Yet Another List: Best Dishes of 2013

Buckwheat soufflé at Saison.

Buckwheat soufflé at Saison.

Only a handful of my favorite dishes of the year made it onto our JBF roundup, so I thought I would flesh out a list of my dining highlights of 2013. If you follow me on Twitter, you know I have eaten a lot of things this year—to which the pinching of my waistband would attest—many of them super delicious. Not all of them made it to this list for a variety of reasons, not the least of which might be my hands were too greasy to pull out my phone and take a photo or a note. Here, in no particular order, are the ones that I wrote down. Not all are from places that opened this year, let’s be clear. I have no particular interest in “new,” only “yum.” Let’s hope that 2014 is full of an equal amount of yumminess, too.

I will admit to mildly dreading my first ever meal at San Francisco’s Coi. I was worried it would be long and Daniel Patterson’s food would be too intellectually challenging to be fun. Instead of the ordeal we expected, dinner at Coi was a total blast and the food was totally yummers. Exciting is a better (an actual) word. Of all the beautiful and delicious things we were served that night, the Dungeness crab soup with roots, blood lime, and black tea stood out. If we could have squeezed the bowl to get more umami-rich broth, we would have.

Midtown Manhattan is full of pseudo French restaurants that look exactly like Brasserie Cognac. Pay them no mind. Instead overcome your instinct to pass by this one at Broadway and 55th and plan a breakfast or an early meeting here. During the 10 months or so we lived in Midtown this year waiting for our new apartment to be renovated, this became our go-to place to start the day. And among the memorably buttery French things in the pastry basket, the delicate orange brioche always put a smile on my face.

Vegetable medley at Central Kitchen

Vegetable medley at Central Kitchen

I spent a lot of 2013 eating in San Francisco, always a good food city, but only recently an exciting place to eat. One of the most memorable meals I had this year was at Central Kitchen, where chef Thomas McNaughtan’s use of local vegetables was at once contemporary and creative. One particular vegetable medley (pictured) tasted of the summer harvest and represented his elegant touch.

There’s always something implausibly delicious put in front of you during a meal at Atera in Tribeca. This year, a stand out among chef Matthew Lightner’s creations was a generous dollop of caviar, whose briny blackness was enriched by squid ink and complemented by the grassy flavor of black walnut.

The anniversary dinner Nate and I enjoyed at Alinea was, of course, full of playful surprises. Edible apple balloons, anyone? Most striking among them, though, was a snapper that sat on our table and stared us until it was time for him to take one last swim in hot oil.  Presented on folded newspaper and as simple as anything to issue forth from Grant Achatz’s laboratory kitchen, this beautiful fish was so sweet and moist and delicious it almost made us cry. We knew we had too many courses left to keep eating, but we couldn’t stop ourselves out of respect for such a beautiful creature and not wanting to be wasteful, as much as for the sheer joy it was giving us to eat it.

It’s difficult to choose my favorite dish from Bar Tartine. I was there several times. A stand out was a romaine salad—hard to believe, I know, but it’s true—with fennel, radishes, dill, sprouted mung beans, a tangy, creamy dressing. Amazing. But I also couldn’t get enough of their Vietnamese chicken salad sandwich, dripping with a fish-sauce and lime. It is so deeply satisfying, that writing about it right now makes me drool.

Daniel Boulud was so excited by the historical culinary reenactments he and his staff did with Bill Buford for his new book, Daniel: My French Cuisine—they recreated classic 19th century haute French dishes—that I really wanted to give one a try. A dinner at Daniel arranged around his duck à la presse was unforgettable, and having staged for a month at La Tour d’Argent back in 1990, where more than 100,000 ducks have been pressed during the last 100 years, I can say that with some authority.

