From a second visit to the newly named number one restaurant in the U.S., Alinea (according to Gourmet Magazine), to snacking from street vendors in China, I’ve had a pretty amazing year of eating. I visited Jean Georges on two continents, Thomas Keller on both coasts, and paid tribute to institutions like Chez Panisse. I also snagged eats at some of the tables that have been rocking the culinary scene recently like schwa, Manresa, WD~50, and ame. Not surprisingly, many of the dishes that I had at these restaurants made my list for the Best Dishes 2006.
Two travel destinations this past year particularly excited me. First, touring China opened up worlds of flavors, textures and preparations I had never encountered or fathomed before. Second, I finally made it to San Francisco for a long overdue week of feasting. From Los Gatos down south, I worked my way up to San Francisco, across the bay to Berkeley and heeled up to the bucolic wine country of Napa.
Of course, one of my favorite things to do is to return to tried-true favorites. I saddled up to sushi master Naomichi Yasuda’s sushi bar in New York at Sushi Yasuda for an encore of uni, uni, and more uni (literally), and re-visited Chef Graham Elliot Bowles at The Avenues in Chicago – a couple of times.
This year also heralded a “higher” diploma, which meant re-locating to Kansas City, Missouri. Returning to my hometown has never been sweeter – especially with the burgeoning restaurant and food scene.
Back at home, I’ve had ample opportunities to re-visit oldies but goodies, mourn old friends and welcome new ones – restaurants, that is.
So, without further ado, here on this new year’s weekend, in no particular order (‘cause that would just be an abusively cruel thing to make me have to decide), are the twenty-five best dishes I’ve had in 2006. Not all of these dishes were perfect. Certainly, all were very tasty. But, each, for its own reason, be it novelty, beauty or just plain goodness, etched its way deeper into my food-memory than the countless other dishes I’ve eaten this past year. These are the dishes that will make me remember 2006 as a great year of feasting. A hearty and heartfelt thanks to all the chefs who made this list possible and 2006 a great year for eating out!
You can click here to see the entire Best of 2006 set on flickr, or click on the individual dishes as you read.
1. Quail Egg Ravioli (schwa, Chicago, Illinois)
These silky pasta pockets housing molten buffalo ricotta and splendidly velvety runny quail egg yolks luxuriating in a hot bath of brown butter and white truffle oil made my eyes roll way back in my head. The garnishes of crisp fragrant fried sage danced across my tongue while the barely poached yolks flooded my mouth with creamy ecstasy. This dish has topped a number of lists this past year, and it definitely tops mine.
Executive Chef Michael Carlson, Chef de Cuisine Nathan Klingbail
2. Abalone with Pig Trotters (Manresa, Los Gatos, California)
Creative, wonderful, lusty, and satisfying. That’s how I would describe Chef David Kinch’s “Abalone with Pig Trotters.” Abalone is one of those luxurious foods not often indulged in outside of Asia. At Manresa, it’s splendid. A filet of abalone crowns a small bed of melt-in-your-mouth shredded pork trotter meat covered in a thin layer of tangy milk skin. This “surf and turf” was sauced with brown butter, pork fat hollandaise, and avocado mousse.
Executive Chef David Kinch
3. Seed and Nut-Encrusted Black Sea Bass (Jean Georges, New York, NY)
This gorgeous filet of black sea bass, crusted with nuts and seeds lay on a bed of caramelized baby red onions and roasted heirloom tomatoes in a bath of “sweet and sour jus,” transported me to the nether regions of Southeast Asia. The “sweet and sour jus,” which was more sour than sweet, had a touch of cream added for a fuller mouth feel. The sea bass, as well, was expertly pan-fried, the crust infusing a nutty and spicy kick. Exquisite!! Executive Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten
4. Cattail Creek Farm Spring Lamb (Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California)
I’ve had so much lamb in hoity-toity restaurants that a preparation rarely stands out. Not surprisingly, Chez Panisse’s simple preparations delivered on bringing out the best of the ingredients: three cuts of lamb (rib chop, loin and leg of Cattail Creek Farm spring lamb) served with artichoke hearts and fava beans and a shredded potato galette. Having three cuts of lamb next to each other, I was able taste each one and notice the distinct flavors in each. While I love the muskiness of the leg, I also appreciated the clean, yet beefy-tasting loin. The rack, always a favorite, was so tender and juicy, I was *SCREAMING* (on the inside). Firm fava beans and meltingly soft artichoke hearts were the perfect foil. At Chez Panisse, less truly is more.
