Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Dishes of 2013 - Part 2

In the wee hours of last night I started on Part 1 of the Best Dishes I ate in the past year. Here, in chronological order, picking up right around mid-year, is Part 2, starting with a couple great things at the sadly now-closed BoxPark, then a trek through the Pacific Northwest, including the magnificent Willows Inn (my favorite meal of the year), along with a brief visit to New Orleans and several more great dishes here in Miami.

(You can see pictures of all of them in this 2013 Best Dishes flickr set).

Everglades Gumbo - BoxPark (Brickell) (my thoughts on BoxPark)

Chef Matt Hinckley’s version [of gumbo], like a lot of things at BoxPark from the house-made charcuterie to the “Brickell Pickles,” uses almost all locally sourced ingredients, some from rather unusual places. He makes his own andouille sausage using invasive feral pigs trapped by local farmers. Ruby red shrimp are seasonally harvested from deep waters off Florida’s east coast. Those “nuisance gators” that are often removed from local golf courses and swimming pools also go into the pot. Okra comes from independent Homestead farms. The sassafras for the gumbo filé is supplied by a small local family farm, then dried and ground into a powder at the restaurant. Even the salt comes from solar evaporated seawater harvested in the Florida Keys.

The result is not much to look at: a ruddy, roux-thickened stew studded with various bits and pieces. But what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in flavor: the tender, curled shrimp, the mildly aquatic alligator meat, the spicy, intensely porcine wild boar sausage, the vegetal snap of the okra, the subtle, complex aroma of sassafras, all supported by a backbeat of peppery heat and bound in a velvety, tomato-speckled broth. It’s a perfect combination of surf and turf and earth that is truly of this place.

Charcuterie - BoxPark (Brickell) (my thoughts on BoxPark)

Hinckley's charcuterie was also exceptional - more rustic in style than that at DB Bistro, which also made my list, but every bit as flavorful. This platter included duck prosciutto, porchetta di testa, lonza, saucisson sec, biltong, and some silky duck rillettes. Last I heard, Hinckley and partner / pastry chef Crystal Cullison were moving to New York - which is a real loss for Miami, but I'm eager to see what they do next.

Crepe with Salmon Roe, Maple Cream and Chive - Willows Inn (Lummi Island, WA) (my thoughts on Willows Inn)

A crisp delicate crepe shell wraps itself around a filling of salmon roe, maple cream and chives. It is creamy, salty, and sweet, the fresh green herb complimenting the roe's marine brine. It is also head-smackingly delicious.

Blackberries with Juice of Herbs and GrassesWillows Inn (Lummi Island, WA) (my thoughts on Willows Inn)

And then, for the first course, a dish that captures a sense of place possibly more perfectly than any other I've had. Plump blackberries rest in a pool of an emerald green juice of herbs and grasses, garnished with more of those same delicate herbs and their flowers. It is, very much literally, the landscape right outside the restaurant, on a plate.

Smoked Sockeye SalmonWillows Inn (Lummi Island, WA) (my thoughts on Willows Inn)

That salmon: reefnet caught, alderwood smoked, sockeye salmon, glistening, vibrant red, faintly warm, fatty, rich, smoky and sweet. You eat it with your hands. You want to go slowly, and savor every bite, but it's hard to resist. You surreptitiously watch your kids to see if they're going to finish theirs. You consider asking for more, even though it's a generous portion. You realize: this is the best salmon you are ever going to eat in your life.

(continued ...)

Hay Aged Smoked Quail - Wildebeest (Vancouver, BC) (my thoughts on Wildebeest)

But obviously, a place called "Wildebeest" is really about the meat. And it's great stuff here - prepared simply but thoughtfully and presented essentially ungarnished. Quail is hay aged, and then smoked, brought to the table with a wad of still-smoking straw protruding from its carcass. The intense flavor of the tiny bird's flesh, still rosy-hued, belies its size. Served with little dipping bowls of a fermented wild berry honey and a salt and pepper mix, and just begging to be eaten with one's hands, this was one of the best birds I ate all year.

"Dan Dan" Kohlrabi - Pidgin (Vancouver, BC)

I've not yet written about Pidgin, in Vancouver, but it was one of the best meals we've had all year - a testament to the notion that "fusion" cuisine is back from the dead, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. This dish - "Dan Dan" Kohlrabi - is a great example. With the classic Sichuan noodle dish, Dan Dan Mien, as a starting point, virtually every component gets reinvented. In place of the noodles, long strands of kohlrabi. In place of the ground pork and sesame paste, a rich sauce of tofu and miso, with a sprinkle of slivered almonds and scallions. A smart, surprising and exciting dish, like just about everything we tried at Pidgin.

