Yesterday I kicked off a rundown of my Best Dishes of 2012 (Part 1), a list of 45 of my favorite things to have eaten this past year. We'll pick up where we left off, with dishes listed chronologically, along with a link to the restaurant and my posts on each of them, as well as excerpts from my earlier comments on the dish.
(You can see all the pictures at once in this Best Dishes of 2012 flickr set)
Rabbit Bulgogi - neMesis Urban Bistro (Downtown Miami) (my thoughts on neMesis Cobaya "Dunch")
If there was a standout dish of the meal, it was this: a crispy jasmine rice cake, topped with shredded rabbit "bulgogi," a poached Lake Meadows Naturals Farm duck egg, and frizzled crispy chives, sauced with an orange and five-spice hollandaise. It was an inspired - and delicious - take on the classic eggs benedict, triggered in large part by the surprise availability of rabbits from a farm in upstate Florida. Everything about this worked, and I heard from multiple guests that it ought to become a regular menu feature.
Corn Ravioli - Bourbon Steak (Aventura) (my thoughts on Bourbon Steak)
(This was an appetizer from Bourbon Steak's Miami Spice menu, which was simply one of the most ridiculous dining values you could find in Miami next to the Joe's Stone Crab $5.95 fried chicken. Tender pasta dough was wrapped around a creamy corn purée, topped with plump chanterelle mushrooms, corn powder and butter powder, all drizzled with a browned butter. So many places skimp on their Spice menus; Bourbon's actually gives me a reason to look forward to next summer.)
Papas a la Huancaina - The Bazaar (South Beach) (my thoughts on Bazaar)
Traditionally, this is a simple salad of cold potatoes draped in a creamy, cheesy sauce spiked with aji amarillo peppers. Bazaar's take makes the sauce - here done all foamy and light - the primary component, studs it with vibrantly hued purple Peruvian potatoes, and then adds a unique touch: several fat tongues of sea urchin. This once again violates my personal uni rule, but shows why rules are made to be broken. The rich, creamy uni makes a fantastic pair with the delicately spicy huancaina sauce, complemented by the earthy potatoes for a little substance. This was a great dish.
Black Rossejat - The Bazaar (South Beach) (my thoughts on Bazaar)
But perhaps the single best thing I've eaten at Bazaar is the "Black Rossejat" ($16). Rossejat, a/k/a fideua a/k/a fideos, is a pasta dish prepared in the manner of a paella. The thin, angel-hair like noodles are first toasted in warm olive oil, then simmered in flavorful stock. Bazaar also infuses them with dark, faintly marine-flavored squid ink, and then tops the noodles - tender, but with a hint of crispness at the bottom of the pan - with tender shrimp and dollops of rich aioli. It is an outstanding dish and, relatively speaking anyway, a fantastic value on this menu.
Florida Soft Shell Shrimp - Tuyo (Downtown Miami)
(Tuyo is another place I've had a couple great meals at but haven't yet written about. The regular menu features many of Norman Van Aken's "greatest hits" with some newer dishes mixed in here and there. This was from a special menu Jeffrey Brana put together for a table of us in July. These local Florida soft shell shrimp were prepared very simply - just lemon, scallion and butter - letting their pure crustacean goodness shine. Brana knows my weak spots - the presentation was a direct reference to an Etxebarri dish that also highlighted pristine product, as I noted earlier this year - and gleefully exploits them.)
Tofu, Calabrian Chiles, Cucumbers - State Bird Provisions (San Francisco) (my thoughts on State Bird)
Cubes of tofu are rubbed with Calabrian chiles, served with salted cucumber wedges and a thick green pesto. It's a wonderful, bright combination of flavors and textures, the kind of dish that keeps giving you reason to come back for another bite.
Sea Urchin Pancake - State Bird Provisions (San Francisco) (my thoughts on State Bird)
Items that can be ordered off the menu also include a small assortment of "pancakes," like this fantastic combination of a ginger-scallion pancake topped with lobes of uni, fresh bean sprouts, sesame seeds, and a drizzle of a soy-lime reduction, one of the best bites among many. It's a great example of how State Bird's food manages to be careful and thoughtful without being precious and fussy.
Pork Fried Farro - State Bird Provisions (San Francisco) (my thoughts on State Bird)
A few heartier options can help round out a meal: burnished cubes of pork belly with pungent kimchi and fresh thumbelina carrots; pork fried farro with a soft egg and pickled vegetables (simple genius, this).
