Our annual look at the essential restaurants illuminating the city's dining scene

One of my favorite dishes of the year was Rockmill Tavern's rotating, always-satisfying Blanket Pasta. Imagine one thin layer of house-made lasagna blanketing ingredients like short rib with ginger or stewed heritage tomatoes with ricotta.

Its creator, Rockmill executive chef Andrew Smith, isn't flashy, but he doesn't have to be. The proof is in the pasta. Smith admits the idea for the dish came from “a combination of only having a pasta roller and me having a lazy moment.” This delicious accident now provides opportunities for the kitchen to utilize leftover ingredients (thus reducing food waste) and keep the menu dynamic.

Entering its second year, owner Matthew Barbee's rustic yet refined tavern in the Brewery District is more focused, having ceased breakfast service, and continues to impress thanks to the kitchen's skill, Rockmill Brewery's outstanding beers (brewed in Lancaster, Ohio), unique setting and capable service. If there's a knock on Rockmill, it's that I wish the tavern would expand its more chef-y offerings. The burger and the chicken sandwich are popular for a reason, but it's the more complex dishes that keep me coming back.

Another of my favorites this year was Rockmill's roasted Heritage Carrots. Overwhelmingly, 2018 was the year of the carrot on local menus, and this version led the pack in flavor and could easily stand alone as a meal. Smith credits his sous-chef, Jay Kleven, for its inspiration, saying the pair “wanted to make a carrot taste more like a carrot.” They paired tricolor carrots with a house-made cultured cream, watercress and a carrot peel-vadouvan salt to finish. When the dairy and aromatic spices mingle in the bowl, the flavor has the makings of a fantastic new Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams flavor: carrot-crème.

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Did you know?

Rockmill Brewery released its first Belgian-inspired Pilsner in 2018. Asked to suggest a food pairing, chef Andrew Smith says he loves to couple Pilsners with grilled fish (the tavern typically has one or two fish preparations on the menu), or he suggests the new brew as a refreshing foil to Rockmill's spicy chicken sandwich.