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I’ve already declared Lola’s French 75 the drink of the summer, so why not throw down an early gauntlet for 2021’s dish of the year?

I know, I know.

The year isn’t even half over and I’ve already tasted several worthy contenders. But I’m not sure any of them can beat out a few recent beauties from Kita Modern Japanese in Southridge, which are some of the best things I’ve tasted so far this year.

First, there’s this dazzler.

Featured on the restaurant’s Izakaya menu — which is a selection of casual Japanese bar appetizers and small plates similar to Spanish tapas — their Rendang slow-cooked beef short rib is rubbed with curry spice and braised in coconut milk.

Not a sauce that bathes the meat, the coconut milk actually infuses it during cooking to flavor and tenderize the beef to perfection. It was tender and moist, rich and flavorful, and infinitely satisfying.

Before last week’s Rendang revelation, other recent meals at Kita have included yellowtail tuna spiked with shaved jalapenos and avocado, savory grilled lamb chops with red miso and lime, miso-marinated salmon with pickled ginger, a giant beef rib that flaked off its brontosaurus-sized bone, and glistening black cod that literally melted in my mouth.

It was like Chilean sea bass, but with an even sweeter taste and creamier texture.

And then one night, they hit me with a kabocha (think Japanese pumpkin) bread pudding drenched in the most amazing burnt caramel butterscotch glaze spiked with Japanese five spice. Its balance of sweet and heat was just beyond.

Offering a sophisticated twist on Japanese dining, Kita is not your typical “hibachi-style” steakhouse. It’s more of a Japanese gastropub of sorts, where craft cocktails, sushi and tapas-like plates blend with elegant dishes cooked, among other ways, on a traditional robato grill.

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And Kita continues to kill it in my book.

•••

It was amazing seeing so many people (real people, in person, out and about) at last week’s Rolls on the River pepperoni roll and craft beer festival along the river in downtown Charleston.

It was pretty much the first big food event to return as we continue to emerge from the dark days of COVID and the public came out in force to take it all in.

The lines got a little crazy, I know, but there’s just so much pent-up demand from folks wanting to get out and live their lives again. Can’t say I blame ’em.

I was honored to be one of four celebrity judges chosen to help pick the festival’s best pepperoni roll — and was especially relieved when three out of four of us all selected the same “winner” after a marathon blind tasting.

I adored several of the 11 entries we tried, although we all agreed one was inedible and a few others bafflingly substituted sausage or shredded pork as the meat inside. They were delicious, but not “traditional” pepperoni rolls, which is what we were asked to judge.

In the end, it was Mountain Pie Company that came out on top this year, with rolls from Pepperoni Grill and Mea Cuppa rounding out our top three.

Congrats to all!

Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as “WV Food Guy.” He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at wvfoodguy@aol.com.

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