So many meals, so few napkins. It's never easy to single out the best dishes from a year full of eclectic dining experiences. Over the course of 12 months I've covered nearly 50 restaurants and sampled five to eight times that number of starters, mains and sides. Best, as you know, isn't about fancy or expensive. And best is subjective. For the sake of clarity, we'll call these the "Best Things I Ate," but in truth they are the dishes that most stand out in my mind as being memorable.
Falafel @ Café Falafel
3843 Riveredge Rd., 216-688-0330, mycafefalafel.com
Falafel is like guacamole in that everybody has his or her own way to make it. After trying Café Falafel, my favorite recipe currently belongs to owner Ehab Enaia. Take a bite and peer inside and you'll see a shade of green so vivid and fresh, it can only come from heaps of fresh parsley and cilantro, which also serve to keep the patties moist and light. Small-batch frying in peanut oil produces the perfect golden brown shell.
Grilled Octopus @ Santorini
1382 West Ninth St., 216-205-4675, santorinitaverna.com
This has been the year of the "octo," with numerous restaurants offering one version or another of this oft-challenging sea beast. It's not surprising that Santorini, a Greek restaurant, does it best. Firm, meaty and charred from the grill, the sliced tentacles are paired with shaved red onion, a few ripe tomatoes and some greens. Drizzle it with some fresh lemon and you'll swear you're dining at a seaside taverna.
Bone-in Ribeye @ Cabin Club
30651 Detroit Rd., 440-899-7111, Westlake, thecabinclub.com
There are loads of reasons to adore Cabin Club, from the easy-going roadhouse vibe to the evenhanded tariffs for food and drink. But we go to steakhouses for steak and the Club's massive bone-in ribeye, cooked to perfection on the restaurant's raging Top Fuel broiler. Grab the hefty shank, slice through the meat, and take a moment to savor a truly great steak.
Lemon Soufflé Pancakes @ Fire Food and Drink
13220 Shaker Sq., 216-921-3473, firefoodanddrink.com
I never order pancakes for breakfast; compared to biscuits and gravy or corned beef hash, who would? And the truth is, I didn't order Fire's lemon soufflé pancakes either. But chef Doug Katz, fresh off a pancake competition where he took top honors, insisted that we try them. Hot off the griddle, these light, airy and golden brown cakes – kissed with lemon and tangy buttermilk – will never leave a brunch diner with buyer's remorse.
Spit-Roasted Chicken @ Campus Grille
10 Seminary St., 440-243-4229, Berea, thecampusgrille.com
Berea might not sound like the place one goes to score killer Latino and Puerto Rican food, but that's where affable chef Luis Roman opened up shop. Day in and day out, a broad mix of regulars line up for large platters of mofongo, roast pork and beans, and crispy Cubanos. But the best dish is the marinated and spit-roasted chickens, hacked in half and served with lime-and-cilantro scented rice and black beans.
Oysters on the Half Shell @ Alley Cat
1056 Old River Rd., 216-574-9999, alleycatoysterbar.com
The view, along with the company, has everything to do with the quality of raw oysters. That might sound apocryphal, but once you've sucked back a platter of raw bivalves on the water's edge, all others pale by comparison. That's why the oysters at Alley Cat, which has unobstructed watery views, taste just a little bit sweeter than those shucked elsewhere.
Korean BBQ @ Seoul Hot Pot
3709 Payne Ave., 216-881-1221
Gather some adventurous friends around the grill tables at this recently revived Asiatown icon for some amazing grilled meats, namely galbi and bulgogi, spiral-sliced bone-in beef short rib and thin-sliced beef sirloin. Sure, it takes some work manning the grill, but the experience is so unique it more than makes up for it. When done, the flavorful meats are tucked into a lettuce leaf along with sauces and garnishes and popped whole in the mouth.
Gumbo @ Chow Chow Kitchen
14201 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216-712-4126
Call it soup, stew or chowder, the gumbo served at this Southern-themed café and carry-out is one of the best ways to spend $4. Served atop a bed of fluffy white rice, the gumbo is smoky, spicy and deeply flavorful, with tender chunks of pork and okra bobbing in the rust-colored gravy.
Peddler's Noodle Soup @ Phusion Café
3030 Superior Ave., 216-861-3399
Tainan is the culinary epicenter of Taiwan, and one of the most beloved dishes to enjoy while there is danzai mian, also known as Peddler's noodles. New to the Asiatown scene, Phusion introduces local diners to this and other Taiwanese dishes previously unavailable in these parts. This complex bowl features chewy noodles, minced pork, boiled shrimp and crisp bok choy in a shrimp flavored broth.
French Onion Egg Rolls @ Graffiti Social Kitchen
1261 West 76th St., 216-651-6969, graffitisocialkitchen.com
High-concept food isn't always worth the effort. Deconstructed, reconstructed or simply fooled-around-with, fun food sometimes just isn't. That's not the case with Okin and Bostwick's French Onion Egg Rolls, which have been a staple of the Graffiti menu since the start. Sliced on the bias, the slender rolls are filled with caramelized onions and gruyere cheese, so that when dipped into the accompanying broth, the flavors are a dead ringer for the classic soup.
Slyman's Fries @ Slyman's Tavern
6901 Rockside Rd., Independence, 216-642-0062, slymanstavern.com
The guys at Slyman's might have no idea what poutine even is and yet they managed to create a Cleveland-style version that is an instant classic. At its heart is a pile of crispy crinkle-cut fries, which serve as the base for heaps of fluffy chip-chopped corned beef, melted Swiss cheese sauce and a shower of green onions. Those snooty Québécois have nothing on us!
Jerk Chicken @ International Restaurant
7823 Cedar Rd., 216-339-4544
No two jerk chicken recipes are the same, which means that every new dish is an opportunity to be pleasantly surprised. I was blown away after finally making it to International Restaurant, a rough-hewn carry-out just a few blocks off the Cleveland Clinic campus. Dark as night from a cornucopia of spices, the meat is tender but not falling of the bone, with a deep, intense and mounting heat.