10 dishes to savor

RICK NELSON | Updated 8/17/2012

Critic Rick Nelson shares his carefully chosen favorite dishes of 2011.

Mojo Monkey donut with mango icing and coconut

Thai comfort food: There are many incentives for diving headlong into the menu at On's Kitchen, one of the Twin Cities' great new Thai restaurants, but here's a smart place to start: chef On Khumchaya's steamed tilapia custard, a low-and-slow preparation perfumed with lemongrass and served inside a pretty banana leaf shell. It's comfort food at its soothing, flavorful best. (1613 W. University Av., St. Paul, 651-644-1444.)

An instant Linden Hills landmark: Here's what happens after just one sublime taste of the scallops at Tilia, burnished with a glorious caramelized glaze, juicy beyond reason and finished with a bright kaffir lime foam: You'll be mentally composing a thank-you tweet to your lucky stars that chef Steve Brown is running the show. Oh, and you'll acknowledge your good fortune for having scored a seat in his wildly popular Linden Hills restaurant.

Bring on the pork belly: When chef Don Saunders launched his In Season in late 2010, he promised an ever-changing ode to peak-season ingredients. And he delivered. Let's hope he revives last winter's wowser of an appetizer: wonderfully briny Quilcene oysters from Washington state's Puget Sound, dusted in semolina, fried to perfection and paired with honey-glazed, slow-braised pork belly, all laid out on a bed of crunchy, sweet-sour slaw cabbage.

Porky goodness: My favorite 2011 doggy-bagged leftovers started out as dinner at Sopranos Italian Kitchen in the form of chef J.P. Samuelson's spectacular porchetta, a spiral of fork-tender cured pork, a scandalous amount of garlic and a bumper crop of rosemary. It was served with lardo-kissed cannellini beans and it was one of those pot roast-like dishes that tastes even better the next day.

Even more pork: Yes, 2011 was definitely the Year of the Pig, particularly at Masu Sushi & Robata, where chef-of-all-trades Tim McKee formulated a stunning series of Japanese noodle soups, most notably a handsome earthenware bowl brimming with crimped ramen, a barely-holding-it-together poached egg and, you got it, a slab of seductively fatty pork belly. Go there. Order it.

Breakfast obsession: Some nights I fall asleep dreaming of the biscuits and gravy at Sun Street Breads. Baker Solveig Tofte splits her light and golden biscuits down the middle before smothering them in a peppery gravy that's brimming with house-made sausage built on Minnesota-raised Berkshire pork (the vegetarian version, brimming with earthy mushrooms, is pretty swell, too). Even better? The Southern-accented variation, featuring superb fried chicken, a strip of smoky, thick-cut bacon and a side of that eat-every-last-drop gravy. Hurry up, sunrise; I need my fix.

Can't pick just one: Selecting a sole standout Stewart Woodman creation is like being restricted to a single favorite episode of "Downton Abbey." Still, when it comes to just one can't-get-it-out-of-my-mind dish at Heidi's, my memory keeps rewinding to mouth-melting lamb shanks, the ones so delicately perfumed with lemongrass and cinnamon, a textbook example of Woodman's boundary-pushing ability to repurpose familiar ingredients in exciting new directions.

Deep-fried delights: Doughnut lovers everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to Mojo Monkey Donuts owner Lisa Clark, who crafts a raised doughnut of exquisite proportions. She finishes them with a tangy mango-honey glaze and a sprinkle of chewy organic coconut. To say that they are the Twin Cities' best doughnut is not doing them justice.

Divine decadence: In the sheer indulgence department, nothing beat Meritage chef/seafood king Russell Klein's over-the-top ode to lobster. Picture a flavor-packed lobster consommé, filled with hefty pieces of tender poached lobster and crowned with a sweet corn purée.

Fresh off the farm: My go-to summer snack? The snap peas at Wise Acre Eatery -- harvested earlier that day at the restaurant's Plato, Minn., farm and rushed into the city -- that chef Beth Fisher lightly drizzled with olive oil and sea salt before giving them a gentle char.