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A professional foodie's top 10 bites of 2010

Posted 5:06pm on Friday, Dec. 31, 2010

Eating for a living has its perks - I get to taste a whole lot of pretty wonderful stuff. There are times, however, when mediocrity (or just the tragically bad efforts) interfere with the rapture. Still, I choose to revel in the good flavors I'm fortunate enough to find in my relentless study of food.

Looking back over this year, I realize it was better than many. Travels across the state and to points well beyond the Texas state line included plenty of memorable dishes, including lovely grilled quail at Edith's in Cabo San Lucas; Cubanita torta at La Condesa in Austin; and grilled flying fish in Barbados. Whittling the list down to something manageable in North Texas dining was tricky, but I love a good list. Herewith, in no particular order, 10 of the best things I tasted in 2010 in my own backyard.

1. The chile relleno at Salsa Fuego, Fort Worth. Assigned to find the best Mex-Mex in North Texas for a Texas Monthly feature, I finally took friends' recommendations to try out this little spot way out by the Cowtown Farmers Market. And eureka - this was some of the best food I found all year long. I truly loved the poblano relleno, a large roasted chile splayed open and filled with grilled chicken pieces mingling with mushroom, tomato, spinach and garlic, topped with crumbled feta, all resting atop a dark ranchero sauce.

2. Banana walnut french toast at Inn on Lake Granbury, Granbury. At the elegant little escape just 45 minutes south of Fort Worth, innkeeper Cathy Casey bowls me over with each of her handmade breakfast offerings. Sweet, nutty and ridiculously sinful, this sweet roll casserole was exactly what we needed on a very cold winter's morning last February. She does something different every day, but you might call ahead and put in a request.

3. Hamachi kama at Tokyo Cafe, Fort Worth. Also called yellowtail collar, this chargrilled plate of fish cheeks makes me giddy. Sounds odd but trust me, worth the adventurous spirit you need to order it. So tender, so rich, the lush meat pulls away from the bone in shreds. You don't need soy or ponzu or anything. And if you can't help yourself, it's perfectly fine to pick it up and eat with your hands.

4. Grits at Brownstone, Fort Worth. Hang the calories, because Casey Thompson doesn't do prissy with this dish. It's all about butter and cream and pepperjack cheese. Get your own individual crock because you don't want to share it. Made with stoneground grits from the Homestead Gristmill just outside of Waco, you can't find better grits than this brunch treasure.

5. Pumpkin stuffed with everything good, my house. This recipe came from Dorie Greenspan's new book Around My French Table: More than 300 recipes from my home to yours, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40). Sort of a savory bread pudding, this is made by hollowing out a pumpkin and stuffing it with cubed baguette, a mix of French and swiss cheeses, garlic, bacon, chives, thyme, pecans, spinach and pears. Then you pour cream laced with nutmeg over the stuffing, put the top back on the pumpkin and bake for 2 hours at 350 degrees. Serve with a bottle of pinot noir and you've got a great winter supper.

6. Blue crab and white gazpacho cocktail, Chefs for Farmers, Fort Worth. Jon Bonnell, owner-chef at Bonnell's in Fort Worth, made this phenomenal cool soup for the first course at the recent Chefs for Farmers event at Times Ten Cellars. One of seven extraordinary courses at possibly the most exciting (culinarily speaking) event in 2010, this will stay in my memory a long time. (The next such event will be March 13 at Highland Park Cafeteria, Dallas.)

7, Housemade sausages at Smoke, Dallas. Chef Tim Byres makes everything from the ground up. That incredible bloody mary mix at brunch? He made it from scratch. Every component in every dish is something he crafts from original ingredients. If you love veggies, he's got plenty of 'em. But if you're into meat, try his sausages - vivid flavors emanate from the beef, rabbit and pork varieties. Each bite will astound.

8. Vanilla grits with butter lobster and rum caviar, Fuego, Dallas. Stephan Pyles has a teensy restaurant within a restaurant, calling his four-seat counter space Fuego, so named for the wood-burning oven he uses when making this tasting menu dinner by reservation only. Each night, it's different. The courses on my visit were fairly mind-blowing, as most molecular gastronomy is. These are just tiny bites of uber-inspired items, which are nothing like anything you've ever tried. Of the 12 mini-courses served during my visit one night in November, I particularly liked his snapper tiradito, and duck croque monsieur. It's a pricey evening ($125 per person, plus $75 if you want wine pairings - which are stunning) but well worth the dime if you truly love elegant food.

9. Fried okra at York Street, Dallas. Oh, how I will miss the simple but divine food that comes from the brilliant mind and kitchen of Sharon Hage, who just closed the doors at her renowned York Street. We stopped in just to chat one afternoon last spring and she put out a plate of flash-fried fresh okra that she's lightly dusted in cornmeal and scattered with kosher salt. Like everything she does, it was genius in its uncomplicated glory. We look forward to her next venture.

10. Raw bar at Whole Foods Market, Dallas. What a revelation - raw food that actually tastes pretty fabulous. At the new landmark store on Park Lane (across from NorthPark), there's a whole prepared raw foods section that knocked our lights out. Chef Sam Dickey and staff amaze with crazy-good ideas, such as cheesecake, crepes, nori rolls and much more - all from fresh, organic, uncooked ingredients. If I lived closer, how much healthier might I be?

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