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THE SIMPLE THINGS: A steak-and-cheese sandwich accompanied by perfect fries at Scopazzi's reached the Platonic ideal of comfort food.

Gustatory Greatness

Pasta at Gabriella, a ham and cheese in Death Valley and other memorable meals of 2009

By Christina Waters

JOINING the rest of the country in tightening my belt, I found myself getting pickier and pickier about where and what I ate this year. The result was that the most memorable meals were somehow even more so. Small plates seemed the right idea more often than not, and thanks to Soif, I consumed no fewer than three truly wonderful appetizers involving sautéed scallops. My favorite, joined by a glass of a bone-dry Austrian riesling, was a trio of golden scallops on a bed of crisp baby enoki mushrooms sitting atop a potato risotto encircled by a halo of parsley oil. Another version (maybe this was my favorite) involved the house signature caper and raisin purée and browned cauliflower florets. Memorable.

A lunch at Gabriella in February provided the best pasta of the year: Brad Briske's house-made squid-ink fazzolette (think wide pappardelle pasta) glistening in a sauce of tomato, garlic mint and Calabrian chili. It was all tossed together with tender Monterey Bay calamari, Dungeness crab and sliced scallops. Killer.

In March I inhaled a salad of organic greens, calamari and duck confit overlooking the Springs Preserve eco-park in Las Vegas. It was at one of Wolfgang Puck's cafes, always a welcome oasis in even an urban desert. And this meal was followed by dessert of warm chocolate cake with homemade vanilla ice cream. Brilliant, and so was the view of the mountains surrounding Vegas. A few days later I took my time over a simple Gruyère and Bavarian ham sandwich, along with a glass of some nice California syrah, seated at the Furnace Creek Inn bar overlooking the magnificent desolation of Death Valley. Even ham and cheese tastes amazing below sea level.

While in Seattle for The Ring opera series, I stumbled upon a stupendous Thai restaurant in the Queen Anne district. The place was Tup Tim Thai on West Mercer, and the dish—wok'd while I watched by a trio of very tiny, very quick young women—was a bowl of pad thai with strips of lean pork and tons of cabbage. I added chile sauce and basked in the high-wattage flavors.

Also, last August, Jack and I sampled some of the early menus by Charlie Parker at the Cellar Door. One of the finest meals of the year involved a chorizo and Bellwether Farms ricotta pizza, Roman-style thin and delicious, seated underneath Michael Leeds' witty "flying cigar" sculpture. After the pizza we split a special of slow-roasted pork loin, sliced over a bed of fragrant creamed corn and spinach. A pungent relish of tarragon deviled egg played counterpoint, and everything resonated with Randall Grahm's current masterpiece, the 2005 Cigare de Volant.

In October, we drove up to Boulder Creek and settled into an agreeable lunch at Scopazzi's, where I dove into the finest sandwich I have ever consumed. Animated by the classic pairing of melted Swiss cheese dripping all over tender strips of skirt steak (that had been rubbed with Cajun spices), this sandwich conquered me completely. A hot beef and cheese sandwich on toasted francese with crispy golden fries on the side—sometimes the classics just cannot be beat.

Finally a recent dinner, at my house, of boeuf bourguignon, inspired by a recent conversation with winemaker Richard Alfaro and made from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was truly one of the best meals I enjoyed this year. I served this long-simmered French staple with red potatoes and a watercress salad. And to drink, a Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard 2005 Pinot Noir, Branciforte Creek. The wonderful, wintry pairing of Jeff Emery's great wine and Child's enduring recipe put a delicious cap on the year.

May the new year bring many more great dining memories. Salut!

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