A blizzard of gastronomic white paper from tastemakers here and there gave this lame-duck week of 2010 a needed dose of excitement, angst, and confusion. Who doesn’t love rummaging through another’s list of dirtied linens at the end of the year?
While I’m a taster, not a tastemaker, I happily add to the storm my annual list of ten best restaurant meals, and more.
Despite the media frenzy over restaurants abroad, I remained homebound in 2010, focused on touring the U.S.
Twice I was in New York (first for the James Beard Awards, then to cook at a charity event) and New Orleans (first for pleasure, then to attend a fundraising event for the Bocuse d’Or). I visited Washington D.C. in March, San Francisco and wine country in September, and Chicago and Atlanta in October.
I ate high and low, new and old and found pleasure and disappointment at all levels.
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A creature of habit, I couldn’t resist returning to some of my favorite restaurants this year. Will the sirens at Jean Georges or Eleven Madison Park ever cease to seduce? Could any trip to the Bay Area be complete without a stop in Los Gatos?
But I’m also a firm believer in second and third chances. To that end, I revisited a number of restaurants from which I had last left deflated. I was rewarded handsomely – three of those meals appear on my top ten list this year.
And I always love a good celebration, which was the excuse for many a meal this year with friends and family. I am blessed.
But how do I pick the best ones?
Do I attempt to follow the silly and unrealistic Michelin model and judge my meals by what is on the plate alone? Impossible, I say. If you want to know the best of what I ate, then help yourself to my best dishes of 2010.
Or do I consider the overall package?
Is there a choice? Who among us can truly segregate mood from food?
I’ll admit: I can’t. A meal is the sum of its parts.
So, what you’ll find below is a list of restaurants that delivered a magnificent experience, on top of great food.
On the eve of 2011, I give you my ten best restaurant meals of 2010. Click on the restaurant names for a more detailed post-game analysis.
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1. Café Boulud (May, 2010) (New York, New York)
Once in a hundred meals, the perfect storm of memory, taste, and emotion converges at your table. Executive Chef Gavin Kaysen’s food does not induce wonder or invite theory, rather, it pursues and captures the classic ideal simply and precisely. Pasta fra diavolo, veal saltimbocca, brioche-crusted fish, and even a Rice Krispie treat – you’ve had them before, but never this good. His are quintessential. His triggered a Proustian cascade within me. Above and beyond any other on this list, my first dinner at Café Boulud this year was my best meal of 2010.
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2. The French Laundry (Yountville, California)
Timothy Hollingsworth’s food at The French Laundry was adventurous, playful, and full of wit. It brimmed with so much personality that the impeccable execution of the dishes seemed less the focus, rather the icing on the cake. At its best, the food was indulgent, delicate, beautiful – ingenious. Many of the dishes on the Vegetable Tasting were a revelation. Coupled with excellent service, the entire experience was magical.
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3. wd~50 (New York, New York)
The last time I had dinner at wd~50 was in 2006. The food and service was so disappointing that we stopped shy of then-pastry chef Sam Mason’s dessert menu. But urged to return, my dinner in June of this year was a spectacular recovery. Nearly the entire menu alighted on our table and there was not a single flaw to be found. My personal preference alone, however, dictates that wd~50 is not an experience I care to repeat on a consistent basis, especially now that Alex Stupak has announced his departure from the pastry station. Stylistically, Wylie Dufresne and I are of different minds, different sensibilities. But, as an infrequent exercise of my “mental palate,” this meal at wd~50 was tremendously important.
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4. Avenues (Chicago, Illinois)
Admittedly, I arrived skeptical – Chef Curtis Duffy’s food appeared overworked, over-thought. And perhaps some of it was a little strange. But Duffy’s cooking struck an unexpectedly wonderful balance of classical and modern techniques. And it was presented in a way that was smart without being smug, fun without being flippant. High on beauty – a true artist, Duffy’s plates were nothing shy of jewel box vignettes – it was low on gimmick. For the most part, function and form here worked in concert. At the end of my tasting meal, I turned to Duffy and told him that I was assured of his place in the Michelin constellation. Two weeks later, he received a phone call from Jean-Luc Naret with news that Avenues had received two Michelin stars.
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5. Manresa (Los Gatos, California)
Of the three meals I’ve had at Manresa, my dinner there this year was not the most compelling one. There were a couple of dishes that lost me. And, whether perceived or true, I sensed that there was a bit of unsettled exploration in the overall arc of our meal, which showed a marked shift towards Japan. That said, it was still one of the best meals I had in 2010. I left reassured that Manresa is one of the most dynamic, if not the most dynamic restaurant in the United States right now. What David Kinch is doing, creating, and building in Los Gatos is sui generis. I count myself lucky to witness the evolution in progress.
