You had to look around a little to find this year's best dishes. There were few splashy restaurant openings — even fewer worthy of the hype they received. On the margins, however, tucked into strip malls and residential neighborhoods, there was some truly exciting food: two standout barbecue joints, a step forward for Mexican cuisine in St. Louis, a Thai restaurant that serves the best duck dish in town.
Most exciting of all? In a down economy, in a Lindenwood Park space that had been unkind to previous restaurants, one of our brightest culinary talents took a chance on opening his own place — and hit the jackpot.
Here, from the new restaurants I've reviewed in this column this year, are the ten best dishes of 2010:
10. Smoked chicken wings at Flavors BBQ Sports Bar & Grill, 4317 Manchester Avenue; 314-533-1288. The wings here are smoked, not fried, and they are massive. Each is served as one whole wing, all three parts (tip, middle wing and drumette) still attached, and even the typically scrawny tip is plumper than usual. The exterior has a peppery dry rub that negates the need for barbecue sauce. The meat is juicy and rich with the flavor of hickory smoke. I snapped the bones to get at every last morsel. "'Cue Factor," September 2, 2010
9. Meat shawarma at the Vine Mediterranean Café & Market, 3171 South Grand Boulevard; 314-776-0991. Inevitably your order of meat shawarma will contain a few pieces from the exterior of the spit — crisp, even crunchy, and enjoyable in its own way, like the edges of pork carnitas. But the majority of the meat is so tender you might think it had been braised. The flavor has the richness of pot roast, with enough of lamb's distinct flavor to keep things lively on the palate. "Mid-East Marvel," February 18, 2010
8. Pappardelle with stewed tomatoes and Italian sausage at the Tavern Kitchen + Bar, 2961 Dougherty Ferry Road, Valley Park; 636-825-0600. The pasta is served in a plain white bowl: flaxen ribbons of pasta slicked with sauce. Tomato is the dominant flavor of this sauce, rich, with a fleeting sweetness. The sausage adds depth, but this is emphatically not a meat sauce — you have to dig around to find a piece of sausage larger than a pebble. The highlight is the pappardelle itself, lightly chewy, its flavor nothing more complex than egg and flour but definitely there. "Comfort Me With Pork Belly," December 23, 2010
7. Lasagna at Mama Josephine's, 4000 Shaw Boulevard; 314-771-4001. The lasagna is served in a large bowl, as sure a sign as any of its serious intent. There are eight layers, though you will likely be too busy digging into the gravy-thick meat sauce — simmered for eight hours — to bother counting. The proportions are key: The lasagna does not swim in its own sauce, nor do the noodles overwhelm everything else with their floppy blandness. There is exactly enough soft, sweet ricotta, precisely enough melted mozzarella. "Oh, Mama!" July 22, 2010
6. Beef brisket at PM BBQ, Long Road and Edison Avenue (in Chesterfield Towne Centre), Chesterfield; 636-536-1966. Smoked for twelve hours and as tender as medium-rare roast beef, the brisket is as good as any in town. Brisket is a cut that's prone to dryness, which makes PM's preparation all the more impressive, given that they slice the meat about a quarter of an inch thick, not paper thin, allowing a smaller margin for error. These slices are also the ideal heft for conveying the meat's rich flavor without losing the nuances imparted by the smoke. "Smoke Detected," December 16, 2010
5. Torta ahogada at Taqueria Durango, 10238 Page Avenue, Overland; 314-429-1113. Ahogada means "drowned," and a torta ahogada brings carnitas and grilled onions on the traditional oblong bolillo roll coated with red-chile sauce. The sauce is smoky and, to my capsaicin-craving palate, medium hot. The carnitas are equally impressive: luscious with fat without seeming greasy, and quite flavorful. The onions add bite and a touch of sweetness, making for, on the whole, a terrific fork-and-knife sandwich. "For the Love of Tacos," May 27, 2010
4. Cassoulet at Brasserie by Niche, 4580 Laclede Avenue; 314-454-0600. The classic white-bean stew is served with pork (belly on my visit, now shoulder), a confit of duck leg and a garlicky pork sausage. The beans are the perfect texture, firm to the first bite but ultimately yielding. Each meat adds a distinct note — luscious meat, salty duck, lightly peppery sausage — and combine to make the Platonic ideal of hearty fare. "Honest to Goodness," February 4, 2010
3. Quesadillas tradicionales at Milagro Modern Mexican, 20 Allen Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-962-4300. Not quesadillas as we Americans know them. Rather, these resemble empanadas: a thin, crisp shell of fried corn masa stuffed with Chihuahua cheese and finely chopped and sautéed huitlacoche and wild mushrooms. The tangy cheese comprises the bulk of the filling, but the huitlacoche (or corn smut, a fungus) is what elevates the dish, its flavor earthy like a mushroom but also pleasantly sweet. The quesadillas are served atop a swirl of chipotle-lime sauce with pico de gallo on the side, a combo that gives the dish an extra pop. "All That and a Bowl of Chips," July 8, 2010
2. Gang kua ped yang (red curry with duck) at Addie's Thai House, 13441 Olive Boulevard, Chesterfield; 314-469-1660. The best Thai curry I've eaten in St. Louis, probably the best Thai dish I've had here and maybe the best duck dish, period. Remarkably, though the duck was chopped into half a dozen pieces and served (along with tomato, red bell pepper and pineapple) with at least part of each piece submerged in the curry, the skin retained its crispness, with just enough fat rendered that the meat gained flavor without losing its luscious nature. Like all good curries, this one was too complex to pinpoint any one ingredient; its initial brightness yielded to a good balance of savory and sweet and a lingering chile-generated warmth. Even at four stars on a four-star spiciness scale, the heat didn't obscure the subtle seasoning, and it provided a necessary counterweight to the sweetness of the coconut milk and pineapple. "Dear Addie," October 21, 2010
1. Poached escolar at Farmhaus, 3257 Ivanhoe Avenue; 314-647-3800. Since adolescence, chef and owner Kevin Willmann has been an avid fisherman, and his abiding love for the sea is manifested on the plate. My favorite dish of his seafood dishes was a Hawaiian escolar fillet poached in butter, dill and traminette (a semi-dry white wine) from Missouri's Chaumette Winery, served with grilled asparagus and two grilled blue prawns. The poaching liquid turned the fish, already very fatty by nature, decadently luscious, and the asparagus was plump and strongly flavored, but it was the blue prawns that made this dish. These were far more flavorful than your run-of-the-mill shrimp, with a beguiling briny sweetness. As a bonus, they were served head-on, so you could suck out the tastiest juices as you would with a crawfish. "'Haus Rules," June 10, 2010