Softball-Size White Truffle
l’Ambroisie, Paris, France
Gastronomic self one-upsmanship was not my intention when 2008 began. But it happened quite unexpectedly. For the past three years, I’ve recapped the top 25 dishes in a year-end review (click here for 2005, here for 2006, and here for 2007).
Annually, I announce with certainty that my lucky streak has ended and that no subsequent year could possibly treat me as well. So far, I’ve been wrong ever year. This year, I say the same, and I mean it.
In the gastronomic department, 2008 will be a hard year to beat.
I kicked off the new year with a frigid eating trip to Minneapolis. In March, I celebrated my 30th birthday in Chicago with more good food. That was quickly followed by two trips to New York.
At the end of July, I headed to Dallas and Philadelphia, and returned to Chicago for a second helping. October found me in Orlando. And, in the last month, I took a quick detour to the Rockies before skipping over to Europe for a two week eating spree.
Along the way, I picked up well over 50 Michelin stars.
I revisited some greats and favorites, like Le Bernardin (New York), Jean Georges (New York), per se (New York), Eleven Madison Park (New York), North Pond (Chicago), and Avenues (Chicago; just before Chef Graham Elliot Bowles’s reign ended).
States-side, I managed to fulfill a few long-awaited restaurant visits, like Paul Virant’s Vie (Western Springs, Illinois); Marc Vetri’s vetri ristorante (Philadelphia); Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit (New York City); and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson’s frasca food & wine (Boulder).
Abroad, I finally roasted Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck (Bray, U.K.); put in some face time at “Old Sweary’s” (Gordon Ramsay) home office at Royal Hospital Road (London, U.K.); checked back in at le Cinq, now under Eric Briffard, to see if it is worthy of reclaiming its third Michelin star (Paris); and, at Paul Bocuse Pont de Collonges, France The selection of sweets at Paul Bocuse was wide and deep. This baba au rhum, which had already been soaked in rum, was again doused with a healthy dose of St. James rum at the table. It was so soft that I was surprised that the cake could even stand up on its own. It literally melted away in my mouth, chased with a warm glow that tunneled down my gullet. Half a bun later, I had trouble seeing straight.”>l’Ambroisie (Paris), I set a new record for the most expensive meal I have ever had. (I’m embarrassed to admit the amount; let’s just say that it would make masa look like a steal.)
And, if all this wasn’t enough, in an eleventh hour rally, I happened upon my best meal of the year at The Sportsman (Seasalter, U.K.).
With all of this eating, identifying the 25 best dishes was not an easy task. I considered making an exception this year by expanding the list to 50 dishes. But that seemed like a tedious imposition on you and me.
So, to maintain the integrity of my annual review, I have decided to keep the list at 25 dishes. However, this year, I append a list of 15 “Rest of the Best Dishes of 2008” to lighten my own conscience for leaving them off the top tier.
I can’t deny that the following list is roughly ordered from best to the least best (whatever that means). But, honestly, every one of these 25 dishes was extraordinary. The eating experience is a highly subjective one, and given the right mindset, appetite, and setting, any one of the following could scoot into the top seat. Some of these dishes may not have been technically flawless or dripping sophistication, but for one reason or another, they carved the deepest imprint into my food memory bank.
Per usual, the Best 25 Dishes are followed with my annual “Just Desserts” review – traditionally, a list of the 10 best desserts of the year. This year, I include a list of 10 “Rest of the Just Desserts of 2008.”
To all the chefs and restaurant workers who made my 2008 a delicious dream, thank you!
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u.e’s 25 Best Dishes of 2008
Click on all of the photos or links for larger format viewing. The restaurant links take you to my review of that meal, if available, or to the photo set. To see the 25 Best Dishes of 2008 and the Just Desserts together in one set, click here.
The black bass tartare made me consider moving to a small fishing village on the Mediterranean. That entire dish was magic, actually. I couldn’t tell you what I loved more – the silky, but almost waxy texture of the fish, or the conversation of flavors: tangy meets grassy, salty meets floral, all ricocheting off the clean, fresh bass as a sounding board. Or, perhaps it was the warm slices of toast, rewardingly crunchy on the outside with a thin, steamy layer on the inside that provided just the right vehicle and contrast for the cool, supple tartare.
The ingredients, I venture, involve two pieces of toast, one stick of butter, a good truffle’s worth of shavings, and a dash of sea salt. These items meet on a griddle. Decadent. Simple. Spectacular.
Considering that this dish alone cost more than a meal at per se (*cringe*), I’d say that it had pretty high standards to live up to. Thankfully, it delivered everything that was promised. The scallopine of sea bass were cooked perfectly and sat atop thinly-sliced artichoke hearts swimming in a sea of golden Osetra caviar the size of small pearls (I’m not kidding). The creamy butter sauce was spiked with a tinge of acid, which went wonderfully with the briny, salty, fish eggs. I made sure every little bead was eaten. This dish was the high altar of gastronomy.
