The approaching new year has me in an auld lang syne mood. I thought I'd take a nostalgic look back at some of the most memorable dishes I enjoyed in 2007. I'd like to hear about your fondest dining out memories of the year, too. Tell me about them on my blog (http://blogs.newsobserver.com/epicurean/).
Tuna tartare (An, Cary): The fish was flawless, pearl-sized nuggets of ruby flesh punctuated by salmon roe, capers, a whisper of Dijon mustard, and crowned with a quail egg. But it's the presentation -- the serving plate nestled atop a small fishbowl, in which swam a single live Vietnamese fighting fish -- that etched this one permanently into my memory.
Pan-seared opa (Blu Seafood & Bar, Durham): Also known as moonfish, this warm water fish is known for its firm texture and rich, fatty flavor. After chef Tim Lyons worked his culinary alchemy, the fish had been transformed to an inch-and-a-quarter-thick slab of butter and essence of ocean.
Chef's table at the robatayaki bar (Fins, Raleigh): OK, this isn't a single dish, but a 14-course extravaganza starting with a ribbon of Tai snapper wrapped around finely diced peekytoe crab, and ending some three and a half hours later with black litchi tea. In between, every single course - from butter-poached prawns to cuttlefish in tomato water to Muscadine sorbet - sparkled.
Smoky slow-braised Mishima Ranch Kobe short rib (Herons, Cary): Possibly the most succulent, fall-apart-tender piece of beef I've ever put in my mouth. Chef Phil Evans served the rib with Carolina Ruby Red sweet potato gnocchi and garlic-sautéed spinach, a perfect pairing.
Gingerbread (J. Betski's, Raleigh): Warm and soft with a delicately crisp crust, the spicy fragrance transported me back to that magical Christmas I spent in Germany. Napped with a Koelsch sabayon, this dessert was simply wunderbar!
French fries (Metro 8 Steakhouse, Durham): Classic cut, consistently crisp and golden on the outside with nary a hint of extraneous grease, and creamy baked potato inside. In a word, flawless. The Argentine churrasco-style skirt steak they accompanied was mighty fine, too.
Arni kokkonisto (Nikos Taverna, Morrisville): Lamb shank as only the Greeks can do, braised in a tomato-enriched sauce until falling off the bone, and served over traditional Greek noodles with lots of chunky vegetables.
Duck leg braised in olive oil (Panciuto, Hillsborough): An entire leg-thigh quarter, the flesh succulent under a mahogany skin. Chef Aaron Vandemark served it with creamy grits and red-eye gravy: an inspired pairing - and I savored every bite.
Local spinach salad (Piedmont, Durham): Tossed with house-cured bacon, which is thicker, meatier and not as sweet as supermarket bacon. Topped with a perfect poached egg and served with delicately crisp brioche croutons which screamed "butter" with every bite.
Seared calf's liver (Rue Cler, Durham): It's no secret that I have a weakness for calf's liver. I'm glad I was sitting down when I enjoyed Rue Cler's rendition, which was seared just to the point that its rosy center practically liquefied when I bit into it. Because I'm pretty sure my knees buckled.
Korean barbecue (Seoul Garden, Raleigh): You get to cook the meat and accompanying vegetables yourself on a grill built into your table. Bulgogi, very thin slices of beef short rib, are justifiably famous. But my favorite is the pork belly, which I like to cook just to the edge that separates unctuous fat and bacon-crisp.
Prime rib cap (1705 Prime, Raleigh): A rarely seen cut of naturally raised beef from the acclaimed Harris Ranch in California. Cooked precisely medium-rare as I had ordered it, this was simply one of the best steaks I've ever had. Period.