Gene has published his list of the best dishes of the year. Now it’s my turn. I should point out that Gene and I went about this a little differently. While he picked his favorite restaurant dishes without qualification, I limited myself to only those dishes I ate for a restaurant review.
Also check out Shane Harrison’s Best of the Big A feature on top picks from all the critics.
KESSLER’S TOP PICKS:
Burrata at Cakes & Ale: Vermont burrata — that cream-filled bundle of tender mozzarella — comes with a pale green herbed walnut salsa and a chiffonade of curly kale in zippy cranberry vinaigrette. Hot, buttered toasts come on the side, encouraging you to build piles of head-exploding yum. Serious awesomeness here. 155 Sycamore St., Decatur, 404-377-7994.
Duck breast with Thai risotto at Rathbun’s: You know those food photographs that show the main ingredient in sharp focus but blur at the edges? That’s the way the flavors work at Rathbun’s. What a pleasure to saw at this ideally crisped and defatted skin and plump, pink breast with a steak knife. The rice? It provides the right sweet, garlicky tang as a backdrop. 112 Krog St., Atlanta, 404-524-8280
Peking duck at Golden House: What fun to dig into a whole Peking duck, glossy and burnished, that a waiter wheels to the table. He masterfully carves the meat and skin onto a platter, and serves it with julienned cucumbers and leeks, hoisin sauce and warm, fluffy steamed buns to split and stuff. The skin, while not as shattery crisp as some, sings with flavor. For a surcharge of $10, you get two more courses from that duck: the legs and final shreds of meat find their way into a peppy stir-fry with bean sprouts and chives, while the ribs and back enrich a steaming tureen of soup outfitted with tofu and bok choy. 1600 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth, 770-921-2228 (no website)
Paloma de Mezcal cocktail at Escorpion: This thrillingly weird mix of smoky pineapple-infused mezcal with citrus and soda needs its salt-crusted rim not to cut the sugar but to ramp up the oddball flavor. Those who knock back this drink will hate it; those who sip tentatively will slowly fall in love. 800 Peachtree St., Atlanta, 678-666-5198
Meatloaf meatballs at Table & Main: This appetizer doesn’t exactly break new ground, but then again it does. Three tender and exceptionally well-seasoned mounds of ground beef come with a ketchupy, vinegary glaze in a classy cast-iron casserole. It’s comfort food elevated, and exactly the kind of dish on which a Southern bistro like Table & Main makes its name. 1028 Canton St., Roswell, 678-869-5178
Lunch buffet at Inchin’s Bamboo Garden: If you are the kind of person who finds ultimate comfort in rich, spicy glop, then I’ve got just the ticket. One side of this bodacious buffet holds a selection of Indian-Chinese dishes from the menu: great mounds of Hakka noodles (stir-fried vermicelli), tangy cilantro rice, gobi Manchurian (fried cauliflower in glossy ginger sauce). The other side brings a selection of Indian dishes from Tadka next door: mutter paneer (peas and cheese in curry), dal makhani (creamed black lentils), fried pakoras, goat stew. You will go back for fourths. 11105 State Bridge Road, Alpharetta, 770-622-1445
Pumpkin crème brûlée at Chicken and the Egg: I suspect we’ll be hearing more about pastry chef Karie Brown in coming years. Her desserts are familiar, but her flavors are often dynamic. Case in point: this warmed custard, sweetened with a cautious hand. You taste spice, cream, egg and pumpkin, not sugar. The banana pudding with wafers soaked in Woodford Reserve bourbon is also noteworthy. 800 Whitlock Ave., Marietta, 678-388-8813
Spaghetti with Georgia White Shrimp at No. 246: I literally wanted to inhale this boldly seasoned pasta, bristling with garlic, Pequin chilies and crunchy bread crumbs. It’s rich, so consider a half-portion as the most satisfying starter around. 129 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, 678-399-8246
Profiteroles at La Fourchette: I appreciate the nods to classic French technique at this Buckhead bistro, which extend to the welcome dessert list. These small cream puffs arrive crisp and brittle (as well they should), filled with hazelnut ice cream and moated with salted caramel sauce. Crunchy bursts of toffee hide in the ice cream for a sweet surprise. 3133 Piedmont Road, Atlanta, 404-748-1229
Rabbit at One Eared Stag: A braised then fried rabbit leg, as melted as it is crunchy, needs only its bright parsley-caper and squeeze of lemon to make you revel. But when you poke your fork about the plate you discover a tender grilled rabbit loin. Lagniappe! 1029 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta, 404-525-4479
Tasting of Spring Vegetables at Restaurant Eugene: The most brilliant vegetable in town varies with the season, as you might expect. But count on a metal casserole brimming with hot items and a wildly inventive salad alongside. When I try it, the highlights include golden beet puree with balsamic sorghum walnuts, creamed kohlrabi, braised Vidalia onion stems and velvety cranberry beans. 2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, 404-355-0321
Cheese with pickled anchovy at Bacchanalia: I always love the point in the meal at Bacchanalia when you get to the “cheese and contrast” course — that reflective symphonic movement before the rousing finale of dessert. Earlier this year I was thrilled with a plate that pitted slivers of Zamarano (sharp, dry sheep’s milk cheese) with celery, boquerones (pickled white anchovies), greens and minced egg. It was one of those dishes where each bold flavor polished the too-sharp edges from the others and made for a dynamic mouthful. 1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, 404-365-0410, www.starprovisions.com
Wood-roasted Venison at 4th & Swift: Gorgeous, rosy slices of this lean but meltingly tender meat arrive on spiced kabocha squash puree with sweet pomegranate jus lapping against the sides. It’s one of those dishes that tastes engineered to make you go “ooooooh.” You’ll want to find a great wine pairing off the fine list to put this over the top. 621 North Ave., Atlanta, 678-904-0160
Spicy Pork Sandwich at Heirloom Market BBQ: Berkshire pork from Georgia’s Riverview Farms first takes a dip in a marinade of Korean gochujang chile paste, then is slathered with a sugary rub and smokes for hours over hickory and fruitwood. It arrives chopped — a heap of crusty, black-pink porkiness on a toasted potato bun with kimchi coleslaw. How do you say “oink” in Korean? 2243 Akers Mill Road, Atlanta, 770-612-2502