This little morsel was utterly devastating – a thin slice of impossibly tender lamb belly meat layered with collagen and fat, crumbed and fried until it developed a crunchy shell. It was served with nothing more than a sweet mint sauce. I’m still recovering from the realization that I can’t have this at every meal.
Listen up folks, this is one for the history books – a truly outstanding dish. Thin strips of eel were set on toasted avenues of dark bread and glazed with a red wine reduction sauce. Two squares of hollowed waxy potatoes held pools of horseradish cream. I am a sucker for any form of smoked seafood, especially eel. And the pairing of smoked eel with a slightly sweet, mostly tart, glaze, together with a horseradish cream was a combination that Le Squer knocked out of the park. Of all the very good dishes I had at Ledoyen, this one, above the rest, impressed me the most.
It was the color of dark caramel and tasted like a million simmered brown crabs in each bite. The flavor profile skirted the coast of Brittany, delicately balancing minerality and natural sweetness. It was intense, perfectly executed (the risotto was porridge-like, without being gruel-like; it was soft and pourable, not stiff and austere), comforting, and the Platonic ideal of what it is. It’s the kind of dish better had at night as it would leave you utterly useless for the rest of the day otherwise.
It’s simply a quenelle of chicken liver pâté on a bed of shaved button mushrooms dusted with Parmesan. But it’s not just simply a quenelle of chicken liver pâté on a bed of shaved button mushrooms dusted with Parmesan. Inoculated with Sauternes, this slightly sweet and heady pâté left me undone.
Everyone said that Chang’s duck salad is one of the best dishes at momofuku noodle bar. Everyone is right. This tender, sliced duck breast meat was perfumed with cinnamon and served with whole-grain mustard seeds, sour cream, and topped with fresh arugula. The flavor and textures were creative, thoughtful, and exciting. I get shivers every time I think about it.
Unlike most tortellini, which are tough and meager, these soft pockets filled with a creamy risotto of Carnaroli rice dusted with crunchy bits of toasted almonds, were fat and happy. These tortellini, lightly bathed in a pungent white truffle sauce, were made even more thrilling by the wine pairing (Bolognani, Teroldego 2006 “Armilo,” Trentino). The dark red juice, slightly earthy and spicy, picked up the toastiness in the nuts and cheese in an electrifying storm of flavor. This course, especially with the wine, was a good stone’s throw ahead of any other dishes I had at vetri ristorante, and indeed, ahead of most dishes I had in 2008.
You gotta get it with “the greens,” they said. They were right. The greens are essential. So is the sharp Provolone. DiNic’s sautees baby spinach with some oil (I wouldn’t be surprised if they used some drippings from the pork as well), salt, and enough garlic to make it spicy. The silky mass is layered on the pork with some sharp Provolone cheese – which is also essential – in a long, soft submarine roll nestled in a red plastic basket. It far surpassed any cheese steak I’ve ever had, whether in Philly or elsewhere. Big enough for two as a full meal, four or five as a snack, this gargantuan tube of juicy goodness is a steal at $6.50.
Describing the effect that the foie gras ganache had on the perfectly cooked strip of duck breast meat is difficult. It may be impossible. On the one hand, it acted like a sauce for the duck. But, really, the duck (and everything else) was an accompaniment to the foie gras. It was duck on duck. It was sweet, yet savory, creamy – almost milky, yet cakey in some parts. It was surprisingly light. It was *magic.*
Foie gras can be very good. But, for me, it’s not irresistible; I enjoy it as an accent more than the focus. This terrine, however, was the most exciting foie gras dish I had in 2008. Rostang confidently side-steps cliché and convention and plays up the savory side of foie gras – pairing it with leeks and black truffles – thereby ingeniously directing focus onto the inherent sweetness in the liver. The block of silky liver was layered with sweated baby leeks and topped with a black truffle consomme and black truffle julienne. Refusing to pander to the common sweet-seeking palate, this pungent and beefy treatment brought out a side of foie gras I’ve never experienced before.
I was completely unprepared for the impact that Van Aiken’s Latino-fusion food would have on me. It was a pleasant surprise. This was unlike any pork I’ve ever had in my entire life. It was rosy, tender, juicy and crusted with the most alluring mix of spices, which penetrated the meat entirely. The pork was served with a soft, fluffy tower of “Haitian grits;” black bean-sweet corn “salsa;” smoked plantain crema; and “21st Century mole,” which was a glossy demi glace, thick and slightly sticky. These rich flavors and textures were offset with a fragrant shower of fresh lime juice.
