The best dishes of the year

RICK NELSON | Updated 1/3/2013

Critic Rick Nelson reminisces about his favorite dishes of 2012.

Ceaesar salad from the Kenwood.
Courtney Perry

1. Prime cut
One of the Twin Cities’ great culinary indulgences is the ever-changing eight-course tasting menu at La Belle Vie. Case in point: a riff on beef that chefs Tim McKee and Mike DeCamp placed into their mid-April rotation. Half the plate was devoted to a richly nuanced terrine of beef cheek; the other had an otherworldly rib-eye crowned by an equally sublime Roquefort. (510 Groveland Av., Mpls., 612-874-6440, www.labellevie.us.)

2. Lightened up
One of the year’s top “small plates” was the sweet pea “pâté” at Birdhouse, Stewart and Heidi Woodman’s healthy-eating version of the all-day diner. It was as ingenious as it was delicious, a delicate swirl of puréed peas enhanced with chèvre, crème fraîche, traces of mint and sparkling pink sea salt. (2516 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-377-2213, www.birdhousempls.com.)

3. A slice of heaven
A 2012 North Shore road trip only intensified my unhealthy pie fixation. My favorite? Anything from the New Scenic Cafe. My favorites were the sweet-tart rhubarb pie and chef/owner Scott Graden’s triple berry pie, both sporting tender, super-flaky crusts. (5461 North Shore Dr., Duluth, 1-218-525-6274, www.sceniccafe.com.)

4. Oyster bar, minus the bar
At Mona Restaurant & Bar, chef/owner Lisa Hanson has a master’s touch with a basic wood chip-filled pan, a technique she exploits with bracingly fresh-off-the-plane Wellfleet or Malpeque oysters. The smoky flavor teases rather than overwhelms, and a hint of sherry vinegar only enhances the experience. (333 S. 7th St., 612-259-8636, www.monarestaurant.com.)

5. Love among small plates
In composing her menu, Nightingale chef/co-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnston follows a philosophy of cooking what she wants to eat when she dines out. Thank goodness one of her cravings includes pork shoulder, carefully smoked, braised and shredded into mouth-melting juiciness. (2551 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-7060, www.facebook.com/nightingalempls.)

6. Curbside splendor
One of my favorite meals at Lisa Carlson’s and Carrie Summer’s innovative food truck Chef Shack is the walleye sandwich, with tempura-delicate fish finished with a tangy pickled ramp tartar sauce and just-picked micro greens. (www.chefshack.org.)

7. Hail Caesar
The Kenwood chef/owner Don Saunders’ idealized version of the Caesar salad is a doozy. Hearts of romaine are grilled until the outer leaves get a slight char. Then comes the one-two finish: a white wine Dijon vinaigrette and a creamy emulsion of lemon juice and egg yolks. (2115 W. 21st St., Mpls., 612-377-3695, www.thekenwoodrestaurant.com.)

8. Breakfast bonanza
The going rate for perfection — at Patisserie 46, anyway — is $2. That’s the price of the croissants that are the pride of baker John Kraus. Delicately flaky on the outside, an ode to near-absurd levels of buttery flakiness inside, they’re one of the Twin Cities’ great bakery miracles. (4552 Grand Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-3257, www.patisserie46.com.)

9. Nordic high note
Fika, and chef Michael Fitzgerald, might be the best things to happen to the American Swedish Institute. Case in point: the restaurant’s open-face salmon sandwich. It begins with a slice of a dense, sesame seed-studded bread of locally milled rye berries and oats topped with crisply seared salmon, minced red beets and a feisty mustard sauce. (2600 Park Av. S., Mpls., 612-871-4907, www.asimn.org.)

10. Smokin’ good
Nothing over-the-tops the over-the-top nature of meat-centric Butcher & the Boar than the spectacular smoked long rib. What lands at the table is a football-sized hunk of bone-in beef that has been sugar-cured, smoked and glazed in molasses and Tabasco. The wood-burning grill transforms it into a paragon of goodness that’s all sticky sweet-hot crustiness on the outside and juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender on the inside. (1121 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-238-8888, www.butcherandtheboar.com.)