Monday, January 8, 2018

best dishes of 2017: part 2

We started last Friday with my "best dishes of 2017: part 1" – a compendium of personal favorites from the past year. We resume here with a highly pedigreed fried chicken sandwich, take quick treks through New York and Philadelphia, then detour back to Miami before swinging out to the west coast.

fried chicken cemita - La Pollita
La Pollita was a short-lived Mexican-themed pop-up run from a trailer in the Midtown Garden Center by Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer, who had previously worked at such places as Eleven Madison Park, NoMad, Scarpetta and Animal (read my thoughts and see more pictures in this La Pollita flickr set). The trailer is gone but the duo still seem to be kicking around Miami – I'm looking forward to what's next from them.

They've got a short list of tacos, served on fresh tortillas pressed from masa supplied by Miami masa maestro Steve Santana (of Taquiza), and the cochinita pibil I tried was very good. But the standout item was the fried chicken cemita. A hot, crispy, juicy tranche of fried chicken. A crunchy, vinegar-laced, herb-flecked cabbage slaw. A dollop of mashed avocado for some richness. A creamy, mildly spicy Valentina aioli. A sesame-seed flecked bun with just the right heft: substantial enough to be a meaningful component of the sandwich composition and to keep everything together until the last bite; but not so much as to overwhelm the stars of the show. It is just about perfect.

sea urchin, chickpea hozon - Momofuku Ko
Hey, look, it's another great meal I never got around to writing about, at David Chang's Momofuku Ko, where the kitchen is run by Sean Gray (see more pictures in this Momofuku Ko flickr set). I never got to the original incarnation of Ko, legendary for its relatively affordable tasting menus, brutally uncomfortable stools, and impossible reservation system. In its newer digs down a tiny East Village street literally called "Extra Place," it retains some of its original punk sensibilities – the dining counter circling an open kitchen, the cooks presenting the dishes, the hip-hop soundtrack – but it's all pretty buffed and polished, kind of like a Gucci biker jacket.

The tasting menu still carries a couple of the original Ko classics – the "Ko egg" with caviar, crispy potatoes, onion soubise and sweet potato vinegar, the shaved frozen foie gras – but one of my favorites of the evening was a next generation Ko dish. It's deceptively simple: lobes of cold, sweet sea urchin, a scoop of chickpea hozon (a creamy, miso-like fermented paste), a drizzle of grassy olive oil. There's a subtle contrast of marine salty-sweet against earthy salty-sweet; of the delicately creamy texture of the uni against the thicker, peanut butter-y hozon, mirrored by the two orange shades on the plate. Pretty cool.

cherry blossom, amazake - Momofuku Ko
Another of my favorites at Ko was another deceptively simple composition: a dessert of cherry blossom dusted ice cream, served over creamy, sweet amazake (rice fermented with sake lees or koji), drizzled with a sauce of preserved cherries. It was simultaneously delicate but powerful, homey but elegant.

carrot crepe, littleneck clam, sunflower - Olmsted
Olmsted, Greg Baxtrom's Brooklyn restaurant with a backyard garden that does double-duty as a pre- and post-meal hangout spot, has been much talked about (see more pictures in this Olmsted flickr set). In a way, all the chatter possibly sets expectations a bit too high, for what is just a really fun, delicious, casual, cozy, clever, relatively affordable neighborhood spot run by someone with chops honed at Alinea, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Per Se, and Arzak. The menu changes all the time – they were on a yakitori bender during our visit, while also serving Hyderabadi inspired duck chakna, truffle-dusted rutabaga "tagliatelle," and simple but delicious sauteed soft-shell crab with pickled peppers and ranch dressing  – but this one dish seems to have become a signature, and for good reason. A goldenrod hued carrot crepe serves as the platform for a salad of wispy slivers of multi-colored carrots, petals, sprouts, and sunflower seeds, concealing a rich clam and carrot stew underneath. It's unusual, unexpected, and delicious.

tout le lapin - Le Coucou
Daniel Rose's path was a somewhat unusual one. The Chicago native was inspired to move to Lyon to study cooking after taking classes at the American University in Paris. After years at the Institut Bocuse and apprenticeships around France, he opened his first restaurant – Spring – in Paris. It wasn't until a decade later that he returned to the States to open Le Coucou in New York with Stephen Starr (see more pictures in this Le Coucou flickr set). In a way, the place makes it feel like the last couple decades of dining history never happened. There are pressed white tablecloths and long wax tapers on the tables; the menu isn't a collage of small plates, but good old fashioned hors d'oeuvres, poissons et viandes (though a category of "gourmandises" features otherwise uncategorized indulgences like quennelles de brochet and veal tongue with caviar).

But the cooking is more precise, focused, bright and clean than the butter and cream laden juggernauts of the older era that Le Coucou otherwise invokes. And nowhere was that more evident than in a dish called "tout le lapin" (all the rabbit), a production which comes to the table in three different serving vessels (the picture here is better focused, but this one gives a view of the whole spread). The saddle is rolled and cooked and then sliced into rounds which are seared and browned, then napped with a loose sauce that takes the ferrous richness of rabbit offal, cuts it with an acidic vinaigrette, and brightens it with fresh mint. Alongside is a gratin dish of the rabbit's legs cooked down with soft, sweet onions. And finally, a pot au feu of the foreleg, in a golden broth bobbing with carrots and turnips. It's all wonderful.

