Sunday, December 25, 2011

Best Dishes of 2011

This time last year, I was still basking in the reflection of a trip to Spain that included two meals that will probably always be among my most memorable - Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Country, and el Bulli. Not surprisingly, my "Ten Best Bites of 2010" list had a distinctly Iberian tilt. We didn't venture out of the U.S. in 2011, but nonetheless ate well, at home in Miami, on the other side of the continent during a trip to Portland, Oregon, and during a too-brief sojourn to Chicago.[1] For much more worldly lists, I'd highly commend those assembled by Ulterior Epicure and Doc Sconz, who in one year could check off my dining wish list for the next decade or so.

It's always a fun task to compile these kinds of lists. The exceptionality of some dishes is immediately apparent, the experience of them firmly and indelibly imprinted on the memory. Others may need the perspective of time to truly appreciate, perhaps seeming simple at first but gaining depth and nuance upon further reflection, like the flavor development of a good braise.

I tried to hold myself to ten dishes last year but cheated, actually listing fourteen. With no editorial oversight here, I've expanded the list to 20 for 2011. A few curious patterns emerge, though I can't say whether it's mere coincidence or holds some deeper significance.

First: I hope it doesn't come off as self-horn-tooting that several of the dishes listed here (seven) were served at Cobaya dinners, a group I help organize. We've had the incredibly good fortune to work with many outstanding chefs in the past year, who have eagerly embraced our simple "mission statement:" "to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners." Our little experiment is now 2 1/2 years old, we had 10 events in 2011, and we continue to be both energized and humbled by the support from both chefs and diners.

Second: there sure is a lot of foie gras on this list; the ingredient is featured in four of the twenty dishes. At least that foie is somewhat balanced out by three predominantly vegetable dishes that also made the list. I have nothing against foie - clearly - but it's the latter that I think and hope is a real trend. The vegetable universe has been coming under increasing focus and attention from chefs worldwide, and with our uniquely upside down growing seasons here in South Florida there is plenty of material to work with.[2]

Third: the simplest of dishes can still be made outstanding. It's hard to imagine anything more humble and rustic than choucroute garnie or bollito misto; versions of both were among the best things I ate this past year. And once again, one of the very best bites I had all year was basically nothing more than fish, rice and seasoning. This is by no means a rejection of culinary "modernism" - only a recognition that there are many paths to pleasure.

Here, then, is my list for 2011, with excerpts of my earlier comments on each.

1. Quail with Tripe - Le Pigeon (my thoughts on Le Pigeon)


The most memorable dish of the evening (maybe - this is a close call with one of the desserts) was the quail, burnished golden-brown crispy skin encasing tender, mildly gamy meat, served over a tripe and pepper stew with some generous dollops of a (saffron-infused?) aioli. Who'd've thunk to combine quail and tripe? It was simply and unexpectedly perfect.

2. Salmon Nigiri - Naoe (my thoughts on Naoe)

salmon belly

Scottish salmon belly. Cool fish, fatty and rich. Faintly warm rice, perfectly cooked, delicately seasoned. A brush of soy sauce. Perfect.

[Note: I included the same exact item in last year's list. It's hard to pick among the great sushi I've had at Naoe - outstanding aji, aoyagi, Hokkaido uni, among others - but it's this bite of salmon, always the first nigiri served, that perhaps best encapsulates what I love about the place.]

3. Foie Gras Profiteroles - Le Pigeon (my thoughts on Le Pigeon)

foie gras profiteroles

The dessert that will raise eyebrows, and should not be missed, is the foie gras profiteroles. Another twist on a classic, these light, faintly crispy puffs (the choux pastry itself enhanced with foie, recipe here) are filled with a rich foie gras ice cream that perfectly balances sweet and savory, and then generously drizzled with a thin caramel, a sprinkle of coarse sea salt, and delicate chocolate shavings. Outrageously good, it was very possibly one of the best desserts I've had all year.

