I had a great time doing my job this year. There was the occasional out-of-the-blue surprise, like Puerto 511, and there were many nights on the town that made me have more faith than ever that Baltimore is a serious food town. There is a lot of talent in this city — and talent attracts more talent.
I can't wait to see what's in store next year, but until then, here are my favorite dining moments of 2014.
A Peruvian feast at Puerto 511
This BYOB spot was hard to find but very easy to fall in love with. On my first visit, I fell hard not only for the beautiful preparations of fresh ceviche — I was expecting that — but for the full menu of Peruvian cuisine from chef and owner Jose Victorio Alarcon. My favorite entree was the rib-sticking Huancaina spaghetti, a noodle-based dish with rib-eye, shrimp, mushrooms and cheese. And the causa sampler — a trio of whipped potato croquettes topped with marinated shrimp, grilled octopus and smoked salmon — was the most sophisticated appetizer I had all year. 102 Clay St., downtown. 410-244-8837or puerto511.com.
Fine night for meat lovers at Parts & Labor
When the whole-animal butchering operations at Woodberry Kitchen got too big, the management decided to move them out of the restaurant and into a former automotive business in Remington, where they'd form the basis for a new restaurant and retail store called Parts & Labor. That sounded like a pretty good idea on paper, and it turned out to be an even better idea one in reality. Parts & Labor is a lot of fun. I'm still thinking about that ham hock, a massive object that fell apart into hunks of charred, smoky meat the second I touched it. 2600 N. Howard St., Remington. 443-873-8887 or partsandlaborbutchery.com.
An evening of great flavors at Aggio
Bryan Voltaggio opened his first restaurant in Baltimore this year, and he's set to open his second, Family Meal, in just a few weeks. There were a few things I had at his contemporary Italian restaurant Aggio that made my head spin. I fell hard for the strozzapreti, a pasta dish that featured a sauce with notes of bitter chocolate and cara cara orange, but I went truly nuts over a Caesar salad that used fried oysters in place of croutons and shavings of smoked scallop instead of anchovy. The Frederick-based "Top Chef" alumnus and all-around nice guy is making himself welcome in town. 614 Water St., downtown. 410-528-0200 or volt-aggio.com/baltimore.
Biting into Baltimore's best burger at Hamilton Tavern
One of my best times out all year was around one of those upper-level tables at Hamilton Tavern, which is famous for its amazing Crosstown burger, a beauty made from Roseda Farm beef and topped with horseradish cheddar, a fried egg and sticky bacon. But because I was reviewing the tavern and wanted to try as much as I could, I couldn't have just the burger. And all of that other food was very good, but I knew everyone was making a sacrifice. That made me feel really good about my friends — that they'd give up Crosstown burger to help me out. 5517 Harford Road, Hamilton, 410-426-1930 or hamiltontavern.com.
A night of revelations at Wit & Wisdom
People kept telling me to go back to Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons Baltimore to see what the new chef, Zack Mills, was up to. A native of Davidsonville who spent years on the Eastern Shore, Mills is doing Maryland proud at the luxury hotel. When I went this summer, the menu was featuring Mills' Maryland blue crab tasting — a lump crab cake, a crispy soft-shell crab and spicy tomato crab stew, which was, claw's down, the best crab soup I've ever had. 200 International Drive, Harbor East. 410-576-5800 or witandwisdombaltimore.com.
Summer breezes at Ananda
This serenely beautiful new Howard County restaurant is from Keir and Binda Singh, the Baltimore-based restaurateurs best known for the Ambassador Dining Room in Baltimore's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood. At Ananda, old Indian-menu standbys like chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo are presented with an eye for formality. They look ravishingly beautiful on Ananda's starched white tablecloths, which in turn look gorgeous in the restaurant's largest dining room — a glass-walled extravaganza called the Veranda. Everything at Ananda is light, fresh and clean. 7421 Maple Lawn Boulevard, Fulton. 301-725-4800 or anandarestaurant.net.
Redemption on the edge of Remington at Sweet 27
It was a big year for Sweet 27, which is not exactly a new restaurant but felt like one. Sweet 27, which used to be known as Meet 27, finally began serving alcohol this year after years of trying to acquire a liquor license. And the restaurant seemed to blossom with possibilities. The eclectic menu has North African and Persian influences, but the dominant cuisine is Indian. The best dish, and one of the best things I had all year, was a pork vindaloo that tastes like it invented pork vindaloo. 127 W. 27th St., Charles Village, 410-464-7211 or sweet27.com.
A Louisiana feast at Ethel's Creole Kitchen
Another highlight in a year of rebirths and reimaginings was the transformation of Ethel and Ramone's into Ethel's Creole Kitchen. The remodeled Mount Washington restaurant, with its new second-story porch, was the ideal setting for Ed Bloom's Cajun and Creole food. Ethel's jambalaya, one of the best single-dish meals in Baltimore, is the kind of dish that makes you realize that just about everyone else gets it wrong. The dark and buttery gumbo is another. 1615 Sulgrave Ave., Mount Washington. 410-664-2971 or ethelscreolekitchen.com.
A splashy setting for tostadas at Johnny Sanchez
A collaboration between chefs John Besh and Aaron Sanchez, Johnny Sanchez brought some culinary drama to the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, where the lowly tostada was the year's most glamorous small bite. Anything goes on a tostada at Johnny Sanchez, like shards of roasted pumpkin, dotted with pomegranate seeds and sprinkled with snowy grilled queso; or ivory crab meat, sprinkled with powdered harissa. The tostadas —other versions feature crispy fried oysters, octopus, tuna belly and cactus salad — are intense, beautiful and brilliant, and they feel like they're the real payoff of this collaboration. 1525 Russell St. 443-931-4575 or caesars.com/baltimore.
A dinner worth the drive at the Bartlett Pear Inn
This was the best dinner of the year. The restaurant inside Alice and Jordan Lloyd's boutique inn on Harrison Street in Easton could raise the culinary standards of any city. It is a superb restaurant. The atmosphere is serene and relaxing, the service achieves a rare balance of proficiency and warmth, and the food is consistently satisfying. It all sounds so genteel, but we lost our minds over a plate of burgundy truffle mushroom pappardelle. It's almost worth waiting until next summer to return, when, God willing, they'll be flambeing peach jubilee. 28 S. Harrison St., Easton. 410-770-3300 or bartlettpearinn.com.