best dishes of 2016: part 3

We're coming in for a landing here – the final segment of my Best Dishes of 2016 (you can read Part 1 and Part 2 here).

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

pan con tumaca - Alter
Let me start here with the kind of superlative I'm usually loathe to state: Brad Kilgore's Alter was my favorite restaurant of the year, and for my money, the best restaurant in Miami right now (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alter). Brad's cooking is creative, smart, beautiful, lush without being overly heavy, and most important of all, flat out delicious.

Now a year and a half in, he's not afraid to change things up either. The dishes that appear here were from the last lunch service at Alter on October 1 (partly a result, I have to imagine, of the attention drawn by Brad's newest project, Brava at the Arsht Center). Then last month, Alter quietly switched its dinner service to a predominantly tasting-menu format, with either a 5-course $69 or 7-course $89 options, and only a very abbreviated list of a la carte alternatives. And now another new piece, just added in the past few days: a more casual a la carte menu for the no-reservations outdoor bar area.

A recent twitter exchange hit on a nugget of truth: more often than not, when a dish is "revisited" or "reinvented" (or worse, "deconstructed"), the end result pales in comparison to the original.

The classic Spanish snack, pan con tumaca (a/k/a pan con tomate or pa amb tomàquet), is a simple thing: grilled or toasted bread, rubbed with raw garlic and tomato, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with salt. And yet with the right ingredients – crusty bread, ripe juicy tomato, fruity peppery olive oil – it is magically good, and difficult to improve upon.

The version I had this weekend at Alter, though, manages it. A thin plank of sourdough, golden on its surface but with still a whisper of tenderness at its center. A daub of tomato butter, warmed with Aleppo pepper. Soft, crushed cherry tomatoes, bleeding their juices. Slivers of pickled garlic, as thin as Paulie cut in prison. Red vein sorrel – pretty, sure, but also providing a bit of grassy, tart contrast.

potato purée, smoked cod - Alter
The same lunch featured another successful "reinvention" – this incredibly luxurious version of brandade. The base of the dish was a rich, Robuchon-esque potato purée, enriched with local burrata (presumably from Mimmo's Mozzarella), and topped with flakes of silky smoked black cod, crisp puffed potatoes, and sweet-savory onion jam.

steelhead roe, maple cream, chive, crispy crepe - Willows Inn
One of my all-time favorite meals was a visit to Blaine Wetzel's Willows Inn, off the coast of Washington State on tiny Lummi Island. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to make a return visit in October (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Willows Inn). Sometimes those magical experiences are like lightning in a bottle, never to be captured again. But the second time was every bit as good, maybe better, than the first. Wetzel is a special chef and this is a special place.

There's nothing particularly showy or ostentatious about chef Blaine Wetzel's cooking. Quite the opposite, he willingly sets his ego aside and let the ingredients take center stage. That's not to diminish the skill with which he handles the wonderful things he finds in this little corner of the world, but rather to say that he really knows how to tell a story of time and place through a meal, eschewing unnecessary embellishment in favor of clarity.

An old favorite: a fragile, crisp crepe shell encasing steelhead roe and a maple cream, capped with finely snipped chives on the ends. This is just perfect. 

smoked black cod doughnuts - Willows Inn
Followed by a new (for me), perfect bite: puffy, savory doughnuts, filled with silky smoked black cod, and sprinkled with sea salt and dried seaweed. I could eat a dozen of these.

herb tostada - Willows Inn
With the sun setting over the Rosario Strait outside, there was another burst of color at our table: what Wetzel calls an herb tostada. The "tostada" is a mustard green leaf, fried in a delicate tempura style batter. It's spread with an oyster and herb emulsion, and then then topped with an assortment of vividly flavored leaves and flowers: nasturtium, shiso, basil, mint, brassica flowers, and more. It's incredibly delicate but intensely flavored, with each bite yielding a different surprise. This is a beautiful, wonderful dish.

