Petales de Melon Confit
Pierre, Hong Kong
2009 arrived on the heels of an incomparable eating tour of London, Paris, and beyond. I can’t believe a year has gone by since I stuffed myself silly with macarons, cheese, bread, butter, and truffles.
As memorable and impressive as my eating itinerary was last year, I can’t say 2009 was disappointing.
This year, I focused on fulfilling some long overdue restaurant visits. To this end, I zigzagged across the country.
Tomorrow, I’ll be issuing my second annual “best of 2009, the restaurant edition…,” so I’ll try not to give away the farm on specific meals. But here’s a quick recap of my year in eating:
Barely recovered from my trip to Europe, I eased back onto the restaurant scene in late January to check out niche, Gerard Craft’s buzz-producing restaurant in the historic Benton Park neighborhood of St. Louis.
New York, with its ever-exciting revolving door of restaurant openings and closings (Chanterelle!), always seems to get the lion’s share of my attention. This year was no different. Three trips (one, two, three), including my annual birthday trip, brought me a few very good meals and some surprisingly disappointing ones.
My meals on America’s left bank were equally uneven. I finally put in a meal at coi, which was just weeks old the last time I was in San Francisco. I also journeyed into wine country to eat at ubuntu. And I returned to Manresa, hoping to relive the soul-opening experience I had there three years earlier.
Between the two coasts, I headed to the arid, high plateau of Santa Fe for some hiking, opera and compelling Southwestern fare.
In July, I visited my friend Cowboy on the oasis strip of Las Vegas, where I completed my tour of the Michelin three-starred restaurants in the country with a meal at Joël Robuchon at The Mansion. (In fact, quite unintentionally, this year I ate at every one of the American three-starred restaurants save the two Keller properties.)
On my one international trip trip this year, I hit Hong Kong and Macau for a brief but colourful round-up of everything from Cantonese “home cooking” to Cantonese haute; fine, imported mozzarella to Gagnaire. It was truly an international trip.
And here at home, in Kansas City, I split my time between familiar favorites and discovering new restaurants.
(To see a complete list of the restaurants I visited in 2009, consult this list.)
For the past five years, I’ve issued a list of the 25 best (restaurant) dishes and 10 best desserts I’ve had that year. I do so again this year.
Last year, I was reluctant to expand the list to accommodate all of the wonderful things I ate. I resist that urge again this year. Instead, like last year, I append a “rest of the best of 2009…” list in a link below.
As you can imagine, the task of compiling this list was difficult. It require me to reach back over a year of eating, consider every dish anew, and organize them in some sort of order according to an ill-defined ideal.
Some dishes immediately hopped to mind. Others took time to surface. Some earned their position through complexity and sophistication, others with their simplicity. Some impressed me with technical precision, others with sheer deliciousness. Some charmed me with nostalgia, others provided a glimpse of things to come. Dishes range from $9 to $72 (desserts from $6 to $22). But the one thing they all have in common is that they all made me pause and appreciate and/or understand life differently.
CLICK HERE to see all of the best dishes of 2009, or click on the dish titles for individual photos. If I’ve written a review of the meal, I’ve linked it to the restaurant name beneath each dish. The dishes are not in random order.
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u.e’s 25 Best Dishes of 2009
Braised for hours, the pomelo pith had been rendered so soft that it could be spooned; it was almost like the texture of terrine of foie gras, but with a fibrous constitution. The flavor of the shrimp roe, which dotted the the braising sauce by the thousands, had completely saturated into the pith, giving it a rich, creamy,and briny savoriness. I still dream about this dish.
The delicate fish, formed into a cigar cylinder, harbored a layer of pungent Australian black truffles. A solid bar of butter mixed with the breadcrumbs and ground nuts was set atop the cigar of cooked fish and set under a salamander to melt. As the butter melted, it not only basted the fish, but coated the outside evenly with an impossibly thin crust.
As good as the fish was, this dish wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable without the underlying sauces. The creamed leeks and lobster red wine was a wonderful coupling. But what made this dish an absolutely brilliant composition was the texture of the almond puree, which helped “glue” all of the flavors and textures together.
