I think God is in the kitchen...

I was reading an article about ways to get a reservation at restaurants that are typically booked for weeks or months in advance. My question is this: Who are these people that go to these restaurants? Are these places truly all that they're cracked up to be? I've had some amazing, mouth-watering, truly exquisite meals, and I've never had to spend months of my life on hold or slip a $100 bill to a hostess. Just once I think that I'd like to try one of these places that you read about. If they can top the meals and experiences that I've had in other places, then they must be worth the fuss. So, for your reading pleasure and my gastronomic memory's pleasure, a list of the top ten dining experiences of my life:

1) NOLA, one of Emeril's restaurants in New Orleans: One of the few places I have ever eaten where we spent the entire meal (both visits) talking about only the food. There was no need for clever banter or witty repartee. The only words out of our mouths were, "Oh, you have to try this. Oh my gosh, this tastes amazing." Here's hoping that NOLA and all of New Orleans will triumph in the face of adversity. More importantly, here's hoping that the spirit of the people (whether displaced throughout the U.S. or still in New Orleans), will heal and blossom.

2) La Samanna on St. Martin on the French side of the island (at the La Samanna resort): This restaurant was recommended to us by some friends who honeymooned on St. Martin. We never did figure out if this was exactly the right restaurant. I was working from memory. But if it wasn't the right place, we sure stumbled on an unbelievable spot. I had a 3-lb. lobster that I got to pick out of a basket brought table side. The food was delicious, but even better was the atmosphere. We ate outside perched above the beach. The temperature was perfect, and the ambiance was casual yet upscale. You felt like you should be drinking Dom Perignon while wearing a sundress and going barefoot.

3) Vesta Dipping Grill, Denver: This is an easy recommendation for any visitor to Denver. The atmosphere is hip. Hammered tin covers on the menus, wine bottles converted into drinking glasses, light fixtures that look like they should adorn ears and necks on the red carpet. The food is divine. Everything I have ever ordered there I have thoroughly enjoyed. My personal favorites:

  • Sauce Sample Platter & the Vesta Roll (appetizers)
  • Pecan Pie Salad is crispy and sweet (although you don't even need a salad)
  • Ponzu Grilled Atlantic Salmon with sesame sushi rice cake and hijiki salad (suggested sauces: mandarin orange chili mojo, miso, thai hot & sour) (entree)
  • Matt's Wacky Apple (my favorite dessert in the world) (dessert)
  • They have a great wine list and a very knowledgeable staff
4) Prime Steakhouse, Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas: One of my most memorable dining experiences. We stumbled onto this place with an old friend. (Probably another reason it was such a great experience.) I remember wanting to run my fingers over the walls and curtains in the restaurant. It's decorated in rich browns and the most delicate of pale blues. You feel like you're eating inside a chocolate covered Tiffany's box. I had the best Dover Sole (better than sole that I've actually had in Dover) with a really light meuniere sauce and wilted spinach with lemon.

5) Mon Ami Gabi, Paris Hotel, Las Vegas: I had the Steak Roquefort. The steak was crusted so perfectly in blue cheese and the flash fried shoestring onions were the perfect complement. We called ahead to reserve a table on the terrace. Although the tables are a tad close together, we spent most of the meal leaning on the railing to watch the amazing fountain show in front of the Bellagio. With the sun setting and the searing Las Vegas heat dissipating, it was a perfect setting. Even if I did lose $20 in the slot machines while we were waiting for our table!

6) The Rattlesnake Club, Detroit: A gem in Detroit. Detroit certainly isn't famous for its fine dining. Kevin took me to the Rattlesnake Club for my birthday in 1998. It was chilly and damp that night, and I was excited to have an excuse in our fairly casual lives to get dressed up. We were going to a show, so our reservations were early. We had the restaurant virtually to ourselves. Outside there are great views of the river and inside there is a collection of colorful modern art. The Jumbo Gulf Shrimp Martini came in a beautiful martini glass with ribbons of red, gold and green spiraling through the bowl.

