Monday, December 31, 2018

best dishes of 2018: part 2

Though I'm not posting as frequently of late, I did at least manage to start my "best of 2018" list before 2019 actually started, which is better than I did last year (though I may not finish before the year comes to a close). You can read Part 1 here, where we left off in Los Angeles. We'll pick up here back in Miami before bouncing around some more, to the Hudson Valley, the Bay Area, Chicago, British Columbia, and Greece. As always, despite the title playing to the traditional year-end trope, there's no pretense here that this list represents the "best" of anything other than a compendium of personal favorites from the past year of dining, listed in roughly chronological order.

tarabagani kani miso yaki - Den at Azabu
2018 was the year the omakase sushi trend came to town. Though Naoe will celebrate a ten year anniversary in a few months, and there have always been a couple other places that will do an omakase if you know how to ask, until this past year Miami had no other dedicated omakase venues. That's changed with the addition of The Den at Azabu, from a group which opened first in Tokyo and then NYC before bringing their talents to South Beach, and Hiden (which is still on my to-do list, and booked for next month).

The Den is a private room at Azabu dedicated to omakase sushi service, seating about twelve total. With the minimalist aesthetic, pale wood surfaces, and dining counter surrounding the sushi chefs, it feels very much like the places we visited in Japan. And with a base price starting at $120 for about fourteen courses, it's a relative value. The fish and rice were all of good quality, but the standout item for me was one of the opening dishes which served as precursor to the sushi: tarabagani (king crab), grilled, the meat picked from the shell and served warm in a stone bowl, draped with a blanket of kani miso – crab "miso," which is a nice way of saying the crab's rich, creamy, deeply flavored guts.

hearth cooked beans, clams, grilled squid, sambal, bok choy - Fish & Game
More college tours with Little Miss F took us close enough to the Hudson Valley to justify a trip to a place I've long wanted to try: Zak Pelaccio's Fish & Game. I loved absolutely everything about it – the old brick building, the cozy dining room and bar/lounge area with fireplaces ablaze, Zak and his dog bounding through the restaurant toward the end of lunch service. All of the food was just delicious, including a crab omelet with chili crab sauce that hearkens back to Zak's Fatty Crab days. But my favorite was a dish of creamy, meaty beans cooked in the hearth, along with some plump little clams, bits of grilled squid, wispy bok choy leaves, and a hit of sambal. A wonderful dish and a wonderful place.

aburi miso onigiri with miso seasoned slow cooked kamo - Katsuya Fukushima
Back home in Miami, it was time for Duck Duck Goose, Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog's avian spin-off from P.I.G. (Pork Is Good), hosted at The Anderson. Jeremiah throws the best food parties in town, and D.D.G. was no exception. Some of South Florida's best chefs served some great dishes – gorgeous duck confit terrines with mushroom gelée from David Coupe and Josue Peña of Faena, Jeremiah's crispy tripe and duck wings with Szechuan chili oil, Itamae's arroz con pato maki, Babe Froman's duck sandwich in the style of a Philly / Italian roast pork sandwich were all standouts. But the best dish of the day – and one of my favorites of the year – came from an out-of-towner, Washington D.C.'s Katsuya Fukushima of Daikaya (and also a Cobaya alumnus, from Experiment #10 way back in 2010). He did these onigiri, stuffed with slow-cooked, miso-seasoned duck, then topped with a torched duck fat miso sauce. Obscenely rich in the best possible way.

Blossom Bluff Goldensweet apricot galette - Chez Panisse Café
June found us in the Bay Area for a visit with Frod Jr., where we paid homage to an institution: Chez Panisse. It had been two, possibly three, decades since I'd been. And guess what? It's still genuinely great.

If I told you that a rustic-looking place, with a charcoal grill and wood burning oven, serving food straight from the farms, fields and docks had just opened in the East Bay, you'd probably think it was right on trend. It's a testament to the restaurant's outsize influence; and, I suppose some would say, to the stagnancy of what's come to be known as "California Cuisine." There's a reason for the genre's staying power, though: when it's done right, it's still very good, especially in Northern California, which produces some of the greatest raw ingredients on the planet. And Chez Panisse is still doing it right.

Throughout dinner, I watched somewhat nervously as a galette out on that kitchen counter was gradually whittled down to only a couple slices. Fortunately there was still one remaining when we ordered dessert. A burnished, flaky crust was the vehicle for juicy, fragrant, bright-flavored apricots, paired simply with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was perfect. There seems to be a backlash these days against "name-checking" on menus; me, I'm happy to know that if I ever see Golden Sweet apricots from Blossom Bluff Orchards, I should buy as many as I can lay my hands on.

smoked duck magret, green plum, fennel + green almonds - Upland
Speaking of "California Cuisine" – Justin Smillie's Upland already made an appearance in Part 1 of this list for a dish he served at our Cobaya dinner. I was back again for more later – more and more frequently. There are several fixtures on the menu there that I crave regularly – the gem lettuce salad topped with ribbons of ricotta salata, the crispy duck wings with yuzu kosho, the wood-fired prawns, the bucatini cacio e pepe – but maybe the best thing I had was a wonderful dish that combined smoked duck breast, still shaded a rosy pink, with green plums, shaved fennel, green almonds, a sort of pesto sauce, and a generous pile of greens and herbs. This is what Smillie does so well at Upland, these dishes that taste like a garden but are still hearty, that look and eat so casual but are executed with refinement and touch.

