Grilled Steak Sandwich ($16.50)
Can Can Brasserie
Sometimes a favorite is an oldie, but a reliable goodie. We all know the best things about Can Can include the ambience: the white paper on the tables, the coffee service in the mornings, accompanied by towers of croissants on display, the wall of windows that open in the spring, and of course, the delightful service. The second best thing about Can Can is the grilled steak sandwich. It's been on the lunch menu for years, and remains my mouthwatering go-to for the occasional midday splurge.
The ciabatta is soft and fresh, with thinly sliced steak topped with caramelized onions, fontina cheese, arugula leaves and garlic butter. Can Can's frites remain exceptional, if not only for the fragrant smell swirling around the bistro at lunchtime. Pairs well with a carafe of mimosas. — Nathalie Oates
- Ash Daniel
The Swank Bank ($36)
L'Opossum is my corner restaurant, and I've learned that the secret to getting into this award-winning spot is to slide in after the first set of tables turn and wait for a seat at the bar. One Friday night, decompressing after a hard week, I zeroed in on the lobster mac and cheese. I needed carbs, buttery fat and a hug.
David Shannon's swanky take on this classic comfort dish wrapped me in the warmth of reassuring familiarity with just enough delightful newness. The tender little pasta shells are bathed in a white truffle Mornay cream, dotted with big chunks of butter-poached Maine lobster. Chard and al dente asparagus add color and a healthy-ish few bites.
When black truffles are in season, Shannon grates them over the dish, wearing a sparkly silver glove. This is $36 of pure delight.
Tucked in at the cozy dark bar that night, savoring every rich bite, I felt cared for. I didn't get the hug, but my hard week still slid away, erased by a warm bowl of carbs and dazzle. — Phaedra Hise
- Ash Daniel
Mustard Gnocchi ($24)
Amuse is a quiet spot that seems overlooked either because it's hidden on the third floor of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or because of the limited hours of operation. But the 2011 Restaurant of the Year is still killing it. Between champagne cocktails and curry fried oysters, there are some mainstays from the beginning, but this dish stood out on the winter menu.
It does what Amuse does best: It surprises guests with unexpected flavors and creative candor. Gnocchi is already a favorite of mine, and when it is not presented in a puddle of mediocre marinara, you can better enjoy the bronze sear on the pasta and the nutty mustard depth of the flavor. I also love a pesto, and the arugula variety was pleasantly more subdued than your usual, brighter basil. Tender slices of roasted mushrooms and Brussels sprouts are tossed in, making the serving hearty and distinctive. The entree also gives vegetarians the opportunity to order something decidedly not boring. — Nathalie Oates
- Ash Daniel
Eggnog Cheesecake ($3.75 a slice; $30 whole)
The holidays are long gone, but I'm still thinking about this one slice of WPA's eggnog cheesecake I enjoyed on a snowy December day at the bakery's South Side location. The bakers who dreamt this creation into reality knew the world needed a dessert that would make sugar plum fairies dance their magical hearts out. I'm writing this, thankfully, just in time to start considering what Lenten promises I might make and eventually break this year.
The eggnog cheesecake is a decadent, if seasonal, indulgence. The crust is a tasty melding of gingersnap and graham cracker with accents of molasses. Eggnog, gently spiced with nutmeg, replaces the heavy whipping cream to create the smooth consistency of the cheesecake. The slices are topped with an airy layer of nutmeg-infused whipped cream and a wedge of a sugar-crusted gingerbread cookie. It's better than any of the seasonal beverages at that green mermaid's coffee joint. And it pairs exceedingly well with WPA's hot chocolate and homemade marshmallows on a cold and snowy day. It almost makes you want more bleak, wintry days. Almost. — Paul Brockwell
- Scott Elmquist
Swordfish Tartare ($10)
For our first Alewife experience, my dining companion and I opted for a smattering of starters and small plates in lieu of entrees. To say we weren't disappointed would be a vast understatement, and we still rave about nearly everything on the list, including our mocktails in observance of Dry January, which had such depth of flavor we forgot they were missing the booze.
While there's nothing on this menu I wouldn't recommend — hello, soft-serve affogato — it's the swordfish tartare that stole my heart. Seaweed aioli binds the bite-sized pieces of sushi-grade raw swordfish into a mound on the plate, and when I had it, it was topped with pickled ramps, black garlic and a few microgreens. It's fresh, complex and ever-so-slightly sweet, and while I'd happily eat it off a spoon, the accompanying slices of baguette, grilled to perfection, round it out beautifully.