7) Dalhousie Castle, Bonnyrigg, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland: I stayed in this castle on a family vacation when I was ten. At the time I was reading Watership Down and I loved the fields behind the castle teeming with rabbits. The restaurant/dining room is in the castle's old cellar. I know, a cellar? It sounds dank, doesn't it? But they light hundreds of candles and have soft lighting that gives the stone walls a golden glow. This is my first memory of eating scallops. They were poached in a champagne sauce. Yes, I know I had expensive taste even at the age of ten. But it's completely my parents fault for introducing me to all the wonderful foods in the world. This is also my first memory of eating haggis. Not my favorite food, but I was happy to say that I had sampled the local cuisine.

8) Roy's, Hawaii (The Big Island): This restaurant is in a small set of shops connected with a hotel to the north of Kona. The setting for the restaurant is fairly strip mall-y. The tables are a bit close together and the industrial grade carpet did little to soak up the noise of other diners. The food, however, made it all worthwhile. I had the most succulent piece of fish in a ponzu/terriyaki glaze of some sort. I don't use the word succulent for very many things in my life. I tasted the entrees of the other three people I was eating with. They were all worthy of the "succulent" label. If you can get a table near the window you'll have a view of the pond and fountain on the nearby golf course. This beats looking at the parking lot while you enjoy your fresh catch of the day.

9) Thai Country Cafe, St. Louis: The only restaurant without a website on my list. This is not based on one dining experience, but is the result of once-a-week dining experiences during our two year stint in St. Louis. To say that this place is lacking in atmosphere is an understatement. A little cheesy and dark with Thai "artifacts" hanging on the walls. But the food is something to write home about, take home to devour or walk from home to savor. Their Pad Thai is the best that I've ever had. You must understand, I'm one of those people who finds a dish that I like and orders it again and again. I've had Pad Thai in hundreds of restaurants in the U.S. This Pad Thai is hands down the best. It's not too peanut-y with just the right amount of lime juice. The restaurant has a Thai spicyness scale as opposed to an American spicyness scale. When you order it spicy, it's SPICY! Endorphin rush, tingling fingertips spicy. But not so overwhelming that you can't taste all of the amazing flavors. Their curries are out of this world as well.

10) Stewman's Lobster Pound, Bar Harbor, Maine: I think the true place is actually a bit north of Stewman's, and I truly don't think the place we ate has a name. So look for Stewman's and then look for the little shack with picnic tables a few hundred yards north. We were on a trip through New England. It was 7:30 p.m. We walked down to the docks and were lured in by the steam slipping from the doors of this shack suspended on the docks. Inside were tubs of lobsters fresh off the boat. You picked your lobster, chose corn or potatoes, and they dunked your bag in boiling water with the yummies inside. Paper plates and plastic bibs. Plastic glasses and White Zinfandel, the only wine available. Luxury? No. Luxurious food? Absolutely! To date, one of the best meals of my life. You can't beat lobster anytime, but especially fresh off the boat.

Bonus Desserts: Blueberry Popover in Arcadia NP, Maine. Same trip. We rented bikes and cycled through the park all afternoon. We were with two college friends and my poor short girl legs had a heck of a time keeping up with the boys. At the end of the road was the lodge. Out back was a picture perfect patch of green grass overlooking a lake. We squeezed into a picnic table and waited. The Russian waitress soon returned with piping hot popovers with fresh picked Maine blueberries on top. A side of hot chocolate for dipping the extra popover. Sore legs and steam rising from the lake. This was heaven on earth.

Best Beach in the World: Baie Rouge on St. Martin (french side): Just a short aside. The description of La Samanna brought back memories of this beach. It's not one of the well publicized beaches on the island. There are no signs. You ask a local where to pull off on the road, park your car on the shoulder and walk over the ridge of windswept dunes until you see the ocean. The beach is small and not at all crowded. The water is perfectly clear and blue with a constant temperature of 85 degrees. A local guy has set up a make shift tiki hut with plastic tables sinking into the sand. Every hour he blows his conch shell. Toot, toot, toot. Ha-ppeeeee Hour! The drinks are strong and cheap and the fish or conch sandwich is salty with a crusty French roll to soak up the grill grease. Yum!

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