What a year for eating. My first bites of the year were in a New Years Day early morning daze at Blue Star Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon (Valrhona Chocolate Crunch was the best amidst stiff competition. These were hands down the best doughnuts of a pretty doughnut-free year). If that’s how a year starts, then the eating surely will continue at a high caliber. Just with less cholesterol.
We’ll break down the trends and analytical stuff in another category this week. This is about those thirteen bites that I still think about and remember almost every detail of. Sure, I could list thirteen bites alone from Pujol or Alma. That wouldn’t be very exiting, would it? Each one of these was an absolute masterpiece that reminded me why dining out can be so special.
First, what were the clunker dishes of the year? I was terribly disappointed by the cult favorite, horribly dry fried chicken sandwich at Oakland’s Bakesale Betty. Even worse was the airplane quality Juicy Lucy (cheese stuffed) burgers at Matt’s and The Blue Door in Minneapolis that supposedly make cheeseburgers even better? Forget about it.
The runaway winner though goes to LAMILL in Los Angeles. This was a sandwich? I’m still in amazement months later.
Now to the winners.
13. Prego (steak sandwich) Traditional, Cantinho do Avillez, Lisbon
Think of the as a Portuguese French dip or the French dip amplified multiple levels . It’s not necessarily any more refined than a French dip, though. One of three varieties that Portugal’s “Emeril” Jose Avillez serves at his less formal establishment in Lisbon, this is a serious down and dirty, impeccably moist, garlic drenched steak sandwich. The only accoutrements are a trio of mustards you don’t need (Dijon, sweet, and VERY hot). Eating like this is truly fun. Another shout out goes to Cantinho’s salt cod with “exploding olives.” Only one olive exploded but Avillez must be the one chef who knows what to do with the ubiquitous salt cod that shows up on every menu in town and always under-whelms.
12. Beet Casoncelli with Smoked Ricotta, Cotogna, San Francisco
Oh, Cotogna and your Michael Tusk-created pastas. San Francisco can’t get enough of them. The year’s pasta pinnacle came via these small ribbons that look like tootsie rolls in pasta form. The casoncelli first is stuffed with a roasted beet and mascarpone filling, then glazed with butter and poppy seeds. The dozen bleeding purple casoncelli then are showered with freshly grated horseradish and smoked ricotta. Tender dough, alluring smoke, the zip of the garnishes, and the beet’s fruity sweetness create an intense multi-flavor dynamic that beet dishes like borscht seldom achieve. We don’t call Tusk a pasta maestro in the city just because we feel like it. He really is.
11. Cauliflower T-Bone with Parsley Purée, Orange, and Olive Pistou, Superba Snack Bar, Venice, CA
O.k., everyone, let’s all say the mandatory George Costanza punch line now. I’m T-Bone! I’m Cauliflower T-Bone! Here is one of the more talked-about dishes of the year from anywhere, courtesy of Jason Neroni, the talent behind the stoves at one of Los Angeles’ most exciting young Italian via California- driven kitchens. Pastas are superb, especially the spaghettini made with wakame seaweed, then partnered with Dungeness crab, uni, miso butter, and pickled jalapenos. But there is a reason this is called “vegan steak” and I’d alternate ordering this and the Porterhouse for 2 if I was a regular at Peter Luger and this was also served. What must be at least half a head of a full- sized cauliflower actually looks like a thick slab of steak. It kind of looks like sweetbreads to be honest with the white color. Like a great steak, the florets’ exterior achieves the perfect caramelized char, making the cauliflower both sweet and earthy. A swatch of parsley purée served as the mat for the cauliflower, leading you to the prized meat. The party really gets going with the sweet-salty tapénade on top of orange and olive. The two work in outrageous harmony with the cauliflower making for a dish every bit as satisfying as a Peter Luger porterhouse for two. I’m willing to fight in defense of that claim.This is a modern day Provençal meets Italian meets Chez Panisse work of art. Single-handedly Neroni made cauliflower relevant.
10. Goat Barbacoa Torta with Braised Goat, Avocado, Onions, Cilantro, and Oaxacan Pasilla-Tomatillo Salsa, Xoco, Chicago
Get past the strange style of service (come on, Rick, too many people complain about this to not fix it…) and specifically visit Rick Bayless’ casual tortas and churros specialist on a Saturday to be treated to this sandwich gem. Avocado takes up half the space, the refreshing foil to perfectly tender braised goat with pitch-perfect gaminess. This proves why goat might be an even more robust meat than steak. Enjoy the torta sometimes alone, sometimes dipped in the fruity- earthy salsa. As much as dessert and churros awaited, my goodness did I not want this to end. Forget Italian Beef. This is the Sandwich of Chicago.
