John T. Edge's Top Ten Dishes of 2013

by John T. Edge - December/January 2014

From boudin that's gone global to a Caesar that's all Florida to smoke-kissed chicken with an Alabama shimmer, these 2013 favorites from the hungriest man in the South are a serious helping of Dixie flavor—classic and contemporary

From left: Rush Jagoe (2); Jason Varney

>View more photos from the story

I recently received an invitation to serve as a celebrity judge at the World Food Championships in Las Vegas. “It will be like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show of food,” said the gentleman on the other end of the line. I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. So he repeated the description. And I throttled a laugh, spit coffee across the room, and politely declined.

For the list that follows, I conjured a different approach. Not a preen-and-prance show, with prizes for best in breed, but a roster of where and what I would tell a friend to eat if he called me on my cell and asked me to declare my favorites, right now. When I sat down to compile that roster, these dishes floated up through the flotsam of stolen menus and crumpled credit card receipts. These tastes resonated, long after I put away my scribbles.

Look closely and you’ll note that three of my favorites hail from San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.—cities that don’t traditionally earn plot points on the Southern map. By including those dishes, I’m not suggesting that the South lacks compelling choices. Instead, I’m declaring that Southern pantries and palates now serve as our nation’s culinary lodestars, inspiring contemporary chefs, inside and outside the region, to take welcome liberties with everything from hush puppies to boudin.

As you travel across the nation, allow me to be your culinary interlocutor. From cazuelas of butter beans and pork, dished at brunch in San Francisco, to chicken-fried rabbit, peddled from a drive-through in Mississippi, there’s not a dog in the bunch. My hope is that these will prove to be the best dishes you eat in 2014.

In no particular order:

Whole Roasted Fish with Salsa Verde
Pêche Seafood Grill
New Orleans, LA

Whole hog was last year. Or maybe the year before. Thanks to Pêche, the seafood restaurant that Ryan Prewitt and the crew from Donald Link’s restaurant group recently opened in New Orleans, 2014 will be the year of whole fish. At Pêche, it’s the entrée that elicits head swivels when a waiter parades it through the room.

And who could blame the oglers? One day it’s lane snapper, the next it’s mangrove snapper. Cooked over a wood-fired grill built to recall the style Link and Prewitt glimpsed on research trips to Uruguay and Spain, those snappers get doused in a vinaigrette, made with a mustard-blushed, house-fermented hot sauce. If redfish are running, they get the wood-fired treatment, too, followed by a slosh of salsa verde. No matter what fish hits the grill, it begs your attention when it hits the table. Faced with a whole fish, you make a quick study of its anatomy. You learn to scrape meat from the rib bones in big chunks. You pry sweet nuggets from beneath collarbones. You wrest control of the snout-to-tail phenomenon from the porcine fabulists and claim supremacy for the fish eaters.

Escargot Hush Puppies
Mintwood Place
Washington, DC

Creamy at their core, with a sandpaper crust, these diminutive auburn-hued orbs would be exemplars of the fried-dough art, worthy of comparison to the best fish-house fritters, even if chef Cedric Maupillier had not studded them with chewy hunks of snail. But he did. Those briny bits of marine goodness add another layer of textural complexity.

They also remind me how difficult it is, when sitting at a French restaurant that serves escargots au beurre, to prize a whole snail out of a whorled shell, even when using a pair of forceps and a teensy fork. Served in a rectangular cast-iron skillet, embedded in a nifty wood plank, with a bowl of tarragon aioli for dunking, these cornmeal batter–mantled escargots at this Adams Morgan neighborhood brasserie make for easy and satisfying eating.


Photo credit (from top): Rush Jagoe; Jason Varney