(continued ...)
diver scallop, buttermilk, poppy seed, green yuzu kosho - Serpico

It had been more than twenty years since I'd been to Philadelphia, which we visited the weekend before Fourth of July. I'm now itching to go back. It's a vibrant, young city, with what felt like a really lively, unpretentious, exciting food culture. Our first dinner there was at Peter Serpico's namesake restaurant Serpico (see more pictures in this Serpico flickr set), where my favorite among several good dishes was one he first created while working at Momofuku Ko, and which in turn was inspired by the langoustine carpaccio with poppy seed dressing at Joel Robuchon's L'Atelier. It's really beautiful: slices of sweet raw diver scallop awash in a tangy buttermilk dressing, speckled with savory, crunchy poppy seeds, drizzled with a bright green yuzu kosho vinaigrette, adorned with slivered chives.

smoked short rib sandwich - Abe Fisher
Michael Solomonov's Philadelphia flagship is his modern Israeli restaurant Zahav, but he has a mini-empire of other restaurants in town as well. We thoroughly enjoyed Abe Fisher, where chef Yehuda Sichel does contemporary takes on old Jewish (that's Jewish, not Israeli) classics (see more pictures in this Abe Fisher flickr set). It's a concept I've wanted to see done for years, and I can't imagine it being done better. A meal starts with everything spice rugelach, and might include borscht tartare, latkes, veal schnitzel tacos and maitake mushroom blintzes. The baller move here is a tasting menu for which the centerpiece is a big platter of their Montreal style smoked short ribs; sadly, the rest of my crew was not up for it. But our server was a champ: he snuck out a little smoked meat sandwich for me, a perfect sample taste. And, my friends, it was good: every bit as good as Schwartz's in Montreal.

pomegranate braised lamb shoulder - Zahav
I suppose it's a good thing that we passed on the tasting menu at Abe Fisher, because the next evening we were headed to Zahav (see more pictures in this Zahav flickr set). Normally, I'm the one advocating for the tasting menu, and am met with varying degrees of resistance from the rest of the family. This time, it was Mrs. F who decisively announced, "We're doing the tasting menu." That's because the tasting menu includes Solomonov's outrageously good lamb shoulder (which we'd had at a Solomonov pop-up dinner at Harry's Pizzeria), which is brined, smoked, braised, glazed with pomegranate molasses, speckled with tender chickpeas and accompanied by crisp-edged tahdig rice. My only regret is that we did this the last night of our visit, depriving me of the opportunity to pick at leftovers for the next couple days. This whole meal was just magical, one of my favorites of the year.

ebi shiso tempura - Gaijin Izakaya
In July, chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee (of the delicious Cake Thai Kitchen) opened Gaijin Izakaya in the space that had last been called "The Gang" across from the Midtown Miami shops (read my thoughts and see more pictures in this Gaijin Izakaya flickr set). It's rapidly become one of my favorite spots. Simple things like chicken katsu don are satisfying and homey, but there's also clever, finessed dishes like this ebi shiso tempura.

The menu description of this item as "ebi shiso tempura" is accurate, but gives you little idea of what to expect. What arrives is a thing of beauty: shiso leaves stuffed with a filling of sweet, soft minced Florida shrimp, fried in a delicate tempura batter, with a dashi ponzu and some grated daikon oroshi alongside. Just last week I was petitioning for stuffed fried shiso leaves; now I've found an excellent version at Gaijin.

chanterelle yuba all'amatriciana - State Bird Provisions
Five years ago, we went to an exciting little place in San Francisco called State Bird Provisions, which served an inspired hodge-podge of dishes from a rotating parade of dim sum style carts (days after our visit, Bon Appetit named it the best restaurant of the year). It'd been a while; on our most recent West Coast trip over the summer, we went back (see more pictures in this State Bird Provisions flickr set). And, it's still pretty groovy.

This time around, I really liked a salad of heirloom tomatoes with a potent black tahini chili oil, a "chip and dip" with silky smoked trout and creamy pea purée, the now-classic garlic bread with a top-knot of oozy burrata. I also really admired how readily and fluidly they accommodated a vegan among our dining group, quickly pointing out dishes that could be ordered as is, and several more that could be easily adapted. My favorite bite of the evening was this "pasta" of silky yuba (tofu skin), tossed with plump little chanterelle mushrooms, ripe cherry tomatoes, salty jowl bacon and pecorino cheese.

tajarin, sea urchin cacio e pepe - Rich Table
There's been much talk over the past year about how the middle-market restaurant is a dying breed, especially in high rent places like San Francisco. Soon, it's all going to be >$200 tasting menus or <$20 counter service fast casual, with nothing in between. I hope that's not true, because much of the best eating lies in between. Like at Rich Table, a place that I was totally smitten with on our last visit to the city (see more pictures in this Rich Table flickr set). The menu at Rich Table is threaded with little treats like porcini doughnuts with a raclette dipping sauce, simple but vivid dishes like ripe melon dusted with espelette pepper and sunflower seeds, lovely xiao long bao with a verdant kale salsa verde. The pastas were particularly good, and among them, the standout was this unorthodox take on cacio e pepe with tajarin noodles in a sea urchin and idizabal cream, blanketed with fresh cracked pepper and torn herbs.

As it happens, Rich Table's Evan and Sarah Rich recently opened RT Rotisserie, a fast casual spot anchored by rotisserie chickens, sandwiches and salads. I've heard good reports, and if it helps keep restaurants like Rich Table going, more power to them.

Stay tuned for Part 3, now posted, or go back to Part 1 here.

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