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. (more…)
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.
It’s profound to think about the changes in gastronomy since Escoffier’s 19th Century heyday, an evolution that the master chef himself would probably warm up to over time after expressing initial ghastly disapproval. There are the initial, on-the-surface changes that are very easy to point out: where art thou white tablecloths, tuxedoed waiters, and diners dressed in your special occasion finest? Truffles, heavy cream, and foie gras, where have you gone? (Oh, they made WHAT law in California?)
Then there are the technical steps and new beloved ingredients of today’s pioneering chef tier that the father of haute cuisine would slowly welcome into his repertoire. I’m sure he would eventually grow to accept sous-vide cooking and would not abuse the vacuum sealing process, as is too often seen today.
And finally, you come upon the little jolts that show just how rewarding dining is today because chefs know how to be daring, while also being thoughtful. Try to think of a more daunting industry to succeed in. Colleges divide themselves into departments of arts and sciences. Forget about separating the two if you’re a chef. Running a restaurant and cooking on a nightly basis is an art and science together.
That brings us to the sometimes subtle, sometimes you wish it was subtle, high-wire acts that chefs and restaurateurs are presenting these days. There are card games involved with dessert. There are dishes that are strictly meant to be smelled. No part of any living species, animal, plant, or neither, is not explored and foraged as a potential component for tonight’s menu.
And, speaking of the menu, a menu usually is one of the more straightforward, less roller coaster rides of a meal, outside of the price listings. It tells you what is being offered from the kitchen, unless of course the kitchen does not want you to know the upcoming omakase flurry. There might be a logo on the menu. The dishes might be written in a particularly elegant font.
Or, there might be a big old stinkbug right on the front of the menu. That’s the case with the jumil, a prized type of beetle, in Mexico, that presently graces the cover of what is often considered Mexico’s finest restaurant today, Pujol. Some tables might receive a menu covered with the slightly more appetizing chapulín (grasshopper), a common ingredient in Mexican cooking. Less known is the six legged and two tentacled jumil, eaten in a tortilla (as you might eat some carne asada) by natives of Taxco, Mexico, who believe that the jumil has spiritual properties that will aid the body’s energy. On the menu at Pujol, the jumil appears almost cuddly, like the best friend you had back in kindergarten but your parents told you to never get near it again. Even when you start to analyze the black and white sketching of the jumil, a tiny horizontal heart is apparent near its center. I’m no biologist, but I have seen enough heart x-rays over time to know an actual heart is not “heart shaped.” (more…)