Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Robert St. John: Top 10 of 2023

 For the 25 years I have written in this space I have always reserved the final column inches of the year to reflect on the top 10 meals I enjoyed over the previous 12 months. Here is this year’s list.

 Honorable Mentions

 Poke Bowl, Oka, Barberino-Tavarnelle, Tuscany— the best poke I have ever eaten was not in Seattle, New York, or San Francisco, but in a tiny town in Tuscany. Oca is a small restaurant run by a local man and his Japanese chef wife. The food is amazing, and I eat there often on my days off from hardcore non-stop Italian dining.

Smoked Salmon, Pacific Eiland, Ypres, Belgium— Chef Robert Van Eygen is a force of nature on the Belgium restaurant scene. I first ate there nine years ago and wrote that the house-smoked salmon from his kitchen was the best I had ever tasted. That sentiment still rings true, as I found out in May. Though now he is serving his salmon all over the country.

10.) BLT lunch, Big Bay Lake, Mississippi— How could a sandwich as simple as a BLT end up on this list one might ask? You had to be there to eat that particular BLT. It was peak season for tomatoes, the bacon was crisp, the Blue Plate was spread on heavily, and the weather was perfect.

9.) La Bellotas, Jabugo, Spain— It was here— on my second visit in as many years— that I ate the finest cut of pork in a 62-year career of consuming all manner of swine. It wasn’t a paper-thin slice of Jamon Iberico, but the presa (a cut beneath the tenderloin and behind the shoulder). Most black Iberian pigs are raised for the hams. But all parts are used over there so there are always plenty of chops, tenderloins, bellies, and other cuts that benefit from that breed of pig that forages for acorns. A presa steak, left in the hands of a Spaniard who knows how to roast it properly, is a savory and buttery thing of beauty. Some say it tastes like a beef steak. I say it tastes better than that. It’s a rare crown jewel in the culinary world.

8.) Risotto, Pietracupa, San Donato, Tuscany— On a night off from tour hosting, my wife and I took our friends Marina and Marco— and an American musician friend who was touring in Europe— to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Tuscany. It was a nice break between groups. The saffron risotto was served with a light parmesan custard on the side and was covered in truffles. Perfection.

7.) Progressive Canal Dinner, Amsterdam— I added a tour through Belgium and The Netherlands this year. In Amsterdam— a city filled with canals that would rival many in Venice— I charted a boat for my guests, and we took a leisurely sunset cruise though the city. As the sun was setting, we tied the boat off, and a series of servers emerged from a Michelin-starred restaurant carrying trays high in the air. They passed the first course off to the boat crew, we pulled off, and the dinner cruise commenced. We made two more stops at fine dining restaurants in which the servers handed off food dockside. It was a memorable evening that ended up— as many of our travel days do— with the entire group spontaneously singing songs in unison.

6.) First Bakery Breakfast, Loblolly Bakery, Hattiesburg— for 10 years I had been trying to open a bakery in my hometown of Hattiesburg MS. For six years I'd been coaxing Pastry Chef Martha Foose and Master Baker Donald Bender to come down and join me in that bakery. I finally succeeded and the process of opening that bakery took well over a year. There were many obstacles to overcome. We opened on August 2nd, and I ate the first croissant that came out of the oven. As I sat in the small dining room, an hour before we opened the doors, I took in all of the sounds and smells and had an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and gratitude all at once.

5.) Birthday Dinner, Taormina, Sicily— The Fall tour schedule started in Sicily on my 62nd birthday. The guests were set to arrive the next day, and my co-hosts Jesse and Marina planned a nice birthday dinner with my wife and I overlooking the Ionian Sea. The meal was good, the view was stunning, the company was even better.

4.) Picnic Breakfast with Cousins, Chapel of St. Michael, Semifonte, Tuscany—   This year I was blessed to host a tour group filled with cousins from the Washington D.C. area. At the end of a morning walk through the Tuscan countryside we enjoyed a picnic breakfast outside a tiny 700-year old chapel on top of a hill. I was standing outside of the Chapel of St. Michael speaking to a local when I heard singing echoing from inside. It was beautiful. I abruptly excused myself from the conversation and walked in to see what was happening. A couple of my cousins, and several of their friends, had formed a semi-circle in the chapel and were singing the Doxology. 

