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The 12 Bites That Defined 2012

What a year for dining. So many impressive techniques on display worldwide, such fascinating new ingredients discovered, and then of course it’s always a joy to re-visit old stand-by dishes. Oysters, langoustines, and Dungeness crab seem to be very popular on this list…not exactly a shocker. The best dish of the year comes from…well that’s a shocker and you’ll find out in just a moment.

Here’s to a year of much more than 12 exceptional bites. And here’s to the hard working chefs who deserve an enormous round of applause for creating this. Hats (and toques) off to you!

12. Dungeness Crab, Seaweed Noodles, Spicy Red Curry, Crème Fraîche, Revel, Seattle

The extraordinary Dungeness Crab Seaweed Noodles and the kitchen at Revel

The extraordinary Dungeness Crab Seaweed Noodles and the kitchen at Revel

There is no shortage of the freshest, plumpest crab in this tour de force noodle dish from the gifted Seattle chef Rachel Yang. The curry adds spice, the seaweed in the noodle adds intrigue, and the crème fraîche melts into the luxurious component that makes this so much more than just a fusion, noodle-based creation.

11. Wagyu Short Rib with Strawberry, Fennel, Fish Sauce, and Tarragon, Uchiko, Austin, Texas

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Short ribs with strawberry? In the hands of Paul Qui at this envelope-pushing thriller of a restaurant in the Texas capital, anything is possible. The short rib meat is more tender than most briskets you’ll find in these parts, given a Southeast Asian punch from the fish sauce, quirky herbal dimensions from fennel and tarragon, and the compressed strawberries…well, somehow it’s a perfect marriage between them and the other parts.

10. Gianduja Chocolate Panna Cotta, Hazelnut Blondie, Candied Orange, Patron Citronage Ice Cream, Oak, Dallas

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As  beautiful to the palate as it is to the eye, a virtuosic dessert from Sarah Green. It’s really a two part dessert. Who doesn’t love hazelnut flavored panna cotta, nutella to the tenth degree? However, it’s the blondie that steals the show, subtly enhanced by candied oranges and the ice cream that tastes like candied orange and nothing of Tequila. Combine all the components?  The result is a perfect dessert.

9. Oysters & Pearls, The French Laundry, Yountville, CA

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Each Chef’s Tasting Menu at the venerable stone house commences with this Thomas Keller standard. With its own unique bowl and spork on the side, twin Island Creek oysters reside on one half of the silky tapioca sabayon, opposite a quenelle of caviar. Are the pearls a reference to tapioca or the connotation of caviar and fashionable wealth? Lots of salt and seafaring notes going on here. Luxurious, yet fresh, and completely deserving of its fame.

8.Crispy Pork Skin and Black Currant, Noma (no picture available)

Choosing a top dish from Noma’s hit after hit of 27 dishes is no easy task. Yet, something stood out most of this “snack.” The black currant element is similar to a fruit roll-up, serving as the base for the chicharonnes. It’s more modernist cuisine of Spain than New Nordic. Who cares? Talk about complimentary flavors.

7. Grilled Langoustines from Froya,  Tjuvholmen Sjomagasin, Oslo, Norway

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Sounds pretty basic, right? Anyone who has enjoyed a top notch langoustine in Europe knows how they are to shrimp like a 30 day aged Wagyu steak is to Salisbury steak. The meat isn’t all that different from a velvety pâté, with loads of lemon squeezed on top. This is one messy and oh so rewarding seafood experience, overlooking Oslo’s harbor. You may even get a few cuts on your fingers. It’s worth it.

6. Apple, Caramel, Walnut, Burnt Wood Sabayon, Ink, Los Angeles

Ink's Desserts

Ink’s Desserts, Apple-Caramel on Left

I once did a coffee tasting with Stumptown Roasters in Portland, where the leader told us that she imagined one bean’s notes as “circle.” What does “circle” taste like? One bite of this showstopper by Michael Voltaggio and I immediately thought “Fall.” Something you’d expect at El Bulli, burnt wood (a taste sensation similar to maple) ice cream and nitro frozen burnt wood sabayon melt onto a crême caramel that doesn’t taste far from Pizzeria Mozza’s butterscotch budino base, with candied walnuts, dehydrated- peeled apples bursting with cider, and a maple streusel for a masterpiece of textures and fall comfort. Absolutely magnificent in every aspect, a clear master on display.

5. Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillé” with Parsnip, Arrowleaf Spinach, Cherry Belle Radish, Black Truffle, and Sauce Périgueux, The French Laundry, Yountville, CA

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Now this is beef. So robust in its flavorful voice, so tender in texture. I’ve never encountered a beef of this power, not even a Porterhouse at Peter Luger’s. That spinach? Looks like a Brussels sprout. The truffles and the sauce add a meticulous edge to this sublime experience. When Chef Keller mentions how this particular cut beef is like no other, he’s right.

4. Beet Relish, Horseradish, and Dill Smørrebrød, Bar Tartine, San Francisco

Bar Tartine's Smørrebrød
Bar Tartine’s Smørrebrød

We’ve mentioned before the myriad reasons smørrebrød are superior to traditional sandwiches. But, there are smørrebrød and there are smørrebrød of the caliber presented by Nick Balla at Bar Tartine’s lunch and brunch services. From the robust rye to the edible Monet landscape presentations to the spot on combinations, lunch doesn’t get better than this. Ask me to choose? You can’t go wrong with a variation of a cobb salad or the version that makes dessert for lunch very acceptable with chocolate mousse and a smear of hazelnut butter. But the smørrebrød is most at home with smoked salmon, especially with some beets and strong notes of horseradish and dill. Marvelous work by Balla.

3. Salmon Tartare, Chive, and Red Onion Crème Fraîche Cornet, The French Laundry, Yountville, CA

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Really? Three dishes from one restaurant? I could name 20 from the year’s top restaurant, Noma, yet the three on this list from Thomas Keller’s esteemed establishment were just plain masterpieces. What stood out most that day was this Keller classic, a simple ice cream cone topped with salmon tartare inspired by bagels and cream cheese. Well, that black sesame cornet could be a Pierre Hermé pastry, and the salmon blessed with the single chive leaf and the creamy elements hidden within the cornet provides a savory moment one never forgets and yearns to re-visit again very soon. With the gruyere gougères that come at the same time as the cornets, what a formidable way to commence a meal.

2. Wood Fired Oyster Roast, Cochon, New Orleans

Wood-Fired Oyster Roast, Cochon

Wood-Fired Oyster Roast, Cochon

Oysters just aren’t the same in New Orleans. The wood-fired oyster roast, five fist sized revelations, are the oysters of dreams, true pearls of the sea. Kissed with a touch of flame and Cajun spiced butter, the half minute of savoring one of these was the most intensely pleasurable thirty seconds of eating I can recall. Donald Link and his restaurant, Cochon, may be known most for…yes, pork. Maybe Cochon should now be called “Huître?”

1. Langoustines with Green Apple Blinis, Tomato Marmalade, Basil Mayonnaise, and Pink Grapefruit- Ô, Talinn, Estonia

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The year’s premier dish was awarded as such immediately after sampling it on a stormy July evening in Talinn. I even declared it as the front runner after returning from Talinn. After being sick for days in Russia and the morning of this dinner becoming profoundly seasick on the ferry from Finland, all became right in the world at Ö. 2012’s best bites came courtesy of this truly magnificent dish, demonstrating how a top notch chef can turn a central ingredient into something not just special, but actually mystical. The langoustines are gently cooked to a royally soft texture. Your choice whether to wrap them in the blinis or not, perhaps with one of the accompaniments if you so desire. Does this sound like a preparation for caviar, except with langoustines? Well, it is. These langoustines are as luxurious as Beluga caviar. Leave the caviar to join the oysters. Blinis really long for langoustines. Langoustines are the jewels of the sea and this dish the jewel of the year.

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