pairing: There is an extensive selection of Spanish wines, but I could not resist bringing some of the glorious New Zealand wine with me. Cloudy Bay Te Koko barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc did the trick – what a powerhouse!

 

Basque Kitchen and Bar Auckland

 

Culinary Institute of AmericaSt Helena, California

 

The CIA’s restaurants are run by culinary students, under the watchful eye of experienced instructors. The beauty of this is that the food essentially passes two inspections, one by an eager apprentice, striving for excellence, one by the Master. The food is simple, flavorful and spectacularly honest. My Black Pepper Cured Strip Loin was so perfect, I was happy as a clam (which they do serve raw, from Littleneck). If you are in St Helena, make a point of dining there.

 

Wine pairing: Insiders tip:  The CIA has an exceptionally broad and well priced wine list.  As an integral part of Napa Valley wine culture, the CIA celebrates the marriage of wine and food. Their “Lessons in Wine” wine flights are instructive for novices as well as oenophiles.

 

Want to know more about CIA? Take a look at my article recounting my “Wine Boot Camp” experience here.

 

CIA St Helena

La Cranquette – Gruissan, France

 

This Mediterranean restaurant, with strong emphasis on fresh local seafood, cooked up one of my favorite meals this year. During a recent trip to France, I found myself at the table of Julien Privat, Chef de cuisine of  La Cranquette, a small restaurant in the southern town of Gruissan. Their jumbo wild prawns and carpaccio of fresh Ahi were delicious. Completing my meal was an orgasmic version of lemon meringue pie with red currant/raspberry coulis.

 

Wine pairing: This meal was paired with the fantastic portfolio of local wines from Languedoc producer, Chateau Pech Redon. I especially enjoyed the 2012 Les Centauree and 2013 Les Cades.

 

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Paley’s Place – Portland, Oregon

 

Chef Vitaly Paley’s skill shows brilliantly in his flavor spectrum and thoughtful choices. I still dream of his butter poached potatoes and his modern take on a decadent French classic – foie gras stuffed rabbit. Should you find yourself in Portland, don’t miss his inspired cuisine.

 

Wine pairing: My meal was paired with wines from Domaine Serene, a well established Oregon winery that specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

 

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Per Se – New York City

 

This past year I was very fortunate to celebrate my birthday Per Se style. My present? An opportunity to tour Per Se’s brilliant kitchen and wine cellar. Anyone who has eaten at the French Laundry or any of Thomas Keller’s bicoastal Michelin-starred establishments know they are in for a tremendous sensorial treat.  Eating at Per Se is not mere dining; it is a theatrical experience, orchestrated to provide sensory overload.  When you simply can’t take any more, the desserts keep on coming.  Be prepared to walk away with miniature dessert display in your elegant “doggie bag” as a gift from your gracious host.

 

Wine pairing: Perusing Per Se’s wine list isn’t for the weak of heart. The list is so extensive, it is presented on an iPad.  Hopefully your date will be patient and understanding if you seem to be more enamored with the wine list than your dining companion!

 

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Quince – San Francisco, California

 

Michael Tusk’s restaurant has been wowing critics and diners for years. He is well known for his ethereal pasta creations. Complimentary protein and vegetable driven dishes are prepared using the local ingredients personally selected by Michael. His pastry Chef, Carolyn Nugent, is a formidable talent that will make a believer even out of an anti-dessert person.

 

Wine pairing: Quince’s wine list is one of the best in the city. You could randomly poke at a wine on a page and be totally fine. I was also impressed by his selection of digestifs. The Amaros that I sipped supplied a lovely conclusion to a prefect meal.

 

Find out more about my Quince dining adventure here.

 

The Restaurant at Meadowood – St Helena, California

 

This three Michelin star restaurant, ran by Christopher Kostow, has received accolades from virtually every notable food critic. In addition to full course menus, they provide an option of  “Spa bites”—a limited progressive menu of sophisticated hors d’ouvres. This restaurant’s menu proves that highly stylized food need not be sterile. Their dishes and can be quite authentic in nature, yet packaged with whimsy.

Wine pairing: The restaurant’s wine list reads like a wine encyclopedia. The tome includes a mind-boggling selection of rare wines from all over the world along with a hefty nod to California cults. The wine list is tempting, but consider starting your meal with one of their exceptional cocktails crafted by their skilled and thoughtful bartender.

 

(Image credit: Meadowood St Helena)

Siena Restaurant, Meritage Resort and Spa – Napa Valley, California

 

The restaurant at this beautiful resort was an unexpected surprise. I was bowled over by Chef Krisztian Karkus’ food. I loved every bite of his seamless fusion of old world charm and modern elegance. It’s Napa’s best kept secret.

 

Wine pairing: Siena’s wine list is quite nice and well priced. Krisztian is intimately  involved with the wine selections and pairings, so you can trust your server’s recommendations.

 

More on Meritage Resort and Spa here.

 

(Image credit: Meritage Resort)

Walnut Creek Yacht Club – Walnut Creek, California

 

This establishment lacks in pretence, but delivers in abundance.  The restaurant features the freshest sustainable seafood in the area, fair pricing, thoughtful preparation and great customer service. I am obsessed with their cioppino and fish tacos.

 

Wine pairing: WCYC’s wine list is limited, but features some thoughtful selections for a seafood-driven restaurant. Their cocktails are the best in the SF Bay Area. Don’t believe me? Ask Bay Area A-list consumers who voted them #1 two years in a row, above such bar titans as Bourbon & Branch and Bar Agricole. Try one of my favorites, their signature Zentini an concoction made with vodka, fresh lime juice, mint and ginger syrup, served Martini style.

 

Walnut Creek Yacht Club

 

Zazu – Sebastopol, California

 

Duskie Estes has an enviable number of accomplishments. She is the owner of a number of highly regarded restaurants, a competitor on The Next Iron Chef  and a beloved culinary icon in her Sonoma county community.  Her professional philosophy revolves around “nose to tail” cuisine, with a focus on pig. Her inspiration comes from fresh local ingredients, some of which comes from her own farm, that she highlights on her ever changing menu. She is a staunch advocate for sustainability and food integrity. Her fried rabbit sandwich changed my life.

 

Wine pairing: What doesn’t pair with pig? Perhaps only bad attitude. Zazu has a great wine list featuring local wines and terrific cocktails. Pin your ears back and dive in!

 

Zazu Sebastopol

 

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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