This flash-fried disc of house-made tofu – a flying saucer the size of a pancake – was set afloat in warm dashi garnished with scallions and hon shimeji mushroom caps. The texture of the tofu was outstanding – soft and smooth. A heap of salmon roe and chile sauce, which, when mixed in, colored the broth with a richer, spicier shade. This was fantastic.
David Kinch brilliantly distills flavors to their Platonic ideal – like a thick, viscous onion-marrow broth that tasted like a Chinese village’s worth of bone marrow soup concentrated into a small saucière. Warm and inviting, it was poured around a coral-coloured block of wild Pacific salmon so fatty and gently cooked that it shredded at the gentlest pawing of the fork. The fish was attended to by fresh chervil, a quenelle of (chervil) cream, baby onions, and morels.
Relatively undressed, this was a flawless dish. The execution masterfully highlighted the Wagyu (A5-11) beef’s unparalleled texture, flavor, and marbling. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a pleasing piece of beef in my life.
This was essentially a kake udon (a simple noodle dish flavored with miso and scallions). The noodles (thin, like inaniwa udon) were served in a basket and dotted with shards of ice. The custard – really a foie gras chawan mushi – came separately in a cup, covered with a burnt caramel-colored dashi and a single morsel of skin-on duck breast. The warm dashi ladled over the noodles crowned with a scoop of the custard was texture and flavor combination I’ll never forget.
The consumption (rather, the treatment) of sharks has been a politically contentious topic. This was like a depth charge of chicken soup. Full of natural collagen and gelatin, the soup was immensely rich, silky, and thick. Generously threaded with pulled chicken and shark’s fin, it was an unforgettable dish.
The radish – that ever-awkward root – Fox made noble by roasting them and serving them with an intensely fragrant and spicy broth of lemongrass, herbs, and lime zest; complex; packed with flavor; and boldly spiked with an aggressive heat that was cleverly balanced out by crème fraiche that slowly dissolved into the soup. The interaction between the flavors in the broth and the roasted radishes brought out savory, sweet, and bitter flavors I never knew existed in radishes.
These fluffy cubes of tofu – thinly glazed with a crisp, fried sheen of spicy sauce and commingled with blistered red chiles and crunchy cashews – earned a salivating assortment of descriptions including fiery, savory, and comforting. I’ve had a lot of Kung Po and a lot of tofu in my day, but this was something totally different. This was extraordinary.
(Sea urchin, green garlic, and hot pepper)
Executive Chef Michael Tusk
San Francisco, California
Creamy and warm, this twirl of masterfully made and cooked spaghetti was generously heaped with chopped sea urchins sautéed with olive oil and green garlic. I wanted to crawl into the bowl and roll around with my mouth open.
Liebrandt culturally cross-dressed white miso, using it to lend a meaty, savory quality to a dirty blond sauce (think Foyot) perfumed with smoky vadouvan and served it with the silky-soft amadai and a scallop. He upended cultural expectations one more time in this dish with a super-concentrated black olive gel that tasted like a cross between strong soy sauce and fermented Chinese black beans. Like the papery ribbon of ramp that tasted of a thousand ramp leaves, a little went a long way. This dish was complex, different with every bite.
12. Uni Risotto
New York, New York
Served piping hot, this rich, creamy risotto was blanketed with confetti of flecked truffle shavings. Saturated with sea urchin flavor, its depth and intensity of flavor reminded me of Steven Harris’s brown crab risotto at The Sportsman: umami bomb.
13. Flower Crab Salad
(Artichoke, white grapes, basil, toast)
Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong
Executive Chef Eric Johnson
Gently cooked strands of of fresh flower crab (Chef Johnson told me he had fetched them at the market that morning and kept them slightly chilled until cooking) slightly dressed with a house-made mayonnaise all but melted away atop a buttered strip of toast. A strange list of bedfellows – sous vide artichoke hearts, white grapes, and torn basil – made this dish pure magic.