5. Smoked Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp (Jean Georges, New York, New York)
Like the three tenors of haute cuisine, three fat and succulent gulf prawns wrapped in smoky bacon serenaded me with a saucy, sweet, tangy and spicy Passionfruit- honey mustard aria full of buttery avocado interludes. The prawns were burstingly succulent and were sartorially wrapped in tempura-crisp bacon. The avocado added the perfect touch of velvety luxury!! Bravo!
Executive Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten
6. Tasmanian Sea Trout (Scylla, Chicago, Illinois)
My nose perked, my eyes widened, and my salivary glands started to do their thing – my siren, the white truffle, was calling. I won’t soon forget the gorgeous blush peach-orange pan-fried skinless fillet – silky medium rare inside – of Tasmanian sea trout drizzled with white truffle oil at aptly named seafood-focused Scylla Restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. The bedeviling Tasmanian trout nestled on a bed of black trumpets, kale and spaghetti squash and was topped with sweet-tart stewed Fuji apple dices and black truffle shavings.
Executive Chef Stephanie Izard
7. “Foie Parfait” (The Avenues, Chicago, Illinois)
Before Alderman Moore instituted the foie gras ban on Chicago which prompted chefs like Graham Elliot Bowles at The Avenues to offer blow-out foie gras tasting menus in defiance, I was able to enjoy foie gras un-fussed at Bowle’s “Chef’s Bar.” I’ve turned down the fatty liver many a times in my day – but I’m glad I didn’t turn away the Foie Gras “Parfait” at The Avenues: a cup of foie gras mousse layered on lingonberry jam topped with a sweet almond frangipane, crushed almonds, fresh lingonberries, a brioche crouton and fresh chervil. It tasted just like PG&J! Instead of peanuts – almonds; instead of Concord grapes- lingonberries. Brilliant!
Executive Chef Graham Elliot Bowles
8. Sweet Butter-Poached Scottish Langoustines (Per Se, New York, NY)
I don’t think anything could be ruined after being poached in sweet butter. These excitingly fresh langoustines from Scotland were so tender and succulent and naturally sweet, it was almost surreal. I couldn’t eat them fast or slow enough – I wanted to savor each bite, but couldn’t possibly let them get cold. This was certainly an ephemeral eating experience – the fleeting joys of fresh shellfish! These langoustines were served with Holland white asparagus, black trumpets, pea shoots and “Sauce Creme de Trompette de la Mort.”
Executive Chef Thomas Keller, Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Benno
9. “Arpege Egg” (Manresa, Los Gatos, California)
Q: What’s the next best thing to having Alain Passard’s famous Arpege Egg at his restaurant L’Arpege in Paris? A: Having a great version of it at Manresa in Los Gatos, California. Alain Passard’s famous “hot and cold egg” contains a barely poached egg yolk topped with chives and a generous dollop of sherry vinegar-whipped cream. The cream topping is drizzled with a touch of maple syrup and garnished with fleur de sel. While the cool, tart sherry cream works wonders against the warm gooey yolk, the show was nearly stolen by the maple syrup and fleur de sel in a naughty blush-inducing sub-plot.
Executive Chef David Kinch
10. “Hot Potato” (alinea, Chicago, Illinois)
Opening volley at what would be later named the number restaurant in the U.S. by Gourmet Magazine: a marble-sized butter-poached potato topped with shavings of black truffle and mini-cubes of butter and Parmesan cheese were skewered on a pin stuck through a tiny wax cup filled with truffle-infused potato soup. As I pulled the pin out from the cup, each “kebab” fell into the intensely creamy Parmesan soup.
Executive Chef Grant Achatz
11. Burrata Bruschetta (ame, San Francisco, California)
Ever since my first encounter with burrata at blackbird in Chicago three years ago, I’ve never been able to get enough of this creamy, yet slightly lumpy and rubbery cheese. At ame, burrata is showcased on garlicky grilled bruschetta drizzled with fruity Leccino extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and lemon zest. As if that weren’t tasty enough, it’s accompanied by a gutsy bagna cauda of spring vegetables. The bruschetta was out-of-this-world garlicky and I fawned over the bagna cauda – not only was it visually stunning, but also very flavorful. The mild pickling rounded out the raw crunchiness of the vegetables and helped each ingredient shine.