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6. alinea (Chicago, Illinois)
Thankfully, this third time was a charm; I almost gave up. Trimming the 26-course “Tour” has lent focus to the alinea dining experience – a storyline without the random tangents. And this time, the food was more delicious, more satisfying than I remembered it in the past. Bookended by a trio of edible cocktails and a giant, chocolate meteor, which Chef Grant Achatz smashed into sublimating smithereens on our table, in between, he challenged expectations with halibut and coffee, a landscape in white; coconut, licorice, and pineapple topped with trout roe; and that show-stopping Escoffier classic, Pigeonneau a la St. Clair. And all of it worked. Only a handful of restaurants in this country can match the level of precision, thought, and creativity that is achieved in alinea’s kitchen. While the restaurant remains far from being my favorite, the dining experience that Achatz has created there is undeniably unique and worthy of serious consideration. alinea is no longer simply a dinner and a show, my dinner there in October of this year demonstrated that it now offers a retrospective of fine dining: then and now.
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7. Eleven Madison Park (New York, New York)
It was a good year for the dream team at Eleven Madison Park. Chef Daniel Humm won the James Beard Award for Best Chef New York in May. A month later, the restaurant made San Pellagrino’s list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The reason: it’s consistent. It’s classy. It’s delicious. It’s beautiful. My meal there in May was no exception. There was a bird (there’s always a bird) stuffed with foie gras, brioche, and truffles. There was veal, tender and saucy with crayfish and a wine to match. There was composed salad of spring vegetables, peeking through a snowy tuft of frozen creme fraiche. And at the end, awaited a rainbow of macarons, petite and perfect. That Eleven Madison Park is the only restaurant in New York that I’ve visited each year for the past four says a lot. It says that I am treated well there. It says that I think the food is excellent. But, most importantly, it says that they’ve earned my respect. I can’t wait to go back.
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8. komi (Washington, D.C.)
There was a tidiness and confidence about the cooking at komi that earned my meal there in March a place on this list. Chef Johnny Monis’s food was most successful where it was simplest: a plump date stuffed with mascarpone, rolled in olive oil and topped with a hillock of salt; the front quarter of roasted suckling pig served with pillowy pita, rich tzatziki, and a dash of lemon; and velvety papardelle enrobed with quail ragu, whose sweetness was checked by a dollop of black olive puree. This isn’t the place to go for innovation or subtlety. Neither is it a place to seek unfettered genius. Rather, komi stands on the honesty of great ingredients and impeccable execution.
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9. Jean Georges (New York, New York)
A meal at Jean Georges is a celebration enough without the added pleasure of dining with dear friends and the honor of having Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s brother, Philippe, carve a pineapple for you. But that aside, what keeps me returning to this New York icon is Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s singular style of cooking – at its best, a seamless meeting of East and West. The menu rarely changes, but I never tire of his food. In addition to revisiting my favorite Vongerichten classics, like red snapper crusted with seeds and nuts, and skate with Chateau Chalon sauce, this time, I discovered a marvelous confit chicken leg sheathed in crispy Parmesan and set over artichoke hearts and lemon butter, and plump Gulf shrimp in a broth rich with saffron and chipotle. A meal at Jean Georges always ends in adventure with Johnny Iuzzini’s creative desserts. This time, he wowed me with a block of matcha semifreddo with kumquat compote and soy caramel. To lunch at Jean Georges and die, no?
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10. piperade (San Francisco, California)
I missed piperade on my trip to San Francisco in 2009, and I vowed not to miss it again on my latest trip in September. Surely, it’s not the shiniest new toy on the block – Gerald Hirigoyen, who was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 1994, opened this “California Basque” restaurant at the foot of Telegraph Hill with his wife in 2002. But eight years hardly makes it outdated, even if a good portion of the menu doesn’t change. Suspended between the rustic traditions of the Old World and the forward-looking freshness of the New World west, the food at piperade, as suggested by the handless clock that dominates the restaurant’s patio, is timeless. Forget the trendy and new for a moment, Hirigoyen’s food was fantastic. With high ingredient quality, a deft hand at the stove, and charming service, my lunch at piperade sailed ahead of other likely candidates for a place on this year’s top ten list.
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In September, I was invited by Chef Scott Boswell to attend two dinners at his restaurant, Stella!, in New Orleans. The first night, I was at table with Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jerome Bocuse, among others. Boswell cooked for us. The next night, the four of them mounted a multi-course dinner at Stella! to benefit the Bocuse d’Or and the Barrier Islands Reclamation Development Society (B.I.R.D.S.). The event raised $50,000 for each organization. While these were, undoubtedly, two of the most memorable meals I had this year – both for the company and the food; a couple of the dishes from these meals were included on my best dishes of 2010 list, and one of the wine pairings tops my Dynamic Duos list below – I did not include them on the list above because they were special events outside the scope of a restaurant’s normal business. But, failure to mention them in this post would be an error.
