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Food editor Michelle Stark's top 10 dining experiences of 2018

MICHELLE STARK   |   Times  A dessert course called “Chestnut and Grapes” at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. Three different kinds of grapes are served with a nectarine sorbet, along with a more savory chestnut treat.
MICHELLE STARK | Times A dessert course called “Chestnut and Grapes” at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. Three different kinds of grapes are served with a nectarine sorbet, along with a more savory chestnut treat.
Published Dec. 31, 2018

Seeking out an interesting meal is as much a hobby for me as going to the movies. Every trip out of town involves a detailed list of potential places to eat; every date night is an opportunity to try something new. I ate a lot of memorable food in 2018, much of that the result of Tampa Bay's growing food scene and travel to other big cities. Here are my top 10 favorite dining experiences.

10. A bowl at Fresh Kitchen: The restaurant meal I ate most this year was probably the Four Bowl at Fresh Kitchen. The St. Petersburg and Tampa locations of this spot from Ciccio Restaurant Group remain one of the best places to build your own bowl. And the customizable meals are relatively healthy when so many places aren't, with options like kale slaw and baked chicken and tons of roasted veggies. Even better, prices have remained reasonable when a slew of new restaurants ratcheted things up past $10 for grab-and-go poke bowls or casual lunches. The largest bowl at Fresh Kitchen is $9.95, praise the fast-casual gods. I usually opt for a base of kale slaw and brown rice, topped with roasted Brussels sprouts or cauliflower (though their seasonal braised beans with kale is a real winner), with almond chicken and Holy Kale sauce. A perfect lunch.

9. Tacos in Chelsea Market, New York: When I visited New York City for a couple days in October, I made a beeline for Chelsea Market, an indoor food hall that sits just below the High Line, a railroad-turned-elevated park that winds up the west side of Manhattan. A snack eaten in the park was just what I needed after lots of walking. The food vendors at Chelsea Market range from sandwiches to fresh pasta to niche items like halva, a candy made from sesame seeds. After much deliberation, I found Los Tacos No. 1, a Mexican spot with a short menu of tacos and quesadillas. I ordered two tacos, the carne asada (beef) and the adobada (pork), on corn tortillas, made fresh there every day. They warmed the tortillas, stacked two on top of each other to prevent breakage, then piled on meat, guac, onion and various sauces. I walked the tacos up to the High Line, sat on a bench in 70-degree weather, and ate both in five minutes. The beef, slathered in guac, was tender and juicy. And the pork was even better, slightly spicy and topped with crunchy raw onion, strips of fresh pineapple and cilantro. Best tacos I've ever had.

8. Any of the fresh pastas at Il Ritorno, St. Petersburg: I've eaten at chef David Benstock's modern Italian restaurant a handful of times, but had to go back recently after I interviewed the chef about making fresh pasta earlier this year. The tutorial (just eggs, flour and water — it's magic) left me hungry for a fresh noodle dish, and Il Ritorno is one of the top local places for such a meal. The Bucatini Pomodoro in particular deserves mention for being an exquisitely simple plate of pasta. A little fresh basil, high-quality olive oil and burrata amplify the toothsome noodles, keeping things delicious yet unfussy, just like great Italian should be.

7. Ricotta toast at Buttermilk Bakery, Orlando: This Winter Park bakery is a must-stop whenever I make the trek up I-4. The family-owned spot cranks out dozens of baked goods every morning. In addition to chocolate chip tea cakes and croissants, they also have a selection of brunch items like housemade yogurt and granola. And ricotta toast. The toppings change often, but there is usually always ricotta toast on the menu, the ricotta made in-house, too. A thick slice of rustic Buttermilk Bakery bread is toasted, then slathered with the creamy cheese and topped with pistachios or a fresh fruit jam or local honey. It is just the perfect combination of salty and sweet, with varying textures and temperature levels.

