First, a resolution: next year, I will do my "year in review" list before the actual expiration of the year. And next, a confession: I am terrible at "best" lists. I can tell you the high and low points of fifty different restaurants or dishes, but if you ask me to pick a favorite I am usually flummoxed. It's not just food. Favorite movie, song, author? I struggle with the superlatives. In fact, I'm so bad at it that when asked the simple question of what was my favorite meal of the year, I gave two different answers! If you ask me again, I might give still a different answer, particularly if I were to think back on our dinner at Arzak at the beginning of the year, or include our meal last week at Stella in New Orleans.
So, in no particular order, here are eleven (because these go to 11) thoughts on food over the past year:
1. Best Defense Against Foreign Invasion: 2009 started as the year of the invasive exotic species in Miami. Scarpetta from Scott Conant (actually opened December 2008), Eos from Michael Psilakis, BLT Steak from Laurent Tourondel, Gotham Steak from Alfred Portale (also a late '08 opening), all from New York, Hakkasan from London's Alan Yau, Au Pied de Cochon and Caviar Kaspia from Paris, Area 31 from Boston's John Critchley, Red the Steakhouse from Cleveland, Apple from L.A.'s Bryan Ogden, Mr. Chow from London by way of New York, and his evil twin Philippe, and surely others I'm not recalling, all opened in the past year (and some have already closed). But at year's end, it seems to be clear that the best cooking talent in Miami is still local-grown. Michael Schwartz with Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, and Michelle Bernstein with Michy's and Sra. Martinez, are still king and queen of the city despite the influx of foreign invaders. Kris Wessel and Red Light have hit on the right price point and vibe for the "new economy." Jonathan Eismann found Pacific Time's groove again in the Design District, branched out with PizzaVolante, and in the coming year will be adding a barbecue restaurant "Q" and a fish place "Fin" to his repertoire. No doubt some of the foreign interlopers are putting out some good food - Bourbon Steak (opened late 2007), Scarpetta, Hakkasan and Area 31 in particular - but the best stuff is still local.
2. Best Gastronomic Wonderland: San Sebastian. From high-brow to low, old-school to new, there may be nothing else like it in the world. Everything you have read or heard is true. Blocks and blocks of tapas bars with lavish spreads laid out on the counters, each more appealing than the next. Possibly the highest concentration per square mile of Michelin stars in any particular geographic area. Cutting edge cuisine, but still inextricably linked to longstanding Basque cooking traditions. I want to go back to there. Now.
3. Best Dining Phenomenon: Cobaya. Forgive me for tooting my own horn here a bit. Starting last year a group of Chowhounds started getting together for some great dinner experiences. Several months ago a couple of us began kicking around the idea of putting together something like the "underground dinners" that have taken root in other cities. The idea, very simply, was to gather up a group of adventurous, uninhibited diners who were willing to serve as guinea pigs for talented, creative local chefs to provide off-the-menu (and, sometimes, out-of-the-restaurant) experiences. Our first event brought sixteen diners together with Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo and her talented Sous Chef Kyle Foster for a great meal at Talula (one of my favorite meals of 2009!). For our second experiment with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog in a penthouse apartment in Midtown, we had so much interest we added a second seating. A group of guinea pigs also came out to Harvey's By the Bay in the American Legion Post for a pig-fest with Chef Jeremiah that was in part a testing ground for his new gastroPOD mobile food project. Our most recent dinner with Chef Jonathan Eismann at his not-yet-opened restaurant Fin in the Design District sold out 34 seats in less than two hours. The Cobaya Group now has over 250 members, and one of the most gratifying experiences for me over the past year has been seeing that there is in fact a like-minded community of eaters who will support and seek out unusual dining experiences like tripe risotto and trotter tacos.
NAOE. I stumbled across NAOE while browsing OpenTable and was intrigued by the brief description of an entirely chef's choice menu of "natural Japanese cuisine." After my first visit, I walked out not quite sure if what I had experienced was a dream. Repeat visits confirmed it was not all in my head. Seventeen seats, one chef, no menu. An omakase bento box with 4-5 items, followed by a procession of the chef's choice of nigiri until you cry uncle. Everything is either shipped overnight from Japan, bought that morning off the docks at nearby Haulover Marina, or unique items procured fresh from all around the country (like the best uni I've ever tasted, from off the Oregon coast). There is, quite simply, nothing else like it in Miami.
