It’s that time of year again when I shock myself into making new year resolutions by taking a look back at all of the food I ate in the last twelve months.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve revisited hundreds of dishes and, through some mysterious and highly subjective process that involves memory and mood, I’ve managed to whittle the pile down to the very best ones.
In the last two years, I let the list expand to include fifteen “best of the rest” dishes, a list of runners up. This year, I’ve decided to trim things back to 2005, capping the list at twenty-five entries.
Although I generally gravitate towards vegetables and lighter dishes, you might not know it from this year’s collection. Only six entries give vegetables the starring role. Otherwise, there’s a lot of meat, a lot of fat, and a lot of flavor. Foie gras appears multiple times, including in an Escoffier butter bomb. There’s porchetta, roasted suckling pig, and a spoon-soft filet of Kobe beef aged more than 250 days. There’s also fried chicken (sort of) and a calzone the size of my head.
Although the dishes are listed roughly in the order of preference, the ordering becomes less important the further you move down the list. Regardless, they are all great dishes worthy of recognition and I’m immensely blessed to have had the opportunity to eat them.
To all of the chefs who made 2010 a great year of eating, thank you.
Next week, I will post the ten best restaurant meals of 2010. Watch for it.
The course titles are linked to the photos of each dish. The name of the restaurant has been hyperlinked to my blog post about that meal. To see all of the best dishes in one gallery, CLICK HERE.
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1. Spaghetti Nero (Café Boulud, New York, New York)
(Bouchot mussels, prawns, baby squid, fra diavolo)
Gavin Kaysen’s fra diavolo was, undoubtedly, the best dish of the year when I ate it in May. At the end of the year, it remains unseated at the top. The mussels were fat and creamy, the fried squid was crunchy and clean, the twirl of two-toned pasta (one side blackened with squid ink) was tender, and the sauce displayed a wonderful balance between sweet, sour, and spicy. This dish was a simple, yet sophisticated revision of a classic.
2. Salad of Toy Box Tomatoes (The French Laundry, Yountville, California)
(English cucumber, young ginger, white sesame, perilla shoots, and bonito gelee)
Deceptively precious, this colorful assortment of gems offered a tremendously complex dialogue of sensations. Lightly pickled, the tomatoes burst with a surprising amount of flavor. With crunchy crystals of candied ginger, dots of white sesame emulsion, and nubs of demi-sec tomatoes, this salad not only appeared in technicolor, but tasted technicolor. (Pictured above in the banner.)
3. Veal “Tonnato” (Manresa, Los Gatos, California)
4. Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair (alinea, Chicago, Illinois)
This Escoffier masterpiece, inserted into Grant Achatz’s parade of avante garde dishes at alinea, was a time capsule that helped trace the arc of over a century of Western gastronomy. For Escoffier’s ingenious recipe, Achatz’s flawless execution, and the significance of its inclusion on the tasting menu at alinea, this dish deserves its place near the top of this year’s list.
5. Grains, Seeds, Nuts (avenues, Chicago, Illinois)
(Amaranth veil, sultana, sunflower)
6. Porchetta Sandwich (Roli Roti, San Francisco, California)
7. Four Story Hill Poularde (Eleven Madison Park, New York, New York)
(Roasted with Meyer lemon, rosemary, and black truffles)
This bird arrived with skin so evenly bronzed that I jokingly inquired of Chef Daniel Humm whether he had invented a tanning bed for chicken. In fact, it was darkened with the aid of a thin layer of foie gras, brioche, and black truffles stuffed between the skin and the meat. Humm said it was his mother’s recipe, which left me feeling a little more than cheated. The breast meat was carved and plated at the table whilst the dark meat was removed in the kitchen and made into a fricasse, served as part two of this amazing roast chicken.
