The new year is upon us, and I hope you'll permit me, dear readers, to wax nostalgic for a moment. Last year, I celebrated the holidays in an asbestos-laden hallway of the Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., sipping boxed wine and chatting with other poor souls about spreadsheets. People speak of food deserts, and at this point in my life, I was living in one. My year in review for 2012 would have consisted of Tater Tots from the work cafeteria's steam table and packaged ramen — all that I could afford after paying $2,000 in rent.
This July I returned to my hometown and took my dream job — as a professional eater and writer. I'd only been away for five years, but in that time, the St. Louis food and beverage scene transformed, rivaling — no, beating — anything I saw on the East Coast. I've had the privilege of rediscovering my beloved city through food and wanted to share the best of what I've found in 2013. These are my picks for the year's best new dishes — don't let 2014 pass you by without trying them all.
Butter garlic chicken wings at Mi Linh
9737 Manchester Road, Rock Hill; 314-918-8868
Unequivocally, the best thing I ate this year was the butter garlic chicken wings at Mi Linh. This was the pick that almost wasn't, as I was nearly too embarrassed to order chicken wings at a Vietnamese restaurant. I got over that pretty quickly when these crispy beauties showed up at the table. They were the first things I thought of the next morning when I woke up. In fact, I often find myself drifting off fantasizing about these juicy wings resting on a bed of onions, coated in peppery drippings. It's a problem.
M'lwee at Baida
3191 South Grand Boulevard; 314-932-7950
It's hard to believe it has taken this long for St. Louis to get a Moroccan restaurant, but Baida finally brought the North African cuisine to town this year. While couscous and tajines are the better-known staples of Moroccan food, it's the m'lwee — layers of flaky dough wrapped around kefta, or ground beef — that stole my heart. Somehow, the folks at Baida dam up the beef jus in the pastry so that the first bite releases a burst of juicy flavor, yet the dough stays crispy. It defies the laws of physics.
Shortbread biscuits at Table
1821 Cherokee Street; 314-449-1888
I could close my eyes, randomly point my finger to a dish on Table's menu and select that item as one of my favorite dishes for 2013 — Cassy Vires' cooking is just that good. With offerings such as cassoulet or pork-cheek ragout, the fact that I am selecting the biscuits as my favorite dish from Table really says something about their perfection. Maybe it's the sea-salt flakes that dust their flaky tops. Perhaps it's the way the shaved vanilla bean in the cream butter brings out the subtle sweetness. Whatever it is, I found myself popping them in my mouth, one after another, without shame or decorum.
Johnny cake at Tree House
3171 South Grand Boulevard; 314-696-2100
Somehow, Tree House managed to satisfy this omnivore's need for fatty richness with its johnny cake, a cornmeal and black bean pancake topped with vegetarian escabeche, chimichurri and malagueta sauce. Had I not known the dish was vegetarian, I would have sworn that the topping was slow-braised short ribs. If all vegetarian food was this satisfying, I would give up meat — well, maybe not, but I could easily make it through a "Meatless Monday" with this one.
Pork belly at Element
1419 Carroll Street; 314-241-1674
So often, I order pork belly and am either overwhelmed by the richness or disappointed by its chewiness. The pork belly at Element is exactly how it's supposed to be done — so buttery and soft it was almost spreadable. Like everything I had there, this dish was the embodiment of perfect execution.
"Three Little Birds" at the Libertine
7927 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-862-2999
Leave it to Josh Galliano to make the "chicken option" one of the most interesting items on his menu. This whimsical stack of game hen, chicken and quail may sound like a haute version of a turducken, but this is not gimmicky food. Each layer is more buttery than the last, and his maque choux, one of 2013's trendiest accompaniments, is the best in town.
Popcorn panna cotta at Central Table Food Hall
23 South Euclid Avenue; 314-932-5595
I've been waiting my whole life for an excuse to eat brown butter with a spoon. Thankfully, Central Table Food Hall made that dream come true with the brown butter ice cream on its popcorn panna cotta dessert. It was embarrassingly indulgent, made even more so by a topping of Cracker Jack and some Pop Rocks. Without question, this was the dessert of the year.