best dishes of 2012…
Seven years ago, I surveyed all of the dishes I had eaten in that year and compiled a list of my favorites, more for my own record than for posterity. Since, it has become an annual tradition.
2012 marked another spectacular year of eating for me. Once again, I traveled the world, visiting restaurants of all kinds and eating a great variety of food. For the eighth time, I gather my favorite dishes of the year in one post.
Is my patience for fussed, high-end food waning? Or is the high-end becoming less compelling in general?
I’m not sure.
But this year’s roster of my twenty-five favorite dishes seems to have favored the simpler, and sparer. Dishes that showcased one or two quality ingredients, or focused on flavor or texture won my heart over those that aspired for more. This year, more than any prior year, the high-end seemed choked by esoteria and whimsy. I witnessed a lot of unedited attempts at genius that failed to deliver.
So, you will find a piece of nicely aged meat at the top of this year’s list. You’ll find pastas, barely dressed, and fish simply prepared. There is a sandwich among them, and a taco too.
This year’s list is dominated by four days of eating in San Sebastian, Spain. Six of my ten favorite dishes of 2012, and eight of the top twenty-five, are from those meals. Otherwise, the list includes dishes from Charleston to Oaxaca, St. Helena to St. Louis.
Lastly, I note that an unusually high number of my favorite dishes from 2012 came out of collaborative events, like the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, and a fundraising dinner at The American Restaurant in my hometown of Kansas City. Usually, the quality of the food at these kinds of events is compromised by the sheer quantity that is demanded, if not by other factors. So, it was reassuring to see that good chefs can prepare great food under abnormal circumstances (or, as chefs travel more, maybe event dining is becoming more normal?).
Out of more than a thousand plates from hundreds of meals in four countries and over a dozen states, here are my favorite dishes from 2012. You’ll also find a link to a spill-over list of the “rest of the best” dishes from the year – ones that I think deserve mention, but did not make it to the top twenty-five – at the very bottom of this post.
The thought of sitting down to a mound of meat appeals to me very little, which is why I rarely visit steakhouses. But the grilled rib eye that my friends and I shared at Asador Etxebarri was so amazing that it was, undoubtedly, my single favorite plate of food from 2012. The meat was grilled on the bone, resulting in a charred crust and a scarlet middle that was marbled with fat that had yellowed with age. It stained the air with a mustiness that only dry-aged meat can. And it coated my mouth with a waxy layer of fat that was so flavorful, so complex, so wonderful, and so thick that only a vinegary lettuce salad, served on the side, could thin.
High in umami, Doña Ofelia’s mole negro was a carousel of flavors that sent sweet chasing salty, bitter chasing acid, and smoke chasing fat; around, and around, and around, it went so quickly that getting off it was hard. I was compelled to go back, and back, and back, and back for more. We couldn’t get enough of it, lapping it up with such focus that we barely paid attention to the chicken that it dressed. On one plate, there was simply a thigh, with the leg attached. On another, were two enchiladas, filled with pulled chicken meat and topped with a dusting of cheese and slivers of raw, white onion, which, somehow paired perfectly with the mole. They were both terrific, in part because they both were swimming with that amazing sauce.
Bitter is not a flavor that Western chefs often explore, or master. But Berasategui did both in this stunning dish that combined smoke with bitter greens. The sharp, bitter edges of both were smoothed beautifully with the pungent fat of oily fish.
At first, this dish struck me as an odd combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures. But, together, they worked wonderfully. Tangy sorrel ice cream helped balance the creaminess of white asparagus soup and the richness of toasted pine nuts warmed in brown butter. Tucked among it all was a mild, creeping heat that remained just on the periphery.
Ganbara’s bar counter was mounded with wild mushrooms of all different shapes and sizes when we walked in for a late-night bite. It was mushroom season, and the kitchen was serving fleshy revellon caps with nuggets of seared foie gras. With a dash of crunchy sea salt crystals and the velvety run of a raw egg yolk, this was a rich but unforgettable combination of earthy flavors and textures.
Tender abalone, the briny flavor of plankton, the smell of woodsy pine in the matsutake, all tied together with a drizzle of warm vinaigrette of dried abalone stock and brown butter: together, a sophisticated combination of flavors and textures that showcased great ingredients and pointed towards a higher way of thinking about food. This represented three Michelin-starred dining at its very best.
This was no ordinary congee. Qui ringed this hand-cracked rice porridge with matsutake mushroom purée and topped it with thinly sliced matsutake, trimmed clams, a slice of kelp, and a sprig of sea bean. It was an unbelievably flavorful collection of umami that was intensified by warm dashi, which was poured over the porridge at the table. I spooned my way around the comforting carousel of treasures until I reached a nugget of foie gras, nestled in the porridge, that ended the tour in a creamy explosion.
I don’t know whether Andoni Aduriz, chef of Mugaritz, intended to mimic the flavor and texture of Chinese, sweet red bean soup (a dessert, served hot) in this beautiful little stew he served us, but he did so with the most unlikely ingredients. The thickened beef stock was grainy with bean starch, and surprisingly sweet with onion. Braised hazelnuts took on the texture of boiled lotus nuts, or peanuts, or taro root, which are common in red bean soup. The resemblance was uncanny, the effect unforgettable.
I have come to admire Boulette’s Larder for its consistently well-crafted dishes, always made from high-quality ingredients (I’ve eaten at this restaurant at least once on each of my three trips to San Francisco this year). The “Vegetarian Farmhouse Lunch,” a daily special on the menu, is usually a hearty plate of food, like this bowl of elastic noodles coated in pesto, spiked with chile flakes, and topped with some pine nuts and a tuft of shaved Parmesan.
22. Bay Scallop
Sliced clam with tofu skin, aged kimchi,
smoked egg, and pork broth on the side.
(Stuart Brioza presenting at the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)
The brisket had been braised all night, and heaped between two tightly knit rye buns (having a toasted ciabatta-like crust, but with a dense whole grain crumb) with Brie cheese and a slather of creamy horseradish mayonnaise. It was warm and comforting, simple and steadying.
I’ll never forget eating this fish taco, sitting on a stool in the shade of a food truck in Ensenada. There was a street vendor on the corner selling kitsch and blasting Alejandra Guzman on the radio. The fish, with its hot and crisp battered shell, was fried to order. We slung some crema and salsa on it, and piled enough garnishes on top to reassure the locals that we were gringos. But I didn’t care. It was summer, and these fish tacos were delicious.
Here are the twenty “rest of the best” dishes of 2012.