best dishes of 2016: part 1

2016. Stick a fork in it. Put it on a boat, light it on fire and send it out to sea. Let me join in the chorus of those who wish this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year a hearty fuck you and good riddance.

In the greater world, 2016 was lousy. So lousy that it often makes talking and writing about the food world, the way I usually do here, seem pretty trivial. But that food world can be a little corner of joy and connection, a place where people aim to make each other happy – and I suspect we can all use some of that. I've had more than my fair share of meals that made me happy this past year, and I'm incredibly grateful for the people who made them and the people with whom I got to share them. Here, then, are the best things I ate over the past year.

Despite that word "best," I make no pretense of this being any sort of objective listing, only my personal favorites of the places I had the good fortune to visit in 2016. They are not ranked, but rather are listed here in roughly chronological order. For ease of digestion, I'll be breaking this up into three parts.

(You can see pictures of all of them in this Best Dishes of 2016 flickr set).

Benton's ham brushed with coffee vinegar - Husk Nashville
My best dishes of 2016 list actually starts with New Years' Eve of 2015, which found us in Nashville, celebrating in style at Sean Brock's Husk (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Husk Nashville):

Husk's NYE menu was a three-course affair which offered about five choices for each course. Before those arrived, though, we were brought an amuse bouche of thinly sliced Benton's country ham, unadorned but for a brush of coffee vinegar. Allan Benton's hams are pretty magical on their own, and the coffee vinegar offered the most subtle counterpoint of rounded bitterness to the salty, nutty pork. It was like an elemental version of red eye gravy, and it was a perfect bite.

Rappahannock oysters with bone marrow butter and TN hackleback caviar - Husk Nashville
Out of several really good dishes, my favorite were these roasted Rappahannock oysters, swimming in an herbaceous bone marrow butter, and topped with spoonfuls of Tennessee hackleback caviar. a great way to close out 2015.

royal red shrimp, a bisque made from their heads, rice middlins, bronze fennel - Husk Nashville
"Royal red shrimp, a bisque made from their heads, rice middlins, bronze fennel" is a really long way to say "shrimp 'n' grits." But that's OK, because it was the best version I've ever had. Royal reds are a sweet, soft deep water shrimp from east coast waters that rank among my favorite crustaceans, here doing double duty with their flavorful heads used as a base for the sauce. That deep, rich oceanic bisque was a perfect pairing with the creamy rice middlins (broken rice grains with a texture much like corn grits).

roasted bones, XO butter, kim chee, radish, lettuces, sesame miso vin - Proof on Main
From Nashville we moved on to Louisville, home of one of my favorite hotel / restaurant combinations: Proof on Main in the 21c Museum Hotel (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Proof on Main).

The food at Proof has a southern accent, but not an overwhelmingly strong one: enough that you can tell where it's from. It's also picked up several other curious inflections along the way: Chef Wajda plays around with Korean, Caribbean, even North African flavors, but the patois somehow feels natural, not contrived.

These "roasted bones" are a good example. It seems like 90% of the bone marrow dishes I see on restaurant menus simply recite the Fergus Henderson liturgy of parsley salad and coarse salt. Here, instead, Wajda brushes the bones with an XO butter, then plates them with an assortment of pungent house-made kimchis. There's a subtle nod back Fergus' way with a light salad dressed in a sesame miso vinaigrette, but also a bunch of strong, assertive flavors to play against the sticky richness of the marrow. It was an outstanding dish.

carpaccio: short rib, pear, asiago - gastroPod
After our trek through Memphis, Nashville and Louisville, I got back home in time for a brunch collaboration between two of my favorite Miami chefs, Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod and Kris Wessel, last seen at Oolite and the beloved Red Light, and now working on opening a barbecue spot in Little Haiti (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from this gastroPod / Kris Wessel brunch).

The standout for me may have been the short rib "carpaccio" – thinly sliced boneless short rib cooked at low temp to bring it up to medium rare and melt all the connective tissue, brushed with warmed beef fat, and plated with slivers of fresh and dried pears, nutty asiago cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. 

tendon and conch, tardivo, pine nut, XO - Contra / Alter dinner
For the first of several collaborative dinners hosted by chef Brad Kilgore at his restaurant, Alter, in Wynwood, he teamed up with Fabian Von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone of New York's Contra. It was an auspicious start, and these were some of the best meals I had all year (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from the Contra / Alter dinner).

Dish of the night? For me, it was this combination of beef tendon and conch in a pool of creamy, nutty sauce, given funky depth by XO sauce and bitter contrast with sprigs of radicchio tardivo. It was a great, unexpected combination of flavors, but even more so was all about the unusual, exciting textures of the components: the gelatinous tendon, the spingy conch, the subtle crunch of the radicchio, the creamy sauce.


(continued ...)

tostada de ceviche de pulpo - Mariscos Puerto Nuevo
With Frod Jr. in Berkeley, we now use any excuse to go to the west coast, and a conference in Monterey was as good a reason as any. Through Google Maps, I discovered a cache of Mexican seafood restaurants in nearby Seaside, including Mariscos Puerto Nuevo where I had this delicious tostada topped with diced octopus ceviche, rippling with citrus and chile. (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Mariscos Puerto Nuevo in Seaside, CA)

Monterey abalone, Carmel seaweeds, broth of dried mushrooms, lettuce - Aubergine
This particular westerly jaunt was highlighted by a couple exceptional dinners, the first of which was at Justin Cogley's Aubergine in Carmel by the Sea (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Aubergine; though the picture of the abalone above is actually from another collaboration dinner at Alter with Brad Kilgore and Justin Cogley).

