What local critics' Top 10 lists say about 2009 dining

Catching up on some post-holiday reading, I was scanning through Rick Nelson's and Kathie Jenkins's lists of their Top 10 Dishes of the Year in the Strib and PiPress, respectively, and was struck by what their picks reflected about the local dining climate:

Rick's List 1. Fish and chips at the Anchor Fish & Chips 2. Mushroom-rosemary pizza at Black Sheep Pizza 3. Lettuce wraps at Sen Yai Sen Lek 4. Frozen custard shakes at Burger Jones 5. Bison pastrami at Northern Waters Smokehaus 6. Ragu alla Bolognese at Acqua 7. Baby lamb chops at Broders' Pasta Bar 8. Fried oyster slider at Sea Change 9. Pork pâté at Northeast Social 10. Gnocchi with cauliflower at Bar La Grassa

Kathie's List 1. Cuban Sandwich at BLACK DOG COFFEE AND WINE BAR 2. Grilled Octopus at THE BUTCHER BLOCK 3. Affogato at RISOTTO ITALIAN RESTAURANT 4. Shrimp Salad at CHEEKY MONKEY DELI 5. French Fries at CHEROKEE TAVERN 6. Fennel Sausage, Salami and Olive Pizza at BLACK SHEEP COAL-FIRED PIZZA 7. Pan-fried Chicken at LORING KITCHEN & BAR 8. Gnocchi with Cauliflower at BAR LA GRASSA 9. Collard Greens and Corn Bread at BRASA ROTISSERIE 10. Fennel Salami Sandwich at ST. PAUL CHEESE SHOP

If I made such a list, there would certainly be some overlap--the salted caramel malt at Burger Jones, the ragu alla Bolognese at Acqua, and the gnocchi with cauliflower at La Grassa are among the best renditions of each of those dishes I've ever had. The thing I found most striking about these lists was their singular focus on affordable comfort fare. Jenkins picks two sandwiches, French fries, pizza, and fried chicken, and even Nelson's selection from the upscale Sea Change is one of the restaurant's most humble dishes. Basically, hardly anything on either list costs more than about $10.

While it's great to see a lot of value out there in the middle price range, I think these lists are a reflection of the safe, scaled-back approach many recession-conscious restaurateurs took in 2009. Here's to hoping that next year's lists will include a few more culinary ambitious dishes, as well.

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