4. Beet Salad - Azul Cobaya dinner (my thoughts)


Chef Huff's beet salad was brilliant, one of the best dishes I've had all year. From three basic ingredients - beets, blue cheese, bread - he crafted a stunning assembly of shapes, textures and flavors which he said included about 32 individual components. There were roasted beets in various hues, pointing their tendrils into the air. There were rounds of thinly sliced raw candy cane beets providing a bit of earthy, vegetal snap. There was beet espuma encapsulated in thin cylinders of beets. There was garnet-hued dehydrated beet paper, thin enough for light to shine through. There were powders, purées and gels of blue cheese, feather light croutons, razor-thin squares of lacy brioche. It was a dish that inspired a lengthy pause at the table, as everyone was reluctant to undo this beautiful construction.

Sometimes when presentation is such a focal point, flavor can get lost along the way. Not so here. This dish really highlighted the flavors and textures of its star ingredient, and was as delightful to eat as it was to look at. A truly exceptional dish.

5. Carrots with Yogurt and Mint - Ned Ludd (my thoughts on Ned Ludd)

carrots, yogurt, mint

If you can't get excited over chard, you probably won't get excited over carrots either, but this was one of my favorite dishes of the trip. A variety of different-hued carrots - orange, golden, garnet-red - were roasted in the wood-burning oven till tender but not limp. The carrots weren't woody, but still had a firm, almost meaty texture to them, reinforced by the hint of woodsmoke. A dollop of yogurt added both a richness and a tangy contrast, further brightened by wide strips of fresh mint. This was nothing complicated, nothing fancy, but it was perfect.

(continued ...)

6. Whole Foie Gras - Michelle Bernstein Cobaya dinner (my thoughts)

foie gras

After a light start, Michelle quickly brought out the heavy artillery: whole foie gras, first cooked sous vide, then scored and quickly seared. It was a jaw-dropping sight. She carved the whole lobes tableside, plating the slices with some garden vegetables - carrots, turnips, fava beans - and a vibrantly hued carrot sauce further brightened with just a hint of Sicilian orange.

This dish sidestepped the stereotypical approach of pairing foie with sweet fruit as a play against its richness. Instead, the combination with the root vegetables and the pleasingly vegetal favas embraced the liver's own voluptuous, earthy goodness, with the orange inflection to the sauce providing all the lift necessary to keep the dish from being too heavy. I loved everything about this course.

7. Oodles of Noodles - Phuc Yea (my thoughts on Phuc Yea)

Oodles of Noodles

Of these, the dish that really stood out, that we were craving more of before we even finished - that we wound up getting at least two more orders of - was the bánh cuốn. I've often seen this translated as "pork rolling cake," though Phuc Yea! dubs it "Oodles of Noodles."

It features chewy rice flour crepes, rolled jelly-roll style, and in this iteration, topped with a cornucopia of ingredients: bits of roast pork, shreds of wood ear mushrooms, fresh bean sprouts, crispy fried shallots, nubs of salty pork terrine, a spray of fresh cilantro and mint, all anchored by a deceptively light-hued sauce rich with the potent umami blast of nước mắm, or Vietnamese fish sauce. Every bite makes a play to different taste receptors, hitting multiple notes at once, but ultimately achieving balance. It was a great dish.

8. Lamb Belly - Chef Jeremiah Cobaya dinner (my thoughts)

lamb belly, cauliflower

Another of my favorites of the evening was the lamb belly. Luscious, fatty, meaty, and loaded with all those wonderful brown Maillard-y flavors, this was cooked just perfectly. Delicate and well-buttered shavings of cauliflower were a nice accompaniment.

9. Skate Wing- Blackbird

picture via Blackbird
In the spring we had a great little trip to Chicago and ate tremendously well. But I kept only sparse notes and took no photos, and so have little to memorialize those meals. Even so, I distinctly recall a dish of sautéed skate wing paired with perky spears of little gem lettuce, almonds, pickled ramps and a whipped butter pudding. It was like a jigsaw puzzle of complimentary flavors, each component bringing something more out of each of the others.

10. Rabbit Risotto - Le Pigeon (my thoughts on Le Pigeon)

rabbit and salami risotto

"Rabbit, salami risotto, gouda, fennel" was another list of ingredients that defied conception as a completed dish. What arrived was slippery rice lashed with creamy gouda cheese, interspersed with nubs of spicy salami, topped with a generous mound of tender confited rabbit; and then a crown of lightly pickled peppers and a drizzle of a bright green herb sauce to cut through all those layers of richness. This was embarassingly good, the kind of thing you secretly hoard from your fellow diners.

