The Side Dish: Best Food, Drink, and Travel of 2012

Oh, 2012. You’ve been good to me.

I began the year with a return visit to the Cayman Cookout and ended my year with a marvelous Taste of Tulalip. In between, there were adventures in Maui, New Orleans, Indianapolis – with good friends, great food, and incomparable imbiberies. What more could a girl ask for?

Here on Daily Blender, there were some shining stars amongst the crowd. The top post for the year was a bit on my travels to the heart of the Midwest – Indianapolis – and the surprising array of memorable food and drink I found within the city. I had initially balked at the invitation to visit, but left most impressed with the Circle City, enough to even pen an article for’s travel section.

Favorite interviews included Kat’s Q&A homerun with Kogi BBQ’s Roy Choi while I enjoyed picking the brain of New York bar man Jim Meehan, a humble, shining star in the spirits world, whom I finally met in person during my travels to New Orleans for my first visit to Tales of the Cocktail. Truth be told, there were fantastic gatherings to be had all year, from the USBG-focused Red, White, and Booze party at Portland Cocktail Week to my days as a guest judge at the Maui County Agricultural Festival.  I was proud to be a part of the inaugural Eat.Run.Hope. in Seattle, as well, raising funds in memory of chef Ethan Stowell’s sons.

A few other memorable moments from the year:

Best meal I had………. Star Noodle, Lahaina, Maui

If you’re paging through the latest food magazine, or just flipping through television channels at night, there’s a reason chef Sheldon Simeon makes a repeated appearance. During my Maui visit in the spring, I had a chance to dine at Star Noodle despite the crowds and lines on a random Tuesday evening. Every dish was tasty, well-seasoned, and prepared with a wonderful creativity. Off the beaten path, and hidden amid a small industrial district, Star Noodle was my best meal this year – and a must-dine on the Hawaiian island.

There were unfortunately a strange number of misses – not blatant, more just flat mediocrity – particularly in New York, but perhaps I just wasn’t eating at the right restaurants this year.

And since I hadn’t noted them previously, my most notable meal of 2011 was certainly at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink in Miami, Florida, with Jose Andres’ The Bazaar in Los Angeles leaving quite an impression (and a memorable dent in my wallet) in 2010.

Favorite hotel stay………. Tulalip Resort and Casino, Tulalip, Washington

I’ve spent a weekend or two at casino hotels in Las Vegas – Bellagio, Luxor, Mandalay Bay – but they don’t have anything on the Tulalip Resort. You wouldn’t think such luxury would come attached to a reservation casino just off the freeway, but it does, and it’s well worth a visit. They’ve done a beautiful job with the interior décor of this four-diamond hotel, with rooms that are chic and comfortable and amenities that complement (makeup removing towelettes in the bathroom, for the win!). My only wish was for a better view – the parking lot and busy I-5 corridor didn’t do much for me – but I’ll certainly return.

Other notables included the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, the only place to stay on Grand Cayman in my opinion; the family-friendly Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, Maui; and Bienville House in New Orleans, where my cozy, windowless, interior room was perfect for a weekend stay.

Most consistent kitchen………. Riffle NW, Portland, Oregon

I always feel as though not enough recognition is given for consistency within the restaurant world. Sometimes it seems that in the mad rush to one-up the other guy, consistency seems to fall flat, and either the kitchen isn’t able to produce the same quality of dishes when the chef is away or dishes are presented without the necessary on-the-line test taste. Consistency is über-important to the life of a restaurant, particularly if plans are to stay in business long-term. I’ve been on the Riffle train since chef Ken Norris and his wife, Jennifer, opened their Pearl District location this summer – and I have been pleased with every dish, every time.

An additional plus to Riffle NW is the stellar bar program.  Though there have been some staff shuffles, with original bartenders Ricky Gomez and Emily Baker departing for brand representative opportunities, San Francisco transplant Brandon Josie has taken up the role as bar manager with aplomb, offering Portland-ites and visitors alike a chance to have both a great meal and a fantastic cocktail – a combination that often seems elusive in this town.

Favorite place to enjoy a cocktail………. The Libertine, Indianapolis, Indiana

It was difficult to choose just one, but there it is. I was in awe that such a haven of happiness could exist in small-town America, and thus, the Libertine left a mark. Bartender Douglas Strodtman, nowadays behind the bar at Portland’s Beaker & Flask, delivered a handful of grand cocktails – and a few shots of Fernet – making the Libertine my favorite cocktail stop of the year. Other winning drinking destinations included my first visit to PDT in New York City, where bartender Jeff Bell rocked a Mezcal Mule, and Riffle NW here in Portland, where I continue to religiously order the sweet but spicy Hovercraft.

Onward to 2013!


~Jennifer Heigl

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