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|
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|
|royal red shrimp, a bisque made from their heads, rice middlins, bronze fennel - Husk Nashville|
|roasted bones, XO butter, kim chee, radish, lettuces, sesame miso vin - 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|
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|
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.
|tostada de ceviche de pulpo - Mariscos Puerto Nuevo|
|Monterey abalone, Carmel seaweeds, broth of dried mushrooms, lettuce - Aubergine|
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|
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|
|Tsar Nicoulai reserve caviar, Japanese sea urchin, brioche - Quince|
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|
|BEEF, chimichurri, lettuce cores, red onion - 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|
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).