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Sugar & Spice: The 10 best things I ate in 2012
by Meghan Streit

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It's been a good year for Chicago restaurants. We've had dozens of hot new restaurants open with smashing success. Celebrity chefs are cooking up dazzling dishes all over the city. And our old Chicago favorites continue to churn out classics that keep us coming back for more.

I ate many, many mouth-wateringly delicious things in 2012, all in the name of research, of course. As I look back on yet another scrumptious year of dining in Chicago, I'm recapping the best of the best just for you. These are my absolute favorite dishes — the ones I can guarantee the vast majority of you will enjoy as much as I do. Some of them are new loves I just discovered this year, and some of them are old flames I've been enjoying for years. But every single item on this list is irresistible, divine and worth every single calorie. So, next time you're in the mood to indulge and want a sure bet, try one of my handpicked favorites. Happy New Year!

1) Lobster roll at New England Seafood Company ( ): You don't find a lot of lobster rolls of this caliber in these parts. New England Seafood Company serves the most scrumptious and authentic lobster rolls I've had this side of the Eastern Seaboard. They're served on toasted hot dog buns (just like they should be), and the lobster meat is simply coated in butter in classic Maine style. But I still like to add a dollop of mayo to mine, you know, just to gild the lily.

2) Ceviche at La Ciudad: There's plenty of ceviche to be had at Chicago's many Mexican restaurants, but few places serve it as fresh and delicious as La Ciudad. Big chunks of fresh shrimp and tilapia are bathed in lime and cilantro to create a ceviche to die for. Don't let the Uptown restaurant's plain exterior fool you — this place is a true hidden gem.

3) Nutella Panini at Ombra ( ): Ah, beautiful Ombra. What a lovely addition you make to Andersonville's Clark Street strip. There are dozens and dozens of tasty treats at this Italian small plate beauty, but the most decadent by far is the Nutella Panini. Yep, you read that right. Some culinary wizard came up with the idea to fry Nutella and bananas on crusty Italian bread.

4) The "Stoner" at Jerry's Sandwiches ( ): I hope you already took my good advice back in October and paid a visit to our pal Jerry, and I hope you ordered the "Stoner." This delightfully ridiculous grilled cheese sandwich features macaroni and cheese plus smoked Gouda plus applewood bacon — all smooshed between two slices of challah. Yeah, it's stupid good.

5) "Rustica" pizza at Johnny Brown Bag ( ): As a rule, I don't like figs on pizza. Let's be honest, figs are a fruit and who wants fruit on pizza (except for you weirdoes who insist on ordering yours with pineapple)? Well, Johnny Brown Bag made me rethink my fig stance because their "Rustica" pizza incorporates them in such a non-intrusive way. The figs add just a hint if subtle sweetness, leaving room for the Gorgonzola, onions and thin crispy crust to shine.

6) Red velvet cake at Tipsy Cake: Don't wait for a special occasion to try one of the to-die-for cakes from Tipsy Cake (although they're great for birthdays and weddings, too.) I'm partial to the red velvet. I don't know how Naomi Levine and her team do it, but this is cake is mouth-wateringly moist. It is at once fluffy and dense, and makes many other perfectly fine red velvet cakes taste like cardboard. Tipsy Cake's frostings are dangerous. They are so rich and buttery, you might want to just eat them off of a spoon, and you can because the cakes are always served with a thick layer of frosting so there's plenty to spare. The cream cheese frosting is the obvious choice to top Tipsy Cake's outstanding red velvet cake. Once you try this cake, you may find yourself inventing reasons to celebrate.

7) Paneer pakora at Raj Darbar ( ): My meal last summer at Raj Darbar basically changed my relationship with Indian food — as in, before I hated it and now I love it, at least from this place. Everything that comes out of this Lakeview eatery's tandoori oven is piping hot and packed with flavor. But, my favorite thing on their menu is the paneer pakora, homemade cheese fried in chickpea batter. It's the Indian equivalent of cheese sticks and they it is fabulous.

8) Burrata at City Winery: Oh, how I love this place. I can't wait to tell you all about City Winery in my next column, but I can't wait to talk about the burrata appetizer. For those of you who don't know, burrata is super soft creamy Italian cheese stuffed inside of only slightly firmer fresh mozzarella cheese. On its own, burrata is pretty much one of the best things on the planet, which is why City Winery blew my mind by serving it with the most delectable olive oil-soaked toasted bread I've ever eaten. There are also some tasty marinated tomatoes and fresh basil on the plate, so it's like a make your own Panini bar. I want to eat it everyday.

9) Rajas con Queso sopes at Los Nopales: Every time I go to this Lincoln Square Mexican joint, I briefly consider ordering something other than the sopes, and every time I have the good sense not to. The thick corn tortillas are cooked until almost crisp and then topped with a smear of refried beans, plenty of roasted poblano peppers and a mound of Chihuahua cheese that is baked until it's golden brown. This dish is like a pizza, except spicier and, obviously, Mexican. Every time I order it, everyone at my table wishes they had what I have — which is saying a lot because everything else on the menu is pretty darn good, too.

10) Salted caramel ice cream at Nellcote ( ): Of all the lovely new restaurants that have graced Chicago's streets this year, this sexy West Loop spot has my vote for best newcomer. The European small plates are inventive without being so experimental you need a chemistry degree to figure out what you're eating. Familiar foods like pasta and risotto are made novel with unexpected ingredients like squid ink and gold leaf bone marrow. There wasn't a bite I didn't savor at Nellcote, but my favorite was the simple salted caramel ice cream I had for dessert. Salted caramel is probably the flavor of 2012, which means there are plenty of ho-hum attempts to incorporate it into menus, but Nellcote's thick and creamy caramel ice cream with the perfect hint of salt is most definitely not one of those.

Do you need some more Sugar & Spice in your life? Follow me on Twitter @SugarAndSpiceMS for inside scoop and commentary on Chicago's dining scene.

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