The acoustics in that tiny chapel rival any monastery I have visited. Their voices were resonating throughout the small, rounded room and out into the church grounds. It was mesmerizing. I knew the song well and had sung it in church all my life. I stood and listened to them finish. Then I asked, “Can y’all do that again and let me join in?” They did, and I did, and it was a magical, moving, and memorable moment.

3.) Dinner with Harry, Swift & Sons, Chicago— My son flew to Chicago from his culinary school in New York and we met to attend the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show. I had taken him once before, but at 16-years-old it didn’t quite connect. Now, as a culinary student with his future set on the restaurant trade it was an altogether different trip.

He is “all in” on the restaurant business these days. He gets it now. Our thing has always been a steak dinner together, and the conversation that evening as we ate our steaks was much different than it was five years earlier with me cautiously trying to tell him about the aspects and “ins and outs” of the trade. This time it was a full give-and-take conversation. He had opinions, he had knowledge, the excitement was there. He’s becoming a restaurateur and a chef. I love that.

2.) Family Dinner, Emeril’s, New Orleans— my son came home from culinary school and his sister, mother, and I traveled to New Orleans to eat at the newly renovated and re-concepted Emeril’s (details on that dinner in next week's column). The dining experience was outstanding but the fact that we were sitting there, just the four of us— the original four— sharing a meal like we used to was more than enough to create the second most memorable dining experience I enjoyed this year. The fact that E.J. Lagasse’s food was otherworldly (again, to be covered next week) was a bonus.

1.) Engagement Dinner, New Orleans— My daughter was engaged to be married this past September. Her fiancé chose a low-key proposal on the rooftop of our New Orleans apartment. Good move, that. It’s a building in which she lived when they first started dating. His family, their friends, and our family snuck in the apartment while the proposal was happening upstairs. She said, “Yes,” and when they came back down to our apartment, we surprised them. I made a reservation at Saint John a few blocks away in the Quarter. We enjoyed an excellent dinner where both families came together for the first time. We were also joined by friends of the engaged couple. There was joy in the air and excitement for the future. It was truly a night to remember.


Beef Tenderloin with Horseradish-Spiked Bordelaise Sauce


3 Sprigs           Fresh Thyme

1/4 cup            Olive Oil

5 pounds         Beef Tenderloin, cleaned

2 tsp kosher     Salt

2 tsp                Black Pepper, freshly ground


Preheat oven to 400

Remove the leaves from the thyme sprigs and chop the thyme.

Add the thyme to the oil and rub the outside of the beef tenderloin. Sprinkle the tenderloin with the salt and pepper. Place a large heavy duty skillet over high heat and once the skillet it very hot, sear the tenderloin for 3-4 minutes on each side.

Place the tenderloin on a baking rack inside of a roasting pan, and put it in the preheated oven. Roast until the internal temperature is 125 degrees (for medium rare), approximately 30-40  minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow the meat to rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.


Horseradish-Spiked Bordelaise


2 Tbl               Unsalted Butter

1/2 cup            Yellow Onion, small dice

1/3 cup            Carrot, peeled, small dice

1/4 cup            Celery, small dice

2 tsp                Garlic, minced

1/2 tsp             Salt

2 Tbl               Tomato Paste

1/2 tsp             Black Pepper, freshly ground

1 cup               Dry Red Wine

1                      Bay Leaf

1 quart             Veal Stock (or rich beef stock)

3 Tbl               Prepared Horseradish

1 tsp                Fresh Thyme Leaves, chopped


Heat the butter in a two-quart saucepot over medium heat. Place the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and salt in the heated pot and cook until vegetables soften, approximately 5-6 minutes. Add the tomato paste and black pepper, stir constantly and cook for 5-6 minutes. Using a wire whisk, stir in the red wine and bay leaf. Simmer until the wine has reduced by half. Add the veal stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low-medium and simmer very slowly until reduced by half, about an hour to an hour and a half. Adjust the seasoning and hold warm until ready to serve. Stir in the horseradish and fresh thyme just before serving.

To serve the tenderloin, slice the beef into 3/4 inch slices and arrange on a serving platter. Pour half of the sauce over the beef and place the remaining sauce in a gravy boat for those who wish to add more. 


Yield: 8-12 servings


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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS