Ryan Shelton of the late Le Cigare Volant created several of the best Santa Cruz dishes of 2012.

Ryan Shelton of the late Le Cigare Volant created several of the best Santa Cruz dishes of 2012.

Like many of you, I found myself dining out a bit less last year than I might have liked.  But there was much to remember in the way of delicious restaurant experiences, such as an appetizer of fresh porcinis joined by one of those refreshing cucumber and mint vodka cocktails at Oswald.

A plate of salumi and grilled vegetables started us off on our first pizza—mozzarella, basil and heirloom tomatoes—at the new Pizzaria Avanti. Love at first bite!

Last year also provided several knock-out dining experiences at the late Le Cigare Volant, whose eclectic small plates and luscious flatbread apps are now the stuff of culinary history. A rhubarb panna cotta from Oomi Shelton had me babbling, as did a remarkable convergence of heirloom tomatoes, honeydew melon and shell beans followed by roasted suckling pig, from Le Cigare Volant chef Ryan Shelton. A tapas portion of pan-seared scallops from Aquarius arrived with a dusting of preserved lemon, a corsage of arugula and fennel, and a creamy scoop of Greek yogurt. I still smile when I re-imagine those flavors making a rendezvous with my tastebuds.

A pulled pork sandwich, loaded with spices and zesty coleslaw over at Cool Cafe in Stanford's Cantor Museum provided a robust rainy day lunch last month.

The crab cakes at Mud City Crab Shack in Manahawkin, New Jersey remain a definitive seafood encounter. Sweet, succulent and sided by french fries and a healthy dose of horseradish, these were a tribute to everything the eastern seaboard can offer (when it's not being blown away by hurricanes, that is).

A plate of housemade green pasta laced with sweet Dungeness crab and topped by buttery, crisp bread crumbs from La Posta's kitchen remains the ultimate pasta encounter I enjoyed last year. But so many plates created by chef Katherine Stern remain at the very top of my favorites list from last year.

At Soif, any number of dishes from Chef Santos Majano are worthy of praise, especially a recent tapas of micro-thin green filet beans, wrapped in a ribbon of thick luscious pork belly, and served with an aioli were perfection with a Sicilian nero d'avola.

A lunch to remember involved one of El Salcichero's juicy hot dogs on a genuine hot dog bun, served with bowls of mustard and ketchup—at Kelly's on Ingalls. The great hot dog is a true guilty pleasure and this one pushed every east coast button I've got.

My very latest top meal of the year was Christmas dinner at my house involving my variation on Syrian lentil stew, laced with chili sauce, tamarind and highly non-traditional ham hocks. We enjoyed it along with an arugula salad, Gayle's pain de compagne and sizzling dry Veuve Fourny & Fils Brut champagne.  May we all dine out much more often in 2013!