Dungeness Crab - Bar Sajor (Seattle, WA)

Another great meal I've not yet written about was at Bar Sajor, Chef Matthew Dillon's latest venture in Seattle. Simple, honest, focused cooking, almost all of it done over open fire or in a wood-burning hearth. There was a lot we liked, but I particularly enjoyed this Dungeness Crab, cooked in the fireplace, served with nothing more than some plump lobster mushrooms braised in garlic, smashed lemon cucumbers, and a scatter of purslane.

Lamb Shoulder - Michael Solomonov (Zahav, Philadelphia), Harry's Pizzeria pop-up dinner

I make regular stops at Harry's Pizzeria for their pizzas - but one of the best things they do is the series of visiting chef "pop-up" dinners that Michael Schwartz has orchestrated. Over the past couple years, he has brought some of the top chefs from around the country in to Miami to cook with him and his crew. Service is casual and family style, wine is poured freely, and the food is usually great. I was crushed when I had a short business trip to Philadelphia earlier this year and couldn't make time to get into Michael Solomonov's Israeli-inspired Zahav. I was thrilled when Schwartz brought him in for a dinner. The highlight was Solomonov's braised lamb shoulder, shiny with pomegranate molasses and served over tender chickpeas with a scatter of fresh mint.

Antonio Bachour's Desserts - Cobaya Tea Party at the St. Regis (Bal Harbour) (my thoughts on our Cobaya Tea Party with Antonio Bachour)

It would be impossible for me to pick a favorite among the dozens of desserts Antonio Bachour created for our Cobaya afternoon tea at the St. Regis in Bal Harbour So instead I've picked them all. Here's what I said then:

Bachour's desserts look spectacular; but what I find truly remarkable is that his creations taste every bit as good as they look. I don't particularly have a sweet tooth, but still find his work utterly compelling. The flavors are vibrant, often echoing our tropical landscape. There's a great interplay of textures, almost always offering some combination of creamy and crunchy, rich and light to hold interest. These are not some of the best desserts I've tried in South Florida - they are some of the best I've had anywhere. I've said it to Antonio and will say here: we should feel very lucky to have this kind of talent here in Miami.

Glazed Carrots - "Kulinary Therapy" dinner at Josh's Deli (Surfside) (my thoughts on Josh's Deli)

I regret only getting to one of Josh Marcus' "Kulinary Therapy" dinners at his "faux deli" in Surfside. The one I did make was a collaboration with local artist LEBO, a/k/a David LeBatard, who offered to do some artistic plating if Josh kept the meal vegan. It maybe wasn't the most artistic of the plates, but my favorite dish of the night were these carrots, some halved and roasted, some thinly slivered, paired with an avocado-pistachio purée, raisins, arugula, flax seeds and a bit of pickled onion. I admire Josh's willingness to experiment, to push himself, and to play, and look forward to seeing what's to come when the deli opens up for dinner a few nights a week.

Oysters Rockefeller - Galatoire's (New Orleans) (my thoughts on Galatoire's)

"Not the first, but the best!" our waiter said of the Oysters Rockefeller. I wouldn't argue. These were delightful, the oysters warmed through but not killed, the topping like a fine emerald cloud of spinach and absinthe (and about 20 other ingredients, according to our waiter, among which I suspect that fennel and leek figure prominently). 

Tete de Cochon - Coquette (New Orleans) (my thoughts on Coquette)

The tete de cochon was simply done, and excellent. A few thin slices of the pressed headcheese, striated with ribbons of silky fat, flavorful meat and the occasional firmer bits of ear. A few slices of egg, the whites firm but the yolks still barely runny. Pickled mustard seeds for a bit of contrast in flavor and texture. Tender peppery arugula leaves. I loved it.

Rotisserie Guinea Hen - The Cypress Room (Design District)

I fell in love with the space at The Cypress Room immediately. I took a little longer to warm up to the food. But my last couple of meals there have been excellent, highlighted by this rotisserie game hen, the bird presented whole, then carved in the kitchen, plated over some peppery arugula and soft herbs.