Executive Chef Hiro Sone, Chef de Cuisine Greg Dunmore
12. “Imperial Shrimp” (Bo Ling’s on the Plaza, Kansas City, Missouri)
The Shanghainese-trained chefs at Bo Ling’s on the Plaza make tempura seem like childs’ play. At Bo Ling’s, they deep-fry giant prawns wrapped with egg vermicelli. This results in an impossibly crisp and flaky multi-layered outer shell – Chinese mille feuille, to be sure – and a succulent and piping hot prawn on the inside. A dab of hot chile oil, and I was laughin’!
13. Red Date-Stewed Pumpkin (Nankai Restaurant, Suzhou, PR China)
This cold platter served at the very beginning of our meal was a beautiful
Lincoln Log-like presentation of stewed pumpkin batons slightly sweetened by stewing them with red dates. The pumpkin had been cooked perfectly – sturdy enough to withstand a chopstick maneuver, yet needing no tooth-work. The naturally sweet squash dissolved in your mouth like very buttery mashed potatoes. Absolutely wonderful.
14. “Ribeye” (Aqueous Restaurant, Farmington, Pennsylvania)
Occasionally, if one is lucky, amidst all the complicated pirouetting of food in modern restaurants, you’ll get a simple familiar dish that just screams perfection at a gut-level. Chef David Racicot’s cap of ribeye was one of them. The meat was seared on the outside but perfectly medium-rare in the middle. Smoked potato puree, caramelized onions and the rich complex demi glace were all pampering accompaniments, as was the broccoli puree topped with shaved Idiazabal cheese. Perfect execution, presentation and composition. Touché!
Executive Chef David Racicot
15. Grilled Hawaiian Walu (Krause’s Dining, Lawrence, Kansas)
Who knew that the college town of Lawrence Kansas, home to the KU Jayhawks, held wonders of gastronomic splendor? At Krause Dining, I was blown away by a filet of Hawaiian walu (i.e. escolar) on a bed of plum-braised oxtail and topped with a plaintain chip holding a dollop of banana-schmaltz ice cream. Just reading the description made my brows knit. The fish was so fresh that it naturally released juices that tasted like honey! The banana-schmaltz ice cream was a stunner. I generally do not like bananas – other than in splits. However, mixed with schmaltz, cream and sugar and churned to an icy consistency, it provided an amazing and altogether unexpected compliment to the fish. The sweetness of this dish was offset by the tomato-pepper, which was vinegar-y sour.
Executive Chef Robert Krause
*Krause’s Dining closed the week of my visit. After spending a few months cooking in
New York, Robert Krause has moved back to Lawrence and plans to open an intimate reservations-only restaurant in his home.
16. “Almond” (Aqueous Restaurant, Farmington, Pennsylvania)
Oh, how to describe? Salad – no, soup. Ah, heck, just check out the picture and read the caption below for yourself. I think I described it as a “showstopper,” and all that jazz…
Executive Chef David Racicot
17. Spicy Green Beans (Nan Lai Shuen Fan Zhuang, Beijing, PR China)
Despite the very prominent red chiles flecked throughout, this dish was not spicy at all. The tumble of wok-seared greens, crispy and glistening on the outside, but molten hot and tender within, was studded with crumbles of beef, fried garlic and Chinese pickles. The seductively mysterious and addictive mix of flavors and spices had me picking away at it slowly, but steadily throughout dinner. Despite the elusive ingredients list, I did make a positive i.d. on the most prominent flavor – Shanghai peppercorns – a spicy numbing seed, similar in taste to corriander, with a sour after-note.
18. Uni (Maine) Nigiri (Sushi Yasuda, New York, New York)
How much uni (sea urchin roe) can one man consume? Well, despite being stuffed to the gills at Sushi Yasuda of the freshest cuts sashimi at Sushi Yasuda, I managed to circle back for uni, uni, uni, and more uni! Sushi Master Naomichi Yasuda offered two types and explained that the one I preferred was from the East coast of Maine and was of such rarity and high quality as to be considered “export quality” – good enough to export to Japan. Damn, it was good. It was a lot headier than the California uni that I am used to having (which I also tried at Sushi Yasuda) and had a slight roasted garlic flavor to it.
Sushi Master Naomichi Yasuda
19. Peking Duck Skin with Sugar (Tong Fu Lin Roast Duck Restaurant, Beijing, PR China)
Skip the meat – I want the skin!! When in Peking, do as the Pekinese do – eating the crispy glazed roasted duck skin dredged in course sugar. Whereas eating the skin alone (or with the duck meat) is rather unremarkable, the sugar brings out the naturally sweet aromas from the wood used in the ovens. Now that’s some serious crack(ling)!