Honeycomb Tripe - AQ (San Francisco) (my thoughts on AQ)
If there is a tripe dish on the menu, invariably I will order it. This was like no tripe dish I have ever ordered before. The tripe itself, served close to room temperature, is cut into a julienne of fine ribbons, similar to what you'll find when you get honeycomb tripe in a dim sum parlor. The inflection of ginger is from the same place as well. But then it also gets a bolt of rounded acidity from charred lemon zest, a bit of szechuan peppercorn buzz, and finally, a bright fruitiness from a ruby-hued plum consommé poured tableside. A scatter of purple flowers (sage blossoms?) echoes the color of the plum broth.
Abiu - South Kona Fruit Stand (Kona, HI)
(We spent two weeks in Hawaii this summer and I've still not written about it. Truth is, while much of the raw product was really exceptional, most of the restaurants we tried in Maui and the Big Island were not. But we still had some interesting dining experiences that are probably worth recounting. One of my favorites was one of the simplest: a fruit I'd never tasted before - abiu - which had a smooth, custardy texture and a flavor almost like caramelized pineapple.)
Potato, Eggs, Caviar - Lazy Bear dinner (San Francisco) (my thoughts on Lazy Bear)
When I was growing up, most holidays and birthdays were spent at my grandparents' apartment, and my grandmother's stuffed baked potatoes were among my favorite childhood dishes. They were good, but they weren't this good. A spin on a classic combination, crisped hollowed halves of new potatoes were refilled with a rich potato purée, garnished with a dollop of paddlefish caviar, and set afloat on a pool of a silky creme fraiche sauce flecked with chive oil and chervil, with golden-browned little potato coins scattered across the plate. Rich, indulgent, earthy, briny, creamy, crispy - I can taste it in my head a month later, but still wish I could have the real thing over again. A fantastic dish.
Pole Beans - Lazy Bear dinner (San Francisco) (my thoughts on Lazy Bear)
There were no quibbles with the next course, a salad of several different varieties of pole beans dressed with a country ham "crema," garnished with crumbles of a sausage made from processed country ham, slivered radishes, shards of crispy sesame crackers, and bright purple borage flowers. There was a perfect harmony between the snappy, vegetal beans and the salty, meaty country ham. Other than me, nobody in the family particularly likes pole beans - yet everyone cleaned their plates. This was another truly memorable dish.
Maine Lobster Flan - J&G Grill (Bal Harbour) (my thoughts on J&G Cobaya dinner)
The one dish in particular that most left me craving one more taste - and maybe, then, the best dish of the night - was a delicate Maine lobster flan, garnished with pickled cucamelon, a lobe of sea urchin, and a smear of preserved lemon purée. This was just a perfect composition: the creamy flan balanced against the snap of the cucamelon, the sweet briny marine flavors of the lobster and uni balanced by the salty-tart preserved lemon.
Smoked Linguine - J&G Grill (Bal Harbour) (my thoughts on J&G Cobaya dinner)
The next dish was brought to the table in a large bowl cloaked by another overturned bowl on top - with the unveil revealing a tangle of "smoked" linguine, chanterelle mushrooms, delicate ribbons of Farmer Jones carrots, pistachios, chervil, and orange zest. This was one of my favorite pasta dishes in recent memory - an uncustomary but completely natural combination of ingredients that offered a great interplay of flavors and textures.
Lemon Raspberry Spiral - J&G Grill (Bal Harbour) (my thoughts on J&G Cobaya dinner)
One of the things I find so interesting about Chef Bachour's desserts is that the experience of eating them is much the same as the experience of looking at them. He gets such vivid colors on the plate - the electric magenta of the raspberry sorbet and the verdant green of the pistachio cake here being good examples - that it would be easy to conclude that it's all just for show.
But the presentation is matched by the flavors. His desserts aren't cloyingly sweet, but bring combinations and layers of fruit, acidity and textural contrasts that are every bit as bright and appealing as the colors. Here, alternating spirals of lemon curd and raspberry mousse were the bed for layers of torn pistachio pound cake, fizzy freeze-dried raspberries (an Albert Adria trick), and a wedge of raspberry sorbet.
The final chapter, Part 3, will follow shortly.