Monday, December 30, 2019

favorite dishes of 2019: worldwide version

I made a decision this year to split my "favorite dishes" list between Miami and elsewhere. You can see the 25 best things I ate in Miami over here. This list (All lists! All the time! At least until the end of the year!) covers the best things I ate everywhere else in 2019.

We started the year in Marfa, Texas[1] before taking a long drive to Austin, which is a really fun town where there's a taco truck, a BBQ place, a beer hall, and a live music venue on every block. There were brief visits to New York and San Francisco, and then a wonderful week in Italy (Rome and Venice, broken up by a day in Florence), where I practiced some immersion therapy to get over my biases against Italian food.[2] Back to the Bay Area for a week. A long weekend in Los Angeles, making only the tiniest dent in the long list of places I want to visit in what may be the best eating town in the U.S. And finally, a late year return to N.Y. before the calendar flipped over.

charred cabbage, satsuma butter - Emmer & Rye (Austin)
Our first dinner in Austin was at chef Kevin Fink's Emmer & Rye, a place with a focus on heirloom grains (as the name suggests), local seasonal products, carts circling the dining room with little snacks a la State Bird Provisions, and generally speaking, some really creative stuff happening in the kitchen. I enjoyed everything, but especially this dish of charred cabbage, satsuma butter, trout roe and mustard greens. Savory, smoky, citrusy, and more, it was odd and delicious.

(See all my pictures from Emmer & Rye.)

(continued ...)

goat loin - Pitchfork Pretty (Austin)
My Austin to-do list was a long one, but did not inlcude Pitchfork Pretty until the restaurant had been suggested to me by some chef-types. I was glad to have gotten the tip. Max Snyder's food was interesting, thoughtful, locally inspired, and fun. After seeing a surprising number of goat farms (and wineries!) on our drive through southwest Texas from Marfa to Austin, I was happy to finally find some on a menu. Instead of the usual long braise, here the goat's loin was seared to medium rare, basted with spiced ghee, and plated with grilled scallions, radishes and persimmon yogurt.

(See all my pictures from Pitchfork Pretty.)

kohada nigiri - Shoji at 69 Leonard Street (NY)
The past few years have seen a wave of new omakase sushi spots opening in New York City, at seemingly ever-increasing price points. I love this kind of meal (not necessarily the increasing cost of it), and we've tried a few of them. My favorite so far has been Shoji at 69 Leonard Street. Chef Derek Wilcox took over at Shoji in mid-2018, after spending a decade in Japan at some of its top sushi and kaiseki spots. The training shows. I loved everything about our meal, but especially one of the best iterations I've had of one of my favorite neta: this beautiful, shiny-skinned, lightly cured kohada.

(See all my pictures from Shoji at 69 Leonard Street.)

milk and honey - The NoMad (NY)
I'm pretty sure this dessert has been on the menu at The NoMad since it opened, and for good reason: it's perfect. Ice cream that tastes of pure milk, richly flavored buckwheat honey, crunchy oat shortbread, crisp, airy honey brittle, fluffy dehydrated milk foam, a little bit of salt. I love it.

(See all my pictures from The NoMad.)

Paris-Breste a la Pistache - Frenchette (NY)
I'm not even really a dessert person, but here's another knockout N.Y. dessert: the pistachio Paris-breste at Frenchette. Crackly, airy pastry, and a mind-bogglingly rich, intense pistachio pastry cream.

(See all my pictures from Frenchette.)

hen of the woods mushroom - Angler (SF)
ice cream sundae - Angler (SF)
Joshua Skenes has handed the chef reins at Saison, which was once his flagship, over to Laurent Gras, while throwing his efforts into Angler, which opened in San Francisco in September of last year and in L.A. June of this year. Angler is a kindred spirit to Saison in many ways, with the same focus on pristine ingredients and cooking methods using fire and smoke, but in an a la carte format that is easier to access than Saison (though still very expensive). I was there in March while visiting Frod Jr. and was pretty blown away. Among several great things, the standouts were a cluster of hen of the woods mushrooms slowly grilled to intensify and concentrate the flavors, then doused in a buttery hot sauce; and a sundae – very similar to the one served at Saison – with creamy soft serve, bitter cacao nibs, and as much smoky caramel as you wish.

