Top meals of 2008: These eats were real treats

Politicians ate a lot of rubber chicken and crow, and our Olympians devoured the breakfasts of champions. But for regular folks, the year's key dining trends were the mainstream embrace of the organic and farm-to-table movements and the economy-driven retreat into old-style comfort food. USA TODAY's Jerry Shriver found plenty examples of both — and far more, including crickets in Hanoi — as he compiled his list of the year's top dishes, meals and moments.

One courageous crew

A hearty handful of New Orleans bar owners and restaurateurs didn't let flooding, pounding rains, no electricity and an evacuating customer base keep them from their mission when Hurricane Gustav struck this summer. Throughout the storm in the French Quarter, the short-order cook at Daisy Dukes still festively adorned his Cajun omelettes with sprinkles of red paprika and green dried parsley; Mr. Chubby's Cheesesteaks kept the burgers sizzling; and Johnny White's bar kept the drinks flowing. And just after the worst had passed, John Besh's Luke brasserie was again roasting oysters, and EAT was dishing out red beans and rice. The emergency workers, journalists and hunkered-down residents were mighty grateful.

Top dishes

(in no particular order)

•Shrimp sautéed in Pernod, Les Negociants, Bordeaux, France •Napoleon of crawfish, avocado and tomato confit, Meauxbar, New Orleans •Cold soba noodles with dipping sauce, Kawakami-An, Tokyo •Paella, Burzaco, Buenos Aires •French toast with cranberry compote, Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe, Boston •Roasted sirloin with beef-cheek lasagna, Dovetail, New York •Llama carpaccio, José Balcarce, Salta, Argentina •Baby carrot terrine with Peekytoe crab, Rouge Tomate, New York •Lamb loin with cumin-scented carrot puree, La Toque, Napa, Calif. •Oyster meat pie, Cochon, New Orleans

Seven sinful desserts (and one super sweet spot)

During my summer survey of dessert-making in America, Chicago clearly emerged as the center of creativity and decadence, exemplified by the grapefruit with uni ice cream concoction at Charlie Trotter's and "A Study in Chocolate Cake" at HotChocolate. And I stuffed myself with equally thrilling examples at Alinea, Boka, Moto, North Pond and Tru.

Other sweet standouts

•Creole cream cheese cheesecake, Commander's Palace, New Orleans •Baked custard with praline sauce, Carriage House at Stanton Hall, Natchez, Miss. •Coconut meringue pie, The Smokehouse, Greenville, Ala. •Miso-chocolate cake with green tea-anko ice soy-milk cream, Kyotofu, New York •Buttermilk soufflé vanilla-bean pudding cake with berries and whipped cream, Magnolia Grill, Durham, N.C. •Hummingbird cake, Boulevard Diner, Mt. Pleasant, S.C. •Goat cheese cheesecake with rosemary caramel, DessertTruck, New York

Five amazing grazing experiences

Street-side food stalls, tapas bars and other small-plates venues provided some of my most memorable casual bites. My favorite assortment was found at Mario Batali's Bar Jamon in New York, where I noshed on Pequillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese; pickled golden beets; chorizo with pickled red peppers, aged goat cheese and rhubarb, and a 1922-vintage sherry.

Other top treats

•Onsen egg with dashi sauce and homemade pickled garlic, O Ya, Boston •Ramen noodles and sushi, Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo •Empanadas and humitas, Machacha, Cafayate, Argentina •Crickets roasted with tamarind, Highway 4, Hanoi

Readers, where did you have your most memorable meal of 2008? Share your best dining stories below.

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