Raw eggplant at Yakitori Akira

Raw eggplant at Yakitori Akira

At a small grill-it-yourself place in Tokyo called Yakitori Akira, I had the most unexpected vegetable experience of the year, a wedge of raw eggplant that was sweet, crunchy, and delicious. We dipped it in a flavorful miso paste, but it was the texture and flavor of the raw eggplant that blew my mind. A specialty from Osaka, I was told, it was truly a vegetable revelation.

While cooking up the food truck component of the USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015, I kept referring to pictures of Del Popolo, perhaps the most beautiful food truck I’ve ever seen. It’s a bi-level, wood burning oven on wheels that we found one day in San Francisco’s Mint Plaza. More than the beautiful the vehicle itself, though, the Neapolitan-style pizza they serve is superb.

Every year a highlight of the JBF Chefs & Champagne weekend is Meredith’s peach and blueberry pie from the Fairview Farm stand in Water Mill, New York. My aunt and uncle, who live down the street, always make sure to have one at home for us. And then we always buy at least one more to take back to the city. Often still warm when you pick them up, the pies are packed solid with fruit, held in a buttery crust with a crumble top. They are everything a summer pie should be. For everything a strawberry shortcake should be, see the JBF list.

So many of the courses I ate during my meal at Saison in San Francisco were memorable. I love Joshua Skene’s use of bitter in the palette of flavors with which he concocts unusual and delicious creations that seem natural, not forced. I don’t think you’ll find fermented sea cucumber intestines vinegar on the salad dressing shelf anytime soon. In addition to his abalone dish I put on the JBF list, the buckwheat soufflé at the end my dinner was a delight. I love kasha (toasted buckwheat) so much, I have named it as one of my “last meal” foods. Were it to come in the form of this soufflé, I would know I ended up in heaven.

At the indulgently luxurious Music to Your Mouth Festival at Palmetto Bluff this year, a bevy of JBF Award winning southern chefs cooked a memorable benefit dinner for the Beard Foundation. Atlanta chef/restaurateur Linton Hopkins  brought home the multicourse meal with his main of fall-apart roasted veal breast with a side of scalloped butternut squash that was so remarkable it ended up on our Thanksgiving menu the following week.

Sometimes pleasure is inversely proportionate to expectation. Expectations are pretty high for a meal at Eleven Madison Park. But just saying sea urchin snow with smoked cantaloupe and yogurt might take away some people’s appetite. I was intrigued. And the unique combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures that chef Daniel Humm used to craft this appetizer made it both a modern and delicious dish.

Trio of tomato desserts at Céléb de Tomato

Trio of tomato desserts at Céléb de Tomato

Over my many visits to Tokyo I have stopped to take a peak at the tomato selection in the window at Céléb de Tomato, an all tomato restaurant in Tokyo’s Daikanyama neighborhood. This year I finally sate down for a meal. The food was good, but the trio of tomato desserts—a roll cake, a panna cotta, and a tiramisu—were simply delicious. Such delicate treatment in the sweet department could put an end to the fruit-or-vegetable debate.

After tweeting that we had stopped into Canter’s for a pastrami sandwich on our way to a lovely dinner at Animal one Saturday night while visiting friends in LA, followers implored me to go to Langer’s before I left town. It wasn’t easy because they are closed on Sundays. (Who ever heard of such a thing, a deli closed on Sundays?) To get the sandwich, Monday morning I had to rent a car and drive 30 minutes from Santa Monica in the wrong direction while conducting a conference call and ultimately making my way to the airport for a noon flight. Twice I thought the better of the complicated logistics and timing  and cancelled the car. But I rebooked, headed out on my way to the airport, and got a sandwich at Langer’s before I left. Boy am I glad I did. Langer’s pastrami sandwich was easily the best pastrami sandwich of my life. And the fact that I was eating it while driving in L.A. and talking on the phone didn’t in any way detract from that fact. As much as I loved the flavorful, moist, fall-apart meat, the freshly baked, chewy rye studded with kimmel (caraway) was amazing. And I didn’t miss my flight.