breakfast spread - Willows Inn
One final thought. If you go to Willows Inn, you'll likely stay at Willows Inn, and if you stay at Willows Inn, a word of advice: don't skip breakfast. It is outstanding. Served family style, the lineup varies from day to day. Ours started with some fresh, luridly magenta-hued plum juice, served in a coupe glass, followed by some local doughnut peaches with creamy fresh yogurt topped with toasted hazelnut butter. Then a really glorious breakfast smorgasbord: a runny soft boiled egg; a pile of buckwheat crepes; fat slices of gravlax with fresh farmer cheese; house-smoked bacon, pancetta, and an aged, spice-rubbed cheese; kale wilted in flaxseed oil with coarse salt; sweet plum jam, tangy late-season rhubarb compote, silky fig custard drizzled with honey; a fat slab of creamy butter. Assemble as you wish. I can't imagine a better send-off.

aji chopped with ginger and scallion - Myumi
Myumi is not your typical sushi bar (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Myumi). In fact, it's a truck – a converted FedEx delivery truck, currently stationed in a lot in Wynwood. From that truck, they serve an omakase only (chef's choice) menu with only two choices: do you want to spend $40 or $60? The omakase-only format means they know exactly what they need to buy, so they buy some very good stuff: fish and shellfish straight in from Japan, uni and ikura from Alaska, tuna from Ecuador. Some items get just a brush of shoyu, others more elaborate garnishes.

Maybe my favorite bite from my last visit was this nigiri of aji, the pleasantly oily, fatty fishiness of the minced horse mackerel counterbalanced by the zing of ginger and scallion, then topped with toasted sesame seeds.

(continued ...)

shrimp grits - In Situ
In Situ, the new restaurant in the recently refurbished and reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a bundle of contradictions (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from In Situ). The chef is Corey Lee, whose tasting-menu flagship, Benu, just retained the three Michelin stars it was first awarded in 2014. But the highly regarded chef didn't create a single recipe for the restaurant. Rather, the menu consists of a rotating selection of other chefs' dishes from all around the world, which the In Situ kitchen sets out to faithfully recreate. In other words, it's a restaurant in the model of an art exhibition, with Lee as the curator.

All of which is to say this: In Situ is possibly the most thought-provoking restaurant experience I've had in years. But unlike many restaurant experiences that aim to be thought-provoking, this one was also a lot of fun and mostly really delicious.

The lead-off item on the menu during our visit comes from chef Wylie Dufresne. His restaurant in New York's Lower East Side, wd~50, was a mid-aughts "molecular gastronomy" trendsetter. But I never managed to get there before it closed in 2014. Yet here are Dufresne's "shrimp grits," a dish which subverts the classic Southern pairing, turning the shrimp themselves into the grits by chopping, cooking, finely grinding, and finally re-warming them with powdered freeze-dried corn, then garnishing with pickled jalapeños and a bright orange shrimp shell oil.

If I'm to be honest, one of the reasons I never ate at wd~50 is that I wasn't convinced I would have enjoyed an entire meal there: the place often gave me the impression that form was being elevated over substance, creativity over flavor. But that's another of the interesting things about In Situ: it's a chance to sample a chef's cooking (at least vicariously through the medium of Lee and crew), without the commitment of a full meal. Turns out, this dish was excellent: intense crustacean flavor, combined with a nostalgic creamy, nubby grits texture. Perhaps I misjudged. But In Situ offers a taste of what I missed.

grilled oysters with carnitas and nettles - Cala
On our last visit to San Francisco of the year, we also happily squeezed in a brunch at Cala, Gabriela Camara's Mexican restaurant (see all my pictures from Cala). I was infatuated with the place from the moment we walked into the brightly sunlit dining room. The food was every bit as mesmerizing, especially these wonderful grilled oysters topped with a dark, burnished paste of caramelized carnitas and nettles, just a little bit like a Mexican Oysters Rockefeller. I'm eager to make a return visit for dinner.

