By Larry Levine –

“You’re lucky, eating so many great meals in great restaurants.”

I hear statements like that frequently from people who assume I created a restaurant web site ( and this online food magazine as an excuse to eat great meals in great restaurants. They have it backwards; the great meals in great restaurants came first. I created and Table Talk because of my life-long love of all things food related.

2011 was an extremely good year for what I love to do. With Jennifer, my sons, and a circle of friends I enjoyed wonderful meals week after week, including many in restaurants in which I never before had eaten. Here is a listing in alphabetical order of the 12 most memorable restaurant experiences of the year. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are ones in which I ate for the first time.

* AL’S ITALIAN BEEF, Chicago Illinois – I had my first Italian Beef Sandwich at Al’s our second day in Chicago last summer. I had my second Italian Beef Sandwich at Al’s my last day in Chicago last summer. The windy city is a culinary wonder and several of the year’s most memorable meals were eaten during the six days we spent there. The Italian Beef sandwich starts with a poppy seed bun. It’s filled with slow roasted, seasoned lean beef sliced so thin it’s almost shaved. It comes dipped in a 100% natural beef gravy (au jus). First time I ordered it “sweet”, which to locals means with sweet peppers, and I asked for it with cheese. Second time I went for “hot” – hot peppers and skipped the cheese. The hot with no cheese is better, so that’s the one that makes the memorable meal list. A tip of the hat to co-host Lenn Grabiner for sending us down this road.

* ANGELINA, Paris France – Our friend Amanda Susskind told us this was the place to go for the best hot chocolate in the history of the universe. So, after spending a few hours at The Louvre, Jennifer and I walked several blocks along Rue de Rivoli to Angelina. I expected a pastry shop that served a great hot chocolate. Instead, we found a large, ornate restaurant packed with well-dressed business people and shoppers. It was noon and we waited in line some 20 minutes before being seated for lunch. And what a lunch it was. I opened the menu and quickly spotted a listing for steak tartare, an old favorite that all but vanished from menus in the U.S. for at least three decades. I ordered it and the waiter asked, “Do you know what that is?” I smiled and told him, “YES, I DO.” I imagine he had experienced numbers of Americans who would order the dish thinking they were going to get a meat tart and then sending it back after seeing what it really is. I was served a big, thick, wedge shaped portion of seasoned raw ground beef, with a raw egg yolk on the top and a perfectly golden toast points. I hadn’t seen anything like it since the happy days of dining at Perino’s, or the Brown Derby in L.A., both of which no longer exist. I followed the tartare with a delicious chocolate éclair and what turned out to actually be the greatest hot chocolate in the history of the universe.

ASANEBO, Studio City California – Before the Michelin gang left California behind, they hung stars on the wall at this outstanding sushi restaurant in a strip mall in the San Fernando Valley. By any measure, I would call myself a regular at Asanebo the last several years. I’ve made it a habit, or a tradition, to stop in some time during the last week of each year. I’m a sushi hound but Asanebo provides such a dazzling array of specialties that I usually order omakase. Of all the meals I had at Asanebo during the year, the last one makes the most memorable list. The first dish set before me consisted of five delectable pieces of Bluefin tuna toro topped with a strip of Santa Barbara Uni. Later I watched as the chef cut six thin slices of halibut and then shaved white truffle on top. Delightful king crab tempura, seared alfonsino, and a parade of other wonderful treats put a perfect cap on a good year.   

* BARBRIX, Los Angeles California – The right company can take a great meal and elevate it to a memorable experience.  That’s what happened the first time we dined at Barbrix. Our friends Lisa Hansen and Jim Dunn joined us for a thoroughly enjoyable evening. With four people at the table, the small plates menu becomes a wonderful place to graze. And that’s what we did, ordering multiple dishes from each section of the menu and finishing with a very nice cheese plate. Interesting conversation, with intelligent companions, lots of laughs, and sharing delectable dishes with people who know and love food … a prescription for a memorable meal.

BIBA, Sacramento California – I’ve been dining at Biba for more than 20 years. It’s one of my two favorite restaurants in all of California. Over time there are a few menu items to which I return often – the best calamari fritti I know of, a consistently wonderful gnocchi with different sauces, and lamb chops that always are tender and tasty. But one night last summer I deviated. I ordered veal sweetbreads as an appetizer and a nightly special quail dinner. The plate set in front of me carried two beautifully golden, plump roasted birds. Anytime game bird, particularly quail, is on a menu, that’s where I’m going and I’ve never had a better quail dinner than I had that night at Biba.

* BOURBON STEAK, San Francisco California – I love this space off the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square. When it was Compass Rose, it was my favorite San Francisco Bar. Michael Mina took over the space several years ago and turned it into an excellent restaurant. Mina moved his name-sake restaurant out of the hotel about a year ago, then decided to open a steakhouse at the site. I’m not big on steakhouses; I eat beef infrequently. But Jennifer and I decided to try Bourbon Steak because of its location and Mina’s influence. My rib eye steak was heavenly. All steaks at Bourbon Steak are poached in different broths before they hit the grill. The result is enhanced flavor and a juicy, tender piece of beef. This was my only steakhouse meal of the year. True to the heritage of Compass Rose, the bar at Bourbon Streak remains top notch. I’ve been drinking Perfect Manhattans in this room for decades and they still are just that – perfect.

