We're coming in for a landing here: Part 1 and Part 2 of my Best Dishes of 2012 were posted earlier this week. This post wraps up the rest of the year, including a trek to Charleston that just squeezed in under the wire, and made for some of the best meals I've had all year.
These retrospectives are always something of a learning experience for me, an opportunity to reflect on what I really enjoyed and why. But I'll save my deeper thoughts on a year in food for another post, and stick with the food porn here. Again, these are listed chronologically, with links to the restaurants and my posts on each of them, as well as excerpts from my comments on the dish.
(You can see all the pictures at once in this Best Dishes of 2012 flickr set)
Bagel with Lox and Whitefish Salad - Josh's Deli (Surfside) (my thoughts on Josh's Deli)
His cured salmon, sliced to order, is beautifully silky, achieving that uneasy feat of tasting like fish without being fishy. We brought home some of each variety to break the fast on Yom Kippur, and while family members all had strong opinions on which they preferred and there was no consensus, everyone had a favorite (for me it’s definitely the pastrami-cured salmon). His whitefish salad, which I initially quibbled with as too chunky, has grown on me, with just enough chopped onion, celery and hard-boiled egg to provide some contrast to the flaky smoked fish without overwhelming it.
Roasted Cauliflower Gelato - Brad Kilgore Dinner at Azul (Miami) (my thoughts on Brad's dinner)
The primary notes of the first dish - cauliflower and caviar - were a riff on the French Laundry's cauliflower panna cotta with beluga caviar. Kilgore's version started with a puddle of a cold, creamy cauliflower and white chocolate "vichysoisse" Next to that was a generous mound of really fine royal osetra caviar, topped with a quenelle of a darkly caramelized roasted cauliflower gelato, mounted with a few crisped florets to reinforce the notion. This was rich upon rich, but it still found its balance. I loved it.
Anatomy of a Suckling Pig - Brad Kilgore Dinner at Azul (Miami) (my thoughts on Brad's dinner)
There were rounds of sticky, intensely porcine tete de cochon, studded with pistachios and topped with crispy pig ear chicharrones. There was a gorgeous, juicy crown roast rubbed with butter and herbs. There were macarons with delicate pistachio cookies sandwiching a whipped bacon filling. There was the pig's liver, soaked in milk before being poached sous vide, tender and surprisingly mild. There was a fine boudin blanc style sausage, finely ground with apples and nuts and stuffed into the intestine. There was a Mediterranean style roulade of one leg, basted in goat feta and layered napoleon-style between lavash. There were rillettes of the other leg, supplemented with wagyu beef fat and rolled in sheets of daikon radish. There were trotters, all wobbly with gelatin and fat, and stuffed with mushroom duxelles. There were at least three different pork jus based sauces in copper sauciers - butterscotch, truffled, foie gras infused.
It was a truly astonishing display, worthy of "La Grande Bouffe." And not just a visual feast by any means: though the macarons and the tete de cochon were really exceptional standouts, each of the components was delicious.
Sea Bream Sashimi - Estiatorio Milos (South Beach) (my thoughts on Milos)
Look how precisely the flesh has been carved from the frame. Look how the filet, cut into thin ribbons, was meticulously reassembled on the plate. Simply garnished – one side with aromatic fresh thyme, the other with finely minced chiles bearing a gentle heat – this was a pure and transcendent taste of the sea. If you want more variety, Chef Rhee can also prepare a sampler of different fish, each given a different accent note: maybe thyme, rosemary, dill, chiles, citrus juices or zests, or yuzu kosho.
Carabiñeros - Estiatorio Milos (South Beach) (my thoughts on Milos)
Of course, if you’re feeling flush, you can still go pick anything you like from the display and order it at the bar. When a kind waiter tipped me off that they were bringing in fresh carabiñeros, the gorgeous garnet-hued shrimp that we saw throughout our travels in Spain, I couldn’t resist.
At a whopping $95 / pound, two of these ran me nearly $40. It was worth it. Their flesh, with red stripes as bright as their shells, is more tender and sweet than lobster. And their heads, when immodestly sucked of their nectar, are one of the finest treats of the sea. It was nearly like being transported back to Spain, and at least it's cheaper than a plane ticket.
Rabbit Liver Toast - Matt Hinckley Dinner at The Hoxton (Miami) (my thoughts on Hinckley Cobaya dinner)
Perhaps best of all were toasts topped with a shmear of a creamy rabbit liver mousse, a dab of tangerine jam and a sprinkle of fresh tarragon: this was exceptional, one of the most memorable bites of the evening.
