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The 13 Best Restaurant Meals of 2013

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.

Ramon Freixa, Madrid

Ramon Freixa, Madrid

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.

Pujol's Green Squash Tamal

Pujol’s Green Squash Tamal

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. (more…)


The 13 Bites That Defined 2013

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.

Belcanto's Skate "Jackson Pollack" and Its Inspiration

Belcanto’s Skate “Jackson Pollack” And Its Inspiration

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.

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The New Café: Where Biking and Jogging Meets Coffee

Not long ago, a coffeehouse was, well, just a coffeehouse. Think “Central Perk” from “Friends.” Think about the coffeehouses that dot university towns, with stressed out students sprawled out on couches and fliers covering every inch of the walls.

A coffeehouse was a meeting place and a place for reading. As time went by with the wi-fi generation wanting coffee to go with their Facetime chats or work on their laptops, the coffeehouse became a de-facto anti-social computer lab, the complete opposite of the social epicenter that coffeehouses once were.

Would you like some bike and sugar with your coffee?

Would you like some bike and sugar with your coffee?

What to call a nondescript Starbucks or Peet’s? They are what they are, the same in Topeka or Temecula. They are somewhere in between a coffeehouse and laptop center, where at least half the customers don’t even consume the coffee on the premises.

With the rise of the “Third Wave” coffee movement (a global movement of local, small batch coffee roasters who seek out higher quality beans and often have their own cafés) over the past decade, the actual coffee has been surging in quality. In turn, the idea of a coffeehouse has had both a renaissance and a complete re-imagining. These are the cafés where your barista is both expert and artist, where your precious Ethiopian single origin pour-over arrives ten minutes and five dollars later, and where your espresso’s blend has been sorted with the meticulous care a fine Bordeaux winemaker will do with his grapes.

To accompany the loftier coffee, coffeehouses, including Sightglass and Four Barrel in San Francisco, now are combating the anti-social laptop crowd by not having wi-fi available. Here, it’s about socializing, reading, and of course, the coffee.

Palo Alto, CA's Zombie Runner

Palo Alto, CA’s Zombie Runner

Yet in the past few years, the concept of the coffeehouse has been taking an even more peculiar turn. Forget about the old coffeehouses of couches and tables. Welcome to the generation of where bike shops and running stores co-exist with coffee shops. In many cases, these hybrid shops even roast their own beans. One thing is for certain at these “cycle cafés” and “jogging cafés,” you will be wide awake for that next bike ride or run. (more…)


Plat du Jour Friday February 1, 2013: Taste of the NFL, What is Confit?, Sri Lankan Cuisine on Staten Island, A Few Oregon Pinot Noir Notes, and Super Bowl Reservations

It’s the eve of Super Bowl Eve in New Orleans. Do you think a few people just might be strolling down Bourbon Street right now? Care to take a guess how long the wait at the bar for a cocktail is presently at Cure? My guess is a good hour to 90 minutes.

The dinner hour is presently ending in New Orleans, unless you’re planning on beignets at Café du Monde for a late dinner/ early breakfast, or whatever a 2 am meal is considered.

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Looking ahead to prime dinner time Saturday night February 2nd, good reservations can still be found on OpenTable for parties of 2. A Mano, Coquette, Lüke (a CBD John Besh spin-off), Ralph’s on the Park, and MiLa all are excellent choices with availability. But, hurry fast. The list is impressive and extensive for those fully booked: Bayona, Cochon, Emeril’s, Herbsaint, Lilette, Pascal’s Manale, August, R’evolution, Sylvain, and Stella!. Not that that is surprising in the least. You can always gamble and try to walk into Galatoire’s…

Then again Sunday night during the Super Bowl, there is even less availability, with nearly all of these restaurants being somewhat formal and not having televisions. Are people not watching the game or are all the chefs closing so they can watch at home or attend the game? I don’t blame them.

If you’re not spending Saturday night February 2nd at Cochon or Bouligny Tavern, then certainly consider attending one of Super Bowl Week’s always special annual events: The Taste of the NFL. (more…)


Monday’s Neighborhood: Help Restore Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York

This week’s neighborhood of the week exemplifies the meaning of a neighborhood– where strangers come together to help one another in tines of trouble. Brooklyn is full of many impressive restaurant and bar-rich neighborhoods, many of which have been greatly affected by Hurricane Sandy, along with so many other neighborhoods of New York City and the East Coast.