20. “Cocao Butter” (Aqueous Restaurant, Farmington, Pennsylvania)
My, my, if ever there was a dish too pretty to eat, this was it. My picture of Chef David Racicot’s presentation of “Cocoa Butter” caught the attention of the writers at Popular Photography Magazine and is featured in the January 2007 issue. Well, the dish didn’t just look good, it was a revelation in my mouth. Inspired by world-renowned chef Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in Bray, U.K., Racicot plated a generous quenelle of Casivius white sturgeon caviar on a bed of cool cocoa butter panna cotta with two shards of silky cipollini. The caviar is cleverly topped with white chocolate shavings. White chocolate and caviar, who’da thunk?
Executive Chef David Racicot
21. “Spaghetti Crabonara” (ame, San Francisco, California)
This was perfect pasta : al dente enough to be firm, but not gritty or raw. You wanna know how hard it was for me not to lick the plate? I’m not even a huge pasta fan and I inhaled this course. Contemplating the twirl of spaghetti laced with shredded Dungeness crab and glistening with a thick buttery nutty and creamy nettle pesto sends shivers down my spine. I assume from the name (but didn’t bother to confirm) that the pasta mix also contained raw egg yolk (which explains the creaminess).The nugget of whole Dungeness crab meat was very much the “cherry on top.” Can I have some more, please? *Orphan-eyed pity-look*
Executive Chef Hiro Sone, Chef de Cuisine Greg Dunmore
22. Grilled Leeks (Hong Che Mai Japanese Restaurant, Suzhou, PR China)
Fat skewered segments of leeks grilled on a robata. What more is there to say? Simply amazing!
23. Spiced Sea Scallops (eve Restaurant, Ann Arbor, Michigan)
Chef Eve Aranoff overheard that I love scallops but was unable to order them at her restaurant due to an allergy to one of the accompaniment. Between salads and main courses, out came an impromptu course of the largest scallops I’ve ever seen (I thought they were petite filets) rubbed dark with smoky Morroccan spices. A refreshing savory curry-carrot salsa and tangy creme fraiche helped cut through the heat of the spices which amazingly didn’t disturb the natural sweetness of the fat scallop.
Executive Chef Eve Aranoff
24. Sea Bass with Confit of Summer Squash (Jean Georges, Shanghai, PR China)
Jean George’s Asian outpost at 3 On The Bund in Shanghai’s swanky waterfront district is a cavernous black-on-black wood-paneled temple to gastronomy. Overlooking the glittering skyline of Pudong, Chef de Cuisine Eric Johnson served my guests and I perfectly pan-fried filets of sea bass with crispy skin resting on pillars of melt-away confited summer squash. Sweet garlic puree and a pungent basil broth poured table-side completed this assertively seasonal summer dish.
Executive Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten, Chef de Cuisine Eric Johnson
25. Wagyu Flatiron (bluestem, Kansas City, Missouri)
Colby Garrelts, chef-owner of one of my favorite restaurants in Kansas City, bluestem (his wife Megan’s not too bad with pastries either, see “Just Desserts” #9), could make sawdust taste good. Imagine what he does with wagyu beef. My favorite incarnation of this course was a cut of flatiron wagyu served with an exciting mix of fava beans, oyster mushrooms, grilled asparagus and roasted shallots. The veal demi glace and drizzle of white truffle oil didn’t hurt either.
Colby Garrelts, Chef de Cuisine David Crum
What? No desserts? No ice cream? Okay, okay, just for you sweet teeth out there, my second annual “Just Desserts” list. Desserts are inevitably an afterthought for guys like me. However, in this last year, pastry chefs have been slowly finding their way into my hearts. Interestingly, hardly any of those dainty haute desserts served at schmancy restaurants made my list. Here are the top ten desserts that I’ve had this past year, again, in no particular order:
1. Olive Oil Gelato (otto enoteca and pizzeria, New York, New York)
Not many times in your life will you taste something so wonderful that your eyes glaze, your body slacks, and your jaw loosens – but just enough to keep the precious goodies in your mouth from dribbling out. Spoon on floor. Ever since I first fell in love with Mario Batali’s olive oil gelato at otto enoteca and pizzeria in Washington Square I’ve not slept the same. I’ve made it many times at home since (It’s in the Babbo cookbook). This year, I made sure that my trip to New York included a mid-afternoon pit stop.