Barely cooked, the fish had the consistency of custard and was slightly perfumed with smoke. As if this wasn’t brilliant enough, the fish was topped with silky enoki mushrooms and finished with a subtly sweet-tart warm apple-horseradish broth, poured table-side. It was a concert of flavors that could be picked apart, or enjoyed as a whole. I could see this dish being equally satisfying in the summer as in the winter.
Was it the blood (which was pressed out of the carcass table-side) in the velvety civet sauce, which approximated the texture and flavor of a fine Mexican mole? Was it the incredibly marbled breast-meat of the Challans duck? Was it the the coins of tart-sweet, glazed turnips? Yes. All of these elements made this course one of the most unforgettable dishes I have had this year.
Different from most of what Becker cooks at 112 eatery, this salad was a refreshing Asian-inflected composition. Dispensing with the creamy, this salad was a simple mix of greens, crab meat, and fresh herbs. The dressing was key – sweet and sour (as the name suggests) with a definite hit of chile heat. The crispy fried shallots added a wonderfully savory, crisp texture. I don’t generally like mint, but the use of whole fresh mint leaves, along with cilantro, was just perfect.
One bite of this guinea fowl breast meat and you’ll understand why the French poach their birds in pig’s bladders. This. Was. Utterly. Fantastic. The bird was birthed from the bladder and carved table-side. The breast, exuding natural juice, was smothered with a cream sauce kissed with curry and served with truffled basmati rice. The thighs and legs, no less moist, were kept warm and served in a second course, along with more cream and rice.
Delivered into the right hands, Challans duck, with its well-marbled breast, is just exquisite. The dark meat here, as welll, was excellent. Passard renders the skin crispy, with a beautiful hibiscus glaze encrusted with crystals of salt. The thick baton of duck breast, sided with a nugget of the hind quarters was served with a tangy, rich-flavored sauce. The duck was served with a quartered red beet, beet “noodles” – wide ribbons of thinly-sliced beets, which looked like pasta, but were actually slightly cooked beets. The duck was also served with a quenelle of fluffy marc d’orange.
This, perhaps more than any of the pastas, is Vetri’s best known dish. I can certainly see why. It was amazing. It’s not a crêpe in the traditional sense. Caramelized sweet onions are stuffed and rolled into a crêpe. The roulade is sliced, topped with grated cheese, and baked. The gratinee round is plated on top of a creamy truffled fondue. It’s like a hundred bowls of French onion soup condensed into one tiny puck. It’s salty, it’s sweet, it’s creamy, it’s soft, and it’s crispy. It’s intense.
The thing to get at the Salumeria is the Italian hoagie – slices of coppa, spicy capicola, and mortadella with “the works:” Provolone, onion, roasted red peppers, vinaigrette, and red chiles . I tossed in artichoke hearts for good measure. All of this is layered on a split hoagie. Whereas the DiNic’s roast pork sandwich (2008 #10) is pillowy, warm and comforting, the Salumeria’s Italian hoagie is stalwart and gruff. You won’t linger over this sandwich like you might with others; it rewards with quick workman-like satisfaction.
This dish featured a fat lobster claw draped over a crispy cake of basmati rice soaking up a thick, spicy and fragrant kaffir lime-lemongrass coconut curry sauce. Gutsy, fragrant, and full of body, it was an unexpected delight coming from a kitchen known for its heavy Mediterranean influences.
I think this dish should be renamed the “Primal Carne Asada.” This was prime beef at its prime. I’m not exactly sure of the measurements of this legendary round of beef, but collectively, every ounce of the perfectly-grilled, juicy, and flavorful tenderloin was worth the $40 price tag. It was attended to by large roasted shallots melting within their papery skins and a papa relleno, a captivatingly crispy-shelled torpedo of mashed potatoes stuffed with blue cheese. The Dijon demi-glace, which was part tangy, part spicy, and rich all over, was nuanced, complex, and well-crafted. Laced throughout each bite, the sauce tied everything together wonderfully.
The server presented the bird, with its plumage of lavender, table-side before whisking it away to be carved and plated. The skin was crackling crisp, perfumed with lavender honey and spices (I recall getting a smoky hit of cumin), *and* the breast meat was moist and flavorful; there was just enough fat between the two layers for measured indulgence. I barely needed the rich veal demi glace that was presented. No less impressive was the square of duck confit (obviously prepared separately) topped with an equally crispy sheath of duck crackling.
Probably the most visually stunning dish of 2008, the Lamb Tartar featured a gold-dusted rainbow garden patch rising above a two-tiered carpet of raw meat: on the bottom, magenta minced lamb; the top, exceedingly sweet milky-white tendrils of chopped ebi, or Japanese sweet shrimp, it was every bit as wonderful to behold as it was to eat. Together, the unexpected coupling, with floret cut-outs of pickled peaches and fresh tarragon in tow, had everything to lose, yet managed to shoot the moon. It was spectacular.
