As 2012 comes to a close, it's time to look back on some of the most all-around stellar meals I had the pleasure of consuming in the Valley.
From the fancy to the more familiar, here are 10 my most memorable bites of 2012.
- Sushi from ShinBay
There are Japanese restaurants all over the Valley, but once you've dined at this 2012 James Beard Award semifinalist in Scottsdale, helmed by chef Shinji Kurita, you've reached the top of the mountain. Kurita's omakase, or chef's choice dinners, are nothing short of elegant works of art, meticulously prepared, and made with fresh, seasonal delicacies. And its final selection before dessert, the sushi, is especially impressive. The wild-caught fish hailing mostly from Japan and features the most delicate flavor. It's an indulgence worth every cent.
Ravioli from Dolce Vita Italian Grocer
With a penchant for top-notch ingredients and a way of turning the simple into the sublime, it's no wonder the ravioli from this new Italian grocery and deli in east Mesa is so exceptional. Courtesy of Walter and Marti Bergamaschi, owners of the adjoining Gelato Dolce Vita, the scratch-made ravioli is lusciously soft and may be filled with anything from ricotta and spinach drizzled in a silky butter and sage sauce, to heady garlic and butter, to seasonal butternut squash. Delicious.
Haemul Soon Du Bu at Café Ga Hyang
Fantastic Korean food that stays up late makes this gem in Glendale an anomaly. But no matter what time of day, the haemul soon du bu, a hot and spicy Korean stew made with seafood, vegetables, and silky pieces of tofu, is always a pleaser. It is an angry dish at first - arriving at the table steaming, boiling, and cooking the jiggling raw egg cracked on top of it. However, after it cools and the rice is added, which, like the tofu, soaks up the broth and cuts the heat, it's a deeply flavorful dish that makes its eater very happy, indeed.
Berkshire Pork Country Ribs from The House
When it comes to the unification of meat and fire, chef Matt Carter is a master. And at his new restaurant in Scottsdale, our most primitive desire for cooked flesh can be satisfied in these grilled porky delights, seasoned beautifully and complemented by an apple fennel glaze. Lightly sweet with a scrumptious licorice flavor, they're served up with pieces of fennel and comforting popcorn grits for a dish meat lovers are sure to devour with relish.
Chorizo Meatloaf Buttermilk Biscuit Sandwich from Old Dixie's Southern Kitchen
When the Southern food trend happening in other parts of the country finally arrives in the Valley, this food truck will most likely be leading the way. The buttermilk biscuit sandwiches -- in particular, the chorizo meatloaf -- are especially noteworthy. Starring a lusciously smoky and mildly spicy chorizo sauce kissed with a touch of wine slathered over a chunk of perfectly seasoned meat and nestled inside a thick biscuit with a moist, rich crumb, this unique sandwich is true Southern comfort.
Pork Stomach and Black Pepper Pot from New Hong Kong Restaurant
Don't be fooled by its appearance. Hidden away in the kitchen at this weathered restaurant in Central Phoenix is Jian Yu, an accomplished chef with over 30 years of experience in Cantonese cuisine. Most adept at clay pot cooking, Yu's pork stomach and black pepper selection is Chinese comfort food with an offal edge. Featuring chewy spirals of pork stomach with scallions and peppercorns, the presentation, a trembling, steaming clay pot nearly blowing off its lid, is almost as enjoyable as the flavorful broth within.
Focaccia di Recco from Davanti Enoteca
Worth every penny of its $18 price, this dish, courtesy of chef Peter DeRuvo, is just one of the standouts at this Italian restaurant in Scottsdale owned by Chicago-based Francesca's Restaurants Group. A wooden board of thin and crispy baked bread, golden brown, bubbly, and filled with lusciously soft cow cheese arrives with an accompanying melting honeycomb. The sweet spread onto the savory amplifies the flavor and makes this dish one for the memory books.
Com Hen from Hue Gourmet
If you're going to take the time to indulge in the cuisine of the ancient citadel of Vietnam, you'll want to start with this one-of-a-kind dish at this counter-service eatery in Mekong Plaza, the Asian mall in Mesa. Clam broth poured over a textural potpourri of ingredients -- rice, peanuts, taro stems, pork belly, minced banana flowers, Vietnamese sesame rice crackers, and slices of green apple - makes for a complex medley of flavors with a taste as addictively peculiar as it is intense.
First Time Crepe from Crêpe Bar
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If everyone's first time were as memorable as the First Time Crepe from Jeff Kraus, chef and owner of this top-notch creperie in Tempe, our lives might all be a bit sweeter because of it. A brûléed banana gets tucked inside a griddled, slightly sweetened crepe smeared with Nutella. The crepe is then sliced, brûléed, placed atop a smear of more Nutella, and artfully surrounded by more torched banana, sliced strawberries, and spiced walnuts. For a first time, this one's pretty much perfect.
Escolar with Salsa Verde, Tomatoes, and Honey from Crudo
This year, chef Cullen Campbell moved his home of modern Italian fare to the back of a shopping center in East Phoenix. And although it's tricky to find, the payoff is worth a few go-arounds in the parking lot - especially when it comes to the grilled escolar. Firm, remarkably rich, and deftly prepared, the thick chunk of fish is coated in a superb signature salsa verde made with carrot greens, basil, and lemon and resting atop tomatoes and honey for a stunning array of flavors Campbell orchestrates effortlessly.