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6. Cheese and charcuterie at Annata, St. Petersburg: This small plates-and-wine spot owned by some of the folks behind Mazzaro's Italian Market has become one of those reliable stalwarts I go to for a couple specific things. One of those things is wine, the other is cheese and charcuterie boards that rival any in Tampa Bay. And they're still the most reasonably priced: three items for $14, five for $20 and seven for $27. You pick from options like Buche de Chevre (goat cheese), Delice de Bourgogne (a triple cream cheese) and truffle ham and duck prosciutto made in-house. With that comes a bevy of accoutrements, including marcona almonds, jams, mustard — and unlimited bread or crackers. It's the perfect meal over which to lazily nosh with a friend. My visit this year was made all the more memorable because I shared it with an out-of-town friend I don't get to see too often. Our perfect board? A pick-five with truffle ham, speck, a goat cheese, a sharp cow cheese and that velvety, luxurious triple cream.

5. Dinner at the Four Horsemen in Brooklyn: There are some restaurants that just get you. That's how I felt the first time my friend and I ate at this cozy restaurant in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. And again when we visited it this fall and had the kind of meal that effortlessly flowed from start to finish. When we told our bartender we liked Aperol Spritzes, he whipped up a fall version of the drink with a pine-y liqueur and lemon juice. It set a loose, experimental tone for the dinner, often the best way to make your way through a menu. We shared a couple plates, starting with a buttery foccacia-like toast slathered in a vibrant tomato jam and including a warm bowl of mushroomy grits. That tomato toast remains one of my favorite bites of the year, and an example of how simple dishes rigorously created allow ingredients to shine.

4. Small plates at Ichicoro Ane, St. Petersburg: Yes, the ramen is great at this St. Pete outpost of Ichicoro in Seminole Heights, a Japanese restaurant that was one of the first to elevate ramen in the Tampa Bay area. But I love building a meal out of its small plates, like the plush bao buns, the charred lime-y corn on the cob, the karaage (perfectly spiced fried chicken bites) and maybe the fried cauliflower or grilled avocado. Enhancing the whole vibe is the handsomely designed interior of one of Tampa Bay's hippest restaurants.

3. An Inside the Box sandwich at Armature Works: 2018 was the year of food halls, and this one in the Tampa Heights area is the largest and most swoon-worthy. If I'm being honest, I go here for the atmosphere and aesthetic first, and the food second, but there are some legitimately good dishes to be found. One of my favorites is the roast beef sandwich at Inside the Box, an original vendor that specializes in specialty sandwiches made with meats that are cured, smoked and roasted in-house. That roast beef deal comes with bleu cheese, smoked bacon, roasted peppers and roasted garlic aioli.

2. Fine dining at Victoria and Albert's, Orlando: My husband and I have dreamed about the idea of dinner at Victoria and Albert's, a pricey multi-coursed meal at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, since we were in college. This year, I took him for his birthday, and even though that was way back in January, I can still taste the delicate celery root puree dotted with black truffles and the Alaskan halibut that sat atop baby artichokes and a light-as-air Parmesan cheese foam. We had never shared such a fine dining experience together, so that made it all the more special. As did the harpist in the corner and the cheese cart wheeled out before dessert.

1. The 27-course dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, New York: My top meal of 2018 has to be this five-hour feat of endurance. While I was in upstate New York for a cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America in October, I made a reservation for one at this unique farm-to-table restaurant just north of New York City. A true YOLO dinner, I paid a flat fee to experience whatever Dan Barber, the James Beard-nominated chef behind Blue Hill, was in the mood to serve. It ended up being 27 courses and just as many stories about where the food came from, why it was grown this way, how it was prepared. This meal taught me more about food and cooking than any other culinary experience of the year, in addition to being some of the best-tasting and interesting food I've ever eaten. I ate the inside of a sunflower stalk, beef from a 16-year-old dairy cow, a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale. Much of it so simple, yet otherworldly.

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