Best Of 2003

If the very mention of hotel food fills you with dreadful images of petrified chicken breasts and soggy gray vegetables, fear not. It's only a coincidence that one of the city's best restaurants is in a downtown hotel. But the Renaissance does provide a classy backdrop for this sunny, French-Provençal-style dining room; in turn, the dining room is a fine showcase for chef Ben Fambrough's intelligent, refined, and imaginative Mediterranean cuisine. Just be sure not to wander down in your bunny slippers; it's not that kind of place.
Despite our tendency to act out, we're actually all about tradition. Deep down, we love our mom, we think penny loafers are pretty cute, and we believe that if God had wanted us to have anything other than pepperoni and mushrooms on a pizza, he would have dropped us a note. But all this was before we had Angelo's incredible seafood pizza: sleek lobster-cream sauce, shrimp, crabmeat, satiny leaves of fresh spinach, and a thick layer of melted provolone, all perfectly melded into a rich, buttery blanket and neatly spread on a thick, yeasty, crunchy-chewy crust. Without a doubt, this is the best pizza we have ever tasted. Tradition, you say? What's that?
Forget the effete PB&J. At friendly little Lelolai, they make a two-fisted sandwich just right for tough-guy tastes. Constructed on the bakery's own "pan Criolli," the Cubano is piled high with chunks of freshly roasted pork, thinly sliced ham, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, a touch of mustard, and zesty garlic-infused mayo. Then it's pressed and toasted, panini-style, until the innards are warm, the flavors are blended, and the bread crust is shatteringly crisp. Biting into one of these bad boys is like discovering a whole new continent, one where the food practically stands up and sways to sultry Latino rhythms.

The decor is tidy and functional, but hardly glam. But if homemade pastas and glorious sauces -- silken ravioli, stuffed with lobster and slathered with a tongue-hugging cream sauce; plump cavatelli, tossed with meaty Bolognese and capped with melted cheese; or perfect penne in a bright, summery marinara -- are what get you all excited, Agostino's will rock your Old World.
You've got your crème brûlée here, your tiramisu there . . . and a town that's still awash in the same old predictable dessert choices. Except for Mise, where chef-owner Jeff Uniatowski has forever captured our sweet tooth with his clever "coffee and doughnuts" -- dense, sweet, fresh-from-the-fryer beignets, drizzled with fruit coulis, and served beside a tall cylinder of creamy espresso-flavored semifreddo. Pair it with a pot of French-press coffee, and let the bliss begin.
If olfaction is the queen of the senses, then the fresh, herbaceous cuisine of Vietnam is fit for royalty. And if fragrance is the key to the subconscious, Tay Do is a portal to another world. The enormous menu is an atlas of traditional fare, directing culinary travelers to dishes ranging from beef fondue (with lean brisket sliced sheer as silk stockings and cooked tableside in a secret-recipe broth) to broad, soft rice noodles, lightly pan-fried to produce a hint of smokiness, and tossed with shreds of roasted pork, threads of tender-crisp vegetables, and a scattering of savory fried-onion flakes. There are better-looking Vietnamese restaurants in town, but for fine, authentic fare, Tay Do is the best.

It's not the A train that takes you to Alexandria's -- it's a cheerless, bare-bones elevator that lifts you from the gloomy lobby of an old warehouse to a thoroughly hip dining room above. But leave your second thoughts behind: When those sterile elevator doors slide open, the vision that confronts you -- a soupçon of renaissance Harlem and a pinch of N'Awlins, wrapped in worn red brick and swathed in candlelight -- is as enchanting as anything that greeted Alice after she tiptoed through the looking glass. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the food (southern classics from fried chicken, catfish, and hot-from-the-oven cornmeal muffins to juicy peach cobbler and sweet potato pie) is prepared and served with flair, by soulful staffers who are as warm as a Mississippi breeze.
It's not enough for brothers Pat and Dan Conway to make award-winning beers; now they want to save the planet too. They've implemented a wide-ranging system of "Zero Waste Initiatives." That's their fancy way of saying they do smart stuff like using the brewery's spent grains to grow shiitake mushrooms and as feed for organically grown beef. They also recycle nearly all of their cardboard, glass, and paper. Also, they fuel the pub's free, biodiesel shuttle bus (affectionately called the "Fatty Wagon") on used cooking oil. They even employ earthworms to produce natural fertilizers for the herbs used in the pub's kitchen. But nearest and dearest to the hearts (and palates) of real food fans, they've made their entire eatery smoke-free. If that doesn't merit a toast, we'll eat our biodegradable hat.
The Moroccan tagines and couscous are wonderful, but chef-owner Wahed Haydouni's bastilla is a culinary tour de force, a mother-and-child reunion of buttery shredded chicken and gently scrambled eggs, accented with parsley and almonds, baked in a fragile phyllo crust, and served with an ample sprinkling of powdered sugar and cinnamon. Astonishingly fragrant and full of delicious dichotomies (sweet versus savory, crisp against moist) -- it's easy to see why this unique dish plays a pivotal role in traditional North African celebrations. But more simply, it's just plain fun to eat: "Like having dessert for dinner!" as one delighted guest put it.
Nothing at this high-energy hangout stays the same for long -- the talented young owners, Nick and Giovanna Kustala, are entirely too creative for that -- and that includes the pretty outdoor patio, which this year has been transformed into a campy tiki bar, complete with torches, carved masks, and a long list of cocktails with names like "Johnny Jaws' Shark Bite" and "Hula Girls Gone Wild." Of course, the cool, colorful setting is only half the equation: Nick Kustala's ever-changing repertoire of always-fabulous dishes is the other. Put those two factors together, and it all adds up to an excellent alfresco experience.
You really can't go wrong with any of Great Lakes' rich brews -- the Eliot Ness, Burning River Pale Ale, Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. But if we had to pick a single Desert Island Beer (and if that island had a refrigerator), it'd be the smooth, malty Dortmunder. It's not as light as the Locktender Lager or as heavy as the Edmund Fitzgerald, so it complements just about any food. Goes down just fine on its own too.