The Best Dishes of 2003

A top-10 list for a banner year

The fact that 2003 was a very big year, full of ambition and delight, made the 10 best dishes of the year so hard to pick that my initial list was more like two dozen. Making that first cut was physically painful to me! No kidding. By the time I got to the sudden-death part where I had to select a mere 10, well, you'll see what happened. But here they are, my 10 best dishes of 2003. (Just, if you're actually counting them off on your fingers, you might want to make sure you're a Quadrillion Zegon from the Ninth Galaxy, or something.) Have fun recreating them, because I know I had a great time finding them.

Roast lobster at Levain: When it arrived, two spirals of half shells balanced on each other like a wee little spiral jetty in a bay of brown butter, the world stopped. Chef Stewart Woodman's succulent, understated, and utterly confident dish was adorned with little more than roast onions, but it didn't need anything more. The dish was as simple, assured, and luxurious as a single tulip standing over a wide meadow. (Restaurant Levain, 4762 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis, 612.823.7111; www.turtlebread.com.)

Sushi at Origami: I regard the new Origami at Ridgedale with a certain amount of trepidation, because if anything disturbs the phenomenal heights the original warehouse sushi spot has been achieving, I'll cry into my aji sashimi--little horse mackerels served so fresh they are like robust flower petals from the sea. (Origami, 30 N. First St., Minneapolis, 612.333.8430; www.origamirestaurant.com.)

Soon to be available in the western suburbs: Origami's artful and delicious sushi
Daniel Corrigan
Soon to be available in the western suburbs: Origami's artful and delicious sushi

The burger at Ike's: A new burger to reckon with is a monumental achievement in this burger-rich town. But little, classy, budget-friendly Ike's pulled it off: Enter this wood-paneled temple to the Eisenhower era and you find the burger plate of your poodle-skirt dreams: A big, fresh, hand-formed tender pillow of beef tucked into a big, sweet, grilled, buttered roll. The charmer is served with classic fresh fixings as well as an enchanting pile of real homemade fries. (Ike's Food & Cocktails, 50 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis, 612.746.4537.)

Roast crispy pig at Tai Hoa: Crisp as a potato chip, tender as the morning dew, rich as Paris Hilton and twice as attractive, those pork sides hanging in the window at unassuming Southeast Asian barbecue Tai Hoa aren't just for show. Oh no. They're the best homegrown barbecue we've got right now, irresistible both as succulent finger food or a killer secret ingredient to add to your own fried rice at home. (Tai Hoa B.B.Q.; 854 University Ave. W., St. Paul, 651.298.8480.)

Banh mi sandwiches at Saigon: I know you're all getting sick of reading about how great I think the banh mi sandwiches at Saigon are. But I fear that, alas, there may still be someone between Madison and Montevideo who hasn't tried the things, and I will not rest until each and every North Star stater tries one of these French/Vietnamese hybrids: a crisp French baguette with homemade mayonnaise and pâté combined with sweet Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon, slices of jalapeño, sprigs of fresh cilantro, and your choice of filling--and all for well under four bucks. (Saigon Restaurant and Bakery, 601 University Ave W., St. Paul, 651.225.8751.)

Desserts at Solera: Adrienne Odom's plate last summer of mixed warm-weather treats still haunts me: It included a delicate little rectangle of torrone ice-cream sandwich, a wee little plum-vanilla ice-cream soda, and a rich dollop of minced black plum compote. It was like a startling but satisfying chapter at the end of a great book, and it impressed me once again with this amazing pastry chef's reserves of creativity and astonishing ability to never ever be constrained by the rote expectations at the end of the meal. Recently I had one of her winter creations, a mixed plate including, of all things, a panna cotta topped with corn nuts, and darned if she didn't pull it off. Incredible. Still, though, I may never forget that three-inch high plum soda. It was just that cute.

Tortilla Española from Solera: If this ruddy, traditional potato and chorizo Spanish tortilla could talk, he would look up at you from beneath his dripping crown of spicy garlic aïoli and say, "I am the spiciest, tastiest, and bar-snackingest omelet in the history of Minnesota, and I defy you to resist me!" But you just never could, and then he'd be sorry. (You know, I would have put the octopus ceviche at Solera on here, but I went a few weeks ago, and the former incarnation of a lace of purple paving stones resting on single pulp-sacs of lime was replaced by something tired and chewy. Please God, let the theme of 2004 not be Troubles with Consistency. (Solera, 900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.781.6042; www.solera-restaurant.com.)

Tasting menu at Auriga: If ever you are free on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, here's the lowdown on the best chef-driven private fireworks around: For around $45 a head, chef Doug Flicker will customize an eight- or 10-course meal for you, delicate course after delicate course designed to amaze. I treat myself to this at least once a year, and this year a poached egg was magically transformed to velvet snared on spears of wispy beet greens, a scallop quivered like a kiss blown in from the sea, a drop of caviar trembled on a glistening oyster, and, and--oh, it was quite a night, I'll tell ya. Now that Minnesota's Little Restaurant That Could finally has its full liquor license and full bar, I fear for the ladies of Minneapolis, because I am sure that we will all be rendered truly helpless by the possibility of a Cosmo along with that heart-touching Doug Flicker cooking. Oh dear, be brave, my lovelies. You have been warned. (Auriga, 1934 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.871.0777.)

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