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Leah Bhabha Headshot

Top 5 Tastes: 'Tis the Beginning of the Chowdown Season

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'Tis officially the season to indulge, right? 'Tis also the season where I can keep saying "'tis" without sounding like a total moron, right? No? Fine. When the cold weather comes around, I select from my extensive selection of geriatric-inspired sweaters, drink to holiday cheer and consume more food than a 9th grade boys soccer team. It's just cosmically correct, and Thanksgiving is the start of it. Turkey quickly segues into decoratively iced cookies, eggnog and ham, and before we know it, January 2nd rolls around, and the champagne toasts turn to champagne bloats. But let's rejoice! It's just the beginning, and stuffing, lobster bisque and some eggplant pizza are getting me on track!

1. Eggplant Pizza--Modern Apizza (New Haven, CT)

A college football game is the perfect time to let go of inhibitions, ignore (and then re-discover) work e-mails and consume cheap beer in ways you forgot you could. The night before some juvenile behavior supporting a university we did not attend, some friends and I drove into New Haven to indulge in the other cornerstone of college life: pizza. Our lovely hosts (a friends parents) took us to this standard joint, where we waited unceremoniously outside the dining room, drinking beer from plastic pitchers and fighting the animal urges which occurred each time the garlicky scents of freshly baked pies wafted into the waiting area. Out of the six (!) pies we ordered, I was most drawn to the eggplant. Thinly sliced, the aubergine had been dredged and breaded parmigiana-style, then baked into each "mozzarell" and tomato laden slice 'til the edges were crisp and baking hot. Tongue casualties aside, I couldn't get enough of the steaming, aromatic 'za--a mass of texture simultaneously chewy (cheese and inner crust), crispy (outer crust) and flakey (eggplant breadcrumbs). Carboloading gave way to a deep Friday night slumber; we're not in college, after all.

2. "Adonis" Cocktail--Estadio (Washington, DC)

Thanksgiving was held at my brother's house in Washington, DC this year, and I arrived a few days early to prepare for the festivities and continue my everlasting D.C. restaurant tour. Before a meal of tasty tapas, a cocktail was in order, and spying the "Adonis", I knew I had to try it. Estadio has a fantastic sherry selection and I was intrigued by this Manhattan-esque drink with sweet vermouth, bitters and dry oloroso sherry. The vermouth and bitters set the scene in a complex, aromatic way, while the sherry made the cocktail lighter and more refreshing. It went down real easy.

3. Cornbread, Italian Sausage & Dried Cherry Stuffing, Vietnamese-inspired Brussels Sprouts--Thanksgiving (Washington, DC)
Suffice to say, my family doesn't mess around when it comes to Thanksgiving. We may have arrived late to the game (only discovering the holiday upon arrival in the U.S. in 1994) but our excessive enthusiasm--which borders on obsessiveness--makes up for lost years. Both the stuffing and Brussels sprouts are staples at our table, but they never bore or tire me. On the contrary, having a few dishes a year which consistently entice me in their sameness is something of a comfort, and I hope we'll have them always. My father's cornbread stuffing is a family favorite, studded with hot and sweet Italian sausages and dried cherries, with a dash of port for added sweetness. The top is crisp and the inside reminds one of a savory bread pudding, and God help me if it ever changes (the Jalapeño stuffing debacle of 2012 which resulted in a temper tantrum from yours truly will hopefully prevent any adaptations.) My brother's Brussels sprouts are an atypical Thanksgiving dish, but they too should never be replaced. A dressing of fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and chopped herbs lightly coats each roasted sprout, with a one two punch of spices and umami.

4. Lobster Bisque--Dean and Deluca (Washington, DC)
After a day and a half of leftovers, we get the turkey ennui and begin scouring the neighborhood stores for equally decadent but poultry-less dishes . My father and I took no prisoners at the Georgetown Dean & Deluca, returning to my brother's house with two large shopping bags of lunchwares. Every single family member swooned over the lobster bisque--deeply savory without the usual over-creamed thickness. The soup ended with a spicy kick and (sparing) pieces of fresh lobster; and we almost ignored the groaning table of cheeses in favor of the ambrosial crustacean concoction. So entranced were we that more soup was purchased for the next day's lunch. Sometimes repetition is in order.

5. Snail Kibbeh - Zaytinya (Washington, DC)
Zaytinya's popularity in Washington DC is unwavering even after more than 10 years. While the space is large and somewhat impersonal, the service and food never disappoint. My family ordered a slew of mezze, and I was particularly enthused by the snail kibbeh, small round parcels of crisp potato encasing a tiny garlicky snail. Accompanied by a spiced labneh yogurt sauce, each morsel was toothsome and meaty, with the potato enclosure perfectly balancing the snail's intensity. Why on earth don't I eat more snails?