9. Toast! Whole Wheat Toast with Pumpkin Butter and Sea Salt, The Mill, San Francisco and Brioche Toast from Proof Bakery with Blueberry Coconut Jam, Sqirl, Los Angeles
Was 2013 the year of cronuts? Of umami? Well, it certainly was a banner year for the usually very burnt and humble concept of toast. In particular at The Mill and Squirl, California turned toast upsides town. Both venues revolve around the same concept, teaming toast and jam or butters with excellent coffee from top tier baristas (The Mill is part-owned by Four Barrel Coffee Roasters). Josey Baker’s (yes, the baker and miller…I’m not the first to mention this coincidence) superlative wheat and ancient grain breads lead the toast show at The Mill, here accented by equally excellent pumpkin butter spread generously with a small kick from sea salt.
Sqirl’s jams from are the focus, slathered on thick slices of buttery brioche from Proof Bakery in Atwater Village. In the end, the big question with these has been is toast and jam worth $4 and can a “restaurant” like Sqirl really earn the highest rating from a major publication? Both answers are absolutely “yes.” Without a doubt. I want way more toast and jam if the pair is going to become more like at The Mill and Sqirl.
8. Sambal Skate Wing, Hinoki & the Bird, Los Angeles
It looks like melted cheese, but it really is an otherworldly chile paste gone crazy with fish sauce nudging the spices in the fish’s coating. The skate comes on one side of the bones, then flip it over and resume alternating between plain bites and bites dipped in the fiery sambal sauce. The story here is that exceptional marinade/ sauce. I can’t begin to imagine how many experiments it took Myers and Yagi to perfect this. Hard to pick between this and the famed lobster roll on a charcoal stained bun. This isn’t a pretty dish. The rugged sambal sauce sure is funky. Funky can mean bliss.
7. Guava Sorbet with Worm Salt and Flambéed with Mezcal, Pujol, Mexico City
A palate cleanser? Oh, right. Not in the hands of Enrique Olvera. A chilled charcoal gray bowl holds a single quenelle of guava sorbet in a pool of our beloved Mezcal. This is a Mezcal dish after all, so the sorbet is sprinkled with worm salt. Look out, here come the pyro-technics. A match gets lit and the combustible Mezcal gets set on fire, flambéing the guava sorbet. Yet you notice how the sorbet only vaguely melts, never losing its form because of the reaction between the Mezcal and the ice-cold bowl. It’s a technological marvel. Stunning and captivating. Most importantly, a deliriously enjoyable bridge to dessert.
6. Goat Kid with Majorcan Sausage, Honey, Pods, Elderflower, and a Potato and Licorice Spiral, Ramon Freixa, Madrid
Meat-wise in Madrid, you think of the ubiquitous ham everywhere. Or the famed suckling pig at Botin, the city’s iconic restaurant, and the “oldest restaurant in the world.” You think of bull fights and hearty ox tail stews. But, goat kid? In the U.S., goat really shines most frequently in the Mexican consommé dish “birria,” with the soft meat tucked into warm corn tortillas. Here in Madrid is a case for goat as the ultimate meat. It boasts a gaminess tamer than lamb, with all the crisp, fat, and saltiness of an exemplary suckling pig. Pardon my scientific background, but imagine if we engineered the combination of suckling pig, lamb, and pork belly. Talk about the ultimate invention for carnivores. Well, we’re talking about goat kid. Freixa’s goat kid comes as a mini log rolled with Majorcan sausage and honey that tastes strongly of a sweet Kansas City barbeque sauce. A small potato and licorice spiral tartlet, two pea pods, and an elderflower jelly add superb contrast to the kid. Ignore the banal pasta and spicy sausage “minestrone” that is another component of the course. The focus is on this goat kid. A true masterpiece for its gentle texture, its robust character, and sheer glutinous joy.
5. Slowly Cooked Arctic Char With Basil and Crushed Tomatoes, Jean Georges, New York
As excited as I was for Jean Georges’ celebrated sea scallops with a caper-raisin emulsion that remain one of my favorite recipes to make at home, this arctic char absolutely stole the show. Look how the piece of fish glistens. One experienced dining partner of mine at the table called it the best fish dish he’s ever had. It might be the same for me. Such tender, beautiful fish. Basil permeated everywhere to a near hypnotizing point. So much depth from the tomato emulsion, so much summer character. No wonder Jean Georges has written books on how he eschews butter for fruits and vegetable to boldly fortify his sauces. Under-achieving service and other dishes aside, this is why a chef like Jean Georges belongs in the pantheon of star chefs. This is the top tier of four star cooking.