(See all my pictures from Angler - San Francisco.)

prahok ktiss - Nyum Bai (Oakland)
During the same trip, I waited nearly two hours, as one does, to eat at Nyum Bai, a highly celebrated Cambodian pop-up gone permanent in Oakland. On a cold, rainy night in the Bay Area, the prahok ktiss was delightfully warming: a dense, rich dip / stew of minced pork belly, coconut milk, kroeung (a Cambodian spice paste), prahok (fermented fish paste), lime leaf, palm sugar and chiles, served with crunchy fresh vegetables for scooping.

(See all my pictures from Nyum Bai.)

rigatoni alla carbonara - Trattoria Da Cesare al Casaletto (Rome)
trippa alla romana - Trattoria Da Cesare al Casaletto (Rome)
The G-rated version of my issue with Italian food is that I would rather not pay for something I can do reasonably well at home, unless it's going to be a lot better than my home version. Well, during a week of eating in Rome and Venice, I found plenty to fit that description, starting with a couple dishes at Trattoria Da Cesare al Casaletto, which we visited on the solid recommendation of Katie Parla. Da Cesare is off the touristy beaten path but worth finding for textbook classic pastas like this rigatoni alla carbonara. While some reviews I read suggested that the secondi piatti at Da Cesare were not on the same level as the fried antipasti (like the gnocchetti fritti with cacio e pepe sauce, which were indeed wonderful) and the pastas, I also absolutely loved their trippa alla romana, which was light and delicate, brightened with a whiff of fresh mint, and showered in a blizzard of parmesan. Bonus points for a fantastic selection of natural wines like Radikon Ribolla Gialla at very reasonable prices.

(See all my pictures from Trattoria Da Cesare al Casaletto.)

carciofini alla giudia - Piatto Romano (Rome)
Nearby the Mercato Testaccio is a spot called Piatto Romano, where as you walk into the restaurant, the first thing you'll see is a table set with some of the produce sourced from the market that day. Then as you sit in the dining room, you'll see a cart with some freshly prepared vegetables to choose from as antipasti.These are good signs. I'd never had a good version of carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style artichokes) until I had them here, where they use small, baby artichokes, marinated in lemon juice before they're fried into shattering-crisp flowers that eat like potato chips. Something else I'd never had: the rigatoni alla pajata d'abbacchio, made with the tender intestines of milk-fed lambs, cleaned but still holding their contents, with emulsifies into a ricotta cheese like sauce.

(See all my pictures from Piatto Romano.)

strawberry, pistachio gelato - Otaleg! (Rome)
You can't go to Rome without eating gelato. And while I do not claim to have tried all the gelaterias in Rome, I can say that the best within my sample group was from Otaleg: their pistachio had an intensity and richness of flavor like I'd never experienced before, as did their day-glo wild strawberry sorbet.

frittata of wild herbs and chicken offal - Retrobottega (Rome)
My impression (from all of a few days there) is that dining in Rome skews more traditional than creative, but Retrobottega goes against that grain. I liked my lunch there a lot – the menu format that lets you choose two antipasti, one primi, one secondi and one dessert for €55, the foraged ingredients that pop up throughout the menu, the communal tables that face the open kitchen, the servers who politely but pointedly corrected my terrible Italian pronunciations, but most of all, the really interesting and delicious food. Every course was great, but especially, this soft frittata of gently cooked chicken offal crowned with a bouquet of wild herbs.

(See all my pictures from Retrobottega.)

cacio e pepe - Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina (Rome)
I also loved everything about Roscioli, a delightful combination salumeria / wine shop / restaurant near the Campo de' Fiori. The salumeria sources fantastic meats and cheeses which are used throughout the menu, and while everything we had was great, their cacio e pepe will now be the one by which all others are judged.