14. 2x-shucked peas and GOLDEN SHOOTS in a consommé of the shells
(white chocolate, ‘CHOCOLATE’ MINT, macadamia, PURPLE PEAS in the pod)
Executive Chef Jeremy Fox
This dish, for me, stood at a crossroad in the garden. Peas and chocolate mint: ingenious. Fox mirrors nature – subtly – with shavings of white chocolate and a drizzle of mint oil. Finely shaved white chocolate provides just a touch of creaminess and macadamia provides texture and toastiness.
(Morel mushroom and celeriac spuma)
San Francisco, California
Executive Chef Michael Tusk
These golden strands of egg pasta boasted a satiny surface and a taut bounce. Abundantly tucked with morels, the noodles were simply slicked with a touch of olive oil and topped with a fresh shaving of cheese. A creamy, pungent celeriac spuma was poured to one side of the bowl for self saucing. Surprisingly bitter, the earthy spuma paired wonderfully with the morels and the pasta.
These delicate egg noodles were enrobed in a buttery Champagne sauce stained with crab roe. Studded with lump crab meat and spiked with a very heavy dose of black truffles, it was an exercise in decadence. Restraint was not an option.
17. arbuckle grits, our goat ricotta and the whey, “midnight moon”
(napa strawberry soffrito, FRAISE DE BOIS, assorted BASILS)
Executive Chef Jeremy Fox
Whipped with homemade goats’ milk ricotta, whey, and “Midnight Moon” cheese – a slightly aged goats’ milk cheese from Cypress Grove – and mounted with butter, the specially-milled grits from Matthew and Erin Sweet’s locally grown corn were smooth, velvety, and surprisingly light. At first glance, the dish seemed petty and precious, dotted with tiny fraises du bois and pink petals. But layered beneath the polenta was an unexpectedly intense, sophisticated, and savory-sweet strawberry sofritto studded with impossibly soft, braised pine nuts. It had a back-of-the-throat after-tang that favored reduced balsamic, yet a mesmerizing, complex savoriness that compelled me to return to it.
In brief: raw tuna, pounded into a thin sheet draped over a strip of foie gras set on a strip of crispy toast. The tuna was simply seasoned with salt and garnished with fresh chives, dressed with olive oil and a spritz of lemon juice.Shockingly simple. Sublime.
19. L’oursin a la purée de pomme de terre au café « Blue Mountain » torréfié
Joël Robuchon at The Mansion
Las Vegas, Nevada
Executive Chef Claude Le Tohic
This sea urchin dish was so daring in its concept and so provocative in its proposition that it arrested me – mind, mouth, and heart. I wouldn’t say this was delicious. Rather, like a good, strong coffee, I savored it slowly. Unlike your run-of-the-mill, bisque-like seafood cappuccino, this had not an ounce of seasoning in it. The flavor – more espresso than cappuccino – was purely bitter, nutty, and earthy. The potato and sea urchin merely contributed a milky, creaminess that completed the cappuccino conceit. Together, this little cup recreated what a (good) espresso experience is like for me. I thought it was an amazing flavor concept.
This alabaster block white salmon, sided by tender greens and crayfish strung along a thread of avocado puree, was custard soft, unzipping without effort. It was topped with two butterfly-like salmon skin crisps (taken from two different parts of the fish: side and belly) and sauced with a green “bouillabaisse” that was rife with ramp flavor and surprisingly sweet.
21. Smoked Wild Mushrooms
(Fresh sheep’s cheese, cherries, lardo and fresh masa)
The American Restaurant
Kansas City, Missouri
Executive Chef Debbie Gold
Sophisticated, this deconstructed mushroom tamale brought silky wild mushrooms, a griddled masa corn cake, tangy goat cheese, and a swatch of cherry jam together in the must unexpectedly delicious way.
This dish is the type of over-indulging sea urchin dish that all sea urchin dishes should hope to be. Between the tendrils of seaweed, a touch of soy sauce, and buttery sea urchin cream sauce, this was an umami bomb
23. La Langoustine Truffée et Cuite en Ravioli a l’Émincé de Chou Vert
Joël Robuchon at The Mansion
Las Vegas, Nevada
Executive Chef Claude Le Tohic
The barely cooked langoustine inside this fat, round raviolo was so candy-sweet that it could have double for dessert. A comforting, rich foie gras sauce and topped with black truffle crumbs gave the dish balance and weight.
