One-of-a-Kind Experience of the Year:
Chef’s Table at Alba
“Give me a price, a number of courses you’re interested in trying, and alert me to any allergies, and we’ll be happy to create a tasting menu for you,” says Garrett Dotsch, general manager at Alba. “In fact, we prefer that rather than ordering off the regular menu so we can guide the experience and create a nice flow.”
The custom tasting experience is available Tuesday through Thursday at the chef’s table at the East Village new-American bistro. Otherwise, the table can be reserved any Tuesday through Saturday when Alba is open for dinner. (Monday it’s often snapped up by people indulging in the $6 burger-and-fries night available in the adjacent bar.)
On a blustery winter day in late 2019, I booked the chef’s table with a dining companion, and we asked executive chef Mason Althiede and his kitchen wizards to team up with Dotsch to share the best of the best on their food and drink menu at the time. We still can’t stop thinking about the luscious syrah, the peppery chorizo-sweet potato bisque, and the expertly seared scallops. The fires jumping in the background and the friendly banter with the chefs only sweetened the deal. With the sweet-tart Lemon Shaker Creme Brulee to cap things off, we had to restrain ourselves from standing to applaud the show we had just witnessed.
The Best al Fresco Meal:
Come summer, the best seat in the house at this charming Sherman Hill Italian restaurant is, well, outside the house. The wraparound porch on the 1880 house that holds Aposto restaurant and its upstairs private dining venue is the place to share a bottle of bubbly and a generous spread of executive chef Shawn Bennigsdorf’s charcuterie.
If you’re lucky enough to arrive when Lou Ann’s Italian Wedding Cake is on the menu, like I was when I visited with a pal last summer, trust your gut. Yes, you want a slice. Each. Owner Tony Lemmo, who bakes the mascarpone-frosted cakes from scratch in honor of his mom, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Most Adventurous Ingredients of the Year:
Raised on Hamburger Helper and skillet chicken dinners, 14-year-old me would have never imagined devouring—and delighting in—halibut cheeks. Or crispy duck skin. Or sake kasu gelato (served as the a la mode portion of a creative spin on sweet potato pie).
But here we are, at this locally sourced, inventive Ingersoll hot spot helmed by five-time James Beard Award nominee Joe Tripp. Safer-and-still-scrumptious options are always available on the menu if you’re bringing the family (ahem, my meat-and-potatoes Dad), but you’ll get the best taste bud tour and culinary education if you opt for the five-course tasting menu.
The Most Artistic Plates:
Scroll through the @rirestaurant Instagram feed and you’ll almost be convinced that chef/co-owner Jacob Demars’ recipes are too pretty to eat.
Almost, until the plates land on your table at the Windsor Heights new-American restaurant. Minutes later, if you’re anything like the trio that surrounded our table, you’re holding yourself back from licking the plate clean. (I retract that statement. My friend did actually swipe his finger across the shell that held the artfully crafted Cape Ann Baked Stuffed Clam. No holding back and no regrets here.)
The works of art will live on in your photo album, but the flavors that result in his seasonal dishes are the true masterpieces. Don’t miss them.
The Best Food and Drink Pairing:
Illahe Wine Dinner at the Cheese Bar
Normally closed on Mondays, the Cheese Bar and its sister spot in the Shops at Roosevelt, the Cheese Shop, sometimes open for classes and tastings. A sure cure for any case of the Mondays is some meltingly smooth brie and warm bread, in my opinion.
This is one time it pays off to be a follower: “Like” both of owner C.J. Bienert’s brands on Facebook and sign up for their email newsletters and you’ll be among the first to know about these often-sold-out events. Invite your friends (and make some more along the way at the communal tables) and learn about everything from the cheese-making process to the best way to pair chocolate and cheese.
If all of the classes and pop-ups are as delightful as the small plates pairing designed by chef Brett McClavy and a vintner from Oregon’s Illahe Vineyards, you won’t want to be left on the waiting list.