From the café and bar Fort Defiance to the production kitchen for the acclaimed Montréal style deli and bakery Mile High Kitchen, nearly every restaurant, bar, store, and café has been affected by storm damage. In many cases, the businesses have been shut down altogether. The area still, two weeks later, is without power.

Right along the East River by the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, just west of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, and south of the tip of Lower Manhattan, Red Hook was in a particularly vulnerable spot for the surging surf from the storm.

Red Hook isn’t backing down in the face of the storm damage. Grubstreet estimates that most businesses need at least $50,000 in recovery costs and almost none of the businesses are covered by insurance. The small business owners have come together to meet this challenge by creating the fundraising group, Restore Red Hook. (more…)


The Week After: Thoughts on 2012 James Beard Awards, Plus The New Reviewed New York

It has been a week since the 2012 James Beard Awards and courtesy of a splendid fun, food, and drink filled week exploring Seattle and Portland, we were unable to quickly analyze the proceedings and winners last Monday night in New York, as we were busy dining at some of the restaurants of the winners (true story).  It’s never too late to take a look at some of the main story lines to take away from this year.

Beginning with, the amount of attention lavished on the chefs and the awards themselves was unprecedented this year. As foodies become more and more common in the smallest pockets of the world, chefs are truly becoming Hollywood starlets and rock stars. This year’s complete red carpet treatment proves just how mainstream the fervent passion for restaurants and chefs has become.

No James Beard Awards for this restaurant

The difference between the Oscars and the James Beards: while actors and actresses are used to a media and camera frenzy, chefs tend to be of the awkward sort who freeze when attention is lavished upon them. I’d like to see Ryan Seacrest run the James Beards red carpet show for E! Network.

On to the winners, here is the complete list of winners and finalists. (more…)


Cocktail of the Week: Por qué No? from Empellon Taqueria, New York

Having covered the Por qué No? zinfandel blend from Tres Sabores for our wine of the week, por qué no continue our theme of the week with the equally outstanding Por qué no? cocktail from the West Village’s Empellon Taqueria, which used to be simply Empellon until little sibling Empellon Cocina opened early this year. Alex Stupat was brilliant as the pastry chef at WD-50 during one of my summer visits the past few years to New York, and so late last year I had to try his pioneering take on Mexican cuisine. Far from modern but not in the least lacking originality, Stupat’s take on everything from tacos to ceviche is a thrill ride in an enjoyable way.

Surprisingly, the margarita is actually a slight weak link at Empellon Taqueria. So that brings in one of the greatest cocktails I’ve tried recently, the Por qué No?.

Empellon's Por qué No? cocktail

Served in a highball on a large square ice cube, the drink is a beautiful golden hue, made even more alluring in the dark candlelight of the restaurant. Pueblo Viejo Blanco tequila will make you repeatedly say “why not?” after a few too many cocktails, but here is balanced out to have just the agave sweet-smoky notes enhance the drink without Montezuma’s Revenge arriving later. Fresh pineapple purée adds the fruit to counter-act the tequila, then serrano pepper adds a noticable spice with some burn, and then it’s finished with cilantro muddled prior to mixing. The drink is a perfect example of how four distinct ingredients can make for a simple cocktail that tastes as if dozens of homemade tinctures went into its complex creation. Cilantro deserves to make its way into more cocktails. The serrano is definitely noticeable, being twice as intense as a jalapeno, but the pineapple keeps it at arm’s length from commanding the taste.

It’s perfect with Stupat’s exciting cuisine, particularly when paired with dishes that are less spicy, yet still intense in flavor such as a sweetbreads, shitake mushroom, and tlatonile taco. Empellon Taqueria even gives a little sidecar à la Musso and Frank’s martinis to refresh your cocktail. A cocktail this good cannot possibly be allowed to be diminished by melting ice.

Paired with some of New York’s most exciting food, don’t even dare saying just por qué no to this cocktail.