It’s hard to follow-up the formidable dining year that was 2012, with its list of heavyweights including The French Laundry and Noma. Remember, there have been many, many tremendous films over the years since the 12th edition of the Oscars celebrating the films of 1939. That year’s Best Picture winner was “Gone With The Wind.” “The Wizard Of Oz” was also a nominee. Hollywood hasn’t had such a same year 1-2 punch since Gable and Garland. I don’t know if yours truly will have a year like 2012 with Keller and Redzepi. But we’re always trying.
2013 started strong and never let up even if no destination quite achieved the nearly impossible levels of excellence consistently reached by certain kitchens and dining rooms in Copenhagen and Yountville. This year ultimately was a debate between a dynamic Basque chef in Madrid and one of the emerging forces of the gastronomic world from his emerging on the grand scene flagship dining room in Mexico City. In between, we learned that Portugal knows how to cook far more than just salt cod. The best meals in New York aren’t always reliant on Michelin—or The New York Times—stars. Los Angeles is becoming a real force on the dining scene and not because of chefs who adore the media limelight (that’s for sure in one case). Hotel restaurants aren’t always “hotel restaurants.” (Well, they usually are, but this list has two entries from that category (!)). And the year’s funkiest, most thrilling meal took place in a near pitch black underground bunker—in our nation’s capital after an over four hour long wait.
I guess in that spirit, I should write a four hour long article? I’ll give you a pass on that.
In a moment, we’ll unveil the year’s 13 best restaurant meals.But first, who should have been on this list but underachieved? The achingly indifferent service, dry and depressingly bland cookies, and the thoroughly disappointing much revered fried chicken sandwich at Oakland’s beloved Bakesale Betty gets a mention.
So too does my (unfortunate choice for a) birthday dinner at San Francisco’s Waterbar. Sure, the Bay Bridge light show views are stellar. The out-of-control loud party at the table next to us, scattered service, and slapdash cuisine that didn’t make Waterbar feel like the non-tourist trap it claims to be won’t fly in such a prominent place in such a prominent dining town.
Jean Georges in New York was nearly across the board excellent—except for cocktails that clearly haven’t been given the same thought as the food and disapproving service that made me feel like it was my bad for deciding to dine with them and ruin their evening. There is slow service and there is indifferent service. And then there is both simultaneously. I’m sure if I returned it wouldn’t be like this. I wouldn’t send back a Ginger Margarita twice because I wouldn’t order the embarrassment of a drink again. And servers can’t behave like they did to my table because Jean Georges wouldn’t allow them to stick around long. By all means enjoy a meal at Jean Georges. Just stick to wine. And hope they like you.
I won’t harp on Viridiana, a longtime Madrid stalwart, since I was told after the fact that the chef/owner Abraham García is in ill health and no longer cooking. Still for the price and reputation, this may have been the year’s biggest let down, punctuated by the signature starter of scrambled eggs in a watery foie gras sauce with grated black truffles that made three excellent luxury ingredients as dull as can be…for 35 euros. Not cool. Not good. Watery foie gras sauce is a potentially good intention that really is a not so good idea.
We all know to skip the restaurant trap on holidays. Forget about a pleasurable meal or a chef’s best showing on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day brunch. I learned the hard way to also skip 4th of July “picnics.” Jamie Malone is one of Minneapolis most gifted chefs and Sea Change inside the stunning Guthrie Theater could hold its own among any of the country’s major seafood restaurants I’m sure. For $95 a person, you could sit with strangers at a picnic table outside, have all you can drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, a slapdash excuse of a caesar salad, a whole steamed lobster with sausage, corn on the cob, dinner rolls, and a forgettable dessert of a strawberry shortbread trifle. I know they can do far better. But at least you get a decent fireworks view! Spotty service comes with the meal but not wine or cocktails using poor ice.
In other words, you’re paying $95 for lobster (you have to pay me $95 to drink the PBR). Maybe that’s fine if the lobster is stuffed with the finest Alba truffles. Next year I’ll have a regular dinner at Sea Change and stroll outside for a free fireworks view if I find myself in Minneapolis.
But the unfortunate “winner” who should be on the good list and turned out to be the opposite? That honor goes to the tired, uninspired preparations and languid service at Michael Cimarusti’s elegant seafood-focused dining room Providence in Los Angeles. It wasn’t remotely in the same league as its esteemed status and price, proving that in Los Angeles never, ever dine at the most expensive gastronomic temples (see Red Medicine, Alma below as proof). “The Ugly Bunch” was essentially a little uni with other flourishes that aren’t noticeable on neutral panna cotta. In a way, it’s a 50% constructed dish. At a seafood temple, the only entree worth noting was the duck breast.