Charcuterie - Matt Hinckley Dinner at The Hoxton (Miami) (my thoughts on Hinckley Cobaya dinner)
As everyone made their way to the tables, butcher blocks laden with house-made charcuterie did the same. My lousy, cluttered mixed light photo doesn't do it justice, because this was some of the best charcuterie I've had in Miami aside from DB Bistro. And some great variety too: a lovely rabbit terrine; chewy, nicely spiced venison biltong; tender, fatty duck breast "ham;" intensely spicy and smoky tasso; and some lusciously fatty pork rillons (blessedly served at room temperature so the fat was wavering just between solid and liquid).
Toro Nigiri - Makoto (Bal Harbour) (my thoughts on Makoto)
(Though I wrote about Makoto more than a year ago, this was an item from an omakase sushi service this past month. Several items were very, very good - delicate medai, fleshier rose-hued kinmedai, shiny, oily aji - but this lightly seared and seasoned toro (kindai, I believe) was the bite that really stood out, even among the others. Makoto is clearly in the top tier of our local sushi options and is becoming increasingly a part of our regular rotation.)
Brussels Sprout - Brandon Batltzley Cobaya Dinner (Miami Beach) (my thoughts on "Cobaya Gets Cruxed")
And one more snack before diving into the menu, another riff on winter vegetables - brussels sprouts roasted in brown butter, then napped with a creamy onion soubise. Simple but perfect, this was a real "wow" bite, the humble homely vegetable rendered all soigne and elegant.
"Ants on a Log" - Brandon Batltzley Cobaya Dinner (Miami Beach) (my thoughts on "Cobaya Gets Cruxed")
This "Ants on a Log" was something of an improvisation. This was originally supposed to be a pasta course, but making fresh pasta and shaping tortelloni no longer fit into the schedule. It turned out to be my favorite course of the evening, and possibly one of the most unexpectedly great things I've eaten all year. A rich, creamy chicken liver mousse filled stalks of celery that had been compressed with black birch-infused celery juice, then garnished with white chocolate "ants" and fresh celery leaves. I flat-out loved the combination of the chicken livers and white chocolate, with all that richness cut by the intense clean green flavor of the celery.
Rooibos, Gingerbread, Radish - Brandon Batltzley Cobaya Dinner (Miami Beach) (my thoughts on "Cobaya Gets Cruxed")
As something of a pre-dessert / cheese course, another of my favorite bites of the night - rooibos-infused mascarpone cheese, spread over moist gingerbread, topped with peppery, bright slivers of fresh radishes. This was like the perfect tea sandwich, and pretty much everyone was craving another after they quickly disappeared.
Capers Blade Oyster - McCrady's (Charleston, SC)
(I've not yet written about McCrady's, which we visited only a couple weeks ago. This was the first course from a meal that is still fresh in my mind and will be imprinted there for a long time. The bowl is brought from the kitchen covered, and its unveiling at the table releases the heady aroma of smoke and sea, like a tableside oyster roast. Our server explained: "The kitchen wants you to smell what they smell." The delicate Capers Blade oyster, cooked in embers, was glazed with melted country ham fat and dotted with elderberry capers.)
"Charleston Ice Cream" - McCrady's (Charleston, SC)
(This is really everything McCrady's is about on a plate. A heritage ingredient - Carolina Gold rice, once the backbone of the Charleston economy - prepared perfectly, and given enough contemporary grace notes - infused with bay leaf, garnished with delicate greens and flowers - to be relevant rather than a stodgy museum piece of a dish. This was the platonic ideal of rice dishes.)
Aged Duck - McCrady's (Charleston, SC)
(The duck is aged for several days and roasted on the bone, a tranche of it served with perfectly rosy flesh and equally perfectly crispy skin. Paired with creamed farro, a garlic emulsion, and fermented walnut "miso," all of which were nice, but frankly irrelevant: this duck was incredible, maybe the best I've ever had.)
"Kentuckyaki Pig Ear Lettuce Wraps - Husk (Charleston, SC)
(Crispy, intensely porky pig ears get bathed in a "Kentuckyaki" BBQ / teriyaki sauce, dressed with a carrot and cabbage slaw, fresh citrus segments, and a sprinkle of benne seeds, packaged in tender bibb lettuce leaves like a Korean ssam. Mrs. F doesn't like pig ears. I told her she had to try these anyway. This line has gotten me into trouble multiple times, usually involving tripe dishes. This time, she admitted I was right.)
My conclusion to the past two years' "best" lists bears repeating again now: thanks to everyone who made 2012 such an enjoyable year - all the chefs, line cooks, waitstaff, sommeliers, bartenders and busboys, all the farmers, fishermen and foragers, all the winemakers, brewers and distillers, all the guinea pigs who supported our Cobaya dining experiments, and all the great people I've had the good fortune to share meals with, both at the table and vicariously through reviews, blogs, tweets and pictures. As my grandfather used to wish us each year: always better, never worse.