(continued ...)



calamari bruschetta - Girl and the Goat
We had a quick weekend over the summer in Chicago, and somehow I managed to score what is usually an impossible reservation at a place I've been trying to visit for years: Stephanie Izard's Girl and the Goat. The menu is full of improbable, sometimes implausible combinations, most of which work better than you'd expect. The best example: this bruschetta, which featured a clam baguette, topped with goat's milk ricotta cheese, goat bacon, green tomatoes and ringlets of calamari. Nothing about it really made any sense, other than that it tasted great.

salmon tiradito, huancaina, parmesan, crispy quinoa, togarashi - Itamae
Speaking of unlikely combinations ...the things that the Chang Gang (Papa Fernando Chang, son Nando Chang, and daughter Valerie Chang) are doing at Itamae, their Nikkei Peruvian sushi post in the St. Roch Market Design District food hall, somehow manage to consistently surprise and please at the same time. Case in point: this tiradito of salmon, napped with a creamy, mildly spicy huancaina sauce, topped with a blanket of fresh parmesan, a sprinkling of crispy quinoa, and a dusting of togarashi spice mix. This was unexpected, weird and wonderful.

wood-grilled foie gras shawarma - Three Cobaya dinner
Norman Van Aken has long been a culinary idol of mine. One of the formative food experiences of my life was a meal more than 25 years ago at A Mano on South Beach, his first restaurant in Miami. Since then, I've eaten in his restaurants whenever I could, read and cooked from his books, and learned to appreciate not just how to cook and eat well, but also how to think about cooking not so much as an "art," but as a pastime that at least can be thought about in the same ways that writers and musicians use their work as a way to view and express the world around them.

This was my personal dish of the night, and a testament to what happens when you stop worrying about "authenticity" and start playing around with exciting flavors. A whole lobe of foie gras was rubbed in shawarma spices and grilled over wood fire, then paired up with grilled pineapples "al pastor" style, petals of grilled pearl onions, and a tangy shishito kosho yogurt, all wrapped up in a crispy flatbread. You could try to trace the history of al pastor style meat cooked on a vertical spit from the Middle East to Mexico, and wonder how you got re-routed through Japan along the way; or you could just accept that this is a flat-out delicious combination and not worry too much about how it found its way onto one plate.

albacore tuna, cantaloupe chile broth, arrowgrass, miso tonnato sauce - Olo
black forest - Olo
A late summer family trip brought us to British Columbia, one of my favorite places on the planet. Vancouver is a beautiful city and a great eating town, but I've always had a fondness for Victoria, where Mrs. F and I first traveled many years ago, before we had Frod Jr. and Little Miss F in tow. Victoria has become an interesting eating town in its own right, and I especially liked Olo, a farm to table type place in the middle of Victoria's Chinatown. The cooking style is geographically agnostic, but the ingredients are from nearby, and it's a great combination that results in things like blushing pink seared albacore tuna, served with a miso tonnato sauce,[1] a chile-infused cantaloupe broth, and wisps of delicate arrowgrass; or a riff on black forest cake that featured a dense flourless chocolate cake accompanied by all the things of the forest: spruce tip sorbet, candy cap mushroom cream, and cherries soaked in leafy tea. Nine times out of ten these "takes" on traditional dishes fail to exceed the original; this was the happy exception.


koutsomoures - Mouragio Ouzo Taverna
Greek salad - Kastro Beach Taverna
Going just a bit out of sequence here, in September we had a family wedding in Skiathos, a small Greek island due north of Athens whose greatest claim to fame is that the movie Mamma Mia was filmed there.[2] Skiathos is a gorgeous place, a small, hilly, forested island surrounded by beautiful blue waters (you can see more pictures in this flickr set), and we ate very simply and very well there. These delicately fried koutsomoures, served at Mouragio Ouzo Taverna, an unassuming waterfront tavern, were among the best fish I've ever eaten. A kind of red mullet – true red mullet goes by the name "barbounia" in Greece, and I'm not sure what distinguishes these other than they were even more highly recommended by our waiter than the barbounia – these fish were sweet, ridiculously fresh, and so delicate you could pretty much eat them head to tail.[3]

If you know me at all, you will know that I'm not normally one to get all that excited over a Greek salad. And yet – this was a pretty incredible Greek salad: ripe, juicy tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, ringlets of peppers, purple onions equal parts sweet and feisty, fat green olives, tangy feta, a dusting of dried herbs that probably came from the hills right around us, all allowed to soak in its dressing just long enough for the flavors to mingle, leaving at the end a puddle of olive oil, crumbled cheese and vegetable juices to get soaked up with crusty bread. No doubt the views may have had some effect on my state of mind (see below), but this was wonderful.

the view from Kastro Beach Taverna, Skiathos, Greece
If you missed it, turn right around and go check out Part 1. If you're all caught up, stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon (but probably not for another week – we're off to Texas for a few days, send all your Austin and Marfa recommendations!). And with that, I'll bring 2018 to a close around here. To all the chefs, cooks, bartenders, somms, GMs, waiters, bussers and barbacks, all the farmers and butchers and fisherman  and foragers, all the guinea pigs who come out for our Cobaya dinners, all the good people we've been fortunate to share a table with, who have so many times, in so many places, brought a little joy to so many meals over the past year – thank you. Thank you especially to those folks who push to move the bar forward: who always strive to make it a little better, a little more interesting, a little more welcoming. My grandfather used to say the same thing every year: "Always better, never worse."

[1] As with so many great ideas, the combination of miso and tonnato sauce is one that I was sure I'd never seen before, until I googled it, and sure enough, there's Ideas in Food messing around with it back in 2010.

[2] In preparation for our trip, I tried to watch it, and had to stop after ten minutes. I enjoyed the island itself much more than the movie.

[3] One of the great things about eating in Greece was that every restaurant is required to identify what fish and seafood are frozen, so by process of elimination you can figure out what's fresh and local.

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