8. Toy Box Tomato Tartlet (piperade, San Francisco, California)
(Manchego cheese, basil)
Gerald Hirigoyen reminded me that simple can be spectacular with this little tartlet of toy box tomatoes drizzled with sweet vinegar. Nubs of Manchego cheese – slightly melted – were tucked here and there; confetti of basil topped it all. How did he get the tomatoes to blister just so? How did the crust manage to stay so crisp, so flaky? I could have eaten a dozen more.
9. Farm Egg and Pancetta Carbonara (Holeman & Finch Public House, Atlanta, Georgia)
(House-made hand-cut pasta)
I went for the burger but fell in love with the pasta. This carbonara was equal parts butter and garlic with a peppery heat that blossomed into a warm sting. Despite being enriched with fatty ribbons of pancetta, a warm egg yolk, and a blanket of grated cheese, it was unbelievably light.
10. Cod (wd~50, New York, New York)
(Peas-n-coconut, nori, carrot dashi)
11. Into the Vegetable Garden… (Manresa, Los Gatos, California)
12. Ripieno (keste pizzeria, New York, New York)
Large enough for two or three to share, the calzone at keste is a near-religious experience. This fat pillow, blistered around the rim and lightly painted with a tangy tomato sauce, oozed a milky core of ricotta and mozzerella.
13. Arroz de Pato (aldea, New York, New York)
(Duck confit, chorizo, olive, duck cracklings)
14. Foie Gras in Sea Water (Manresa, Los Gatos, California)
(Fresh lima bean)
Did you ever wonder what brining foie gras in sea water might do to fatty liver? Judging by the rosy cut we each got, it makes it even more supple and delicate than normal. For all I know, that piece of foie gras was levitating above that mosaic of double-shelled lima beans that paved the plate. Those beans were every bit as silky and soft as the foie gras, though tender enough to give this plate some structure. The accompanying wedge of smoked plum? Brilliant.
15. Egg Yolk (commis, Oakland, California)
(Onion soup, date jam, steal-cut oats, chives)
James Syhabout successfully brought sweet and savory together in the most unexpected way in this amuse bouche with warm onion soup poured around a half-cooked egg yolk set atop a spoonful of fig jam. Normally, I dislike the waxy, clay-like texture of half-cooked yolks (think Wylie Dufresne’s “Eggs Benedict”). But here, I thought it helped give some muscle to the otherwise soft textures. Crunchy bits of uncooked steel cut oats and the seeds in the fig jam also helped give this dish some texture.
16. New Bedford Sea Scallop (The French Laundry, Yountville, California)
(Pickled onion, raisins, Marcona almonds, and fennel)
17. Cold Fried Chicken (wd~50, New York, New York)
(Buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, caviar)
Replete with a syrupy Tabasco sauce and fantastic “buttermilk-ricotta” (think mashed potatoes studded with tiny, tart cottage cheese curds), this icebox breakfast was the kind of witty, inventive, and delicious composition that represents the best of what Chef Wylie Dufresne has to offer at wd~50.
18. Lobster a l’Americaine (Jerome Bocuse, Bocuse d’Or dinner, Stella!, New Orleans)
(Slivered snow peas, leeks, and black truffles)
Jerome Bocuse’s “Lobster à l’Américaine” probably shaved a good five years off my life. The sauce a l’Americaine was incredibly rich, thickened with cream (and probably butter), intense with lobster stock. It was the last word on bisque. The lobster tail was set over a bed of silky, blanched leeks and garnished with strips of black truffles. So, I’ll die early, but immensely happy.
19. Grilled Bamboo Shoots (kyo-ya, New York, New York)
20. Roasted Suckling Pig (komi, Washington, D.C.)
An entire front quarter of a roasted suckling pig was presented at the table before being taken to the kitchen where it was disassembled. The meat was pulled and the crackling removed, cut into thumbnails and scattered over the meat. Served with fluffy slices of pita and a row of condiments, including an especially rich tzatziki, this dish presented an excitingly unstructured adventure. (No picture available due to the restaurant’s no-photography policy.)
