“Best of 2015” lists are dropping left and right. Here’s my own “best of 2015” restaurant list of this past year, mostly from the Triangle area, but with a few additions from some of my travels:
Best Overall Restaurant Experience:
Sage, Las Vegas
In a word, my fine-dining experience at Sage was transcendent. One of the Aria hotel’s flagship restaurants, Sage offered a five-course dinner that was extraordinary–and expensive as well. At nearly $200 per person (with one glass of wine), the meal filled with dishes like Wagyu tartare, cardamom soup and exquisitely constructed panna cotta felt like feasting on gastronomical art. I usually despise fine-dining and their stuffy approach to food, but this luxurious dinner and its impeccable service hit the right spot while on an abbreviated Las Vegas vacation.
Runner-up: Buxton Hall Barbecue, Asheville
Elliott Moss’ (formerly of The Admiral) latest outpost, a BBQ joint named Buxton Hall Barbecue, opened this past year in the South Slope neighborhood in Asheville. The renovated skating rink now houses some pit-smoked BBQ that is not to missed.
Coffeehouses not named “Starbucks” are a rare find these days. Sola stays true to its independent roots and serves some of the best coffee drinks using Durham’s Counter Culture coffee beans in all of the Triangle. The drinks are good, the food (both savory and sweet) are recommended and for a cozy coffeehouse ambiance, it’s one of the best in the area.
For a well-brewed cup of coffee, pour-over or otherwise, Raleigh’s Jubala can’t be beat. Cocoa Cinnamon in Durham also serves a great cup of coffee and offers a pretty nice patio area to get some work done.
Best Upscale Ethnic Eats:
Bida Manda, Raleigh
I’ve long avoided Bida Manda in Raleigh for two reasons: I didn’t think it could live up the hype and I could never do enough thinking ahead to secure a weekend reservation. Well, I recently righted my wrong and am glad I did. Bida Manda successfully marries the aromatic and fresh savory, spicy and citrus-y components of Laotian cuisine and wraps it up and presents it in a cool, trendy eatery downtown. Best of all, it kind of distinguishes itself from the ubiquity of the downtown Raleigh restaurant scene–how many cities can brag and say that they have an awesome Laotian place in the heart of their downtown?
Best New Dim Sum Addition:
Golden Palace, Raleigh
Raleigh, and this whole Triangle area, was aching for a new dim sum spot. Luckily, Golden Palace answered the call and gave us a pretty decent dim sum restaurant. You’ll find little plates of turnip cakes, sesame balls, gai lan, shui mai being transferred from push cart to table at Golden Palace. And, if you’re lucky, you might be able to get your hands on some xiaolongbao. Rumor has it that the famous soup dumplings have returned.
Best Romantic Venue for a Date Night:
I’ve long extolled the virtues of Guglhupf in Durham. And though I love it and its lunch menu, I still can never remember how to spell its name. No matter though, the place is still pretty darn good. I recently stopped by for a quick dessert and sat out on the patio under strings of lights overhead. The temperature was perfect outside and I realized just how utterly romantic this place was, set apart from the hustle and bustle of downtown Durham just a tiny bit, and how much of a respite it was. It’s a lovely urban oasis and a great place to take a date.
Vortex Doughnuts, Asheville
I’ll totally admit that I’ve only had Vortex Doughnuts once. But that one time was enough to have me hooked. On any subsequent visit to Asheville, I’ll make a beeline there back again to get a taste of the salted caramel and dark chocolate ganache smothered yeast doughnut. I’m not even a huge doughnut fan in the first place (I’d much rather have a bagel over a doughnut in the morning), but these donuts were ethereal. I now understand Homer’s love of the breakfast pastry. The 1000 Faces coffee was delicious as well.
Runner-up: Rise, Raleigh
Rise is quickly dominating the Triangle with its doughnuts. Two new shops of the burgeoning eatery have recently popped up in North Raleigh and the Cameron Village area. There’s a good reason why Rise is becoming so popular. The doughnuts are damn good. And they’re always changing up the variety with unique flavors like Cheerwine and Maple Bacon Bar.
Best Brewery Experience:
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (East Coast), Mills River
The East coast brewing facility of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is a sight to behold. It’s the Biltmore Estate of beer and for any beer aficionado, it’s worth a visit to check out the sprawling Eastern headquarters of the Chico, Californa-based brewing company. Sierra Nevada gives guided tours of the building each day (book early!) and visitors can also take self-guided tours to see the historical memorabilia and its impressive bottling facility. The taproom also serves great fare, and of course, great beer. They also host shows in their outdoor amphitheatre–I think that the last time I was there, The Drive-By Truckers were scheduled to perform later that fall.
Best Bar for Drinks:
Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria, Raleigh
You don’t often find an intimate bar that not everyone knows about…yet. Gallo Pelón may be one of those places. It’s tucked above Centro in downtown Raleigh with a few seats at the bar, a smattering of tables and a cozy outdoor patio. The drinks, especially the cocktails like the Oaxacan Mule and the Benito Juarez, and its vast selection of mezcal, are why you must give this bar a try.
Fluffy and sweet. Two reasons why the biscuits at Jubala in Raleigh are the bomb. They’ve gotten quite the reputation around town and on any given day at the Raleigh coffeeshop, you can see coffee lovers rounding out their morning caffeinated beverage with a sweet, fluffy biscuit slathered with jam or topped with bacon and egg.
Best New Food Truck Find:
Dank Burrito, Morehead City
Burritos at Dank Burrito get a little bit of twist with fillings like jerk chicken and teriyaki chicken. That twist was met with mouth-watering satisfaction at a recent food truck rodeo in Raleigh. My perfect burrito was served to me, one called the pork belly burrito served with kimchi, rice, beans, and pickled vegetables drizzled in a sweet Thai chili sauce. I only wish that Dank Burrito would install a permanent location in town, but I’ll take the food truck when I can get it.
Boulted Bread, Raleigh
I’ve never known bread as good as it is at Raleigh’s Boulted Bread. The levain is wonderful chewy, meaty and aromatic and Boulted’s pastries are on another level. It’s close to the North Carolina Farmer’s Market and you should stop by if you’re nearby. You won’t regret getting its breads or croissants– buttery and flaky to perfection .
Runner-up: Lucettegrace, Raleigh
Raleigh is really stepping up their bakery game and Lucettegrace is one of the major players. Its pastries are to die-for, especially the Dixie Cannonball, a cheddar and scallion biscuit filled with warm, gooey sausage gravy is a must-order at the downtown Raleigh bakery.
Best Pop-up Experience:
Snap Pea Catering, Chapel Hill
If pop-up dinners are your bag, then Snap Pea Catering probably would be up your alley. Chef Jacob Boehm and Pastry Chef Rachel Schmidt collaborate to create fun and inventive multi-course dinners sourced from local ingredients that tie together through different themes. Locations of dinners are kept secret until the day before and tickets need to be purchased in advance. Dishes at my pop-up experience were inspired by the process behind steel-making.
Best Artisan Chocolates:
Year after year, I return to Escazu for its chocolates. My love for these beautiful chocolates has never waned and continues, and probably until eternity. Luckily for me, the assortment of flavors changes frequently, making the experience of going in to pick the exact ones I want so much fun. Truffle flavors like strawberry balsamic and chipotle caramel always beckon me back to the Mordecai chocolatier.