Thursday, December 17, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 1

With the calendar winding to its end, that means it's list season. Not Santa's list; I'm referring to the annual tradition of "best" lists among food writers. Locally, we already have "2015's Best Dishes" lists from the Miami Herald and Miami New Times, plus "Best New Restaurants" lists from both as well (Herald; New Times). In the larger universe, the New York Times' Pete Wells has his "Top Ten Dishes" and "Top New York Restaurants," Eater has Robert Sietsema's "15 Best Dishes of 2015," The Guardian has an intriguing survey of several chefs' and food writers' "favourite meals this year," and Alex Balk has an – unusual – "Top 5 Memorable Meals" list over at The Awl (#2: "Two cough drops, Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop").

Before we all get full on lists, here's mine. Unrestrained by page limits or editorial discretion, this one goes to 45 (or something around there – we'll see), which is actually down from last year's 60. I must have become more discriminating in the past year. Some of these dishes come from ultra high end tasting menus; others are from simple, bare-bones joints. Geographically, more than half were home-grown here in South Florida, with most of the rest coming from multiple trips to the Bay Area this past year. Yes, the title of the post says "best," but such superlatives are of course meaningless; it's just a list of some personal favorites that stood out over a year of good eating. Here goes Part 1, which starts with a dessert (these appear in roughly chronological order):

Pistachio Cake, Fennel Panna Cotta, Roasted White Chocolate – Vagabond Restaurant (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Vagabond)

Vagabond closes strong. The pistachio cake is among the best desserts I've had in Miami. The emerald green cake is pulled apart and crumbled over a fennel panna cotta, then draped with crumbles of roasted white chocolate and ribbons of candied fennel. There are such vivid, bright flavors here, and an interplay of textures that keeps you coming back for another bite. I'm not usually big on desserts, but this was excellent.

Smoked Mullet DinnerTed Peters Smoked Fish (St. Petersburg) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Ted Peters)

The picture does not quite convey the size of this gorgeous whole split fish, the skin and exposed flesh burnished golden-brown from the smoke, which perfumes but doesn't overwhelm. This, for me, is a happy meal: sitting on a picnic bench, picking sweet, smoky meat away from a fish carcass until all that's left is a pile of bones and a shell of shiny skin. If  a whole fish is too fiddly for you, the smoked fish spread is a generous serving for only $7.99 and is served with about a sleeve's worth of Saltines – but you may still want to get a side of that potato salad, liberally punctuated with bits of bacon.

The 4 Selection - Fodder & Shine (Tampa) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Fodder & Shine)

Maybe the best of the things we ate at Fodder & Shine were the vegetables, available either as side dishes, or a choice of four to make a meal. Lima beans, cooked down into a thick stew with onions and old sour, had a depth of flavor that belied their homely appearance. Beets roasted with cane syrup highlighted the root's natural sugars without being cloying. Greens braised with bacon were tender, smoky, salty and sweet. And possibly my favorite were the turnips and cabbage braised in butter, giving the humble vegetables a texture like rich velvet. From early reviews, the restaurant is getting a bit of grief for its prices, but the $15 we spent on this vegetable plate may be one of the best dining investments I will make all year.

Cauliflower, Harissa, Iberico Bellota, Roasted Pork Broth - Proof Pizza & Pasta (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya dinner at Proof)

This course was, for me, unexpectedly one of the best dishes of the night, and one of the most flavorful I've had in recent memory. A couple varieties of cauliflower florets were nestled over a creamy purée and draped with a slice of silky, salty, nutty jamón ibérico de bellota, given a jolt of heat from harissa and an enveloping richness from a dollop of roasted pork broth. I'm a firm believer that vegetable-centric dishes need not be austere (or vegetarian for that matter), and this was a great example.

Carolina Gold Rice Pudding, Honey Tangerine, Pork Skin "Churro" - gastroPod with Husk's Chef Travis Grimes (Wynwood Miami) (see all my pictures from gastroPod 2.0)

The "Charleston Ice Cream" served at Sean Brock's restaurant McCrady's – a simple dish of bay leaf infused Carolina Gold rice, perfectly cooked, garnished with a few fresh greens – was one of the best things I ate in 2012. So I'm not surprised to see this dessert, from that same great grain, from a collaboration between the chef de cuisine at Brock's second Charleston restaurant, Husk, and Chef Jeremiah of the gastroPod, on the list this year. This pudding tasted first of the grain, then of the sweet cream binding it together, with a sweet-tart contrast from honey tangerine segments and an airy, crisp pork skin "churro" to top things off.

