Best of SA 2005 - Food - Staff picks Never too blasé for love

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The jaded critic embraces chocolate cake with ardor

From front: Sarovar's Shrimp Biryani served with raita and curry sauce; ras Malai dessert; and the potato and pea masala dosa. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The critic is often at odds with the reading public, which should come as no surprise: Put yourself in our shoes and imagine how it is to spend most of your eating-out hours looking for the new, unique, and off-beat - anything that will make a good story and advance the cause of good eating in our fair city. But sometimes the public is actually ahead of the game. Take the Best New Restaurant, for example: I have been to neither the Blue Cactus Café nor, because we usually don't review chain restaurants, The Melting Pot, though I understand the latter has a good wine list. And, while their original chef has split for Pesca in the Watermark, Ocean Star is not a bad choice.

That said, the feeding frenzy that was my first visit to Sarovar, 10227 Ironside, immediately qualified it as a Best-of contender, and now that the year's dust has settled, it remains at the top of the list. For sheer taste thrills and the heat equivalent of chills, there's nothing like it. The restaurant has a Southern Indian bias that favors vegetarian dishes - though not to the exclusion of fantastic lamb biriyani, enigmatic Chicken 65, or crusty ginger fish - so diners should head straight for the lacy spinach pakoras, the sturdy, potato-filled samosas, and any of the pancake-thin dosas, some made with green lentils, others with wheat.

Best of SA 2005

Readers' picks - Best Food
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This year, we didn't even give the public a shot at Best Ethnic, another case of the (maybe somewhat jaded) critic looking for a transcendent experience. Yes, they're out there, and Cebu, 13032 Nacogdoches, was just such a find. The two owners (and only staff) prefer to forego any rustic/ethnic implications, calling Cebu a "restaurant for contemporary Filipino cuisine." Until recently, that distinction was based in part on price. Cebu is now experimenting, on a see-how-it-goes basis, with lunch and dinner seatings that don't require advance reservations and a $75 commitment. The menu for walk-in weekday lunch and dinner include slow-grilled, wild-cumin chicken breast, Palawan shrimp and sweet squash island bouillabaisse, and pan-seared coriander salmon with garlic-roasted rice and a mango-ginger reduction. The chef's choice, 5-8 course weekend, reservation-only menu (call a day ahead so they can shop accordingly) might include the likes of Palawan shark, filet mignon with a rare and exotic mushroom sauce, and a crispy sea bass served whole. Hardly the stuff one thinks of as Filipino. Or ethnic, for that matter.

Cebu: Once a reservation-only restaurant, it is now open for lunch and dinner - and you don't have to call ahead to enjoy its Filipino cuisine. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Don't poke your eye out on the chocolate wedge protruding from this scrumptious cake at La Mansión. (courtesy photo)

From front: Seared rare tuna with apple and cumin seed; market select red mullet from Tanzania with English sea salt piquante extra virgin olive oil, lemon, and served with Pesca slaw. All shown on Pesca's seafood bar. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

From front: The Lodge's porcini-crusted New Zealand lamb loin with caramelized onion ragout and salt-baked Yukon potato with "works"; butterleaf salad with Spanish marcona almonds, pickled red onion, roasted tomato, and Danish blue cheese dressing; grilled Texas bobwhite quail with roast apple, blue cheese farrotto, and Bosc pear salsa. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Best Contemporary is another category created by the critic to recognize restaurants that are otherwise left out of the game altogether, and though the choice will always be hard, this year we've watched Jason Dady, chef and owner of the Lodge of Castle Hills, 1746 Lockhill Selma, grow up before our very eyes: hitting the national press but also hitting everything just right in the kitchen. It's this emerging maturity that puts him at the top of my list for contemporary cuisine ahead (but just barely, of course) of such worthies as papa Bruce Auden and avuncular Scott Cohen.

Dady's tasting menu seems to work well for both restaurant and diner, offering a range of prices and courses. House-made duck breast prosciutto might be served with grilled ciabatta and persimmon butter as an appetizer, for example. Now, don't tell me this is the stuff of everyday at your house. Nor is braised pork belly likely to be (it tastes way better than it sounds). In the past, seasonally adjusted entrées have included an olive oil-poached grouper with basil pesto and porcini-crusted New Zealand lamb loin. Desserts don't falter either, although you might by that point. Vanilla, hazelnut, and semolina crumble with Dreamsicle mousse, anyone? Best doesn't necessarily mean super serious.

With Best Seafood, it's tempting to beg off and say that the best seafood is that which is the freshest and least fiddled with, say at a sushi restaurant such as Sushihana where they do, indeed, fly in fish daily. This year, comfortably dependable Sea Island won the reader's crown by a comfortable margin, once again putting the critic at odds with most of the voters. Going for a little more intervention in the preparation than sashimi, the critic's nod goes to Pesca, 212 W. Crockett, in the Watermark Hotel & Spa, but not without a degree of trepidation. The opening chef has been let go (though not in the manner of an undersized fish), the manager has been replaced, and yet all seems on the upswing. Scott Cohen, executive chef at La Mansión, has taken over the kitchen with the help of Stevie Paprocki, recently of Ocean Star. Since Luciano Ciorciari, formerly at Las Canarias, has assumed the manager's mantle service has improved and a new tequlia program has been inaugurated. Things are looking up indeed! And there's still nothing like briny-fresh oysters from the Pacific Northwest in a classic mignonette or impeccably fresh branzini flown in from the Mediterranean. Less is often more.

Normally, I'm not into wretched excess at dessert time, so cheesecake is rarely even a contender for Best Dessert. Sorry, the Cheesecake Factory doesn't do it for me, and neither does Marie Callender's. For pie, I'd head to Earl Abel's or Liberty Bar. The latter also ranks high on the scale with Virginia Green's chocolate cake. Biga's sticky toffee pudding is tops in my book, too. But it's an eight-layer chocolate cake with chocolate croquant and chocolate sauce (just to gild the lily) from the hand of Executive Pastry Chef Mickey McPhail at La Mansión that currently has my heart. Moist layers of intensely chocolate génoise alternate with lush ganache to form one of those more-perfect unions. This is one of McPhail's more conventional desserts. Others, such as the deconstructed Love Creek apple pie with orange caramel and Grafton Village cheddar, force us to rethink tradition. Oh, there's also a cheesecake: mascarpone with Saigon cinnamon and sweet curry apples. Maybe I'll rethink my cheesecake reluctance, too.

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