Favorite Dining Experiences of 2012

We’re nearing the end of 2012 and two years that Grace(full) Plate has been around. I’ll be headed home for the holidays and traveling around to see friends and family.

I love being able to look back at the experiences that made me smile and my mouth water. It has been varied this year and I want to run through what has moved me. Last year I shared the first of this series, my favorite dining experiences of 2011, but I realized it’s more than dining, it can involve cooking, drinking – essentially gathering over food.

Here are my most memorable food moments of 2012:

Luca with Frank Bonnano: To celebrate Denver’s famed restauranteur, Frank Bonnano’s latest cookbook, we gathered around a table at Luca to try some of the Italian dishes he includes in his iCookbook for iPad: The Luca d’Italia Cookbook. Dish after dish (accompanied by a drink, he has mixology in the cookbook) came flowing out. From Sicilian calamari to Lobster fra diavolo to wild mushroom fusili – it was inspiring. We topped it off with house-made Lemoncello which brought me back to my days on the Amalfi Coast alongside Tiramisu. The dishes were rustic and familiar to my Italian palate.

Leaf’s Raw Dinner: This one is memorable because of the food, but largely because it was the last dinner I shared with one of my best friends who was moving from Colorado. She’s an incredible vegan cook and this was a place where she could actually enjoy every dish. Leaf put together monthly raw dinners and we sought out to enjoy one. I admit, you have to adjust to the food all being cold and not having anything like bread alongside your meal but we enjoyed the variety and interesting spins they put on the food. They also paired each menu item with a cocktail or drink. To you dear Jacqueline. I miss and love you!

Farm Dinners at Lyons Farmette: I attended two farm dinners at Lyons Farmette up the road in Lyons and I can’t wait to go to more throughout next summer. The Farmette is a completely charming small farm and event space that brings together chefs, local purveyors, wine makers, farmers and those that love to eat. Each dinner is different. The first featured MM Local Foods, Jack Rabbit Hill Winery (my favorite winery I visited from my Western Slope trip to wine country in April) and beef from Lasater Grasslands Farms.  Each farm dinner involves local participants and purveyors, while the menu reflects the most seasonal and freshest ingredients. Our second was with a Mobile Wood-Fired Pizza Oven from Dawn Dennison, owner and pizzaola of Crust Rustic Wood Fired Pizza. There was live music from She Said String Band and a bike powered cider press. Each night was MAGICAL.

Western Slope Wine Tour: I had this wish that next step for the food blog would be for someone to fly me somewhere to write about food or wine. It was a pipe dream. Silly, really. Then all of a sudden Colorado Wine Board and Drink Local Wine put together a small group of writers to fly to Colorado’s Western Slope in the Governor’s plane for two days to emerge ourselves (and drink Colorado wine). We visited seven Colorado wineries, tasted about 100 wines, basked in the Colorado sun, learned about winemaking and ate incredible food. This was a wonderful highlight of the year for me and I learned so much about our state’s terroir, the amazing people that make wine and how the industry is growing. I also came to appreciate Colorado wine while also on the second day of the trip, learned of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm (see Lyons Farmette) and Leroux Creek Inn & Vineyards. We were welcomed into their homes and at Leroux we ate handmade food inspired by French-born Yvon Gros. His inn and vineyard felt like: “Southwest-meets-Mountain-Mediterranean feeling”. I was woozy from the indulgence.

Boulder’s International Academy of Natural Cookery: This may have been the most memorable food experience of 2012. We were invited to The School of Natural Cookery in North Boulder to attend the final dinner from that semester’s students. Being raised a vegetarian, this place already had evoked something in me, but I was floored to learn students are taught “the language of cooking” and they cook without recipes. Their food is always whole, organic and plant-based (vegan or vegetarian). We had 7 courses, each from a different student. The menu was inventive and I know many at the table were meat-lovers and were oohing and aahing. Some of the dishes were: Crisp Nori Roll Trio with black rice and sweet and sour yam sushi, red rice and chickpea and chipotle sushi, and sushi rice with fava bean and preserved lemon sushi. This was paired with a crisp, cool Tozai Sake. Escalivada Millefeurille with roasted eggplant, red pepper tofu cheese and pesto, paired with a tres picos granacha. Chocolate s’more brule with fresh strawberry and strawberry coulis. The entire dish was made from scratch and the ‘marshmallow’ was vegan. That dish is featured below.