The constantly rotating selection at Alewife depends heavily on what's seasonally available, so I'm deeply sorry to report that this particular swordfish tartare may not always be on the menu. The good news is, chef and owner Lee Gregory says you can usually count on finding some kind of tartare in a similar vein. Whew. —Laura Ingles
- Scott Elmquist
Bianca Pizza ($11.95)
I like white pizza and I cannot lie. Give me a Bianca on a crust with the chew of a fine baguette from Galley Go-To and all's right with the world.
But just to be clear, all the pies at Galley Go-To have what it takes to rock my world. That's because pizza-maker Giustino Riccio spent six months experimenting with dough to figure out what would taste best coming out of the restaurant's gas-powered pizza ovens. The result is a gift to me and Richmond's crust-loving masses because his is a pizza defined by its dough. I'm talking a Neapolitan-like thin crust, with a puffy outer lip to the pie that's crunchy on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside.
No pizza shines brighter than the Bianca, sublimely simple with nothing but house-made mozzarella, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, garlic, black pepper and olive oil. Just the right amount of Gorgonzola ensures that its pungency doesn't overwhelm the more delicate cheeses. What's not to love about the equivalent of a good baguette with warm cheeses? — Karen Newton
- Scott Elmquist
Salt & Forge
When I was a kid, my Opa used to cure corned beef. He'd mix a mysterious blend of spices and saltpeter with brine in an old spackle bucket, then let the beef brisket swim around in there for a few days until it was pink and tangy.
A Rueben remains one of my all-time favorite sandwiches, and Salt & Forge has a great one. Like my Opa, owner David Hahn cures the beef in-house. He layers that with homemade Russian dressing and soft Gruyere cheese between two thick slices of rye bread.
The sweet and tangy house-made coriander slaw almost tempts me to choose that instead of sauerkraut on my Rueben, but I'm a traditionalist. I compromise by getting kraut on the sandwich and slaw on the side.
Magically, this Rueben has all the drippy oozing goodness one could want, but it doesn't fall apart into a soggy mess. You will gladly lick your fingers, and start planning when you can return for more. — Phaedra Hise
- Scott Elmquist
Most Requested Omelet ($7.95)
This remarkably versatile dish is a regular in my dining rotation, equal parts nostalgia and convenience. The menu at Joe's is vast, but I rarely need to take a gander. Regardless of the time of day, usually this omelet is the perfect antidote to cure my acute, esurient chops. I developed the habit during my earliest days in Richmond when grabbing takeout from Shields across the street. To demystify the name, it's really just a classic Greek omelet: your spinach, feta and tomato served with a side of home fries that are usually hot and perfectly sizzled with onions and the charred remnants of other spuds. The dish comes with a choice — biscuit or toast. And honestly, neither is wrong.
Before I knew better, I asked a former owner what made this omelet worthy of such a title. In my overactive imagination, I dreamed up an elaborate tracking system where each year the quants would determine by sales what would be Joe's Next Top Omelet. Menus would be reprinted, celebrations planned. Alas, the origin story is far simpler. Sorry, Western omelet, don't get your hopes up. The name emerged organically after many customers were building their own omelets at Joe's with the classic Greek ingredients. A real people's choice, if you will. This dish is comfort food. Breakfast any time of day with an old friend. — Paul Brockwell
- Scott Elmquist
Mushroom Pâté ($10)
If I'm honest, I'll admit to being promiscuous about pâté. My first passion was a seafood variety, soon followed by coarse country pork, chicken liver and pistachio-studded pork shoulder and duck liver. I fell hard for venison and rustic rabbit versions as well as colorful, veggie-based pâtés featuring beets and spinach.
Even so, when I saw mushroom pâté on Aloi's menu, I hadn't a clue how fabulous it could be. The creamy slab of local mushrooms sported a crown of crushed hazelnuts for textural contrast, squiggles of smoked cherry gelee to balance sweet with savory and a sprinkle of cocoa because it worked. With fat slices of crusty brown bread to spread it over, the earthy paste dared my palate to miss the meat versions.
I'm talking an umami bomb of the highest order, deeply flavorful, wildly satisfying and distinctively different than any version that had previously crossed my lips. Pâté virgins, this is where you should start. Pâté pros, miss out at your own risk. — Karen Newton