21. Risotto (benu, San Francisco, California)
(Sea urchin, corn, lovage, black truffle)
22. Korean BBQ-Glazed Kobe (Private dinner at Stella!, New Orleans, Louisiana)
(Tempura okra, purple haze carrots, and baby bok choy)
For a private dinner at his restaurant for the guest chefs of the Bocuse d’Or/B.I.R.D.S. dinner, Scott Boswell dove into his stash of Kobe beef that he had ordered before the meat was embargoed. I was lucky enough to be there. He smothered the meat in a thick “Korean barbecue sauce” that was intensely sweet, sour, spicy, and savory at once. I often find Kobe beef too rich, too much. Despite the rather heavy sauce, this dish managed to stop shy of overkill and linger in luxury.
23. Foie gras “Mi-Cuit” (aldea, New York, New York)
(Birch beer gelee, peanuts and cocoa nibs)
Bitter is a flavor that few chefs explore and expose with much confidence. George Mendes did so brilliantly in this unexpectedly wonderful dish of foie gras mi-cuit paired with beer, peanuts, and cocoa nibs.
24. Sous Vide Halibut (bluestem, Kansas City, Missouri)
(Lemon ginger butter, braised fennel, and artichoke)
I’ve been lucky enough to have had this dish more than once. The fish might change (halibut one day, John Dory another), but, thankfully that frothy butter sauce, laced with lemon never does. Sided by tender slices of artichoke heart and fennel, both sous vides with lemon juice, this dish is shockingly simple, shockingly delicious.
25. Campo Lindo Chicken Breast (The American Restaurant, Kansas City, Missouri)
(Potato gnocchi, zucchini, squash blossom, sauce vierge)
This dish expressed the soul of summer. The breast meat, tender and moist, was topped with an exquisite sauce vierge brimming with the natural sweetness of ripe tomatoes. The chicken came with beautifully cooked beans and a fried squash blossom, lacy and crisp, stuffed with goat cheese.
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This was an especially good year for desserts.
In fact, of the six years I’ve been issuing this year-end list, 2010’s list of best desserts deserved to be expanded more than any other. But, at the risk of turning this year’s “Just Desserts” into the Alex Stupak hour, I’ve decided to trim back.*
In 2005, I included 10 desserts. From there it grew to include as many as 10 more. This year, I limited the list to a baker’s dozen. Here they are:
1. Licorice Custard (wd~50, New York, New York)
(Sake sorbet, Bartlett pear)
Despite having been given the title role, licorice figured faintly in this spectacular composition by Pastry Chef Alex Stupak. Dominated by a fragrant sake sorbet, this dessert was an extraordinarily sophisticated bouquet of flavors. It was, without a doubt, the best dessert I had in 2010.
2. Armando Manni Olive Oil Sorbet (The French Laundry, Yountville, California)
(Muscavado sugar “genoise,” French Laundry garden summer berries, and 30-year aged balsamic vinegar)
3. “Secret Breakfast” Affogato (Blue Bottle Coffee Co., San Francisco, California)
I love espresso. I love ice cream. I love Bourbon. And I love this affogato. Blue Bottle Coffee Co. happens to extract an excellent espresso and Humphry Slocombe happens to churn an extraordinary ice cream. Together, it’s bitter, it’s sweet, it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s creamy, it’s boozy. It’s fantastic. I’m sure I blacked out somewhere between my first spoonful and my last.
4. “Peaches & Cream” (The French Laundry, Yountville, California)
(Santa Rosa plums, pine nut nougatine, and Tahitian vanilla bean-basil ice cream)
This beautiful half-dome of Frog Hollow peach, pitted and glazed, was as soft as custard, as sweet as nectar. Paired with rich vanilla bean ice cream imbued with basil, and a wonderfully fragrant pine nut nougatine, this dessert was breathtaking in every respect.