One prominent critic in Los Angeles admitted to me afterwards that she was happy I had this experience because she had always felt like she was the only one who was always disappointed by Providence. It’s ok, we can all admit this now. It’s just not remotely in the big leagues. Without an upgrade, Los Angeles isn’t particularly gentle with your 60 seconds of fame.
On that note, we’ll start in Portugal with the year’s premier lunches and dinners.
13. The Yeatman, Porto, Portugal
The dining room of The Yeatman Hotel high up on Vila Nova de Gaia has a stunning view overlooking the town of Porto and the Gustave Eiffel-designed Maria Pia Bridge, especially at sunset. They could serve decent food and get away with it. But nobody wants that. We want exactly what The Yeatman provides on the plate and from being the heart of such an important wine region. Surprise, surprise, the wine list of Portugal’s best is a hit. So are the beautiful preparations on the tasting menu like foie gras three ways (macaron, truffle, and with rubarb), or a beautiful surf and turf concept of veal tenderloin paired with cured black ham, clams, and a sauce made of enriched bone marrow. Finish with a 20 Year Tawny Port because each one was made within a mile of your table.
12. Alma, Los Angeles
Before Alma became this year’s “State Bird Provisions- Bon Appetit proclaimed “Best New Restaurant”- impossible to get a reservation” spot and recently adopted an exclusively $65, five course prix fixe menu , I had the opportunity to dine enjoyably, quietly, à la carte, and at a decent hour at this “up and coming” spot in a very “up and coming” part of the “up and coming” Downtown Los Angeles. The secret is gone with all three. The Ace Hotel just opened nearby. Downtown Los Angeles was number 5 on The New York Times 52 Places to Travel in 2014. You knew immediately what a talent Ari Taymor is by his elevation of English muffins to pastry aristocracy, a sweetbreads, mole, beets, and cherry dish for the record books, and the first time I’ve seen rye bread pudding be a worthwhile dessert effort. His cooking is not at all like the rustic Italian at his prior stop, San Francisco’s Flour + Water (for the record arguably my pick for the most consistently rewarding dinner spot in that city). However, it’s got the same boldness and character that doesn’t just happen. The 39 seat, open kitchen space is funky and rocks to its own beat. I’m no Brooklyn expert but I figure this is the type of place the French refer to as “très Brooklyn.” Whatever and wherever, Taymor can cook. There isn’t a better example today of a restaurant’s humble rise leading the rise of a previously downtrodden urban area. If its seaweed and tofu beignets that can change Skid Row a few blocks away, then let’s begin the beignet development era.
While the aforementioned Waterbar was my birthday “celebration,” my actual birthday dinner came at this new restaurant on the Scottsdale-Phoenix border after my birthday Spring Training baseball was rained out (in Arizona!). What a pleasure it was from the amazing “Beet Yuzu Gimlet” opening story to bite after bite from chef Cullen Campbell, I’ll gladly spend my birthday or any night here. Just look past the awkward barn meets modern atelier room. Pastas are the signature like the squid ink risotto with chilies and tuna. Snack on addictive crispy pig ears that actually aren’t chewy and smoked olives channeling vegetarian bacon. Whatever you do, don’t skip cocktails like “The Tongue Tied” and gooey fresh mozzarella with an alluring bacon-caramelized onion relish, one-upping the Father’s Office burger flavor profile.
10. Zuni Cafe, San Francisco
My most recent visit to San Francisco’s Market Street legend came about months before Judy Rodgers’ passing. Of the many meals I’ve enjoyed over the years, this last one was even the most remarkable in that simple, effortless, yet very detailed Zuni way. Oysters? Check. Excellent caesar salad with just the right proportion of croutons to anchovy to lettuce bite to creamy dressing? Absolutel. I’ve never visited and not had the espresso granita but the gateau Victoire is possibly the quintessential no-frills chocolate cake. And the famous roasted chicken? Somehow it was even moister with a stronger marinade than prior dinners. This was a meal that shows what a gift Rodgers was to our community and how I’m very confident Zuni will continue her legacy.
Don’t call Nine Ten a “hotel restaurant,” even if it’s just off the lobby of the Grande Colonial Hotel. Strangely, it’s a hotel restaurant, by the sea…with no ocean view. That means food needs to be the focus. And it is thankfully. For a large party celebrating a big family birthday, Nine-Ten went above and far beyond the usual by treating is not as a banquet chore. Chef Jason Knibb will be running his own, award-winning place in no time. Of particular note, a tender Jamaican jerk pork belly with plantains and sweet potato puree and one of the year’s premier vegetarian dishes courtesy of vadouvan roasted cauliflower that could’ve been filet mignon. Rachel King’s desserts sometimes get diners to come just for dessert. Not a bad move. Spring for the espresso bon bons with espresso gelato, devil’s food cake, and mascarpone foam. Hotel? Yes. By the ocean and potential tourist trap location? Yes. Clearly, neither matters when great service and great chefs collide together.