smoked hodo tofu, shelling beans, red chili, eggplant - Mister Jiu's
Yet one more dispatch from our last SF trip, this one from Brandon Jew's new Chinatown restaurant, Mister Jiu's, which revitalizes Cantonese banquet style cuisine with some California sensibilities (see all my pictures from Mister Jiu's). So you'll find things like sourdough scallion pancakes with salmon roe, and dutch crunch BBQ pork buns (those are every bit as good as they sound). But the surprise favorite dish for me was one which combined smoked Hodo tofu with fresh shelling beans, rounds of Machiaw eggplant, and a burst of fresh red chiles – substantial and satisfying but still very fresh and clean.

mejadra rice, lentils, labneh, fried shallots - Byblos
Back in Miami again, we brought the Cobaya show to Byblos, Stuart Cameron's restaurant in the Shorecrest Hotel on South Beach (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cobaya Byblos, plus more pictures from the restaurant's regular services). To be honest, I didn't really expect much of Byblos: another Mediterranean restaurant from another out-of-town chef from another big restaurant group (Cameron is Toronto-based, where he is chef for a number of restaurants under the Icon Legacy Hospitality umbrella, which includes Spanish, Mexican, Italian, French restaurants as well as the original Byblos). But Byblos surprised me, and is now one of my favorite spots on the Beach:

The short version is this: despite my general aversion to South Beach hotel restaurants, especially those by big out-of-town restaurant groups, I think Byblos is putting out really flavorful, contemporary Middle Eastern food in a beautiful space and providing excellent service. Even shorter: I really like it.

The braised veal breast was very good, the tender, almost wobbly meat reminiscent of grandma's brisket, the sticky sauce of reduced meat juices and preserved lemon probably more intriguing than anything grandma cooked. But the real winner for me was the mejadra, a traditional Middle Eastern combination of rice, lentils and fried onions, done here with fancy French lentils and a blanket of delightfully crisp and sweet fried shallots. At this point I was too full to eat as much of this as I wanted to, and I envied the savvy of those folks who packed some up to take home.

fire roasted pork belly on black olive and blood flatbread - Edge at P.I.G.
Seven years ago, about twenty-five folks gathered at the Harvey Seeds American Legion Hall for a celebration of all things porcine, orchestrated by Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, and P.I.G. (Pork Is Good) was born. I faithfully reported on the event here. Jeremiah's done P.I.G. every year since, and every year it's gotten bigger and better. No longer a one man show, the event now brings together dozens of my favorite chefs in South Florida, plus some special out of town VIPs, and hundreds of attendees. I have repeatedly said that this is my favorite food event of the year, and the latest iteration only validates that (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from P.I.G. #7).

Every time there's one of these events, there's one guy in particular who always brings his "A" game: Aaron Brooks, chef at Edge in the Four Seasons Brickell. Edge is, in its way, a most unusual kind of place: a restaurant hidden inside a swanky hotel that's become a local's favorite because Brooks' cooking is so damn good. But when he gets out of the restaurant, it seems like Brooks can really spread his wings. Like with this pork belly roasted over open fire, served on top of a charred black olive and blood flatbread, topped with pork fat tahina, pomegranate chermoula, and hot pink turnip pickles. It was incredibly good.

charcuterie - Craig Deihl, Cypress at P.I.G.
Craig Diehl, of Cypress in Charleston, South Carolina, makes charcuterie that will make your mind melt. His station was already pretty picked over by the time I got there, but I did get to try the two pâtés en croûte he prepared, and they were incredible.

curried goat, sweet potato gnocchi, cashews - Compère Lapin
Miami lost a real talent when Nina Compton, who had been the chef de cuisine at Scott Conant's Scarpetta, headed for New Orleans to open her own restaurant, Compère Lapin (see all my pictures from Compère Lapin). It's been incredibly gratifying, but not at all surprising, to see how enthusiastically she's been received in a town that already had its share of great restaurants (including, this past month, recognition as "Restaurant of the Year" from the New Orleans Times-Picayune). We finally got a chance to try for ourselves a couple weeks ago, and it was every bit as good as we anticipated.

