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Gather 'Round the Table - Our Best Meals of 2010

By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 29, 2010 4:30PM

This list requires a different kind of introduction. Rather than an objective, comprehensive or universalizing "best-of" list which would take into account a statistical average of a whole series of factors, this is an entirely subjective dining list. As we've said many times in the past, dining out is fundamentally about how meals make someone feel, and therefore each person's "best meal" will be a very personal choice. It may be a particular event, or a moment in someone's life that made a meal the best one. It may be the food, the drink, or the service. Or it might be that mysterious feeling of warmth and fellowship that sometimes envelopes a person during the greater moments of their life. We asked our Chicagoist foodies to contribute their best meals of 2010, and invite you to do the same. Happy New Year!

Anthony: My best meals of 2010 both involved friends and (relatively) humble cuisine. By humble, I certainly don't mean bad - in fact, both meals were excellent - but not filled with the kind of foodie frippery that usually gets my saliva running. Both meals were meals with very good friends, one at Anteprima and one at Erwin. Both were on chilly Friday nights, after a long day of work, transit and and annoyances, but as soon as I sat down with my friends at the table, all of it melted away. I'm sure the fact that both restaurants had amazing martinis didn't hurt, but the feelings of fellowship and caring made already-wonderful food taste like ambrosia itself.

Carrie: I can't really define one singular meal as best of 2010 but i can speak of a best "recurring" meal. I've sampled my fare share of Davanti Enoteca's menu over the past few months but the best kept secret for keeping your meal inexpensive is to ditch your dinner plans and visit during the lunch hour. Ideally, you want to pop in Davanti around 2pm or 3pm on a sunny day, settle yourself near one of the those large windows or close to the wine case and order a bottle of the Tamellini Soave to share with someone who loves to drink and eat as much as you do. Order any combination of the following: marscapone polenta and ragu of the day (love the presentation on this one), roast beets/walnut butter/creme fraiche, roasted cherry tomatoes/burrata/basil pesto, escarole/gala apples/celery/hazelnut salad and pizza with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, fontina and arugula. I haven't found room for dessert yet but found on several occasions a cappuccino is the perfect ending to my best-worthy meal of 2010.

Roger: Chef Michael Carlson's Schwa is different things to different people. It's a dining litmus test of sorts. Some find the Schwa experience too aggressively idiosyncratic - the loud music, the sometimes gruff waitsraff (aka the chefs themselves), the incommunicado reservationists (aka the chefs themselves) - while others are absolutely floored by the radical genius percolating in the hole wthin a hole-in-a-wall that is Schwa's kitchen. I admit I belong to the latter camp, following a sensational meal I had there this past summer. All told, I believe it was a 13-course tasting, as the chefs took improvised tangents and served surprise classics (like their phenomenal quail egg raviolo) here and there. The food turned the traditional progression from savory to sweet on its head, with an eye-opening shot of apple pie soup to kick things off. As the meal unfolded, our group was continually impressed by the range of flavors, unexpected combinations and unusual ingredient sourcing that are all brought to bear during a Schwa meal. One of the most memorial bites was a tiny but incredibly delicious biscuit made from contraband flour smuggled from the Carolinas in a farmer's suitcase (Investing so much into the simplest things is a common strain among the dishes at Schwa.) Whatever your feelings are about Carlson and his team, if you simply judge by what's on the plate, it's hard to deny that they are anything short of alchemists when it comes to food. Do things have the potential to go sour when your server is also your chef? Sure, but those conditions also allow for the intimacy, surprise and profoundly good food that collide to make the best meals of your life. I'd argue that it's worth the risk.

Caitlin: The best meal that I had this year was at Froggy's French Cafe in Highwood. I went for a special occasion, and was reminded of why I love going out to dinner in the suburbs - we had no trouble getting in, the service was excellent, and the prix fixe menu was on par with what you would expect from a high-end restaurant downtown. Were we the youngest people there by about 30 years? Well, yes. But too much of Chicago's upscale food scene is unapproachable and inaccessible - Froggy's reminded me that there is teeming culinary inspiration on the North Shore that won't charge you an arm and a leg for an excellent dinner out, and might even give you an elusive 8pm reservation the week-of, if you ask nicely and en francais.

John: We all love a good meal. Sometimes the best meals are about more than just a delicious dish. They are an amalgamation of great food, good company, and overall excellent ambience. My favorite experience this year was a social dining event at Lincoln Park's Sapori Trattoria. Not only did Chef Anthony Barbanente out do himself with a fantastic menu, but he even upgraded it at not extra cost to the attendees, so that they could truly get a taste of his talents. My dining companions from Grubwithus were appreciative and a heck of a lot of fun. Chef Anthony actually spent a good bit of time at the table, socializing with the attendees, talking about the dishes, and being an all around attentive host. I can still taste the pumpkin ravioli and hear the laughter of the group. Yes, it was THAT good.