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1. Elysian Fields Lamb en Persillade (Thomas Keller; Bocuse d’Or/B.I.R.D.S. Dinner, Stella!, New Orleans, Louisiana)
(Caramelized fennel bulb, confit bayaldi, sweet garlic tortellini and Nicoise olive jus)
Paired with Lokoya, Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain, Napa Valley, California, 2006 by John Mitchell, Wine Director of Stella!
Paired with Palladius, 2007 by Michael Muser, Wine Director and General Manager of Avenues.
Paired with Domaine de Trevallon, 2001 by John Ragan, Wine Director of Eleven Madison Park.
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In the United States, McCrady’s (Charleston, South Carolina) tops my bucket list, followed in rapid succession by Townhouse (Chilhowie, Virginia), urusawa (Los Angeles), elements (Princeton, New Jersey), notion (Pittsburgh), and saison (San Francisco). If I can make it to all of these in 2011, I will be a very happy dude. On the west coast, I also have my eye on Frances (San Francisco), Meadowood (St. Helena, California), George’s on the Cove (San Diego), Cotogna (San Francisco), Castagna (Portland, Oregon), wolvesden (Los Angeles), and Providence (Los Angeles). To the east, I have a lot of catching up to do in New York, including Roberta’s (Brooklyn, New York), Torrisi Italian Specialties (New York City), Lincoln (New York City), and marea (New York City). There’s O-Ya in Boston; Speck in Philadelphia; Fore Street in Portland, Maine; Sidney Street Cafe in St. Louis; minibar in Washington, D.C.; VOLT in Frederick, Maryland, and one of Chicago’s newest Michelin two-starred restaurant, Ria, as well.
Restaurants I’d most like to revisit in the United States include frasca food + wine (Boulder), ubuntu (Napa), Vie (Western Springs, Illinois), Quince (San Francisco), niche (after it reopens anew; St. Louis), Corton (New York City), and le Bernardin (New York City).
Internationally, that I have not been to Japan is a personal badge of shame. I need to address that problem soon. In Europe, a staggering list awaits. In Paris alone, my list includes l’AOC, la Bigarrade, Saturne, Rino, l’Astrance, Chez l’Ami Jean, le Chateaubriand, and le Meurice, among others. In London, Viajante; near Turino, combal.zero; in Laguiole, France, Michel Bras; in Perl-Nennig, Germany, Schloss Berg; in Belgium, In de wulf and l’Air du Temps; and in tiny Fürstenau, Switzerland’s newest Michelin three-starred restaurant, Schauenstein. To the north, noma in Copenhagen, of course, along with AOC and relae. In Stockholm, I’d love to visit Mathias Dahlgren, to see how he has progressed since my meal at his previous restaurant, Bon Lloc in 2005. Spain is daunting; I am behind: El Cellar Can Roca (Girona), Akalare (San Sebastian), Mugaritz (San Sebastian), Elkano (Guetaria), Extebarri (Aixpe, Spain) and Restaurant Quique Dacosta (Denia). el bulli? Stay tuned.
Restaurants I’d most like to revisit abroad include l’Arpege (Paris), The Sportsman (Seasalter, U.K.), l’Arnsbourg (Baerenthal, France), Oud Sluis (Sluis, der Nederlands), and far-flung Obaeur (Werfen, Austria).
Photos: Starting from the top:
1. My friends Fritz and Palmer at Café Boulud, New York, New York
2. The bar at Gilt; The Palace Hotel, New York, New York
3. A basket of madeleines; Café Boulud, New York, New York
4. Sweet Onion “Flan” with smoked fig and pistachio “Nuage;” The French Laundry, Yountville, California
5. Food Snob holding up my female counterpart on the menu at wd~50, New York, New York
6. Acquerello Risotto; Avenues, Chicago, Illinois
7. Morelle de Balbis; Manresa, Los Gatos, California
8. Trio of Cocktails; alinea, Chicago, Illinois
9. Salted Lemon Lollipop; komi, Washington, D.C.
10. Philippe Vongerichten carving a pineapple; Jean Georges, New York, New York
11. Piperade; piperade, San Francisco, California
12. Left to right: Scott Boswell, Jerome Bocuse, and Thomas Keller, amused by Daniel Boulud’s kitchen antics, Stella!, New Orleans.