This dish – sweet potato gnocchi bobbing in curried braised goat topped with toasted cashews – is one that Nina's probably going to be cooking until she retires. It's the perfect encapsulation of her merger of Caribbean flavors and Italian technique, executed flawlessly.

fresh pita and hummus - Shaya
Also new to New Orleans since our last visit is Alon Shaya's modern Israeli restaurant, Shaya (see all my pictures from Shaya). It used to feel somehow just wrong to eat anything other than Creole or Cajun food – or maybe Vietnamese – while in New Orleans, but those days have changed. It's always been a great food town, but it's also become a much more diverse one in the post-Katrina era.

You've had it a thousand times: hummus and pita. And yet you've probably never had it this good. I sure hadn't (though not to be too humble about it, when I make from-scratch hummus using a hybrid of Ottolenghi's and Solomonov's recipes, it's pretty damn good). Shaya's pita hits the table hot from the oven, erupting with steam as you pull it apart, simultaneously fluffy and light but also substantial and hearty. And the hummus is delightfully silky and rich when just bolstered with an extra lashing of tahina and olive oil, but reaches new heights when topped with sautéed king trumpet mushrooms, braised greens, black harissa and gribenes. I could eat this every week.

gumbo, confit duck leg, andouille, creamed potato salad - Sac-a-Lait
Sac-a-Lait is another new addition to the New Orleans dining world, from husband and wife chef team Cody and Sam Carroll, who also run Hot Tails in Baton Rouge (see all my pictures from Sac-a-Lait). With Sac-a-Lait, they aim to bring a little country to the city, focusing on native ingredients and flavors, but doing it with refinement and creativity. So the deviled crab uses Pontchartrain crabmeat mounded over whipped egg yolk and a Crystal sabayon, under a tepee of black-hued crackers. Black drum collars are dusted with Cajun spices and served over a black lemon honey and a sassafras chimichurri.

But the best dish we had was the one that was maybe the least gussied up: a gumbo with crisp-skinned duck confit, incrediby tasty acorn-fed pork andouille sausage, and  hard-boiled egg, with a dark, complex roux-enriched broth poured into the bowl tableside. My Louisiana guru Chadzilla has already taught me that potato salad is at least as common as rice as a gumbo accompaniment in Cajun country, so I was happy to see both here.

Hokkaido uni and konoko sushi - Naoe
And to close out 2016, I recently made a return to another of Miami's best restaurants – Naoe (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from my last visit to Naoe). When Naoe first opened, I couldn't quite believe it even existed: a tiny omakase-only restaurant serving a bento box laden with an assortment of treasures, prepared in a Japanese style but using fresh, often local, seasonal ingredients, followed by a piece-by-piece procession of the best sushi I'd ever had in Miami.

Happily, Naoe has thrived, and it was such a pleasure to celebrate – just a few months early – its eighth anniversary with chef Kevin Cory and his wonderful, charming, do-everything sidekick, Wendy Maharlika. The meal was lovely as always, mixing the fresh and local (kingfish sashimi straight from local boats pressed with seaweed, kombu-jime style) with extraordinary seafood shipped in from Japan, in particular this sweet, fruity Hokkaido uni, paired up with the intense marine funk of konoko (salt-pickled sea cucumber innards).

Well that's it. 2016 is done in six hours, and I don't think my home-made Hoppin' John is going to make this list anyway. Thanks for following along here, and while I say it every year, I mean it every time: thank you to all the chefs, cooks, waitstaff, sommeliers, bartenders, busboys and dishwashers, all the farmers and fishermen and forargers, all the winemakers, brewers and distillers, all the guinea pigs at our Cobaya dinners, and all the wonderful people I've had the good fortune to share meals with, both in person and vicariously. As my grandfather used to wish us each year: always better, never worse.


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