As 2014 comes to a close, journalists are taking stock of the year, measuring its highs and lows. Food writers are no exception. The Heavy Table's James Norton works with a dozen or so contributors each year to put together an annual collection of flavor highlights.
Your 2014 year in review is called "Three Tastes." How does it work?
Every year, The Heavy Table composes our annual retrospective as a collection of flashbulb flavor memories — it's a look at the dishes and drinks that really burned their way into our minds.
Flavor is a powerful memory creator; it goes right past the conscious mind and interacts with the primitive parts of the brain that are mostly concerned with survival, as those parts are still pretty food-obsessed.
Is it fair to say these are the best foods you tasted over the course of the year?
Yes, with an asterisk.
The question of what makes food "good" is a really slippery one. I think we all agree that there are elements of it that are subjective and personal, but the more I write about food for a living, the more I feel as though there are some objective things about good food, too.
Most centrally, there is the question of balance, both in terms of flavor and texture. Great food has a great sense of balance to it. And that's something that's true all the way from pizza and hamburgers to foie gras and fine wine.
What are your three picks for 2014?
My first choice was actually something I made with the help of friends — it's called a timpano, and it's a stuffed, drum-like pasta bomb of an Italian dish.
It's a combination of homemade meatballs, fresh pasta, lively homemade marinara, and many meats and cheeses. It took a team of six people about five hours to make, and we had a blast with it.
My second pick is also pasta-focused — I think, not surprisingly, because I love comfort food and pasta is incredibly comforting. The spaghetti and speck dish at the newly opened Brasserie Zentral is one of the most wonderful things available for consumption in Minneapolis right now. It's a simple dish — just spaghetti, speck ham, green onion, pecorino and poppyseed — but it's like a hug in a bowl.
And finally, my last taste is a liquid: a Japanese whisky called Hibiki 12 that I tried at the Uptown location of Origami Restaurant. The flavor is light and delicate yet layered and profound — the opposite end of the spectrum from the smoky peat-bombs that people often think of when they think of Scotch-style whisky, although I love those too.
How about a couple of your contributors' favorite bites?
Joshua Page loved the triple-flavored squid at Grand Szechuan in Bloomington. He wrote that "the squid was expertly fried and not the least bit chewy. Dried peppers and chili oil turned up the heat while Szechuan peppercorns added hints of citrus and numbed the tongue. Salt and green onion rounded out my most memorable dish of the year."
And contributor Varsha Koneru dug the spiced braised lamb at the newly opened Heyday in Minneapolis, writing: "The lamb is perfectly seasoned, with almost a lamb-sausage texture, light on the gamey-ness, and served with grilled scallions and a divine potato-almond puree that I could have eaten an entire bowl of."
And what were your contributors drinking in 2014?
One of our beer and spirits writers, John Garland, loved the Imperial Hefe with Grapefruit Zest by Duluth-based Blacklist Brewing. He wrote: "I think 2014's most interesting brewing activity in Minnesota came from Duluth, and one of the most memorable new beers was Blacklist's Imperial Hefe. It smells like banana bread, starts with some green apple, then a deep grainy core under a spell of yeast and esters."
And our beer writer Liz Scholz loved another Duluth brew: the Bent Paddle Cold Press Black Ale, which combines Duluth Coffee Company cold press coffee with beer in a harmonious duo.
So looking back, craft beer was a big part of 2014's culinary landscape.
Absolutely. There was an explosive growth in taprooms in 2014, and a great deal of growth on the craft spirits and hard cider side, too.
In 2015, we'll see more of the same, plus the opening of cocktail rooms at distilleries, too — look for Du Nord in South Minneapolis and Eleven Wells in the Hamm's Building in St. Paul to be among the first.