5. Most Underrated Miami Restaurant: Talula. Since it opened on the northern end of South Beach in 2003, the husband-wife chef team of Andrea Curto-Randazzo and Frank Randazzo has been one of my favorites. Lately, sous chef Kyle Foster has provided some new inspiration too, like a list of tapas with more budget friendly prices including "Chef Kyle's Tapa of the Day." They are capable of some creative, brilliant cooking, as we saw at our first Cobaya dinner, but particularly on South Beach are up against perennial competition with all the latest shiny objects. Though it is not a flashy place, it is easily the best food on South Beach in my opinion and ought to be busier than it is.
Paradigm - The Test Kitchen. OK, so I barely even touched an ingredient and didn't pick up a knife. But Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano, along with guest chef Chris Windus of BlueZoo in Orlando, did let me in the kitchen for prep and service of one of their "Paradigm" dinners, and it was my food geek's experience of the year. The running diary I reconstructed was probably the most fun I've had all year writing this here blog, and it provided some illuminating lessons both on the creative process and the mechanics of running a restaurant kitchen. Plus, I got to sample some outrageously good dishes. I hope this year Chefs K and Chadzilla get a chance to really show what they're capable of doing.
7. Best Restaurant to Break Rules For: Aburiya Raku, Las Vegas. I never go back to the same place twice on the same trip. It's just not done, particularly not when I'm in a dining destination like Las Vegas with so much to offer. Yet I ate at Raku twice during a four-day Vegas trip earlier this year. What a wonderful place. While the charcoal-grilled items are the house specialty, and are indeed excellent, there's a fantastic variety of choices, including silky house-made tofu served both hiyayakko and agedashi style; sweet, meaty Japanese unagi prepped two ways; and a delicious foie gras chawan mushi that may have been one of my favorite dishes of the year.
Manresa. I've already told the story here, and it still pains me. I was so looking forward to this meal, and just did it all wrong. Schlepping two weary kids and a loving but patience-tested wife over an hour through the winding roads of the California coast to sit through a long, somewhat intellectualized meal was a mistake. I saw glimmers of what makes Manresa so special, including the magnificent "tidepool" dish and the best abalone I've ever tasted, but other dishes were disappointing. I know this just wasn't the right way to do it, and I'll have to try again.
9. Most Surprising Meal in California: Artisan in Paso Robles. We went to a lot of big-name restaurants on our California trip - Incanto, Zuni Cafe, Manresa, Fifth Floor - but the one that surprised me the most was our meal at Artisan in Paso Robles. Maybe my expectations were lowered because we were out of San Francisco (though I'd heard good things from several locals and regular visitors to Paso Robles). But this was food that was expertly prepared, with bold fresh flavors that took prime advantage of the surrounding area's great local products. The chef and owner brothers are young and talented and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal there as much as anywhere else we visited on our trip.
10. Best Hospitality: New Orleans. It's been about eight years (well pre-Katrina) since we've been to New Orleans, and we were able to sneak away there for a few days just before the new year. People everywhere were so friendly, with complete strangers wishing us a "Happy New Year!" as they passed in the streets (and no, these were not drunks on Bourbon Street, which we actually managed to pretty much completely avoid for three full days), and several restaurants making us feel like regulars on our first visit. But the spirit of generosity which pervades the city was perhaps best exemplified by Chef Scott Boswell of Stella and Stanley restaurants. I tweeted Chef Boswell when I learned we were going to be able to visit New Orleans, and he promptly set us up with reservations at Stella - on Christmas Eve while on vacation in Orlando in the middle of cooking a 50-lb pig and about a half-dozen other things for a family dinner. I was so glad he did - it was easily one of our best meals of the year.
11. Wish for 2010: That Miami continues to develop and nurture chef-driven, food-centered restaurants. While 2009 saw lots of "big box" restaurant openings - big, expensively decorated places, often with big-name, out-of-town, absentee chefs - we also saw success for more modest places that are actually about serving good food, and where you'll actually find the chef, often even in the kitchen. And it's not just the big names like Schwartz and Bernstein. Red Light will be celebrating its second anniversary in just a couple months. NAOE has quickly cultivated a loyal fan base. Lower rents have created opportunities for more modest, quirky places like Charlotte Bistro to open up in Coral Gables, instead of just more chains. I hope we see more of these kinds of places in the coming year.
Thank you, and happy new year, to all of my readers, and to all the chefs, line cooks, waiters, bartenders, bussers, and dishwashers who have fed us so well and taken such good care of us this past year.