Risotto with Alba White Truffles - "Pink Collar" Cobaya charity dinner at Blue Collar (Miami Upper Eastside) (my thoughts on the "Pink Collar" dinner)

Given their expense, truffles are usually carefully guarded and parsimoniously administered, with some restaurants measuring out truffle supplements by the gram. So setting out a few golf ball sized Alba truffles for each table was a pretty luxurious approach. These were some really magnificently fragrant truffles too - out of the ground four days ago, per Danny's supplier (Mikuni Wild Harvest). And while a Microplane may not be as elegant as those fancy shavers that shower thin slices of truffle, it did a nice job of releasing their musky perfume into the creamy, saffron and pecorino laced risotto. This was extravagant and delicious.

Veal Brains Meuniere - Cobaya dinner at PB Steak (Miami Beach) (my thoughts on our CobayaBelly dinner)

On my last visit to Pubbelly I had an excellent veal brain dish, done very classically in a meuniere style with brown butter and a sauce gribiche. It was on the menu as something of a try-out for the next upcoming addition to the Pubbelly empire: L'Echon, a PB-style French brasserie in North Beach. This was perhaps the 2.0 version of that dish: the brains dyed jet-black by a squid ink and soy "black butter," served with roasted huitlacoche (a corn fungus with a truffle-like aroma), Oregon chanterelles and other mushrooms, sweet corn, fava beans, red-vein sorrel, and shards of parmigiano reggiano. It was a dramatic presentation; and it was a fantastic dish. The brain's delicate texture is matched by a pure, clean - almost consommé-like - meaty essence of flavor, and though there were lots of other things on the plate, they complemented rather than overwhelmed the star of the dish.

Beef Wellington - The Dutch (Miami Beach) (my thoughts on the Dutch)

This classic was the highlight of Andrew Carmellini and Conor Hanlon's "Trufflepalooza" dinner at Miami's The Dutch in late November. It was executed perfectly - flaky crust, rosy medium-rare beef tenderloin capped with a layer of truffled mushrooms, served with roasted chanterelles, a frothy truffle sabayon, a drizzle of foie jus, and a generous shaving of white truffles over the top. I've generally had good meals at The Dutch, but the special event dinners are truly special.

Pork Raviolo with Lardo and Matsutake Broth - Brad Kilgore, P.I.G.#4 (Wynwood)

Another outstanding experience I never got around to writing about, Jeremiah Bullfrog's P.I.G. #4 event at GAB Studios was the best yet: a team effort, with contributions from Aaron Brooks, Giorgio Rapicavoli, Brad Kilgore, Conor Hanlon, Antonio Bachour, Steve Santana from Broken Shaker, which also provided some cocktails, and beer from Gravity Brewlab. I'm not being glib when I say that every dish was great, but the standout among them for me was Brad Kilgore's deeply flavored pork raviolo in a lardo and matsutake broth, topped with delicate sea vegetables.

Gemelli with Key West Pink Shrimp and Sea Urchin - Cobaya dinner with Nina Compton at Scarpetta (Miami Beach) (my thoughts on Cobaya Nina)

Chef Compton is the self-proclaimed "Gnocchi Queen" but there would be no gnocchi tonight. Instead, she served these gemelli, a hearty twisted pasta with a great chew, paired with plump chopped Key West pink shrimp and a ricci di mare (sea urchin) sauce. There was a beautiful, deep clean oceanic flavor that permeated the dish (I'm guessing a reduced shrimp shell stock in addition to the sea urchin). Crispy bread crumbs and soft herbs provided just the right contrast in texture and flavor. This was one of the best pasta dishes I've tried all year.

Gong Bao Rabbit - BlackBrick (Midtown Miami) (see my pictures from BlackBrick)

And to wrap up 2013, a dish from one of the most recent openings of the year: Richard Hales' BlackBrick. Miami suffers from a serious Chinese food deficit, and Hales - who opened Sakaya Kitchen four years ago - is aiming to fix that. BlackBrick's expanding, ambitious menu dabbles much in hearty Sichuan flavors, and though I've only started to make a dent in it, I'm very excited by what I've tried. The Gung Bao Rabbit is a great example: crisp-edged nuggets of tender rabbit meat stir-fried with onions, peppers and a generous handful of roasted fresh chilies, topped with crunchy spicy peanuts and Sichuan pepper. Despite the small sample size, BlackBrick is my favorite new restaurant of the year.

I've said it the past couple years but it always bears repeating: thanks to everyone who made 2013 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.

1 comment:

  1. Great posts. That new camera worth every keystroke. Obviously the guy shaving the truffle knows what he's doing.