'Tis the season to sit back and reflect on my best bites of 2023.
My most extensive trip of the year came in February when Kel and I traveled to Saigon in Southern Vietnam via Tokyo to attend a friend's wedding. I received a crash course in Vietnamese food and coffee, which continues to pay dividends in Texas.
The remainder of my foodie adventures were in the United States, where the list begins. Join me as I turn the page on 2023 with these delicious bites in mind.
The United States
In April, I returned to San Francisco for the second time in three years. I continued to explore SF's best bakeries, one of which is Jane The Bakery.
I had a near-spiritual experience after tearing open their warm Nutella brioche. The limited outdoor seating wasn't all that comfortable. But who cares when your focus is on not wasting a drop of the Nutella pouring from your pastry?
Following a fun weekend in downtown San Francisco, we rented a car and drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge and up the Sonoma Coast to wine country.
I chose the girl & the fig for my first dinner in Sonoma. The wild flounder meuniere on Yukon potato puree and spinach in a lemon-caper brown butter sauce is a signature dish.
I'd also like to recognize the dessert I ordered, a salted fig caramel trifle with chocolate budino, candied cocoa nibs, and toasted Italian meringue; it's a chocolate lover's dream.
Later in the year, I joined Kel on a quick trip to San Diego, where I checked out a few more speakeasies.
One of the breakfasts on my itinerary was at the Oxford Exchange, which my parents first introduced me to after they retired to the region. I dug into a fluffy stack of blueberry buttermilk pancakes topped with walnuts.
My second trip to Tampa was for Thanksgiving with my Dad. Kel joined me, and we spent a few nights in downtown Tampa before leaving for the suburbs.
I picked On Swann, one of Tampa's Michelin-recommended restaurants, for dinner the first night.
On Swann's fig tart is incredibly rich with mascarpone cream, gorgonzola, caramelized onion, and prosciutto. I considered eating a fourth and final slice before remembering I still had an entree and dessert ahead of me.
The second night, we had a terrific dinner at Rocca, an Italian restaurant and one of the first places in Tampa to be awarded a Michelin star.
My third and final trip to Tampa was for Christmas. En route from the Tampa airport to my Dad's house, I stopped for lamb pita and baklava coffee cake (amazing!) at Psomi, a casual Greek restaurant.
In late October, Kel joined me for a three-night stay at Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. I didn't want the year to end without returning to the Big Easy.
My first dinner was at MaMou, where I savored celery hearts with smoked beef tongue, a surprisingly tasty combination. The meal was fabulous, so I added MaMou to my list of New Orleans' best restaurants.
Kel and I delighted in the Southern food at Li'l Dizzy's Cafe, a friendly, casual local favorite in the historic Treme neighborhood.
I flew to Maine for the first time in May to attend an adventure travel conference; I tried as many Portland restaurants as possible.
I heard about Duckfat on Somebody Feed Phil, a series I began watching on Netflix earlier in the year. For dinner, I ordered the Duckfat fries with sauce sampler and a sea-salted duck fat caramel milkshake to indulge my inner child.
On the fine dining side of the spectrum, dinner at Twelve was a winner.
A Taste of Maine is another local favorite Phil features on his Portland, Maine episode. Despite an intense wind chill, I enjoyed every warm buttery bite of my Connecticut lobster roll.
I washed it down with a blueberry soda and tried my first Maine whoopie pie. Don't let the picture fool you. It was huge!
Kel recommended I get some blueberry pie while in Maine, and the first slice I had at West Street Cafe in Bar Harbor was outstanding. I was never one for fruit-filled pies, but this one spoiled me.
The conference led to a return trip a few months later at the invitation of Schooner J & E Riggin to write about their windjammer cruises. Guests of the craft beer cruise were spoiled by one fantastic meal out of the galley after another.
The night before the cruise, I also had dinner at Primo, an enchanting farm-to-table restaurant in Rockland.