5. Strawberry (avenues, Chicago, Illinois)
(Thai black pepper, mascarpone, opal basil blossoms)
Leaping straight off the canvases of Will Cotton, this frozen, candy-striped barber’s pole, filled with a milky punch perfumed with Chambord, arrived nestled among buttery pillows of financier cake and a garden of strawberries in various forms – macerated, dehydrated, and reformed into mini meringue kisses. It was strawberry shortcake in all-caps.
6. Charentais Melon Cream (commis, Oakland, California)
(Compressed honeydew, blueberry, and frozen creme fraiche)
Pastry chef Carlos Salgado’s “Charentais Melon Cream” was a colorful and fragrant summer dessert. A lovely balance of sweet and tart, it was blessedly light and refreshing.
7. Gravenstein Apple-Calvados Ice Cream (Zuni Cafe, San Francisco, California)
8. Cheesecake (wd~50, New York, New York)
(Pineapple, raisin, saffron, lime)
9. Piccola Meringata (Zuni Cafe, San Francisco, California)
(Silver Logan peaches, raspberries and Lillet cream)
This dainty pavlova, with alternating layers of thin meringue wafers, slices of super-ripe Silver Logan peaches, and whipped cream spiked with Lillet, was ringed with a wonderful raspberry sauce. This dessert was immensely floral and not at all lazy on the booze.
10. Mango Delice (Café Boulud, New York, New York)
(Milk jam foam, speculos, cachaça-macadamia ice cream)
11. Hazelnut Soufflé (Les Nomades, Chicago, Illinois)
The soufflés at les Nomades are perfect: beautiful crust, fluffy interior. If I could frame them, I would. The hazelnut soufflé was especially mesmerizing, enriched with a spectacular hazelnut creme anglais. It reminded me that classical French cooking will never be irrelevant.
12. Matcha Semifreddo (Jean Georges, New York, New York)
(Almond praline, Seville orange, candied kumquats, soy caramel)
This velveteen cube of matcha mousse arrived on a shortbread cookie studded with pop rocks. Ringed with soy caramel, the mousse held a heart of citrus marmalade. This was the type of playful, yet sophisticated dessert for which I have come to admire Johnny Iuzzini. It was an amazing combination of flavors and textures. Straddling East and West convincingly, it was a natural extension of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s genius.
13. Waffle (The Publican, Chicago, Illinois)
(Honey butter & strawberry jam)
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* Never have so many extraordinary desserts assembled at one meal as they did at my dinner at wd~50 in June. Because it was such an exceptional occasion, it deserves to be mentioned. Food Snob and I had every single dessert on Pastry Chef Alex Stupak’s menu, and, save the Lemongrass Mousse, every one of them was seriously considered for this list. Two have been included. If this year’s “Just Desserts” were expanded to include more, the next five entries would be the five remaining desserts I had that night.
6 replies on “best dishes of 2010…”
Wow … You had some great food this year, I had the same food you had at wd-50 except the peas and carrot. The sake sorbet was incredible
All your “best” dishes are from restaurants in the US. Does that speak to the quality of restaurants in the US, or less overseas travel for you?
@Rona Y: In 2010, I did not travel overseas. But that will change in 2011. Stay tuned. :)
I hope you make it to Japan in 2011. I’d love to read your view of the dining scene there!
rona, i did make it overseas and there’s only 1 non-US dish on my list – i think, conceptually, the US has some great talent. however, ingredient quality, when compared to Japan, is not in the same realm.
@chuck/@rona: I also think that what makes foreign restaurants and their cuisines particularly interesting to the U.S. diner are the local ingredients there that are not available here. And, even more so, the willingness of chefs there to use those ingredients. The type and variety of seafood you find in the waters around Japan, Spain, and Denmark, for example, seem so special, so other-worldly from our mundane selection of salmon, snapper, and grouper. Would restaurants like noma be as interesting to us on our shores? What could Redzepi, Bras, and the master sushi chefs of Japan do in the U.S. with the ingredients available here?