(See all my pictures from Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina.)

cuttlefish during spring - Local (Venice)
Venice gets a bad rap as an eating town, and I don't doubt that it has more than its share of overpriced tourist traps. But we ate pretty well there, mostly nibbling cicchetti at places like Cantina Do Mori and All'Arco near the Rialto Bridge,[3] and El Refolo and Vecio Trani in the Castello neighborhood. We also had a really fun dinner at Local, which takes a contemporary approach to traditional Venetian flavors and ingredients. Our meal started with a little "mini cicchetti" plate including a tiny baccala sandwich and a shiny, fresh sardine on a cracker, and also featured a really great version of a classic, sweet and sour fegato alla veneziana, but my favorite thing was a dish called "cuttlefish during spring" – fresh, translucent, almost paper-thin cuttlefish, with fresh peas in various forms and wispy herbs and sea beans. Clean, beautifully delicate, just a wonderful dish.

(See all my pictures from Local - Venice.)

sardine "Sicilian sashimi" - Swan Oyster Depot (SF)
Summer found us back in San Francisco where I revisited one of my favorite places: Swan Oyster Depot. I worked up a pretty good appetite waiting in line, then satisfied it with oysters and clams, a Mendocino sea urchin served right in its shell, a combination seafood cocktail, and best of all, a "Sicilian sashimi" of fresh sardines, doused in olive oil and lemon juice, and showered with capers and diced red onion. May this place never change.

(See all my pictures from Swan Oyster Depot.)

trout and peach nigiri - Robin (SF)
For a West Coast sushi fix, we paid a visit to Robin in Hayes Valley. I really enjoyed their omakase, which was untraditional, occasionally a bit over the top (i.e., nigiri topped with caviar and a potato chip), but mostly pretty great. I will not turn down A5 wagyu showered with shaved frozen foie gras, but my favorite bite was one that highlighted local, seasonal flavors: Mt. Lassen trout, topped with a sliver of juicy, ripe, height-of-the-season peach.

(See all my pictures from Robin - San Francisco.)

radicchio x.o. - Angler (SF)
My to-do list for the Bay Area is ever-expanding, so it's pretty unusual to make a repeat visit to the same place within six months. And yet August found me back at Angler, this time with Mrs. F, Frod Jr. and his girlfriend along as well. Had some repeats: their fantastic Parker House rolls with house-cultured butter, that mushroom, that sundae, and some new things. The best, and just a really ingenious dish, is the radicchio x.o.: a whole head of radicchio, the leaves gently teased apart, the whole thing doused in a vegetarian "x.o." sauce of reduced beet juice, soy sauce and alliums, for a heady, intense combination of bitter, sweet, salty and umami. It looks like a crime scene once you break it down, and comes with a hefty knife for doing the dirty work plus bibs to keep you clean while doing it.

(See all my pictures from Angler - San Francisco.)

mid-summer in Sonoma - SingleThread (Healdsburg, CA)
heirloom tomatoes, akabana kanpachi - SingleThread (Healdsburg, CA)
Sonoma grains - SingleThread(Healdsburg, CA)
Another repeat visit, though for SingleThread it had been two years since our first time. That first visit was about a half year after they'd opened, and before Michelin awarded two stars in 2018. (For 2019 they bumped it to three stars, a remarkably quick but well deserved ascent). We were in Healdsburg during a heat wave, and had a moment of panic when we got an email mid-day that their A/C had gone out. But a slew of portable units kept temperatures manageable in the dining room,[4] and the kitchen didn't miss a beat. While the heat precluded the rooftop snacks that typically start a meal at SingleThread, the tableau laid out on the table – an assortment of seasonal seafoods and local vegetables in a kaleidoscopic variety of preparations, in the spirit of the "hassun" course of a Japanese kaiseki meal – was still a great opening track. The course that followed – peak of summer heirloom tomatoes with ribbons of akabana kanpachi, creamy white gazpacho, tomato gelee and pickled wasabi – also beautifully captured the season. And one of my favorite courses from our first meal was a favorite this time as well, though the components had changed: mirroring the rice and pickles that often concludes the savory portion of a Japanese meal, a bowl of Sonoma grains – here, caramelized mochi mugi – with braised lamb's tongue, slivered radishes and wispy mustard greens.