* ERNA’S ELDERBERRY HOUSE, Oakhurst California – Jennifer dined at Erna’s with our nephew, Ryan, a year earlier and knew I would love the place. (Ryan is a culinary arts major in college in England. You can read of his American epicurean adventure by clicking on Travel in the menu on the home page of this magazine and then clicking on “Was it an Orgy or an Odyssey”.)  For this trip Jennifer and I stayed at the romantic Chateau du Sureau for three nights, took the 90-minute ride to the floor of Yosemite Valley for lunch at the Ahwahnee Hotel one day, and had dinner at Erna’s all three nights. Any one of the three dinners could qualify as one of the year’s most memorable. Each was a five-course symphony of flavor and aesthetics. One night we were joined by our old friends Sally and Patty, who we’ve known since 1970. They moved to Oakhurst nearly 30 years ago. To renew acquaintances over fabulous food in so peaceful and classy setting was indeed memorable and will remain so.

* GIRL AND THE GOAT, Chicago Illinois – One of the special highlights of a special year. Reservations at Girl and the Goat were running about eight weeks in advance. But the concierge at our hotel tipped us that it’s first come, first seated at the bar and in the lounge. So, we showed up at 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening and were sitting at the bar 10 minutes later. Girl and the Goat was opened in July 2010 by Stephanie Izard, who won Bravo’s Top Chef Competition in season four in somewhat of an upset. The menu is strictly small plates and they are creative and packed with flavor. We were at Girl and the Goat on the night of the first anniversary of the opening. The atmosphere was festive, the staff was buoyant and the food was extraordinary. (You can read more about Girl and the Goat by clicking on A Food Lover’s Journey in the Travel section of the menu on the home page of this magazine.)

* LA HAUSTECA, Lynwood California – This is a sad story. My first meal at La Hausteca was lunch with co-host Larry Dietz. We went there for the mole and I tasted the best mole I’ve eaten outside of Mexico. Before my pork mole, we shared a fabulous and unique ceviche. We finished with flan, with cocoanut shavings and butterscotch topping. As I walked through the Plaza de Mexico to the restaurant I was reminded of times I spent in Mexico many years ago. To top it off, the mariachi was wonderful. Jennifer and I visited La Hausteca several times with friends later in the year and loved the place. So, why is the story sad? The chef left; the mole specialist moved on. We’ll track her down at her new restaurant this year and see if she can provide one of the most memorable meals of 2012.

STILLWATER BAR & GRILL, Pebble Beach California – Jennifer and I used to eat rib eye steak at Scott’s in Costa Mesa before attending the opera in Orange County. They were excellent rib eyes – tender, juicy, full of flavor. Then the restaurant de-emphasized beef and ultimately took the rib eyes off the menu. For the last few years it has been nothing but disappointment in our quest of a great rib eye. I finally gave up. Jennifer continued on for a time, ordering rib eye and complaining they were chewy, tough and not very tasty. Ultimately she stopped ordering them. Then I stopped by Stillwater Bar & Grill after a round of golf at the Pebble Beach golf course. I scanned the menu and there wasn’t much that I felt like eating. On a whim I order a rib eye steak. Jennifer wasn’t with me and I felt guilty with every bight of that great piece of steak. I apologized to Jennifer when I saw her later. What could be more memorable than golf at the legendary Pebble Beach golf course followed by a delicious rib eye steak, while seated by a window overlooking the 18th green and Stillwater Cover?

* WRIGLEY FIELD, Chicago Illinois – No, it isn’t a restaurant. But it was the place where I ate my first ever Chicago Dog as well as my second one. My friend Lenn told me I probably wouldn’t like a Chicago Dog because I prefer my hot dogs with just a little mustard and not a heap of condiments. He also said that if I was going to try one I shouldn’t do it a Wrigley. As we walked to our seats I saw a sign on the hot dog stand. It said “100% Vienna beef grilled hot dog.” I decided to go for it. It was topped with grilled onions, a neon green relish, a thin line of yellow mustard and a sprinkling of celery salt. I’m a hot dog lover and a life-long baseball fan. Put the two of them together in a baseball shrine surrounded by a stadium filled with real baseball fans and that defines memorable.

* ZINGERMAN’S, Ann Arbor Michigan – I’m a deli hound. I grew up eating in delis in Brooklyn. I grew up on fabulous pastramis, great corned beef, and unrivaled salami. Now I live in Los Angeles, which may be the best deli town in the nation. Even after quadruple coronary bypass surgery, I opted to cut back on but not to give up deli food completely. It’s one of those things with which I reward myself on occasions after I’ve been careful with my diet for a sufficient length of time. So, when co-host Larry Sheingold and our mutual friend Jim Hayes sang high praise for Zingerman’s I was skeptical. Still, I schedule a stop in Ann Arbor in both directions as we drove from Chicago to Ontario Canada last summer. First time through I had a corned beef on rye. The bread was great and the kosher dill pickles were like homemade. But the meat was too lean. On the return trip I went for pastrami on rye. Bingo. I’ve never had a better pastrami, not even at Langer’s in L.A., and the twice baked rye bread was peerless. Memorable among all the thousands of deli meals I had through the decades? You bet.

AUX LYONNAIS, Paris, France
DT BISTRO – PATISSERIE, Toronto, Ontario Canada
THE ROYCE AT THE LANGDON, Pasadena California

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