Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Best Dishes of 2012 (Part 1)

I had a couple of my best meals of 2011 during the last week of the year. Unfortunately, I'd posted my "Best Dishes of 2011" recap a week earlier, so none of them made the list. This year I also saved some of the best for last - but I've learned my lesson, and waited for the calendar to roll over before closing the bidding for 2012. And since they got left out last year, the last week of 2011 will be included this time instead.

My "Best Bites of 2010" list included fourteen dishes (even though I called it a Top 10 list). By the next year, the list had expanded to twenty. When I looked back on 2012, I came up with nearly fifty dishes that could be on the list. With a travel itinerary for the past year that included San Francisco, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Charleston,[1] plus many Miami chefs and restaurants stepping up their games, I'm not surprised the list was so long.

Since I've got no editor here, my own use of the red pencil has been minimal: I've "pared" the list for 2012 down to 45, which I'll present here in three posts. These are not ranked, but instead are listed chronologically. I've included links to the restaurants as well as links to my posts on them, together with excerpts of my earlier comments on each.

(You can see all the pictures at once in this Best Dishes of 2012 flickr set)

Here's Part 1:

Chicken Oysters - é by José Andrés (Las Vegas) (my thoughts on é)

One of the joys of cooking a chicken is getting to pick at the best parts. The trilogy of "chef's treats" for me is the liver, the extra skin, and the chicken oysters tucked away along the backbone. This dish got two of the three: a sheet of crispy, well-seasoned chicken skin, with chicken oysters cooked in escabache, topped with a thyme "air." Just a magnificently delicious bite, one of my favorites of the meal.

Chickpea Stewé by José Andrés (Las Vegas) (my thoughts on é)

[A] Chickpea Stew ... was another of my favorites of the night, and again, a dish that relied on no fancy ingredients. The tender "chickpeas" (actually puréed and spherified) floated on a silky, rich jamón ibérico broth (OK, maybe a little fancy), dotted with chorizo oil, parsley oil and olive oil. It was, at heart, a variation on the centuries-old "olla podrida" or "rotten pot," referenced as far back as Don Quixote. It was also a soulfully delicious dish, with a depth and resonance of flavor that belied the delicate presentation.

Kobe Beef Tendon RobataAburiya Raku (Las Vegas) (my thoughts on Raku)

One of my favorite single bites anywhere: Kobe beef tendon robata. Gelatinous, sticky, crispy on the edges, intensely meaty and rich. Great stuff.

MGF&D Bacon Pizza - Harry's Pizzeria (Miami Design District) (my thoughts on Harry's)

Purists who insist that pizza is simply about the perfect balance of dough, cheese and tomato will scoff, but the pizzas at Harry's are mostly about the toppings. That's not necessarily a bad thing, certainly not when you're talking about the MGF&D Bacon Pizza, topped with Michael's house-cured bacon, sliced fingerling potatoes, caramelized onions, gruyere cheese and fresh arugula. It's a perfectly balanced combination in its own way.

Heirloom Tomatoes - Eating House (Coral Gables) (my thoughts on Eating House)

The influences are as much Slow Food as Ideas in Food - lots of local ingredients, lots of creative preparations. A perfect example: local Homestead tomatoes. But instead of a typical salad, Rapicavaoli takes them to Thailand, with lime, ginger, fish sauce, peanuts, fresh herbs, nasturtium flowers, and frozen coconut milk. It's a perfect rendition of the flavors of Thailand in an unexpected format, the frozen coconut milk in particular lending an intriguing icy creaminess to the composition.

(continued ...)

Baby EggplantsEating House (Coral Gables) (my thoughts on Eating House)

Even better - indeed, one of best dishes I've had in recent memory - were the baby eggplants, topped with a banana miso, vanilla salt, yuzu kosho, sesame seeds and baby greens. Here, the starting point was a classic - nasu dengaku, or Japanese miso-glazed eggplant - but with multiple added layers of complexity. The banana and miso echo back to each other in both texture and flavor, a salty-sweet creamy richness, while the yuzu kosho adds the bright contrast of both citrus and spice, and yet another note brought in by the vanilla salt. This is really virtuoso stuff.

6 Pieces of Nigiri - Sushi Deli (North Bay Village) (my thoughts on Sushi Deli)

(It's been years since I first wrote about Sushi Deli, and I've recently adopted a "First Rule of Fight Club" policy on casually recommending it, since finding a seat at this tiny venue has become increasingly difficult. But it remains one of the biggest joys in my life that this place is less than two miles away from me and I can have lunch here every weekend - and usually do).

BBQ Shrimp - Red Light (Miami Upper East Side) (my thoughts on Red Light)

(There were few restaurant closings that have disappointed me as much as Red Light. Not that it was entirely unexpected - the place was always sort of held together with chicken wire and chewing gum, and Chef Kris Wessel had a new project in the works on South Beach with Florida Cookery - but it was a restaurant with a soul, a place I genuinely loved, flaws and all. Even if the place was 90° inside, and it took half an hour to get your food, there were never any flaws with Kris' New Orleans style BBQ shrimp - head-on if available, sautéed just right, and swimming in a fantastic Worcestershire and lemon infused butter sauce, with never enough bread for soaking up that sauce. I'm glad for the opening of Florida Cookery, which still serves these BBQ shrimp - but I'll miss Red Light.)

