Every holiday season we poll James Beard Foundation staff for the best dishes they enjoyed during the year to write a post on the Foundation’s blog Delights & Prejudices. In anticipation, I keep a running list on my iPhone. I am fortunate to be able to enjoy plenty of delicious food. Too much, really. More than can fit on any list, in fact, and only one or two ever make it onto the composite JBF post. Funnily, this is the first year I realized that I could write my own list and publish it on my blog. Duh! The process is wholly unscientific. On the one hand, you can presume that if I actually remembered to pull out my phone and record something I ate, it truly stood out. But it’s possible I was simply eating alone or bored at the table and therefore had time to jot down it down. I know there are wonderful things that were set before me that are missing from this list.
Where’s lunch at Le Bernardin? The Cochon 555 Competition? My dinners at Torrisi and Daniel and Blanca and Northern Spy and Brushtroke and Eleven Madison Park? Anything from my memorable meals in Copenhagen? The bread from Bien Cuit? The soft pretzels from Stork’s? The food at our wedding and on our honeymoon, especially dinner at Frenchie? The delicious things Laurent Gras cooked in the studio for our ebook and in our kitchen at home? I must have enjoyed the company or the wine too much to take notes.
One note of apology for the varying quality of the photos, all of which I took. In an attempt to be as unobtrusive as possible on other guests, I don’t use a flash in the dining room. As the sun sets, so does the quality of my images.
Shrimp Fritters at Wong (NYC)
As the Asian-fusion trend continued to ripple through New York from its Momofuku epicenter, Simpson Wong opened one of the most exciting new restaurants of the genre. This large bowl of crispy fried shrimp fritters tossed in all sorts of spicy goodness stood out. I remember thinking I could come back and just order this and be satisfied.
The elusive Sichuanese chef Peter Chang, chronicled by Calvin Trillin and Todd Kilman, dropped into the Beard House for a Chinese New Year celebration dinner. The food was great, especially his signature eggplant dish, which he had to fry in a large bowl of bubbling oil because the Beard House kitchen doesn’t have woks.
Langoustine Crudo with Poppy Seeds and Caviar at Rouge Tomate (NYC)
If a health-focused restaurant can seem sinfully indulgent, Rouge Tomate is it. This bright, delicious appetizer from the crudo section of the menu was beautiful and memorably delicious, the sweet flesh of the langoustines mingling with the saltiness of the caviar and spice of the poppyseeds. It reminded me of an elegant bagel with cream cheese and lox.
In celebration of the publication of the Art of Eating Cookbook and the quarterly magazine’s 25th anniversary, chef Mike Anthony of Gramercy Tavern cooked a special dinner based on the recipes in the book for two dozen food writers. The classic menu was stunningly delicious. It was difficult to pick a favorite: orange salad with pistachios and pink peppercorns, pintade au poivre vert, turnip gratin. Said Anthony, “It was hard to get my staff to cook food in this old-fashioned way, using so much butter and cream.” Well, it certainly paid off. The room fell silent as guests dug into the retro-rich food. Hands kept reaching across the table for the spoon in the turnip gratin.
Steak Tartare with Burnt Flax & Rye at Isa (NYC)
Although the chef and his menu were sadly short-lived, the neo Nordic influenced cooking at Isa was exciting. This steak tartare had the haunting flavor and texture of a charred porterhouse when you ate all of the different elements together. It was nearly as satisfying, too.
Caper Blade Oysters with Buttermilk and Calamansi Orange Juice at Husk (Charleston, SC)
There’s a reason everyone is excited by Sean Brock’s new Southern cooking. There were many dishes to highlight from our outstanding meal at his casual Husk, but the crisp, clean taste of these local oysters served on the half shell drizzled with buttermilk and calamansi juice were the most memorable.
Buffalo Curd with Grilled Onion Broth, Morels, Summer Truffle & Bacon Brioche, St. Nectaire at The Ledbury (London)
As delicious as it sounds.
Balsamic Glazed Eel with Polenta Cream by Massimo Bottura at Viajante (London)
Superstar Modena chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana cooked a special lunch with Nuno Mendes at Viajante in London. The chefs alternated courses for a memorable meal. But Bottura’s Japanese inspired glazed eel dish was a knock out.
Rabbit Leg Stuffed with shiitake and Poblano in Chorizon Sauce at Empellón Cocina (NYC)
Alex Stupak’s contemporary, creative Mexican food at Empellón Cocina in the East Village always impresses, but this rabbit dish literally stopped the conversation at our table when we took our first bite.
French Toast with Brown Butter Ice Cream and Raisin Purée at WD-50 (NYC)
Either the reconceived menu at Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 has grown up a little or everything else around him has caught up to his level of sophisticated, science-based creativity. This dessert was simply delicious—like much of Dufresne’s cooking, so much more than the sum of its parts.