This generous piece of silky bass, coated in a fragrant green miso paste, crowned a bowl of noodles luxuriating in a lobster miso broth thickened with a touch of citron rouille and thoroughly perfumed with slices of black truffles. I suspected the use of white truffle oil. But I didn’t care – even without the truffle, this was a fantastic dish.
Baked on pink slabs of Himalayan salt, Bruel had miraculously coaxed out the gelatinous quality of the fish, rendering the two, flat filets extremely delicate, almost custard like.Though the servers had inadvertently swapped the sauce with the sauce from another fish dish, the brown butter chicken jus poured with this turbot was a pretty fantastic mistake. It tied the fish and the assorted root vegetables (salsify, parsnip, etc.) up in a tidy, comforting, and homey bundle of flavors.
CLICK HERE to see the 15 dishes that didn’t quite make it to 25 Best Dishes of 2009 list.
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A curious reference to Gagnaire’s Sketch in London, this dessert was a study in green. This foamy pistachio mousse parfait, layered with various incarnations of melons (sorbet and soup) and green mangoes, had a ballsy injection of parsley, coriander, and arugula. Grassy, fruity, melon-like, this most closely approximated my idea of Gagnaire at his best. If only the rest of our meal could have struck that same balance between challenging and delicious.
This slice of aubergine – skin on – was completely suffused with the flavor and fragrance of white sesame. It was amazing. The texture of the aubergine was soft and silky – almost as if it had been confited or – more likely – candied in heavy syrup. Served cold, surrounded by sesame syrup, the aubergine was sided by a wonderfully creamy ginger ice cream with a rounded warmth (no sharp ginger snap here).
This was an absolute dream. Fresh slivers of black mission figs and a hillock of candied pistachios topped with a quenelle of ricotta ice cream (milky and wonderful). The candied piece of bacon perched on top of the ricotta ice cream sealed this dessert’s success with a sweet-savory crunch.
Pretty much the perfect cake for me: sugar-crusted pastry filled with dried currants spiced with nutmeg. Stichleton cheese was the perfect accompaniment – salty, creamy, with just a trace of pungence. Those British people know what they’re doing.
Tender, roasted apricots hid beneath a canopy of shockingly crisp, tissue-thin rings of cantaloupe (or some such peachy hued melon – hence, the name “Petales de Melon Confit“). A wonderfully fragrant Albert syrup was poured table-side over the lot. To the side, a generous turn of vanilla ice cream. Tart and sweet, hot and cold, this was a beautiful collection of color, flavors, and temperatures for the senses.
Clever. If desserts are all about delight and nostalgia, this hit the nail on the head. A familiar childhood trio took the form of a mini raisin cakes topped with peanut butter parfait, peanut brittle, and sided by celery~raisin sorbet. Delicious. Charming. Childhood on a plate.
These glutinous rice dumplings were stuffed with a comforting, buttery, mix of salted egg yolk, water chestnuts, brown sugar, and butter. The richness of the filling was cut through bit the warm bite from the sweet ginger broth; bold and firm. Apparently, you can buy this Jackie Yu dessert in your frozen aisle at the local markets in Hong Kong.
Banana is not the first, second, or third item on the dessert menu I’d usually order. But I can understand why this dessert has become a Balthazar classic. Bruleed banana coins spiraled atop a cake of banana ice cream on a crispy shell balanced on a mound of whipped ricotta. Slices of fresh bananas with caramel sauce arranged around the base gave this dish a homey, comforting appeal.
Playful and accessible, this delicious vignette featured honey ice cream and lemony, whipped yogurt accented by fennel fronds and candied fennel. Beautiful on the plate, it was beautiful in the mouth.
Tosi’s whimiscal and odd pairings came together marvelously in this truly unique dessert: sweet, sweet pear sorbet; salty, creamy gorgonzola; and earthy, rich pumpkin “ganache.” Dynamic and bold, you couldn’t accuse this dessert of being ordinary or bland.
CLICK HERE to see 10 other very good desserts I had in 2009.