4. Chicken with Mole Negro, Azul Condesa, Mexico City
Since he’s considered a leading scholar and authority on Mexico’s cuisine (and deserves to be for sure), I couldn’t have been more excited to witness the vaunted mole negro from Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. Possibly Mexico’s greatest recipe treasure and chef treasure. My goodness. The mole may have even surpassed expectations. Fundamentally, it’s amoist chicken breast atop a generous pond of the mole negro, garnished with a cilantro floruish, and a very ripe plantain known as platano macho (imagine eating a banana with a completely brown skin, then slightly caramelized with some brown sugar). Simple, right? Of course not. First of all, like many home cooks, I still can’t figure out how to make a boneless, skinless chicken breast not desert dry. That’s barely skimming the surface for the effort mole requires. Moist chicken aside, what makes this dish extraordinary is the mole negro. It is indeed so much more than a sauce. It is a heritage. It is a story. It is a stew. It is a paste. It is really its own unique, description-defying category of cooking. It cannot be labeled as much as we food writers try. With an endless requirement of chiles, spices, chocolate, nuts, broths, and herbs involved, mole negro must come straight from the heart of a generous chef wanting to share a an integral part of their culture with you. There is a mythical factor involved that can’t be denied.
3. Chocolate and Hazelnut Variations, Belcanto, Lisbon
Don’t you just love specific menu descriptions like this? I’m afraid my specifics on the dish won’t be a lot less vague either. Trust me, this was how every meal should conclude. Jose Avillez decided to go for the gold with Belcanto. With dishes like this and the famed “Skate Jackson Pollack,” he really deserves to be on the global stage. As wonderful his his more traditional pasteis de nata pastry was, chocolate won out. Served on a leaf shaped platter, there had to be at least six chocolate-nutty components of the nutella flavor profile class. Well, gee wiz, that must be terrible. Think chocolate logs, chocolate octopus tentacles, smooth as Fred Astaire dark chocolate sorbet, knock you over the head intense hazelnut mousse. This was both a museum quality sculpture and gastronomic delight.
2. Veal Sweetbreads with Butter, Lemon, Demi-Glace, and Mustard Mashed Potatoes, Gresca, Barcelona
Of course we need some offal meat on the list. Yes, offal for fashion’s sake is very 2011. But there’s a reason much of the world adores the funky meats, especially sweetbreads. A few years I sampled a sweetbreads dish at the legendary Taillevent in Paris that was fine but not half of this preparation by Gresca. Taillevent’s dish was far more than four times the Gresca price too as you can imagine. Gresca is that type of “in the know” upscale, local restaurant that manages to transcend its humble appearance without selling itself out to the masses. English spoken? No way. Keep it a secret. At first, this dish sounded like the most boring on the menu. Butter and lemon? The waitress kept insisting it was what I had to get. Never turn your back to recommendations like this. I had a hunch the dish was much, much more than it sounded. Indeed it was. Out came a dish that could make the pickiest eater lick their plate clean. The sweetbreads are tender like a well marbled Wagyu steak, instead of the usual awkward spongy solidified cream. A demi glace is made of the butter and veal stock and the “mustard” hides in the perfect mashed potatoes. It doesn’t sound light, but it really is. It almost seems like a Gaudi dish. This is Barcelona, remember?
1. Aged Duck Breast with Broccoli, Potato Granola, Sesame, and Raisin Cream, Blackbird, Chicago
The Dish of the Year takes its cue from one of the year’s emerging themes that will most likely be seen on a much greater scale next year: aging meat. We’ve heard of prime dry-aged steaks, biding time, and commanding prices with that time like their Cabernet Sauvignon partners. But…duck? We’ve heard of air-drying ducks for dishes like Peking Duck. Not aging the fowl though like Paul Kahan is doing at Blackbird. Then again, never question the master who has figured out how to make Blackbird the rare restaurant that has been a star since Day One and might be stronger than ever at years young. Blackbird’s duck preparation isn’t too complicated. The centerpiece is the breast cut into three very generous hunks, tasting far more like a forceful steak than the usual mere medallions that vaguely have any flavor and require way too much chewing. The middle achieves a perfect rosy rare to medium rare, while the exterior is a crisp Miami tan with the thinnest layers of fat providing the same meat-salt pop of chicharrones. A sesame based sauce provides just the right amount of sweet and moew umami to accent the duck, without coating it. Tender broccoli lays alongside the meat, coated in a fascinating textural contrast of potato granola and raisins. There is a creative vision on display here. The crunch meets the fruit meets the spice meets the meat. In the end, it’s about that meat. The duck has an astonishing depth. Duck’s usual gaminess is easily recognizable here and yet every edge is so smoothed out, while the power of the meat is amplified exponentially. I could say maybe I tasted some hints of dark cacao or notes of alba truffles. Really, this is just the most duck tasting duck I know of. And that deserves to be the best bite of 2013.