2011 BEGAN with an “Ole!’’ We rode in on a wave of tequila and yuppie tacos, as half a dozen upscale Mexican restaurants arrived on the scene almost simultaneously. This was the year Kendall Square and the South Boston waterfront took off as restaurant neighborhoods, albeit with very different flavors - the former a haven for small, independent establishments, the latter trending bigger and glitzier. Legal Sea Foods got a flagship with Legal Harborside, complete with roof deck and bouncers; the Fenway branch of El Pelon Taqueria returned from the ashes. File both under “how far they’ve come.’’ Celebrity fueled several restaurants, such as Wahlburgers from the Wahlberg brothers, Sweet Cheeks from Tiffani Faison of “Top Chef,’’ and Blue Inc. from Jason Santos of “Hell’s Kitchen.’’ We ride out of 2011 on a wave of craft cocktails, as a generous handful of new bars arrive on the scene almost simultaneously. Before we bid the year goodbye, let’s take a look back at some of its most delicious moments. Here are 11 favorite dishes from 2011.
EVERYONE serves pork belly. No one serves it quite like chef Antonio Bettencourt at 62 Restaurant & Wine Bar. His confit pork belly with spicy red cabbage slaw offers more than simple, fatty pleasures. The dish is infused with a spectrum of flavors - Thai chilies, cilantro, vinegar, brown sugar. It’s as complex as it is delicious. 62 Wharf St., Salem. 978-744-0062. www.62restaurant.com
80 THOREAU was one of my favorite new restaurants of 2011, and it’s hard to single out one dish. Perhaps the perfect soft-shell crabs with hakurei turnips, fried chickpeas, and harissa? The grilled lamb with phyllo dough turnovers? No, the gnocchi, tiny dumplings seared until their outsides are crisp and chestnut brown, their insides soft and chewy. Served with morels, peas, herbs, and artichoke cream, they were craveable. 80 Thoreau St., Concord. 978-318-0008. www.80thoreau.com
JASON BOND knocked everyone out with his restaurant, Bondir, where the menu is ever in flux, every day its own season. I enjoyed many dishes here, but a composition with Scituate scallops stands out for its simple, focused flavors. Giant scallops, sweet and expertly seared, sat alongside pickled mushrooms, celery puree, and a pink radish roasted into melting tenderness. Celery and radishes don’t get enough love, but Bond’s kitchen offers all vegetables pride of place. 279A Broadway, Cambridge . 617-661-0009. www.bondircambridge.com
I RARELY ORDER filet mignon. If I’m going to eat steak, I’m going to do it really carnivorously, with a cut I have to gnash my teeth over. But Catalyst’s beef tournedos, essentially a smaller version of filet mignon, won me over in a big way. The meat is incredibly tender, but it still manages to have plenty of flavor, augmented by garlic-parsley sauce, Bordelaise sauce, rainbow chard, and taleggio ravioli. 300 Technology Square, Cambridge. 617-576-3000. www.catalystrestaurant.com
CITIZEN PUBLIC HOUSE’S pig roast is not so much a dish as an event, from the moment chef Brian Reyelt wheels out the lacquered whole beast for your admiration. After you’ve demolished it, from ears to trotters, along with raw bar and a bevy of sides, you and your friends will agree it was one of the most memorable nights of the year. 1310 Boylston St., Boston. 617-450-9000. www.citizenpub.com
THIS SUMMER, Eat - the folks behind a series of local pop-up restaurants - popped up on the Cape, taking over longtime establishment Adrian’s for the season. Called Eat at Adrian’s, the outfit served dishes such as grilled pork loin with seared peaches, grits, braised greens, and a sauce made from chorizo. It was stunning. (Just as stunning was the rice noodle soup with roast pork and bacon I ate at Sol in Wellfleet, which I’m sneaking in a mention of here.) 535 Route 6, North Truro. 508-487-4360. www.adriansrestaurant.com
GIVEN THAT Boston is famous for clam chowder (oh, sorry, chowdah), we don’t have nearly enough truly great renditions of it. Island Creek Oyster Bar’s is a real contender for best local bowl, buttery, bacony, and full of clam flavor, not too thick. To not order it would be a real chow-duh. 500 Commonwealth Ave., Boston . 617-532-5300. www.islandcreekoysterbar.com
BEFORE OPENING Red Lantern, its owners proclaimed the nightspot would be equally focused on food. I wasn’t convinced until I tasted the whole striped bass, wok-fried with sesame, soy, ginger, and scallion. We happily picked its bones clean with our chopsticks while slurping scorpion bowls through awkwardly long, unbending straws. 39 Stanhope St., Boston. 617-262-3900 . www.redlanternboston.com
IT SEEMS wrong to praise a barbecue restaurant for a cookie, but that’s what I’m going to do. After eating pulled pork and brisket at Sweet Cheeks, it is imperative that you order the giant Nutter Butter (unless you are allergic to nuts, of course). Two huge peanut butter cookies sandwiched together with more peanut butter and sprinkled with coarse salt, it is enough to serve your entire table. The interplay of salt and sugar makes it one addictive dessert. 1381 Boylston St., Boston. 617-266-1300. www.sweetcheeksq.com
WHILE WE’RE talking about the interplay of flavors, I’ll praise the pomegranate-glazed eggplant with capers, olives, and pine nuts at Trade. I love eggplant. I don’t understand people who don’t. If you count yourself among them, remember how you used to feel about Brussels sprouts. Then go try this dish, which is tart, sweet, salty, and earthy all at once. 540 Atlantic Ave., Boston. 617-451-1234. www.trade-boston.com
AND ENDING the year on a sweet note - but not too sweet - are the bomboloncini at Ventuno, a new Italian restaurant in Nantucket from the people behind Straight Wharf. They are described on the menu as doughnuts, but they’re more like brioche, filled with bittersweet chocolate and served with mint chocolate chip gelato and chocolate sauce. It is too bad, but probably for the best, that the excellent dessert is a ferry ride away. 21 Federal St., Nantucket. 508-228-4242. www.ventunorestaurant.com
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.