Executive Chef Mark Ladner
2. Hot White Chocolate and Pedro Ximenes (eve Restaurant, Ann Arbor, Michigan)
A little demi tasse of each is all it takes. Normally, I’m strictly a dark chocolate kind of guy. But, little did Eve Aranoff know that she would spark the love-affair of the century when she paired a cup of hot white chocolate with a shot of Pedro Ximenes sherry. One sip of each and I was a changed man. Yet, strangely, I’ve not had white chocolate since… I guess she broke the mold.
Executive Chef Eve Aranoff
3. Jio Nian Tong Ruan (Nankai Restaurant, Suzhou, PR China)
Eating jio niang is one of my favorite cultural experiences. At Nankai Restaurant, jio niang (fermented glutenous rice) is thickened with cornstarch and stewed with glutinous rice balls (think sake porridge; exceedingly sweet and alcoholic).
4. Prune & Armagnac Ice Cream (Jean Georges, New York, New York)
When I first tasted this ice cream at Jean Georges in 2004, I closed my eyes and vowed that I’d go back. When I returned this year to Jean Georges, I skipped ordering dessert – well, sort of. Instead, I asked for a sampling of ice creams hoping to reunite with my long lost flavor. Pastry God Johnny Iuzzini sent out a dish brimming with exciting flavors of ice creams – the crowning jewel: a nice round scoop of my dear prune & armagnac ice cream. Thanks Johnny!
Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini
5. Le Kit Cat (40 Sardines “Happy In The Kitchen” Dinner, Overland Park, Kansas)
Kit Kats are one of my all-time favorite treats – love the wafer, love the chocolate. Michel Richard, renowned chef of Citronelle Restaurant in D.C., elevates the humble bar to a fine dining setting by layering chocolate mousse dusted with cocoa powder on a feuillantine-like base, which ingeniously is simply a mixture of chocolate, peanut butter and cornflakes! The addictive candy bars were paired with a red zinfandel which worked spectacularly with the chocolate and really highlighted the peanuttiness in the bottom chocolate layer. The recipe can be found in Chef Richard’s new cookbook, “Happy in the Kitchen.”
Chef of the Evening Michel Richard of Citronelle
6.Chocolate Heat Gelato (Zingerman’s Deli, Ann Arbor, Michigan)
I don’t know what makes me smile more about the Chocolate Heat gelato at Zingerman’s – the taste, or the nostalgia of those not-yet too-distant sweet days in graduate school when I could just take the afternoon off from studying and walk to Kerrytown for a scoop. Who am I kidding? It’s definitely the taste. Zingerman’s uses 100% Scharffen Berger chocolate and adds cinnamon and a healthy kick of chile powder for a nice fiery finish.
7. Peach Walnut Semifreddo (Tatsu’s, Prairie Village, Kansas)
This cocoa-dusted terrine of peach-walnut semifreddo made with sabayon and layered with phyllo was semi-frozen elegance on a plate. The cool semifreddo studded with bits of walnuts was sided by a poached pear, and sauced with warm chocolate.
Executive Chef Tatsu Arai
8. Steamed Walnut Dumplings (De Fa Chang Restaurant, Xian, PR China)
When the server lifted the bamboo lid, a puff of steam revealed walnuts – no wait, those are dumplings! The handiwork of the famous dumpling-makers of Xian, at De Fa Chang Dumpling House in Xian, I marveled at course after course of various wrappers filled with everything from rabbit, pork, and chicken to tomatoes and pumpkins. Not a “dessert,” per se, my favorite course featured little balls of sorghum dough made to look like walnuts that were filled with a sweet maple-tasting mix of ground walnuts.
9. Brown Sugar Pumpkin Pudding (bluestem, Kansas City, Missouri)
Autumnal spices ushered in a most wonderful creation at bluestem. This soft warm pumpkin pudding made me forget all eleven preceding courses I’d had that evening. The soft creamy bread pudding was accompanied by unforgettably sweet puffs of meringue and a fragrant Ceylon tea ice cream.
Pastry Chef Megan Garrelts
10. “Inside-Out Candied Apple” (Phillips Chophouse, Kansas City, Missouri)
I was thrilled with the moist and dense fluffy Calvados cake topped with wonderfully meaty slices of apple coated with a bewitching toffee sauce. The almond butter ice cream and almond brittle nudged this dessert into the sinful category.
Executive Chef Kevin Hardiman