8. Belcanto, Lisbon, Portugal
Barely a year old, Belcanto is Lisbon’s restaurant to compete with the best of other fellow European capitals, and is possibly Portugal’s most influential to boot. In the first half of the 20th century, Belcanto was Lisbon’s legendary restaurant before becoming a somewhat sketchy “gentleman’s club.” I can’t imagine Belcanto circa 1910 was like this. Then José Avillez stepped in a few years ago. To the uninitiated, he’s the Mario Batali and Bobby Flay of Portuguese television. What, you don’t watch Food Network Portugal? Avillez’s “Skate Jackson Pollack” might be the most visually magnificent dish of the year anywhere period, served with inedible painting but was my least favorite dish of the superb meal (all those sauces don’t add up to much, it’s just a nice piece of fish). Everything else showed why Avillez is the father of modern Portuguese cooking, especially his suckling pig “revisited” and the contrasting hazelnut and chocolate textures dessert. Service is top tier, dealing with one fellow diner’s sending back of a dish (this wonderful but at times picky diner was at fault for ordering it) with absolutely no hard feelings. When I apologized later to Avillez for the incident he simply smiled and said I should order the dish instead next time. There will definitely be a next time.
7. The NoMad, New York City
Cross country flights and the subsequent trip from JFK to Manhattan is always relaxing. It always goes smoothly. Thankfully I had dinner at The NoMad awaiting me to ignore the spacious couch seating for six hours. What a well-run, grown up restaurant that is far more than the good but not great roasted chicken for two (not in Zuni’s league). Cocktails are a star, especially when consumed in the back Library (go for the Tequila Manhattan called “The Loosey” with Highlands Blanco Tequila, Mexcal, Punt e Mes, Chambery Blanc Vermouth, Grand Marnier, and Angostura bitters. ‘s food is no supporting cast. A summer dish of corn with roasted tomato, basil, and a corn cream was a dream of seasonal flavors. Best was either the simple king crab, Meyer lemon, and a dash of black pepper that displayed precise restraint and pasta craft mastery, or an angel’s food cake with anise hyssop, and poached strawberries that the server brought to the table because I had shot down his recommendation in favor of the more renowned dessert on the menu. He seemed miffed but understood angel’s food cake’s poor reputation. I’ll never skip his recommendation again. This dessert sang with all sorts of competing, complimentary directions. When I think of “plated desserts,” this is how they should be. The NoMad proves that large-scale restaurant can still run smoothly and be innovative.
6. Little Serow, Washington D.C.
When you’re told to wait four hours for your table, what do you do? I had a whole half day in front of me after lining up a half hour before the capital’s blazing hot Thai stalwart Little Serow (rhymes with “arrow” for the last time!) even opened. From Johnny Monis and Anne Marler of the next door, civilized, grown-up Komi, Little Serow was hands down the most riveting meal of the year. And the most spicy. Do I remember everything from the pitch black bunker room and (significant) pre-gaming in the four hour wait? Not hardly. Even if it was bright as day and I was awakened by three espresso shots, I could never keep track of the dozens of hypnotizing spices and fragrances that unfurled before me. But my oh my the funk of the “ma hor” with sour fruit, pineapple, dried shrimp, and eggplant. Then the fiery inferno of the smooth chicken liver hashed with sawtooth peppers and long peppers. The finest moment was the relatively calm, regal “Het Grapao,” a fragrant-sweet do-it-yourself form of stir-fry with mushrooms, holy basil, and a fried egg. If only every city had Little Serow…and that took reservations. Certainly do the bargain beverage pairing too to best compliment these more than just vibrant plates.
There’s not much more I can say about Paul Kahan’s now decade old West Loop stalwart. The aged duck was the best dish of the year. Service is as polished as the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup. Blackbird even effortlessly combined wood grilled sturgeon and chicken wings in a dish thanks to turnips and a walnut puree. Take that lobster and filet mignon. Inside could be an art gallery. After ten years of service, Blackbird could be a stale museum of early 2000s dining. Instead, it’s as relevant as ever.
4. Red Medicine, Los Angeles
Despite the infamous (and ridiculous) outing of a certain Los Angeles newspaper critic by the young and naive Red Medicine upon its opening, I ventured there in its earlier months and left realizing that chef Jordan Kahn is no ordinary talent. The place was both scary and scary good. Red Medicine wasn’t just “Contemporary Vietnamese” as many tried to categorize it. It was pure genius from the kitchen. Returning two and a half years later, everything is even more refined, more of a high-wire act, and soaring with success. Those Brussels sprouts with shallots and shrimp chips? Gold medal. The lamb shoulder slow-roasted with…Sequoia redwood shoots, accompanied by ripe and unripe mango, preserved mustard seeds, and puffed soymilk skin? A not so ordinary work of art I’d say. Kahn’s dessert background gives you faith in a shaved ice of redwood stems with sour red currant berries and jelly, and crème Chiboust of jasmine flowers, crispy rice crackers, verbena bubbles, and roasted almond praline. Did I lose you in the forest? Good, you’re still here. Just eat and enjoy. Trust Kahn. Now I just wish we could turn back time and have that early incident never happen. And I wish more Los Angelenos would fill the dining room here instead of Pink’s.