PBJ’s Grilled in Portland, OR: I took a weekend trip to visit close friends in the PDX this year. We ate and drank a lot on this trip, but one of the standouts was the PBJ’s food cart on NW 23rd St. Portland is well-known for their pods of food carts, dolling out incredible food. We happened by PBJ’s and the menu lurred us in. I had The Oregonian on challah bread, marion berry jam, rogue creamery blue cheese and Oregon hazelnut butter (shown below). A close second was the Spicy Thai with orange marmalade, siracha, fresh basil, curry and PBJ’s peanut butter. Their creations were incredible. From this trip, I’m glad I also got my fill at VooDoo’s doughnuts.

 Georgia Boys BBQ: This was my first visit to Georgia Boys in Longmont, off the beaten path and well outside of Boulder. They had recently opened and I had to see what was up. My friend Chris (he’s from Georgia!) and I headed to Longmont to scope it out and immediately, fell in love. With hearty, southern dishes, everything made in-house and the no frills restaurant with a few picnic tables, you knew they weren’t messing around. They usually run out, so I suggest you get there earlier and they make specials almost everyday from brisket, to spare ribs to bread puddin’. One of my favorites ironically are the plethora of sides they offer with your meal. Served in compostable to-go containers, we sat in the Georgia Bulldog red dining room and mowed down. Love these dudes.

Living Social Gourmet at TAG: Living Social started offering “Gourmet” experiences for foodies that encompasses a full experience such as tasting menus, gifts, interaction with the chef and more. We took part in Gourmet that happened to be hosted at TAG in Denver. We perched at the back, facing the kitchen over two bar stools and watched the chefs in action. The menu itself was designed as Omakase, a Japanese phrase that means “it’s up to you,” which translated to the chefs of the day, choosing the menu. The dishes were inventive and after 6 courses (the 6th being the dessert) we rolled ourselves out of there. This dish below was the Smoked Salmon with hearts of palm, beurre blanc, vibrant purple cauliflower, and candied curried ginger and lemon on top. Incredible, right? There is something to be said to open kitchens and chefs table. It totally changes the experience.

The Stanley Hotel – Cascades Restaurant: Before this visit to Estes Park’s infamous Stanley Hotel, I had never dined there before. I just imagined it was an old-school steakhouse geared toward the tourists that make their way to Rocky Mountain National Park each year. With a new chef and beverage/food director, things have started to change from the menu, to where they source their ingredients. We tried Morales farm red and gold beet salad with haystack mountain goat cheese and white balsamic vinaigrette, Alamosa, Colorado bass filet with tomato confit, quinoa, sugar snap peas and house pickled red onions, sticky toffee pudding and more! We loved the service and the fun feel of a historical (haunted?) hotel like The Stanley.

Clarksburg, WV – Italian Eateries: My mom’s side of the family immigrated from southern Italy (Calabria) to Clarksburg, West Virginia. You wouldn’t think West Virginia = Italians (or good food, it’s okay, I know you’re thinking it) but their annual Italian Heritage Festival in Clarksburg has been rated among the “Top 100 Events in North America” by the ABA, a “Top 20 Event by the Southeast Tourism Society” & on of the “Top 4 Italian Festival’s” in the nation by the National Sons of Italy. This was special as I went around with my mom, The Man (with us for Christmas), my dad, brother and Uncle Mike (also Godfather) to delis and bakeries that my family has been going to for years. The food isn’t meant to be gourmet or elaborate. It’s simple and inherent to food they ate for years that are Italian classics. I felt I was on a historical journey with my family and the characters we met along the way, all loved and knew my Grandparents as they had been buying from them for years. Nothing beats family and food.

Accomplishments and Surprises: To recap, this was quite an exciting year for Grace(full) Plate. I had my first live television experience on Colorado’s Best Television show, I was featured in New York Magazine as part of their Weekend Escape to Boulder, I appeared for the first time in our local publications Boulder Weekly and Daily Camera featuring Grace(full) Plate through two interviews, Boulder Food News (my food Facebook page project) was Yellow Scene’s Best of the West winner and Grace(full) Plate was voted in Westword’s 2012 Web Awards as Best Food Blog in Colorado!

Even writing this, I am blushing, because I am not one to talk about my accomplishments but I know that I’ve created something from scratch and when you pour love, dedication (and some tears) into something, it’s really amazing what could happen. All of these were a surprise. They just happened. And for that, I thank you and to all the supporters.

Thank YOU, my readers, friends and community that keep me fueled and inspired. However you may celebrate this holiday season, I hope you’re able to enjoy it with loved ones and find joy in your life. Here’s to another wonderful year. I’ll catch ya in January.