By Robert St. John
Every year for the past 12 years I have written an end-of-the-year column consisting of the favorite meals I have eaten throughout the previous year. The list is not about fine dining and upscale restaurants, exclusively. Some of the best meals I eat throughout the year are in people’s homes or in dive-bar restaurants I call “joints.”
2012 was an atypical year. The first two months were spent winding down an eating/writing excursion through 17 European countries. Later in the year, I returned to Tuscany for two weeks. As I sit here today looking back though the 2012 looking glass, the meals that made the greatest impressions on me are easy to remember:
10.) R&G Lounge Chinatown, San Francisco: The best Chinese restaurant I have ever visited. Period. The salt calamari was worth the red-eye flight home.
9.) Lunch at Antica Macelleria Cecchini, Ponzano, Italy: Dario Cecchini is legendary throughout the world. He works in his family butcher shop that has been in business for over 255 years, sings, dances, pours free grappa, and poses for photos with tourists. But behind the shtick he’s a man who knows his meat, and can operate an efficient, creative, and profitable restaurant operation.
8.) Mississippi Country Supper, Ann Ladner home, Sandy Hook, Miss.: My friend Jonathan invited several people to his grandmother’s home in the small community of Sandy Hook. What followed was a legendary feeding. Even in the annals of my culinary adventures, this one was memorable. The food was true, down-to-the-Marion-County-earth heritage cuisine. I ate five cathead biscuits that were slathered with butter and topped with homemade peach, strawberry, and fig preserves.
7.) Purple Parrot Manager Christmas Dinner at Donanelle’s: Every year, two hours before our company-wide Christmas party, I host my management team and their significant others for an intimate dinner where we discuss the previous year and I pass out Christmas bonus checks. Years ago I did this in my home. Eventually we moved to a few restaurants before our team landed (and intends to stay) on the steak/rib dive Donnanelli’s near the north gate of Camp Shelby. This year 30 of us dined on barbeque ribs and ribeyes. The pecan-smoked ribs were perfect, the steaks were excellent, but the company was humbling. For the only time in our 25-year history, I missed the dinner last year as we were in the Spain-leg of the journey.
I was overcome with an almost uncontrollable sense of gratitude for the talented members of our management team, the hard work and dedication they bring to their job every day, and the significant sacrifices made by their significant others.
6.) (tie) Christmas Eve Dinner, St. John home: This year we weren’t enjoying the Feast of the Seven Fishes on a Mediterranean beach in Malaga, Spain, we were eating turkey, dressing, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, Spinach Madeline, and pork tenderloin with muscadine glaze in the dining room of my home. Perfect.
6.) (tie) Breakfast at my brother’s farm in Sharkey County, Mississippi Delta: The eggs were pulled from the hen house the previous day, the honey came from hives behind the house, and the deer sausage was from the woods behind the house. The steak biscuits came from a spinalis steak I had cooked for dinner the night before. Faith, family, friends, food and fun.
5.) Lunch with my son, Captain John McGrath and the boat’s officers in the wardroom of the about-to-be-commissioned submarine U.S.S. Mississippi, Pascagoula, Miss.: The food was what one would expect on a submarine, but the experience was incredible. The Department of Navy asked for some of my recipes to be served on the U.S.S. Mississippi, and now a Virginia Class nuclear submarine is traveling the globe serving Corn and Crab Bisque and White Chocolate Bread Pudding.
4.) Milan-meets-Mississippi-friends dinner in the villa, Barbarino Val D’Elsa, Italy: We made lifelong friends during our travels. The closest friendships were made in Milan. We have stayed in touch with the Milanese and have made more joint travel plans in the future. On this occasion, our Mississippi friends who had been hearing so much about our Italian friends finally got to meet – and dine with – each other. A local lady named Rosanna prepared an excellent dinner, but she could have served Tuscan bread, olive oil and nothing else. The occasion was indelibly memorable.
3.) Longman & Eagle, Chicago: Longman & Eagle is a Michelin-starred restaurant in a dive bar in the Logan Square neighborhood. One would never know of the Michelin star since it has been stuck high on a shelf behind the back bar next to what looks like a couple of bowling trophies. We dined on roasted-marrow bones, pastrami-spiced pig’s head, wild boar sloppy joes, pork shank, and deconstructed rabbit pot pie. All of those dishes were excellent. But two items were in another stratosphere – a salad of compressed melon and fig with local greens, toasted pine nuts, artisanal goat cheese, and a honey-chili vinaigrette, and an English pea agnolotti with roasted Trumpet Royal mushrooms, Grana Padano, black truffle vinaigrette and fresh morels. Simple, delicate, excellent.
2.) Cibreo, Florence, Italy: Fabio Picchi is my favorite Italian chef. He has been serving upscale Italian food for over 30 years. We dined there twice in November. Italian perfection.
1.) Paul Bocuse Brasserie Sud in Lyon: This restaurant would be in the top 10 for no other reason than turning my 10-year-old son into a fan of cream of mushroom soup. The server brought an amuse bouche of cream of mushroom, and my son loved it so intensely he asked if he could have a larger portion for his first course. When it was time to order entrees he opted for his third bowl of Bocuse’s cream of mushroom soup.
Onward to 2013
Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.