(See all my pictures from SingleThread - August 2019.)

buffalo milk ice cream - Sir and Star (Olema, CA)
We've made several side trips to Inverness and Point Reyes when we've been in the Bay Area, and a couple times have stayed at a wonderful lodge up in the hills called Manka's. There was a restaurant at Manka's that was doing the locavore thing before it was a big thing, though we never ate there and it burned down in a fire a few years ago. But the owners of Manka's bought an inn in nearby Olema, and opened a restaurant there called Sir and Star. Margaret Gradé and Daniel DeLong write menus that read like poetry, inspired by ingredients sourced from close to home. I especially enjoyed this "Ice Cream of Coastal Buffalo Milk Layered with Seaside Strawberries and Bites of Meringue," made with some crazy delicious water buffalo milk ice cream from Double 8 Dairy.

(See all my pictures from Sir and Star.)

roasted mushrooms, fresh cheese, potatoes, seeds, arugula - Destroyer (LA)
You hear the word "disruptive" an awful lot on the West Coast. It's usually just some meaningless investment pitch claptrap for another business whose model is predicated on cheap independent contractor labor and a casual disregard for existing legal restrictions. But I will say this: Jordan Kahn's Destroyer is unlike any restaurant I've ever seen. Located in Culver City across the street from Kahn's even more ambitious tasting menu tower, Vespertine, Destroyer is serving incredibly thoughtful, thought-provoking, intricate food – in a fast-casual, order-at-the-counter format. This dish is listed as "roasted mushrooms, fresh cheese, baby potatoes, crunchy seeds, arugula" – which describes the order of the components from bottom to top, yielding a sort of time-release effect as you dig your way through the layers. Delicious, really clever, and just remarkable that they are doing this kind of food in this kind of setting.

(See all my pictures from Destroyer.)

tortillas, refried lentils, whipped carnitas fat, tostada - Broken Spanish (LA)
I ate my share of tacos while in L.A. for a long weekend, but none better than the tortillas at chef Ray Garcia's Broken Spanish. The warm, freshly made heirloom corn tortillas rightfully get their own billing on the menu, and are offered with a choice of refried lentils or whipped carnitas fat. The call is obvious: get both. And just to gild the lily: get the pollo prensado too, an intensely flavored stew of chicken thighs, chicken skin and guajillo chile. And just so you can experience those tortillas in another form, get the tostada too, topped with creamy Meyer lemon infused requeson cheese, green beans, figs, and walnut salsa macha.

(See all my pictures from Broken Spanish.)

Sloppy Jeremy Texas Toast - Birdie G's (LA)
Hangtown Brei - Birdie G's (LA)
Jeremy Fox's new Santa Monica restaurant, Birdie G's, served my favorite meal of 2019. Inspired in equal parts by traditional Jewish food,[5] California cuisine, and Midwestern supper club, it seems an unlikely combination but is one of those personal, autobiographical ventures that strikes a particularly resonant chord for me. I loved everything about it: the heirloom cucumbers with dill pickle dressing, a fresh take on the traditional kosher dill; the caviar platter with potato waffle latkes; the kasha sauerkraut cakes with corned beef and gribenes; even the artisan matzo with cultured butter. But a couple things especially: (1) the "Sloppy Jeremy Texas Toast," in which a fat slab of toasted, soft white bread is topped with an incredibly rich but bright beef and strawberry bolognese,[6] perky arugula and a shower of peppery shaved "horsey goat" cheese; and (2) the "Hangtown Brei," a brilliant mash-up of the old school San Francisco "hangtown fry" and old school Jewish matzo brei, with soft scrambled eggs cooked in schmaltz with crumbled matzo, wood-grilled pork belly, crispy fried Pacific oysters, all enrobed in a hot sauce hollandaise.

(See all my pictures from Birdie G's.)

fried chicken - Momofuku Ko Bar (NY)
In November we were able to squeeze in one more long weekend in New York, and concluded a late evening arrival with a visit to Momofuku Ko Bar. The bar attached to Ko, David Chang's tasting menu venue in the Bowery, has an interesting selection of beverages and a short a la carte menu that serves in part as a sort of testing ground for concepts that may find their way onto the Ko menu. It also has what may be its own signature dish: the cold fried chicken. Battered three times, fried four times, brushed with a glaze of green tabasco, mirin and yuzu juice, and served cold for $6 a piece, it is every bit as delicious as everyone says.

