Dining Out

  • Nothing to mock at lunch stop
    It had everything I could want in a sandwich place. It had a streamlined – but diverse – menu with about as many locally sourced ingredients as possible.
  • New look for stellar 'Garden'
    It was almost like visiting a new restaurant. And given all that Sandra D's Italian Garden in Auburn has gone through this year, the restaurant is sort of in its grand-opening period once again.
  • Familiar Mexican flavors feted in Huntington
    It was a place my wife always wondered about along U.S. 24 in Huntington.
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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Mondays and Fridays are steak nights at The Office Tavern.

The best of local eats in 2013

Ryan DuVall | The Journal Gazette
Lobster with sea beans, goat cheese and mascarpone-stuffed agnolotti, white pepper cream and pesto from Cerulean.
Ryan DuVall | The Journal Gazette
The best chicken wings are at JT’s Soul Food.

If there was ever a sign of how strong the restaurant scene is in Fort Wayne, it came as I put this year’s “best of” column together.

I struggled mightily to come up with five places I was sorry to see close while, at the same time, found it impossible to narrow my list of best new places down to five. I think it shows how good things are here and maybe a sign that the economy is improving overall.

So, here are the best things I experienced over the last year:

(See my photo gallery)

Restaurants

Ambrosia Bella, Angola – Combines rustic and modern cuisine masterfully, and it won’t destroy your wallet.

Bagel Station, 3009 E. State Blvd. – A true hidden jewel in Fort Wayne. The homemade soups are fantastic, the bagels are always fresh and the many sandwiches, salads and flavored cream cheeses are enticing. And its new paint job featuring cartoon vegetables has made it even more fun to visit.

Cerulean, Winona Lake – One of the most impressive places in the state, not just the area. Technique and flavor combined beautifully.

Shorty’s Steakhouse, Garrett – Big-city taste in a small town. Its retro atmosphere, homey feel and exciting flavors will make you want to move to Garrett.

The Office Tavern, 3306 Brooklyn Ave. – My best find this year. Steak nights on Monday and Friday feature hand-cut steaks that are simply but perfectly prepared. They are steakhouse quality, but much cheaper. If you can’t go on steak night, get The Office Burger and you will probably be just as happy.

Apps

Banh Nam, Kim Vu, 433 E. Dupont Road Wrapped in a banana leaf, these Vietnamese dumplings are made with rice flour and are a little gelatinous, so they require a spoon or fork. Bits of finely ground, seasoned pork and shrimp are placed atop the dumpling and it comes with a sweet, clear sauce to spoon over it. I could probably eat 20 of them if I tried.

Buffalo Calamari, Shorty’s Steakhouse – Fresh squid rings were coated in a light batter, fried until crisp, tossed in bright red Buffalo sauce and served with a side of ranch or bleu cheese dressing. The calamari was tender and clean, and it worked wonderfully with the spicy sauce.

Chicken wings, JT’s Soul Food, 2516 E. Pontiac St. – The best wings I have ever eaten. Period.

Papusas, El Salvador, 515 E. Jefferson Blvd. – Masa cornmeal tortillas filled with cheese, beans, loroco flowers, squash, pork or ground beef, or varying combinations. They are made to order and formed by hand then grilled until brown. They were kind of like soft little cornmeal pancakes stuffed with goodies.

Pig Ear, Ambrosia Bella – These seldom-seen-around-here pig parts were julienned and fried until crisp and served over crispy fried kale with banana peppers and a runny, sunny-side up egg. The little strips were crispy, salty jewels filled with pork fat. The kale was perfectly fried to tame its bitterness without eliminating it and the peppers added a bite of vinegar and heat. And the oozing yolk was the perfect sauce.

Mains

Brisket, Blue Stack Smokehouse, 3620 N. Clinton St. – Owner David McLaughlin’s brisket has a heavy smoke ring and its slightly sweet rub caramelized beautifully for a tasty bark. The fat on this super moist beef literally melted in my mouth, making this brisket easily the best I have had in Fort Wayne.

Lobster agnolotti, Cerulean – Small lobster tails were perfectly cooked and not too heavily seasoned so their flavor was pure. They were paired with sea beans and goat cheese and mascarpone-stuffed agnolotti, white pepper cream and a touch of pesto.

Rumble Burger, Bravas food truck – The burgers, which Bravas does sporadically, blew away the hot dogs this truck specializes in. Bravas owner Bo Gonzalez grinds chuck, sirloin and brisket from Pio Market to make these beauties, which were thick, juicy and perfectly seasoned. The pickled peaches on the Rumble Burger added just the right sweetness to offset the vinegary pickled jalapeños, and the big crispy homemade potato chips gave it crunch.