Get past the unimaginative name (you don’t need to speak Spanish to figure it out), the label as an “El Bulli wanna-be” every modern Spanish cuisine restaurant in the country gets, and allow Jordi Atal to prove why he’s a talent to watch in Barcelona. At the time, Jordi’s sister Amèlia who ran the front of the house was about to re-locate (back to the Bay Area in fact, small world), but the service was so smooth I’m sure the changes have gone off without a hitch. From the kitchen comes a vast array of stories, each with a slight intellectual bent that leans towards molecular gastronomy without overwhelming you into a foamy coma. Beginning with a “coca” (think a Spanish flatbread) of glazed leeks and foie gras and finishing with three of my favorite ingredients in life: beer, banana, and caramel sauce, the middle is where the tale really unfolds. The suckling pig with eggplant, basil, and wild mushrooms was the woods in a dish, indeed employing all five senses. Cinc Sentits’ dining room by the way is one of the more understated and simple, yet elegant rooms you’ll find in relentlessly flashy Barcelona.
As the “Seventeenth Best” restaurant in the world for what that’s worth, Enrique Olvera is finally getting the international articles he deserves, fourteen years after opening. Alinea is only about to turn ten years old. Olvera has been an A list celebrity for a while though at home in Mexico. And yes, he still cooks even with an emerging restaurant and airplane cuisine portfolio. His reputation at Pujol unfairly is as a lover of insects, fungi and other “out there” ingredients. You might find ant larvae in one aioli but it’s not like eating a science fair experiment. For what Olvera serves, the service and room are a tad ruffled at the edges, though certainly showing plenty of effort and polish. They’re emerging. Meanwhile the cuisine arrived a while ago. Olvera’s powerhouse tasting menu is every bit as elite as the culinary world’s highest tier. His vivid fish ceviche taco on a hoja santa leaf tortilla has the last word on both ceviche and taco subjects. Chemistry class meets culinary art when guava sorbet burns with Mezcal and worm salt for a dessert-cocktail-pyrospectacular that demands an admission price. I could keep going. It was too much fun. Heck, the best Margarita I’ve ever had was the house version here with prickly pear syrup and Mezcal. But the dish I left Mexico City thinking about was Yucatecan pork confit with almonds, raisins, and a mole based off cumin. The concept was so humble in its beginnings and elevated to such an accomplished level. In other words, the dish represents Pujol who represents what is becoming one of the world’s most important gastronomic cities.
Entering the taxi to Ramon Freixa in Madrid’s swanky in the equivalent swanky neighborhood on a “cool” (by Madrid July standards) 95 degree evening, I figured dinner would be terrific but not like it turned out. This turned out to be a meal for the ages. The tiny room could stand for a palace’s intimate parlor. It belies the laser-focus precision of service and food down to the fact that Freixa himself, arguably the capital’s most well-known chef, took our orders. And then he cooked and cooked a marathon. One warning: there is a lot of food coming your way. A lot. Every course really is three to four courses. A few supporting cast members might be underachieving. And you probably don’t need the cheese course. That minestrone which came with a braised goat kid had literally zero flavor. On the other hand, that goat kid was a Goya treasure, blending the best worlds of elegant suckling pig’s texture with Kansas City barbeque’s expressive flavoring. Freixa’s lavish “Tomatoes in 2013” should go straight to the culinary Prado. His Barcelona background leans toward seafood and so the chef coaxes delicate skin-on red mullet into Nobu miso cod softness, given a blast of aroma intensity from lemongrass and ginger. Then you close with too many desserts to count but I could order a souffle size of the cocoa biscuit with Mojito ice. The one that really matters is the coffee and chocolate “explosive world”that shatters on impact, unfurling a river of chili jam. It’s basically the essential chocolate truffle. It will blow your mind and your world.
Start with a golden Amontillado Sherry to pair with the “Ferrero de Foie” (yes, hazelnut-foie gras truffle) and fried capers, cruise through a beautiful Priorat red, and finish with the dense sweetness of Pedro Ximenez. Service effectively swirls around you left and right, never obtrusive and never stiff. This was fun dining. And the food of this caliber speaks for itself. It was an experience fully thought through from beginning to end. And you just have to keep grabbing a few more chocolates from the petit fours tray because you can’t help it. There was no doubt in my mind then and still now that Ramon Freixa was the best restaurant meal of 2013. Here’s to a wonderful 2014!