Year-end roundups of best restaurants, favorite meals and outstanding moments may seem arbitrary, and in truth they are. But I never miss an opportunity to revel in recalling great food experiences, especially because even with all our special issues -- Best of Atlanta, the Food Issue -- there isn't much space for favorites. My favorite restaurant in town may not be the "best" restaurant, my favorite meal may not be the one that fits into a preconceived theme and sometimes the best dishes I have had over the course of a year don't make it into the paper at all. So here's a look at the best dishes I've had since arriving in Atlanta in March, the ones that come back to haunt me with comfort, ingenuity or pure taste.
Wild striped bass with pickle consommé -- SAGA
SAGA has only been open for a few weeks, and it remains to be seen whether the concept -- a menu that incorporates the cuisines of South Africa as well as the American South -- will fly in this highly competitive Midtown market. But one thing's for sure, and that is chef Drew Van Leuvan's talent for highly original food. I was wowed by a dish served recently on the dinner menu, despite that I ordered it because it sounded so weird. Striped bass, its skin cooked to a perfect crisp, lay over a mound of cornbread stuffing pressed firmly out of a mold, flavored with seed mustard and bacon, and swathed in cabbage leaves. All of this was surrounded by a pickle consommé, an odd but brilliant pickle-essence liquid. Seasonal mushrooms finish the dish.
Stuffing, fish and pickles? Yup. It's rare for a dish to so completely take me by surprise, and this one, with its gracious harmony of savory sour and salty, knocked me out. How did Van Leuvan know this would work? Where did he come up with such a crazy combination? Who cares? It's delicious. The striped bass has now been replaced with pork tenderloin, which makes a little more sense -- kind of like a deconstructed ham sandwich -- but I recommend either version heartily.
1100 Crescent Ave. 404-872-0999. www.sagamidtown.com.
Almond croissant -- Les Fleur de Lis Café
I have an unhealthy obsession with almond croissants. When I was a child, I frequented a certain French bakery that made the most incredible almond croissants. After coming to rely on my weekly Saturday morning fix, one day the bakery changed the recipe, forgoing the marzipan-filled wonders with nasty crème-filled, limp, dry atrocities. I have been searching for the perfect almond croissant ever since.
Needless to say, on my first trip to Paris I found a version even better than the croissant of my childhood. But my search on this side of the Atlantic continued. Earlier this year, I hit the jackpot one Sunday morning at Les Fleur de Lis Café, with the version they serve made by Bread Garden. This is a true French almond croissant: nutty, dense, crackling and yet soft, with a genuinely satisfying heft and refinement. It's the best almond croissant I've had in the United States, and I've eaten every almond croissant in New York City (or close to it). I was saddened to learn that Bread Garden does not sell these paragons of breakfast anywhere else, including in its own store. But paired with Les Fleur de Lis' incredible hot chocolate (which also is unparalleled in my experience save for the stuff they serve in Paris), this is a breakfast experience worth sitting down and leaving a tip for.
57 Forsyth St. 404-230-9151. www.lesfleursdeliscafe.com.
Baked chicken with a side of squash casserole and collard greens -- Son's Place
When I express my enthusiasm for Son's Place, I often get the response, "Yeah, but it's not Deacon Burton's." I suppose the comparison is unavoidable, but since I never ate at Deacon Burton's, I can enjoy Son's Place without reservation. And enjoy it I do, quite regularly. I am most elated when the baked chicken and squash casserole is on the menu. That chicken, so juicy, with thick gravy that tastes of pan drippings. The squash casserole, light and fluffy and creamy sweet, offset by salt and onion. The greens, cooked to a perfect tenderness and seasoned with just the right amounts of acid and soul. On days when the squash casserole is not on the menu, the mac 'n' cheese is also sinfully good. With a ho-cake on the side, I have yet to experience a better reason to live in Atlanta than the guarantee of food like this.
100 Hurt St. 404-581-0530.
Butterbean soup with mini BLT sandwich -- Restaurant Eugene
With this midsummer soup, Linton Hopkins managed to do the impossible with the stodgy old lima bean -- make it sexy. The silky texture and generous mouth-feel brought out all the class that I never knew this down-home girl of a vegetable had. The soup is a fantastic example of what got Hopkins his title as Iron Chef Atlanta -- the capacity to focus on the singularity of an ingredient, to respect it and coax it into an elegant expression of pure personality. The tiny BLT sandwich lent a burst of flavor and a wink of humor, something so often lacking in serious cooking.
2277 Peachtree Road. 404-355-0321. www.restauranteugene.com.
Sharp pepper fish -- Tasty China
Whenever I am in need of comfort, be it from heartbreak or hangover, I crave spicy Asian food. It soothes my soul. Sometimes the craving is for pho, sometimes for Korean kimchee soup, but blistering, spicy broth is the key. Recently, the comfort food of choice has been the sharp pepper fish from Tasty China. Tender white fish and hunks of sexy silken tofu hide under a fiery blanket of red and orange peppers. But it is the broth in which these components swim that makes me crave the dish -- a spicy, salty liquid turned lightly red from the peppers and tasting faintly of the ocean. I could slurp it up with a straw.
585 Franklin Road, Marietta. 770-419-9849.