Best of Jersey, Best of New York, Food Finds, Travel, USA
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My Top 5 New Restaurant Finds of 2014

As we’re getting ready to say goodbye to 2014, it’s time yet again for countdowns — our customary way of looking back on the year that was.

So, I decided to write one of my own: my list of top new restaurant finds of the year.

1. Bocuse Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America(Hyde Park, NY)

For Valentine’s Day this year, my boyfriend and I decided we were going to give each other a list of things we would like to do for the year in lieu of presents. On his list was the Culinary Institute for America, which I had written about here in a prior post. I had also mentioned how we had one of the best dishes — maybe in the top 5 of our lives — the Guinea Hen at Bocuse.

Later in the year, we went back for their lunch service. They had a surprisingly reasonably priced prix fixe lunch menu option, which we took advantage of. For my appetizer, I had the poached lobster with avocado and sweet potato puree topped with foam. The lobster was very tender and the puree mixture had an interesting taste, something I wouldn’t have thought to put together but it worked. For my entree, I had the beef with mushrooms and pasta — the meat was perfectly cooked, and the pasta melts in your mouth, not to mention the sauce was delicious.

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Beef entree with melt in your mouth pasta.

Definitely the dish of the day though was my boyfriend’s appetizer. He ordered pork belly, took one bite, and said “this is so you.” The pork was melt-in-your-mouth-tender, with just the right amount of meat and pork fat, perfectly seasoned and had smoky undertones. We would put this as one of our top dishes of 2014.

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The pork belly was cooked perfectly. I also love that the Bocuse kitchen is seen in the background in this photo.

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For dessert, I already spoke about the table side lavender ice cream, which was definitely for me the most memorable dessert of the year.

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Table-side lavender ice cream with sable that gave it great texture and elevated the taste even more.

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Tasty sweets that were served with the table side ice cream.

2. The Pluckemin Inn (Besminster, NJ)

I told you the story of how my boyfriend and I chanced upon the Pluckemin Inn one night, and how it saved our weekend. That was the time we had the best risotto yet, as well as the most creative vegetable appetizer we have come across: grilled asparagus with dill, goat cheese, pancetta, and poached egg on top. They were the most unusual combination but when you put everything together all in one bite, they work in a very light and delicious explosion of flavors. This was also when I had an unusual soft shell crab dish that was not breaded but instead served with beans and pea soup (top most photo).

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One of the best dishes of the year for me: grilled asparagus, goat cheese, dill, pancetta and egg.

We loved this restaurant so much that we went back there in November for my birthday celebration, this time with my parents. I chose to have items from prix fixe menu with some substitution, which the staff was very kind to accommodate. For my first course, I had the Golden King Crab (buttered cabbage, hakurei turnip, burgundy truffle) which was very juicy, served with the most delicious risotto (which my stepdad tried to copy in his own kitchen, that’s how good you know it is). Not having known that the king crab dish was going to be served with risotto, I ordered parmesan and walnuts risotto as my second course. I did not regret it though, as every bite was scrumptious. The amount of parmesan did not overpower the dish and the walnut provided much needed texture and crunch. My entree was the suckling pig, which was juicy in the center with thin and crunchy skin, just the way I like. The seasoning was good as well. What I loved about this dish though was the side, brussels sprouts that were fried and had crunch in them, had great flavor (this dish was also loved so much that my stepdad tried copy it as well).

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The king crab appetizer was juicy and the risotto did not disappoint. The mushroom was a nice touch.

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Suckling pig with brussels sprouts.

3. Jiko at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (Orlando, Florida)

This year, we had been given the gift to go to Florida. The best meal of the trip for me was in the Animal Kingdom Lodge’s Jiko, which serves African cuisine. Before then, I haven’t had African food and it was a great way to taste it for the first time. The restaurant was recommended to us by my boyfriend’s cousin, who works in Disney.

When we got to Jiko, which means “the cooking place,” the lady who took us to our table was this very pleasant girl who lit up as soon as she found out this was the first time we were going to be eating African food. She told us our waiter will be over soon and he will tell us all about each dish (which we understand from watching Food Network videos prior to coming to Florida are all influenced by individuals who came from the country). She told us that she was originally from Africa and she is excited to share her culture with those who visit the restaurant. Her passion and enthusiasm was so evident and genuine that she made us so excited about what we were about to experience.

The atmosphere was upscale yet comfortable. We were seated near the wall where the lights changed subtly, representing the changes in the horizons.

The most notable dishes for us were Grilled Wild Boar Tenderloin appetizer (Mealie Pap, Chakalaka, White Truffle Oil, and Micro Cilantro) and my entree which was the Spice-crusted Berkshire Pork Loin (Braised Greens, Coconut Sadza, and Peri Peri Butter). Before Jiko, neither my boyfriend nor I have had wild boar before, and this was a great way to taste it for the first time. As for the pork, it was cooked perfectly and the coconut sadza made it a first class dish.

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Jiko’s spice-crusted pork was perfectly cooked, but the sides, in particular the coconut sadza, made it an A+ dish.

The service was excellent, and we definitely would love to go back again.

4. La Rancherita (Monroe, NY)

I was introduced to La Rancherita by my boyfriend. Before this place, I was convinced I was not going to find a Mexican restaurant I liked upstate. The spices somehow seemed lacking in this side of the country. Thankfully, we found La Rancherita. Their best dish are definitely their shrimp tacos — juicy, tender, perfectly seasoned shrimp, with just the right amount of guacamole and other condiments. We don’t know what those guys are doing in the back, but these tacos could hold their own against any others created by four star chefs in the country.

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The best shrimp tacos we’ve had so far, from La Rancherita in Monroe, NY.

5. Iron Forge Inn (Warwick, NY)

We call the Iron Forge Inn our “brunch place.” We first went there for dinner, and discovered that the chef, Eric Johansen, is an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America (coincidentally, this is the same with the Pluckemin Inn’s Andrew Lattanzio). We’ve since had great meals at the restaurant, with their brunch being so affordable with such high quality. My favorite is their eggs benedict (Quaker Creek Canadian Bacon, Fresh Baked English Muffins, Citrus Hollandaise), which I order almost each time we’re there. We also love their banana pudding cake, served with salted caramel and chocolate sauce. There was this one time when it was served with home made rum ice cream on the side, which complemented it perfectly. They run out of this dessert quickly so if you are in the mood for this, reserve it when you order your appetizer. Speaking of appetizers, we are addicted to the Goat Cheese & Smoked Bacon Dip with Herbs and Crisp Potato Skins, which is always a great way to start the meal.

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Aside from the banana pudding cake, the Iron Forge also has a collection of desserts that are must-try, including a chocolate plate, and this cheesecake that has a unique texture and comes with honey that blends in perfectly with the saltiness of the cheesecake.

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Honey was also the star of this amuse bouche, served to us the first time we were at Iron Forge. The herbs and honey striked a perfect balance. Kudos to the chef.

There you have it, my list of great new restaurant discoveries for 2014. Looking forward to more new finds and happy eating again next year!

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