OK, so 2008 wasn't exactly a banner year for the economy. Still, I'll wager that most of us could summon up a few rich memories from the past year. I thought I'd share a few of mine, in the form of the most memorable dishes I enjoyed among the hundreds I sampled in 2008.
Hayashi, a hidden gem of a Japanese restaurant on the outskirts North Raleigh, got the year off to a promising start with a stunning presentation of colossal shrimp, their tails served as sushi and their deep-fried heads delicately crisp and bursting with the briny flavor of the sea. Then, still in January, Watts Grocery in Durham wowed me with a succession of unforgettable dishes, all on the same night: bamboo-skewered sea scallops served over a citrus-dressed cloud of pea shoots and shaved fennel; unctuous deviled ham, its subtle clove perfume evoking memories of my childhood; red wine-braised oxtails, meltingly tender and atavistically beefy; bronze-skinned North Carolina guinea fowl; and a Meyer lemon mousse whose airy texture and tart flavor still haunt me a year later.
Spring brought butter knife-tender bison medallions at Fairview and emerald green Chinese broccoli in garlic sauce at China Palace -- both physically in Durham but a world apart in every other sense. Then came Poole's Downtown Diner. Nearly everything that owner/chef Ashley Christensen sends out of her tiny kitchen is impressive, but smoked tea-brined steelhead trout and roasted banana cream pie were especially so. And surely there's a place in the Burger Hall of Fame for the rendition I wolfed down at Poole's: 10 ounces of hand-patted Niman Ranch beef, fried in duck fat and topped with Jarlsberg cheese and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.
The iced raw bar tower at Ocean Grill in Cary, an extravagance of jumbo lump crabmeat, shrimp cocktail, oysters and clams, was just what the doctor ordered on a sweltering August night. A few weeks later in Durham, the yardbird and sausage gumbo at Papa Mojo's transported me to New Orleans. Back in Raleigh, Jalisco's rendition of the spicy goat stew called birria was as good as any I'd ever had in Mexico or Southern California.
Fall brought a gratifying sequence of heartwarming dishes: baked meatballs, rosemary-marinated chicken wings and a pizza topped with fried chicken livers at Rockwood Filling Station in Durham; tender, juicy house-smoked beef brisket at Tyler's, also in Durham; and house-made veal sausages over cannellini beans simmered in a voluptuous tomato sauce at Posta Tuscan Grille, in the new Marriott City Center in downtown Raleigh.
The year's gastronomic highlights ended as they had begun, with colossal shrimp. This time, the succulent shellfish were floating atop a coppery, pepper-flecked curry sauce at Mint, a delightful new Indian restaurant on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street.
What does 2009 hold in store? I have no way of knowing, of course, but I look forward to exploring the increasingly mouthwatering possibilities and sharing my experiences with you. I'll leave the economic forecast to the, um, experts.