11. 50 Mile Salad at Sustain (my thoughts on Sustain)

50 mile salad

I'm not a big salad eater, but the "50 Mile Salad" is one that I actively crave. As the name indicates, the salad is composed of ingredients all sourced from within 50 miles of the restaurant. It starts with a blend of baby brassicas (mustard greens, mizuna, kale, arugula) from Paradise Farms in Homestead which is the remedy to everything I typically find uninteresting about salads. Instead of grazing, cow-like, on a monotonous bowl of bland lettuce, there is a lively contrast of textures and flavors here, alternating sweet, bitter, soft, spiky, herbaceous, peppery from bite to bite. Then add an earthy bass note of roasted golden beets, carrots all blistered, caramelized and sweet from the wood-burning oven, tart-sweet heirloom tomatoes, tangy pickled onions, creamy fromage blanc from Hani's, a vinaigrette redolent with soft herbs, salt it well, and that's a salad I can enjoy.

[Note: this picture is from a more recent, early-season iteration of the 50 Mile Salad that doesn't have all the same components.]

12. Cured Foie Gras - Alberto Cabrera Cobaya dinner (my thoughts)

cured foie gras

Maybe my favorite course of the night: cured foie gras, creamy and rich with just a hint of bitter mineral tang; country duck ham, salty and meaty; arugula with a peppery, grassy bite, dressed in a duck fat vinaigrette to reinforce the underlying motif; batons of pickled mango and a long smear of scarlet beet purée to provide just the right contrapuntal sweet, tart and earthy notes. I wanted more of this before I even finished it.

13. Foie Gras Fluff - Area 31 Cobaya dinner (my thoughts)

foie gras "fluff"

The best dish of the night - and just an out-and-out great dish - was Chef Reidt's foie gras "fluff." "Fluff" was a good term for this feather-light aerated foie mousse, plated as a couple cylinders aggressively seasoned with flaky Maldon salt. Accompanying each cylinder was a crumbly, almost biscotti-textured "crispy basil sponge," in between which ran a slash of tamarind gastrique. But the real deal-clincher here was a smoked peach purée, much more smoky than sweet, an inspired foil to slash the richness of the liver. I've said before how I appreciate foie pairings that eschew the customary tendency to go all sweet and treacly, and this was another good example.

14. Charcuterie at BlueZoo (my thoughts on BlueZoo)

photo via @bluechefs
The menu has a strong seafood focus - fully three-fourths of the items, both among appetizers and entrées, are aquatic - and yet Chef Windus has an abiding, if incongruous, obsession with charcuterie. After starting us with a beautiful simple amuse bouche of a silky, fatty hamachi crudo, topped with a leaf of perky, tangy red ribbon sorrel, he sent out a sampling of some of his latest cured creations: mangalitsa coppa; duck rillettes, wrapped with a strip of mangalitsa lardo (just in case it wasn't rich enough); and a house-made "hot dog," sliced in rounds and topped with some pungent mustard. They were all fantastic, some of the finest cured meat products I've sampled anywhere.

15. Pistachio Sponge Cake - (Antonio Bachour) Chef Jeremiah Cobaya dinner (my thoughts)


While the café au lait offered customary flavor combinations, the next dessert seemed to reach in a dozen directions at once. A bright green pistachio sponge cake (Adria microwave style) was plated with a green apple sorbet (specked with a fine dice of fresh apple), a lemon mousse, a smear of tangy Greek yogurt cream, dots of irridescent pistachio gel - it was a veritable riot of colors, textures and flavors, but they all pulled together. This was high-wire stuff, and done without a wobble.

16. Choucroute Garnie - Grüner (my thoughts on Grüner)

choucroute garnie

But the best dish of the evening, the one that most clearly demonstrated how Grüner is capable of elevating the pedestrian to the exceptional, was the choucroute garnie. The dish that inspired Jeffrey Steingarten to trek across the Alsace in search of the best version of this "dizzying, almost inconceivable gastronomic summit," choucroute garnie is, Steingarten's hyperbole notwithstanding, truly a homey and homely affair: sausages and other pig parts, cooked with sauerkraut.