Little Oyster Sandwiches - The Dutch (Miami Beach)

(I've still not written about The Dutch, even though it's been open for a year and I've had several really good meals there. It's on the New Years' resolution list. In the meantime, just one example of what's so great about the place - these Little Oyster Sandwiches. The oysters, rolled in cornmeal and fried, have just a crackle on the exterior but stay delicate and oozy; the tender sesame seed flecked brioche roll is smeared with a pickled okra tartar sauce given a little extra smoke and zing with Spanish pimentón. A bit of iceberg lettuce for cool crunch. A perfect bite.)

Testa di Capra Arrosto - Sustain (Midtown Miami) (my thoughts on Sustain's Cobaya dinner)

In case anybody couldn't decipher the translation, there was no mistaking the next course when it got to the table: each diner was presented with half a roasted goat's head. The goat's brains had been pan-fried, glazed with caper butter, and nestled back into their original home for presentation. Diners were instructed to first eat the brain, then flip the skull for easier access to all the rest of its meaty goodness.

The brains were light, fluffy and buttery, with a subtle hint of meaty flavor to them, like sweetbreads gone ethereal. The goat's skin was crispy with a bit of chew, much like a good roast suckling pig, with pockets of sticky, rich fat underneath. The meat from the cheek and other little crevices (there's a particularly good one behind the eye socket) took some work to get to, but was silky and tender, as rich and flavorful as braised beef cheek, with just a touch of welcome gaminess. Chris Cosentino would have been proud.

Duck Pastrami - Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog (Harding Dinner Series, Surfside) (my thoughts on Chef Jeremiah's Harding Dinner)

The next course was one of the best things I've eaten this year. Jeremiah' s duck pastrami was cured in salt, sugar and pink salt for about five days, then thin shavings of the duck were plated on a long communal plank with brussels sprout "kraut" and a spiced pumpernickel streusel. It was just a perfect combination of flavors: the duck, meaty and fatty; the sprouts, bright, vegetal and tart; the streusel providing an earthy, spicy anchor for it all. Great stuff.

Koji-Pickled Saba - Naoe (Miami, Brickell Key) (my thoughts on Naoe)

Koji-pickled saba (mackerel), with a sheet of translucent seaweed and a bit of the koji-innoculated rice on top. Koji is the mold that is used to ferment rice for the preparation of sake, and soybeans to produce soy sauce and miso. This has a creamier, more tender texture than the more customary vinegar-cured mackerel.

House-Cured Sturgeon - Pubbelly (Miami Beach) (my thoughts on Pubbelly)

(This is a dish I tried well after I wrote about Pubbelly, and showcases a delicate side not usually evident in their pork-centric menu. Slices of sturgeon, soft and silky, cured in-house, were draped with slivers of asparagus and red-veined sorrel leaves, topped with a crispy fried egg yolk, and all napped with a creamy, eggy caviar dressing. I know it may go against the theme, but I'd love to see more of this kind of stuff there.)

Triggerfish Crudo - Animal Pizzeria (Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo at Harry's Pizzeria) (Miami Design District) (my thoughts)

Though I enjoy it, often fish crudo seems like a "throwaway" of a dish - fish, oil, salt, citrus, done. Too easy. So this was actually a pleasant surprise: mild, faintly sweet slices of triggerfish swam in a colatura vinaigrette with that unique umami zap fish sauce provides of intense flavor without heaviness. Fresh basil and mint, chopped peanuts, and crispy fried shallots pulled things further in a Thai direction, with a little something different in each bite. I might have worried that the fermented fish funk of the colatura would be a bad pairing with the fresh raw fish, but I loved the combination.

Sea Scallops - Eating House (Coral Gables (my thoughts on Eating House)

(Another dish that post-dated my write-up, and a really outstanding one. Seared scallops were paired with a burnt carrot purée, carrots grilled a la plancha, coffee crumbs, a carrot and coffee jus, and drizzles of a housemade "port." What really made this work was the contrast of bitter against sweet - the hard sear on the scallops and carrots, the bitter coffee notes, simultaneously brought out the natural sweetness of the dish's components. Effective use of bitter flavors seems an underutilized technique, and was the heart of this dish.)

Best Dishes of 2012 (Part 2) will follow shortly is now up.

[1]I've not yet written about Charleston, but will just say now that its reputation as a great food town is not in any way exaggerated. I've also not yet written about Hawaii, which we visited over the summer. Other than the local product itself, some of which was exceptional, Hawaii was not nearly as exciting - but still interesting in its own way. I'll hopefully get around to writing about it too, while still sticking with my New Years' resolution to write more about local restaurants.

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