Great meals of 2015: grilled cheese to Sea Salt, spiked shakes to Fish on Fire

gluttonTime to review life as you know it, and I’ll do the same as 2015 ends. These restaurants, close to home and many miles away, caught my attention this year.

Café Hollander, Madison: The Milwaukee-based restaurateur opened this third location in autumn, but “café” is an understatement because of the array of options is fat. Belgian beers are the specialty, Bloody Marys are prepared seven ways and the “bier mosa” mixes o.j. with a wheat brew. To eat: beignets with lemon and chocolate dipping sauces, waffles topped with bourbon pecan butter, four types of toppings for toast (honey, roasted apples and brie herbal cheese is one). That’s just breakfast, and just for starters. Also in Wauwatosa and Milwaukee. cafehollander.com, 608-237-3168

Tom+Chee, Appleton and Elm Grove: Tomato soup with a grilled cheese spells pure comfort, but that combo needs further clarification when ordered at this quick-service franchise. Building a sandwich goes far beyond white vs. wheat and cheddar vs. swiss: Try melting your favorite fromage between slices of a glazed doughnut. Or add a layer of potato chips for extra crunch. Classic, creamy and chunky versions of tomato soup are sold by the little dipper, cup or bowl. These are menu headliners for the Cincinnati business that gained bigtime exposure through “Shark Tank” and other nationwide TV spots. Now there are 34-and-counting locations. tomandchee.com, 920-815-3059, 414-249-5206

Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant, Bonaparte, Iowa: The community? Population 433, on the Des Moines River in southeast Iowa. The restaurant? In a restored, century-old grist mill. A flood and fire nearly destroyed the town in 1903; Iowans know the hamlet today as a rural dining delight because of hand-cut steaks and chops for dinner, lunchtime blue plate specials and breaded pork tenderloins. Save room for pie; the thick strawberry puree sells out fast in summer. The setting – exposed beans, old brick walls, antique cash register, eclectic collectibles – feels like a homey museum. bonaparteretreat.com, 319-592-3339

Bourbon and Baker, Manhattan, Kansas: Southern and Midwest influences converge in the front end of this college town business, which stocks 70 kinds of bourbon, serves whiskey punch/whiskey-ritas and presents a compact menu of sliders (kobe or oyster), tacos (duck), fries (asparagus), waffles (with chicken) and other unpredictable fare. Enter through the back door, and you’ll find a bakery primping cookies, fancy cakes, buns and biscuits for both this building and neighboring Harry’s, genteel dining in a historic hotel structure downtown. bbmanhattan.com, 785-320-4959

Lunchbox Laboratory, Seattle: How lucky that the nearest sit-down restaurant to our Seattle hotel (northeast of downtown) was this unusual and affordable eatery. Burgers rule, but they are made with your choice of beef, lamb, a veggie black bean combo, churken (ground chicken and turkey) or “dork” (pork and duck). Sides and sauces include black truffle mayo, bread and butter pickle tartar. Match the meal with a booze-spiked milk shake; other beverages arrive in beakers, test tubes. The motif is both nostalgic and edgy, thanks to a collection of oldtime lunchboxes that are treated like modern art. Other outlets are in Bellvue and Gig Harbor, Wash. lunchboxlaboratory.com, 206-621-1090

New York Wine and Culinary Center, Canandaigua, N.Y.: Every state should have a beautiful stage like this for local food and beverage products. The many fine wines of the Finger Lakes region (plus New York craft beer, spirits) are available by the sampling, serving or bottle. Also in the nonprofit enterprise is a gift shop, Upstairs Bistro restaurant and two roomy classrooms for hands-on workshops and cooking demos (these frequent sessions last one to three hours). The bistro menu lists farms that provide key ingredients for brunch, lunch and dinner; seating overlooks Canandaigua Lake. nywcc.com, 585-394-7070

Sea Salt, St. Petersburg Fla.: Ask for salt at most restaurants, and it’s passed as an afterthought. Not so here, where a Kalamanak from India, pink Himalayan and black Hiwa Kai from Hawai tops each table. For sale are many of the 130 salts and infusions that are carefully matched to each course of fine dining. Chef Fabrizio Aielli, a Venice native, is responsible for the emphasis and excess. Little seems modest at the St. Petersburg venue, open since autumn 2015 in the Sundial dining/shopping complex, where the raw bar is 80 feet long and a tower of wines is 20 feet tall. Also in Naples. seasaltstpete.com, 727-873-7964; seasaltnaples.com, 239-263-1955

Fish on Fire, Orlando: I don’t expect much when booking a quick overnight at a cheap motel with an airport shuttle because of a late-arriving flight. Steps away, in this case, was the friendly Fish on Fire, whose name acknowledges a 2010 kitchen fire. This locals’ hangout was opened by a couple of fishing buddies who are fussy about the quality of their daily catches. Cooks also will cook your catch and serve it family style. The mood is laid back, décor funky and band bookings frequent on weekends. fishonfireorlando.com, 407-812-6881

Glutton, Las Vegas: Count brown butter gnocchi and caramel corn profiteroles in chef and co-owner Joseph Kudrak’s ambitious repertoire, served downtown in an intimate restaurant whose location and character are far from the clamor and glitz of casinos. Consider barrel-aged cocktails at the bar, yeast-risen pancakes for brunch, ahi tuna tacos for lunch, calamari fries or bacon and fig flatbread to nibble with a friend. gluttonlv.com, 702-366-0623

Cebicheria La Mar, Lima, Peru: Avenida La Mar is a street in the Miraflores district near downtown, known for restaurants that specialize in ceviche (raw seafood that “cooks” via citrus marinades). An anchor is celebrity chef Gaston Acurio’s crowded and casual eatery that ranks among the best for ceviche in Latin America. It can be adventurous dining: melt-in-your-mouth sea urchins, grilled octopus, fresh-as-it-comes fish. Also in Miami, San Francisco, Bogota and Sao Paulo. lamarcebicheria.com/lima, 511-421-3365