Grüner's version includes house-made bratwurst and saucisson, a few thick slices of magically tender house-cured pork tenderloin, and a slab of glistening, rich cider-braised pork belly, all crowned with savory sauerkraut redolent with bay leaf and juniper. A ramekin of sweet-spicy mustard completes the composition. It is a great plate, a perfect example of how a stodgy traditional dish can be resuscitated with some loving attention.

17. Twice Cooked Scallop - Ideas in Food Cobaya dinner (my thoughts)

twice cooked scallop

This was another of my favorites of the evening, and also highlighted a technique set forth in the book. The plump sea scallop is briefly brined in salted water, then "twice-cooked" - first sous-vide at 50°C for 30 minutes to just barely cook through, then quickly seared at high heat on a griddle to get a nice crust on one side. It was paired with local pumpkin (calabaza?) in two textures, a creamy purée and tender cubes, and served with a sauce combining elements of sweet, sour and spicy - a citron marmalade perked up with sriracha. A sprinkle of furikake - a Japanese "spice blend" usually including nori, toasted sesame seeds, salt and other seasonings - completed the package. The scallop was cooked perfectly - still tender and not remotely rubbery, but with a nice char on the surface - and the other flavors provided a great balance of complement and contrast.

18. Dirty South Swordfish at BlueZoo (my thoughts on BlueZoo)

The "Dirty South Swordfish" turned out to be the best swordfish I've ever had. The fish is butchered to yield a large, nearly square block of flesh that stood roughly three inches thick, rather than the more customary inch-thick swordfish steaks. Whether by knife work or cooking technique, it came out perfect: succulent, with that meaty richness that swordfish offers, but not at all dried out, indeed virtually weeping moisture as it was sliced. The fish was rubbed with barbecue spices that played off its inherent meatiness, and plated over a rich, spicy, smoky risotto done with house-made tasso, rock shrimp and littleneck clams. It was a great dish.

19. Suckling Pig Confit - 1500° (my thoughts on 1500°)

suckling pig confit

Among the starters, the real winner for me was this suckling pig confit. A slab of gorgeous crispy skin covered meltingly tender, juicy meat. A thick pea purée, speckled with slivered snow peas and roasted baby carrots, provided a welcome earthy, vegetal foil for the rich pork. The intense porcinity was echoed by a couple crispy headcheese croquettes, while a couple of garlic whistles (a/k/a garlic scapes) reiterated the grassy flavors of the purée. It's a wonderful dish that is alone worth a visit.

20. Bollito Misto - Palena (my thoughts on Palena)

The real standout for me was an absolutely pitch-perfect bollito misto, with tender, deeply flavored veal tongue and corned beef in a soul-restoring broth, rounded out by a coddled duck egg and a few root vegetables. It's deceptively hard to do "simple" foods well; Palena made them shine.

Happy holidays, and if I don't post again before the calendar turns, happy new year to everyone. My conclusion to last year bears repeating again now: thanks to everyone who made 2011 such an enjoyable year - all the chefs, line cooks, waitstaff, sommeliers, bartenders and busboys, all the farmers, fishermen and foragers, all the winemakers, brewers and distillers, all the guinea pigs who supported our Cobaya dining experiments, and all the great people I've had the good fortune to share meals with, both at the table and vicariously through reviews, blogs, tweets and pictures. As my grandfather used to wish us each year: always better, never worse.

[1] I never wrote about our Chicago meals, which included Blackbird, Topolobampo, The Publican, the Purple Pig, and Saigon Sisters, and regret not having done so. Blackbird and Publican in particular were outstanding meals, but it's harder to put them in their proper place without having better memorialized them in the first place.

[2] This is hardly a call for vegetarianism, even if I did have my first vegan tasting menu in 2011, courtesy of Chef Jeffrey Brana - and enjoyed it. Rather, just a shift away from the reliance on animal protein as the focal point of every dish. Those meaty flavors can serve as accent mark just as well as they can centerpiece.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome list! Enjoyed reading it. My resolution for 2012 is to finally (after 5 years of visits) post about my favorite Chicago restaurants. Don't know why I don't ever do it, either! Another: to finally attend a Cobaya dinner...