I have waited a long time for someone to open a red-sauce restaurant that makes all of the classic dishes with care, using fine ingredients, the sort of food I make myself when I’m craving an Italian American meal at home. And then along came Carbone. Thank goodness for Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, who are not too proud of their fine culinary training to make a veal Parmesan the way it ought to be made. Of all of the dishes I have relished at Carbone, it’s the hot, crunchy, buttery garlic bread that I thought should be called out. Although I know when the basket arrives at the start there is so much food to come that I had better stop eating, I just can’t put that garlic bread down. I must confess that while indulging in it the first time, the thought crossed my mind that this could be the night I eat myself to death. We were so stuffed when we were done that death might have been a relief.

We are fortunate to have Dan Barber as a smart, articulate leader of the good food movement. He’s also a good cook. But the thing I ate that I remember most about the day I spent at Stone Barns with the Basque Culinary Council, was whole wheat bread that he and his crew had nothing to do with. Made from special wheats grown by plant geneticist Stephen Jones at his Bread Lab at the University of Washington and baked by the lab’s master baker Jonathan McDowell, the bread we tasted at Stone Barns was dense but delicate and deeply flavorful, the  essence of the flavor of wheat, complemented only by yeast and salt.

You probably haven’t heard of Enduro, the new restaurant in the former Outback Steakhouse space at 56th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. It’s owned by my college classmate, Alan Rosen, of Junior’s fame. The food, which toggles between contemporary bistro and American diner, is all comme il faut. (I use the French because none other than Laurent Gras had a hand in helping get the kitchen off the ground.) But the thing that really stands out is the coconut cake on the dessert menu. I love coconut cake. And unless it is homemade by a talented baker, I am usually disappointed. Even the famous cake at the Peninsula Grill in Charleston failed to impress. But Enduro’s coconut cake may be the best I have ever had.

ABC Cocina’s untraditional pan-Latin cooking is addictively flavorful and satisfying the way Momofuku’s untraditional pan-Asian cooking is. Dan Kluger, who also oversees ABC Kitchen’s kitchen keeps the food fresh, bright, and tasty. Of the many things we have tried and loved, the short-rib tacos elicited groans of delight from me and my friends. Order a second one.

The James Beard Foundation collaborated with the Chicago-based Third Coast Radio Festival to create a challenge for short, three-minute documentaries on the theme of appetite (inspired by the theme of JBF’s 2013 Food Conference). The organizers received more than 200 submissions from around the world, which were whittled down by judges and public voting to a handful of finalists. The finalists were presented at a ceremony in Chicago in October, for which chefs were asked to cook dishes inspired by the documentaries and then serve them to the producers. Abraham Conlon, chef/owner of Fat Rice, was assigned Mary Diorio’s quirky shortdoc Blackbird Pot-Pie: Not the Pie Umami Made, about an elderly man remembering his family catching blackbirds in the wilds of New Jersey that his mother would bake into a pie. Conlon chose quail instead of blackbirds, and he had to scour Chicago sources to find them with the feet in tact. What was surprising was how delicious this striking looking pot pie was. It reminded me of a dish David Burke used to make, only a little more surreal.

Finally, no list of my favorite foods would be complete without a mention of the tortino from Buca dell’Orafo in Florence. If you follow or listen to me, you know I think this may be my favorite restaurant in the world, certainly in Florence. I know it was a good year because I got to eat there twice and each time I had a tortino. Though a traditional Tuscan dish, it’s really just an omelet. Once it was made with fried artichokes. Another time, sautéed porcini. Both times it was covered in white truffles. That only four or five ingredients could be so delicious and so satisfying defies logic. Every young, creative chef should try this dish in this restaurant once. It is the definition of YUM!

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Yet Another List: Best Dishes of 2013

  1. Pingback: Yet Another List: Best Dishes of 2013 | Cook and Eat Better | Bokkoloko

  2. mr me

    A bunch of dead birds is good in a pie man.

  3. Mom

    No desert ’till you eat all your dead birds son.

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