(continued ...)

Grilled Abalone with Black Bean Sauce, Crispy Shallots, Charred Scallions and Hot Chile Oil - Andrew Zimmern, Cobaya SoBe dinner (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from the Cobaya dinner at South Beach Wine and Food Festival)

In February, Cobaya took its talents to South Beach, pairing up for the first time with the South Beach Wine and Food Festival for a dinner with Andrew Zimmern, Chris Cosentino, Makoto Okuwa, Michael Schwartz, and Kaitlyn Brakefield.

Zimmern had what, for me, may have been the dish of the night: grilled abalone, served with a Chinese fermented black bean sauce bolstered with pork neck bones that had been cooking down for 24 hours, along with some chile oil he'd brought back from China, topped with some crispy shallots. Some grilled green onions and a take-out package of sticky rice, for sopping up that sauce, completed the dish. This was among the best abalone presentations I've ever had – served "nose to tail," its moss-green innards offered a creamy, slightly bitter counterpoint to the mild, springy (but not overly chewy) meat of the abalone. The sauce was right on the edge of too salty, but was excellent when sopped up with that sticky rice. Those folks who think Zimmern is just a TV personality are missing something really important: the guy can cook.

Smoked Potatoes with Black Garlic and Ramp Mayonnaise - Bar Tartine (San Francisco) (see all my pictures from Bar Tartine)

I had heard about Bar Tartine often, but it never really clicked for me until I got their book. I started reading it, then started cooking from it, and it was revelatory how seemingly simple dishes could taste so good. These smoked potatoes are something of a signature dish and they're a great example: permeated with a whiff of smoke, amplified with the umami of black garlic, given both lushness and tang from a ramp mayonnaise, brightened and tweaked with fresh herbs and green onions. Bar Tartine was our first dinner stop on our first visit to San Francisco this year, and if I ever switched coasts, I would be a regular.

Abalone Grilled over the Embers, Sauce of the Liver and Capers, Smoked Pork Jowl; Fort Bragg Sea Urchin, Liquid Toast; Ice Cream and Caramel Cooked in the FireSaison (San Francisco) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Saison)

Some reputations are so lofty that I fear the reality cannot possibly compare. But Saison did not disappoint. Three dishes from an exceptional meal appear here, including – and this is out of character for me, as I typically struggle with the superlatives – what was hands-down the best dish I had all year.

An ingredient which seems to be having a moment: abalone. It's something that's literally tough to cook properly: screw up in any number of ways and it will be unappetizingly rubbery, but done right, it has a pleasantly bouncy resilience and a mild, oceanic flavor. At Saison, it's grilled over the embers of the fire, a primitive method that's executed perfectly, then served in a sauce of its rich, mossy green innards and capers, topped with a couple ribbons of crispy grilled pork jowl. It's impossible not to think of the outstanding, very similar abalone dish we had at Sushi Yoshitake in Tokyo; it would be equally impossible to pick a favorite between the two.

To quote Lou Reed: "And then my mind split open." I'm not prone to exaggeration or bluster. So when I tell you that this dish made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I mean it quite literally. That whooshing tunnel vision scene in Ratatouille, when a bite of Remy's dish brings Anton Ego back to his family dinner table? That's what it felt like, except that, of course, I didn't grow up eating uni. This didn't stir some childhood memory; but it did somehow connect directly to the pleasure receptors in my brain. Sea urchin from Fort Bragg (off the coast of Mendocino County), soft, creamy, oozy and sweet, is nestled over what they call "liquid bread" – Tartine Bakery bread, soaked like French toast in a custard that includes burnt bread, practically melting while still holding an edge of crust. It was, quite simply, one of the most memorable, powerful bites I've ever had.