My sole three-star Michelin restaurant experience of the year was at Le Bernardin during a spring trip to New York City.
While I didn't do the full tasting menu as I couldn't get a reservation for the dining room, I thoroughly enjoyed chef Eric Ripert's signature yellowfin tuna with foie gras in the lounge.
I also used the trip to visit many of New York City's oldest bars. The last one of the trip was The Landmark Tavern, an Irish pub dating back to 1868.
Bangers and mash, a traditional Irish dish with sausage and mashed potatoes, has never appealed to me. The Landmark Tavern's outstanding version has changed my mind, and I intend to order it more often.
About 35% of the 18,000 photos I took last year were in The Lone Star State, so it wasn't hard to find memorable meals.
I'd estimate a ¼ pound of luscious meat was lopped on top of the housemade flour tortilla. I'd drive the hour south from Austin to eat another.
Speaking of Austin, I didn't eat out in my adopted hometown as much as I would've liked, but I did get to a few new spots.
I added Ember Kitchen to my list of Austin's best restaurants thanks to dishes like scallops with corn mousse and Josper roasted corn and pickled fresno.
I was blown away by the savoriness of the Brisket Smokeshow at Curry Boys BBQ, which combines traditional smoked Texas brisket with Thai green curry.
I attended my first Texas Monthly BBQ Fest in Lockhart in early November, about 30 to 50 minutes south of Austin.
On the first day, I bought a serving of curry rice pulled pork from Khoi, one of Houston's top BBQ joints. Once again, the curry, rice, and Texas barbecue combination proved a winner.
I made three trips to Houston in 2023 and continued to build on my restaurant knowledge of Texas' largest city.
A highlight was lunch at Money Cat, a sushi restaurant serving honey vanilla milk buns with cultured compound butter topped with smoked trout roe and honey. It was a unique and tasty experience.
Closing out my best bites in Texas, I'm returning to Austin for a Middle Eastern dish I tried at MezzeMe, a Turkish restaurant I'd previously enjoyed.
I skipped the more familiar plates, like doner and iskender kebap, and ordered their lamb beyti instead. Ground lamb kebap is served in cheesy dough and topped with butter tomato sauce, garlic yogurt, and crushed pistachios.
Despite previously spending six weeks traveling in Turkey in 2015, I'd never experienced this fantastic recipe. Now, I can't stop thinking about it.
Let's depart the United States for Asia, a continent I hadn't visited since a 2012 trip to Indonesia. Kel and I flew to and from Vietnam via Tokyo, a city I visited in 2011.
We spent four nights in Tokyo on our return to the United States. While Kel had to work at our hotel, the Hilton Tokyo, I had some epic lunches at Florilege and Sezanne, each of which has two Michelin stars.
Both were world-class; however, I enjoyed the light-filled dining room at Sezanne in the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi more than Florilege's darker, basement-level open kitchen.
One of my favorite courses at Sezanne was the Hokkaido scallops with buckwheat, white beer sauce, and sauteed onions.
Soon after Kel and I arrived in Vietnam, we met up with my friend Troy for the tasting menu at Anan Saigon, the country's best restaurant.
One of my favorite courses was the Molecular Pho with black truffle and Wagyu beef. These delicate bites were well-executed and beautifully presented.
Our best meal in Northern Vietnam was at Bun Cha Huong Lien, south of Hanoi's French Quarter.
This is the restaurant where Anthony Bourdain famously met President Barack Obama in 2016 for lunch, as appeared in the Vietnam episode of "Parts Unknown."
As 2023 comes to a close, I'm left with many delicious memories, from the Brisket Smokeshow in San Antonio to the Molecular Pho in Saigon.
Each of these best bites of 2023 satisfied my taste buds and enriched my understanding and appreciation of diverse culinary cultures.
As I gear up for 2024, my excitement for new food adventures is high. Who knows what incredible flavors and experiences await?
I invite you to continue this journey with me. Let's eat, explore, and enjoy every bite the world has to offer!