It is an incredibly idyllic location, a town perched along a particularly scenic stretch of the Pacific coast, which provides access to some remarkable local ingredients, including the Monterey abalone which Cogley serves in a sort of PhD level dashi of dried mushrooms and lettuces, topped with Carmel seaweeds.

salsify, nori, black trumpets, chickweed - Aubergine
But it was another dish at Aubergine that was the most unexpectedly good:

A baton of Belgian salsify, roasted until it had gone slack and almost sticky, shellacked with a dark, dense purée of nori and trumpet mushrooms, all adorned with a spray of fresh, grassy chickweed. There was just such a beautiful intensity and purity to the flavors here, an unexpected beauty in fairly simple ingredients.

chocolate, pear, walnut - Aubergine
Pastry chef Ron Mendoza's desserts were also some of the best I'd had all year, especially this beautiful combination of chocolate cremeux, fermented pear ice cream, walnut feuilletine, and wood sorrel with an Amaro Nonino sauce, a fascinating interplay of sweet, bitter, nutty and sour flavors.

Tsar Nicoulai reserve caviar, Japanese sea urchin, brioche - Quince
Then Mrs. F was off to another conference in San Diego, and I was headed back to San Francisco to fly home, but not without making time for an early solo dinner at Quince, which turned out to be one of my favorite dinners of the year (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Quince). The food was excellent, but it was the whole experience – the elegant but unstuffy room, the graceful, thoughtful service, the unusual pairings of mature wines, the go-cup of hot cocoa for my drive to the airport – that made it particularly memorable.

Clearly, Chef Michael Tusk likes caviar. If you're not up for a full tasting menu, Quince has a salon where you can order several items a la carte, including an entire menu devoted to caviar selections. In the dining room, it was served two ways: on one side, a ring of tender brioche adorned with generous quenelles of Tsar Nicolai reserve caviar, buttons of creme fraiche and vibrant flower petals; on the other, a bed of creamy sea urchin, topped with an even more generous spoonful of steely grey roe, with a fine julienne of fennel and apple which provided a beautiful lift and brightness to the dish.

fatto a mano pork tortellini, black truffle, old Burgundy - Quince
More pastas followed. First, lasagnetta, a precariously towering composition layering pasta sheets with tender guinea hen, Swiss chard and wild mushrooms. Good, but a tough comparison to the next course, a little extra not listed on the printed menu: "fatto a mano" pork tortellini, napped in a buttery sauce and blanketed in fat rounds of sliced black truffle. Their serving vessel was a "rolling pin" with a cut-out in the top, alluding to their preparation (according to the server, rolling the pasta with a wooden pin rather than a pasta machine enables the sauce to stick better). The composition was completed by the wine poured with it: a really old Remoissenet Savigny-les-Beaune Burgundy (1978!), its fruit faded, its secondary notes of earth and leather and smoke coming to the forefront. Either the dish or the wine on their own would have been lovely; together, they made a perfect pairing, the kind that makes the synapses snap.

meringata, candy cap, Piedmontese hazelnut - Quince
Desserts, by pastry chef Shawn Gawle, who had previously been at Saison, were outstanding.  First, a luridly hued blood orange semifreddo, a frozen cloud of vibrant winter citrus, sweetened with honey, sharpened with ginger, and given some textural contrast with flecks of kataifi. That was followed by another cloud, a perfect meringue filled with a candy cap mushroom ice cream, presented over a disk of crisp Piedmontese hazelnut. It was excellent.

BEEF, chimichurri, lettuce cores, red onion - Alinea in Miami
I got home to find that I actually didn't need to travel to visit some of the world's most highly regarded restaurants: they were coming to Miami's doorstep. Grant Achatz's Alinea was, anyway, doing a February/March pop-up in Miami at the Faena Hotel while the Chicago restaurant got a face lift (read my thoughts and see my pictures from Alinea in Miami).

The menu included both some "greatest hits" from the Alinea oeuvre – hot potato cold potato, black truffle explosion, the bacon trapeze – as well as a few items that took inspiration from the local flavors.

From this latter category came my favorite dish of the evening, and of the week. To save a bit of the mystery of the dinner, I won't tell how the steak was cooked, other than to say that sometimes things are hidden in plain view. But I will say that the tranche of crimson-hued wagyu beef was paired with a bright tangy green emulsion inspired by Argentinian chimichurri, complemented by my favorite item on the plate: spears of crunchy, tart pickled lettuce cores, a really effective use of an unheralded and unexpected ingredient.

smoked beef short rib, sweet soy and garlic - Kyu
February also marked the opening of one of my favorite new Miami restaurants, Michael Lewis' Kyu in Wynwood (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Kyu).

At Kyu, Lewis seamlessly fuses Asian flavors with Southern barbecue technique in a way that's both exciting and accessible. His short rib is a perfect example: it's marinated with sweet soy and garlic in the style of Korean kalbi, but the whole rib is smoked low and slow like a Texas pitmaster would do. It's cut in thick slices and served with a trio of sauces, some pickled vegetables, and lettuce leaves and herbs so you can pick it up and eat it with your hands. This is food made with some real attention to detail, but served in a way that's relaxed and unfussy.

Stay tuned for Part 2 (now posted) and Part 3 (also now up).

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