I'm grateful to our server for pinpointing the nostalgic reference triggered by the creamy, almost melting textures of this dessert: a McDonald's ice cream sundae. But at McDonald's, they don't smoke milk "from our cow" for the ice cream, stud it with smoked cocoa nibs, and drizzle it with a smoked caramel. And thus there was another reference point at work: the fantastic smoked milk ice cream I had at Asador Etxebarri almost five years ago in the hills of northern Spain. But where Etxebarri's version was just barely kissed with sweet smoke, Saison's brings to mind a campfire. Indeed it may have been one of the most assertively flavored dishes of the meal. Though this is my first mention of it, comparisons of Saison to Etxebarri – one of my all time favorite meals – are unavoidable. And it's not just the prevalent use of fire and smoke: it's the almost missionary zeal directed to sourcing raw ingredients, coupled with a fearless focus on pure flavors. If Etxebarri's chef, Victor Arguinzoniz, were Japanese, and lived in the Bay Area instead of the Basque Country, this is much what I imagine his food would taste like.

Sea UrchinSwan Oyster Depot (San Francisco) (see all my pictures from Swan Oyster Depot)

Speaking of sea urchin ... later during the same trip, I snuck off while Mrs. F got her nails done and squeezed into a seat at the counter of a more historic San Francisco culinary fixture, Swan Oyster Depot – only to find myself next to New Times restaurant critic Zach Fagenson. What a long way to travel to see his ugly mug. I may have jealously eyed the fresh sea urchin he'd ordered until my own arrived: freed from its spiny shell immediately before being served, the silky tongues of roe curling upward. It was not quite the same out-of-body experience as at Saison; but it was still some of the best uni I've had, fully supporting my belief that this is a food that requires no adornment.

Roasted Pig Head - Cobaya Five O dinner with Chefs Jeremiah Bullfrog and Alexander Talbot (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya Five O Dinner)

It was really special to be able to put on our 50th Cobaya dinner this year, and to be able to do it with a chef who has been one of  our first and most steadfast supporters – Chef Jeremiah of the gastroPod – as well as one of the first out-of-towners to join in the fun, Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food.

The centerpiece of the meal was a roasted pig's head – six of them, actually – served with pork-stuffed pupusas (made with "El Santana's Masa"), a kimchi curtido (another nice cross-cultural riff) and a pungently spicy chile sauce. You learn a lot about people when you drop a big roasted pig's head in the middle of their dinner table. I was particularly impressed by the otherwise demure young woman sitting down the counter from me who demanded I carve out the eyeball for her (and then said I didn't get her enough of the connective tissue); and the table whose head was returned stripped entirely bare, as if it had been dipped in lye. I was happy to get most of the ear and a bit of the snout, and lots of crunchy, sticky skin.

Tagliatelle, Nantucket Bay Scallops, Nebrodini Mushrooms, Shellfish Nage – Cobaya dinner with Chef Thomas Griese of MM74 (Miami Beach) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cobaya Griese at MM74)

This course was a highlight of the dinner for me, one which Chef Griese announced with pride was "the best pasta being served in Miami tonight." House-made saffron tagliatelle noodles, gossamer smooth, were combined with delicate Nantucket bay scallops, sea urchin, and nebrodini mushrooms (in the same family as royal trumpets and oyster mushrooms), cut in thin ribbons and delicately cooked so their texture mirrored the pasta, all awash in a lush (yes, buttery) seafood nage. I'll tell you what: he might be right.

Peking Duck Necks, Fake "MSG" – BlackBrick (Midtown Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from BlackBrick)

Everyone knows the best part of Peking duck is the skin; does it really matter where it comes from? Why not the neck? At BlackBrick, Chef Richard Hales takes this typically cast-off bit and gives it the treatment generally reserved for the duck's plumper, meatier regions. The result: knobby little disks of mostly skin, all golden-brown and crisp, with just enough bits of meat clinging to those bones to make them worth some further gnawing.

Anson Mills Polenta with Morels, Fava Leaves, Poached Egg and GremolataBoot and Shoe Service (Oakland) (see all my pictures from Boot and Shoe Service)

We started Part 1 with dessert; let's finish with brunch. I'm thrilled for Frod Jr. that he's going to school at UC Berkeley. I'm kind of pleased for myself as well to have an excuse to visit the Bay Area more often. San Francisco is a great dining playground, and we've eaten very well on the other side of the Bay Bridge as well, including a really nice brunch at Boot and Shoe Service in Oakland, where my favorite dish was this homey polenta – nubby and intensely corn-y – topped with wilted fava leaves, earthy, buttery morels, and a golden-yolked, runny poached egg.

Stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3, coming up, and see pictures of all of them in this Best Dishes of 2015 flickr set.

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