Carolina Ice Cream: White Rice, Fresh Herbs from the Rof, Benne Seeds at McCrady’s (Charleston, SC)
Sean Brock is back on my list with this simple dish of rice and herbs served to us at his elegant McCrady’s. But OMG! How delicious something so simple can be. Aged for three years with laurel leaves—a local tradition that helped deter pests from getting into stores—Carolina rice has never been more rich and flavorful. This ain’t your Uncle Ben’s.
Crawfish Pie at Cochon (New Orleans)
My first stop in New Orleans is always Cochon. I just find chef Donald Link’s modern creole cooking unmatched in the city. And this crawfish pie (more like a turnover) was a standout in a delicious meal, so good that I came back the next day, too.
24-Hour Roasted Beet with Smoked Trout Roe, Lobster & Sea Urchin Sauce at Atera (NYC)
If you could turn vegetables into meat, Matthew Lightner’s 24-hour roasted beet would be a good place to start. It eats like a steak. So many dishes stood out in this marathon meal, served at a counter overlooking the kitchen (a new trend in itself) that it was hard to choose. The squid “ramen” was another delectable course. But somehow I still think about the intensity of this beet.
Eggplant Glazed with Licorice with Butter Greens, Morcilla Sausage, Bulghur & Wheat Berries on the Nomad Rooftop (NYC)
As if the opening of Nomad and its Library bar wasn’t exciting enough, the ambitious team at Eleven Madison Park, GM Will Guidara and chef Danielle Humm, decided to serve a prix-fixe menu on the open-to-the-elements rooftop of their new hotel. Though the logistics still baffle, I’m happy they did it because it was one of my favorite meals of the year. Humm’s cooking was so seasonally of the moment and of the market that it provoked a flow of emotions. (The all-rosé wine pairing might have helped.) My favorite course was this slab of eggplant roasted and glazed until custardy, and served with a beautiful array of seasonal garnishes.
Salad of Tomatoes and Melons at Sitka & Spruce (Seattle)
The setting and the food at Seattle’s Sitka & Spruce were so special that I went back three times in four days. Both are fresh and light, deceptively casual and satisfying. This salad of melons, cucumbers and tomatoes arranged on a schmear of creamy herbed dressing was typical of chef Matthew Dillon’s cooking. Loved it!
Air-Dried Venison Leg with Crumble of Cress, Celery Root, Rye, Pecans, Dried Blackberries, and More at The Willows Inn (Lummi Island, WA)
I made the trek alone to remote Lummi Island to eat Blaine Wetzel’s food and I’m probably the only one who’s had dinner and then driven back to Seattle solo. But it was all worth it for his hyper-local, seasonal cooking. Of all the things I ate that night, the intensity and deliciousness of flavors in the crumble on this air-dried venison still baffles. I asked the staff many times to list what was in it and what could possibly make something so simple so lingeringly delicious.
Mutton Four Ways with Huckleberries at The Herbfarm (Woodinville, WA)
It took me two decades to finally get to the Herbfarm, Jerry Traunfeld’s legendary restaurant, where the cooking is based on herbs, a local garden, and the seasons. Despite the kitsch setting and the odd Disney-like performance of the dinner, the food was very, very good. This mutton exploration stood out for the rich, sweet elegantly gamey flavor of the meat and the contrastingly tart flavor of huckleberries.
Pulled Pork with North Carolina Sauce at Slows Bar-B-Q (Detroit)
I was surprised to find a fun, dynamic, and delicious restaurant in downtown Detroit. (And even more surprised to find the elegant third-wave cocktail bar The Sugar House next door.) The restaurant was jamming and the food was excellent. The pulled pork with North Carolina sauce was exemplary of the best BBQ. Pints of local beers on draft was another unexpected and welcome element of the experience.
Pigeon Risotto at Buca dell’Orafo (Firenze)
It didn’t look like much, but the deep, soul-satisfying flavor of this risotto still makes me weak in the knees when I think about it. Buca dell’Orafo may be my favorite restaurant in the world. I’m not kidding. I know it is Nate’s, and that’s just because of the lamb chops he once ate there. Their potatoes pan-roasted in olive oil are enough to make me want to fly to Florence tonight for dinner.
Duck Ssäm at Momofuku Ssäm Bar (NYC)
David Chang’s food wallops you with flavor. And this family-style duck ssäm, like a punk Peking duck, was so luscious and delicious it brought tears to my eyes when they set it on the table with all of its accoutrements: pancakes, dipping sauces, lettuce leaves and fresh herbs, rice, and sides.
Fettuccine al Tatufo at Ristorante Pierino Penati (Viganó Brianza, Lombardy)
So many dishes stood out at this BYOT (Bring Your Own Truffles) five-hour lunch that it’s hard to pick one. But the fettuccine was the only dish I requested seconds of, so that’s what made the list. (Okay, I’m lying, I also asked for more risotto bianco, but there was a lot of rice on this list already.) The panettone carved tableside at the end, number 1 of 250 made that year, was a runner-up, but we were so full we were going to explode.