Steaks, The Office Tavern – The filet, New York strip and rib-eye are only served on Monday and Friday nights at this sleepy little tavern. They are hand-cut by owner Lee Bradley and come with a huge baked potato and a better-than-most-steakhouses dinner salad. Bradley seasons them perfectly and brushes them with truffle butter to enrich their flavor even more.

Sweet potato-crusted salmon, Shorty’s Steakhouse – The fish was fresh and perfectly cooked and the thin strands of yam on top were crunchy. It was served over Northern beans with chunks of prosciutto and drizzled with a balsamic reduction.

Desserts

Chocolate Silk, Cerulean – Cubes of strawberry-jalapeño sorbet were scattered on a dish with crumbled red velvet cake and a cylinder of soft chocolate cremeux with vanilla gel and pastry cream on the plate. The slightly spicy and tart sorbet was phenomenal and I would have been happy with just it, but the chocolate and cake were by no means afterthoughts.

Fresh blueberry pie, Clay’s Family Restaurant, Fremont – The crust for this pie was smeared with a thin layer of sweetened cream cheese and chopped pecans. The raw blueberries were just touched with sweetened gel and placed inside the lined crust raw. The result was a pie full of sweet, plump, juicy blueberries that popped with each bite. The cream cheese added a nice creamy element, and it was one of the freshest tasting pies I ever have had at a restaurant.

Peach cobbler, JT’s Soul Food – Simple homemade goodness at its finest. It is a must-have dessert if it is available because it goes fast.

Pineapple upside-down cake, Don Hall’s restaurant chain – This dessert was a fabulous taste from days gone by. It was moist, gooey and sweet, and the pineapple on top (bottom?) was like candy.

White chocolate bread pudding, Ragin Cajun food truck – The bread pudding is alone worth finding this truck. It was drenched in a buttery spiced rum sauce, and I was served a huge chunk that three people could have easily shared. But two sharing it was better, because I got more of it that way.

New places

Das Schnitzelhaus, 1522 W. Main St. – Finally, somebody opened a German restaurant in Fort Wayne.

Ichiban Asian Fusion, 4036 Coldwater Road – Malaysian food comes to the Summit City along with Thai and Japanese at this spot across from Glenbrook Square.

Jersey Mike’s, 6408 W. Jefferson Blvd. – East Coast submarine sandwich chain debuts in city.

Mexico Antiguo Restaurante, 2787 Maplecrest Road – The latest incarnation from the Cebolla’s Mexican chain.

Mi Parilla, 3422 N. Clinton St. – Mexican restaurant El Burrito Colonial returns with new name, new digs in original locale.

Pad Thai, 3307 E. State Blvd. – Burmese-owned Thai spot has exciting, authentic flavors.

Paper Lantern , 4610 Coldwater Road – Great little fusion spot with Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean offerings.

Pita Village, 511 E. Dupont Road – Fast-casual Mediterranean.

Red Rok BBQ & Bourbon Lounge, 123 W. Columbia St. – Attractive roadhouse style restaurant brings BBQ to The Landing.

Salsa Grill, 7755 Coldwater Road, and inside George’s International Grocery, 2021 Broadway – Locally owned burrito joints better than the chains.

Welcome backs

Chung King Express, 3101 N. Anthony Blvd. – Drive-through Chinese spot looked doomed after a fire in 2012, but reopened this year to the joy of its many regulars.

JT’s Soul Food – After a six-year hiatus, this fantastic little soul food spot – originally at Hanna Street and McKinnie Avenue – found new life on Pontiac Street.

Closed

Cosmos House of Pancakes, 1425 W. Washington Center Road – Closed to make way for a Culver’s, but has opened up north on Lima Road.

Downtown Deli and Marketplace, 236 E. Wayne St. – Many downtown lunch seekers were sad to see this place inside Cottage Flowers close.

Honey on Table, 2461 Hobson Road – Restaurant veterans Pamela Downs, Lisa Williams and Chuck Kaiser brought tasty fare to this short-lived lunch spot.

Mitchell’s Sports Pub, Marketplace of Canterbury – Destroyed by fire in March.

T8ste Tizzzzz Barbecue, Lower Huntington Road – This gem of a barbecue spot – one of my favorite places – has been shut down for months with little sign of it coming back.

Open and shut

Crave, 2461 Hobson Road – Replaced the former Honey on the Table spot for a few brief months before closing.

Hala Grill, 10366 Leo Road – Owner Nasser Anabtawi brought the tastes he served at Maza Grill back to a new spot in Leo Crossing, but closed it up after just a few months.

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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