Sometimes, all a boy wants is some stewed meat. It was probably a swift 20 degrees below zero when I ordered this dish. I have never had pot roast this good nor do I ever expect to again. Chef Francoual produced the softest – almost creamy – cut of pot roast I have ever had. It came with a wonderfully rich, but clean, stew sauce and a mix of perfectly cooked root vegetables. For a few brief moments, my dining companion was talking to himself.
CLICK HERE to see the 15 dishes that shouldah, couldah, wouldah, but didn’t make the 25 Best Dishes of 2008 list.
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I don’t even know how to describe this dessert. It was fantastical. It was whimsical. It was serious. It was sophisticated. It was sublime. It was warm. It was cool. It was dark. It was light. A crisp cigar piped with a pear cream sat on a chocolate and pear clafoutis. A touch of silver leaf here, a dollop of chartreuse jelly there, I was rendered speechless. The experience of eating this was life-altering.
These cylinders of rolled apples were spoon-soft and had a beautifully fragrant flavor. The four apple cylinders sat on a pastry crust studded with nuts and spiced with cinnamon and coriander (there was a very slight hint of muskiness that I thought perhaps was cumin; the server checked with the kitchen – it was coriander). The cider sorbet was incredibly intense – a sour hit of alcohol. This was an exquisite composition that exceeded my wildest expectations.
This wicked chocolate tart slayed me. The pastry crust was very thin, serving only as a structural support for the filling: a tannic noir de noir love child of mousse and ganache. The pie was blanketed with a super-fine dusting of shaved dark chocolate. I *heart* citrus and chocolate. Here, the coupling was enhanced by the blissful bitterness of the chocolate, which twitched with the high tang of cold steel, approximating the upper register of the citrus spectrum. The tangerine ice cream alone was suitable for gastronomic framing. It sat on a dehydrated wafer of tangerine so crisp that one could mistake it for sugar glass.
Chestnut desserts are usually crude and frumpy. This one broke the mold. The sablée crust to this “tarte” was only a ring. The interior consisted of a ring of chestnut mousse with a core of lemon confit (think lemon curd the consistency of very fine and silky apple sauce) topped with a vexing whiskey sabayon. This other-worldly creation was crowned with a iridescent sugar glass dome.
How can something so pitch dark be so light? A l’Ambroisie classic, this slice of “tarte fine sablee” was like a wedge of air. The bitterness of the chocolate was as rewarding as its lightness. The tart was dusted with bitter cocao and served with a quenelle of intense vanilla ice cream. It was simplicity that seemed impossible to replicate. This is what God eats for breakfast.
After a bold and flavor-forward feast, this simple cut of pillowy brioche, paved with crème fraîche and warmed blueberries (which bled their berry goodness into the creamy spread), was a stunning and simple end. The square of pastry was accompanied by a dip of house-made yogurt ice cream on a bed of white chocolate shavings. Tart, with a mellow, sweet middle note, this dessert was balanced and tidy.
7. Fresh Bartlett Pears
Executive Chef Chef Michael Smith
Kansas City, Missouri
Warm pears and Parmesan: Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. These pears were excruciatingly ripe – you could eat these with a spoon. The one component that I was not expecting, was a good dose of fruity olive oil drizzled along with the honey. A celebration in simplicity, this was a dazzling dessert.
Though I initially faulted this pie for its heavy-handed inclusion of citrus, it haunts me to this day. There was very little pie crust, which would normally irk me. But the generosity of the filling – a beautiful, thick wedge of Texas blueberry heaven – was comforting and satisfying in a way that few pies are.
Of all of the outstanding dishes that L’Atelier has to offer (and that I have tried), this is the one that most encourages me to run, not walk, in returning for another meal. I rarely fawn over a dessert. And, it’s not that the savory dishes at L’Atelier are so lackluster as to make this dessert seem better. This dessert IS just that much better. The perfect bite is achieved by shattering the chocolate stick studded with gold-leafed feuillatine and plunging one’s spoon through the ginger ice cream, red fruit puree and pushing down through the dense Jivara chocolate ganache at the very bottom so that all layers and a piece of the crunchy stick are captured. It’s like chocolate and cherries – but a thousand times better. I cannot emphasize how good the chocolate, red fruit puree and ginger ice cream went together. Of course, the crunch from the chocolate feuillatine stick was indispensable to the success.
The selection of sweets at Paul Bocuse was wide and deep. This baba au rhum, which had already been soaked in rum, was again doused with a healthy dose of St. James rum at the table. It was so soft that I was surprised that the cake could even stand up on its own. It literally melted away in my mouth, chased with a warm glow that tunneled down my gullet. Half a bun later, I had trouble seeing straight.
CLICK HERE to see the next 10 best desserts I had in 2008.