(See all my pictures from Momofuku Ko Bar.)

sansai soba - Cocoron (NY)
For some reason, soba is treated as ramen's red-headed step-sibling. Everyone loves ramen, and lists of the best ramen joints are assembled with the obsessiveness and devotion of true fanatics. How about some love for soba? New York's Cocoron is doing its part, serving the hearty buckwheat noodles, made in-house, in a variety of different preparations. This bowl of sansai soba, stocked full of wild vegetables (bamboo shoots, flowering ferns, woodear mushrooms), kitsune (simmered and fried tofu), tempura flakes and scallions, all in a warming, umami-laden dashi broth, was particularly welcome on a cold, late fall day.

(See all my pictures from Cocoron.)

lentils, creme fraiche, trout roe - Racines (NY)
I missed the window of opportunity on chef Diego Moya's highly regarded restaurant Hemlock, which closed in mid-2018. But he's back and doing really exciting, vegetable-centric stuff at Racines in Tribeca, which also has one of the most intriguing wine lists I've seen in a long time, a deep dive into the world of small production, biodynamic, natural, and eccentric juice.[7] We sat at the kitchen counter and ate many very good things, the best of which was this deceptively simple bowl of lentils, enrobed in creme fraiche, bedazzled with a dollop of trout roe, and brightened with a vivid green bay leaf oil.

(See all my pictures from Racines.)

egg, sea urchin, gim, heart of palm - Atoboy (NY)
I really wanted to check out Atomix, chef Junghyun Park and manager Ellia Park's Korean-inspired tasting menu venue, which opened May of last year and has been earning raves ever since. But despite diligently hammering away on the website immediately when the bookings opened up for the month, I had no luck scoring a reservation. So Atoboy it was, their first restaurant, where they serve a banchan-inspired dinner in three courses with several choices for each round accompanied by rice and several little pickled things, plus optional add-ons like some really excellent fried chicken. Dishes tend to pile up on the table, as they should during a good Korean meal (so, sorry for the messy photo), and while they were all great, the one that really stood out was this bowl of steamed egg and dashi custard, topped with sea urchin purée, crispy puffed quinoa, pickled heart of palm and crumbled gim (black seaweed). Just a great interplay of textures and flavors.

(See all my pictures from Atoboy.)

So there you have it: all the best things I ate (outside of Miami) in 2019. A big thank you to all of the folks who kept me so well fed over the past year, and best wishes to everyone in the coming year. As my grandfather used to say: always better, never worse. Happy New Year!


[1] There is nowhere to eat at Prada Marfa – which is actually in the middle of nowhere about a half hour outside of Marfa, which is itself in the middle of nowhere – but I liked the picture, which was taken New Years' Day, January 1, 2019. Marfa was incredibly cool to visit, and though not exactly a dining destination, we found some good things: a fun dinner at Capri in the Thunderbird Hotel; chorizo and egg breakfast burritos at Marfa Burrito; good coffee at Do Your Thing.

[2] I actually really like Italian food, I just rarely get excited over Italian restaurants, for reasons I explained here.

[3] All'Arco seems to get all the love as the "best cicchetti in Venice," but I thought Cantina Do Mori right around the corner was much better.

[4] I'm a canary in a coal mine for temperatures above 75°, so I was still stifling a flop sweat for the first half hour of our meal. A special shout-out to the server who thoughtfully brought me a chilled wet oshibori to help cool off.

[5] Not Israeli or Middle Eastern; Jewish – we're talking pickles and matzo and kasha, not hummus and pita.

[6] In his excellent book "On Vegetables," Fox says that he picked up the trick of swapping strawberries for tomatoes from David Kinch at Manresa.

[7] By way of example on the "eccentric:" I've seen 75-page wine lists before. I'm not sure I've ever seen one where wines from the Loire outnumber wines from all of the U.S. by a ratio of about 10 to 1. I say this with utmost admiration. We drank an absolutely exquisite, 12-year old Jacques Puffeney Vin Jaune.

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