Mood and mind, place and time: once recorded, they cannot be erased. Neither can company nor cast, nor the events that happened at table.
To do so would be a pity anyway, for dining is theatre; every part a prop, everyone a role. And, as with life, in its unscripted scenes are often its finest moments. So keep them all, I say, and learn to love every bit, the good and the not so good. Leave nothing on the cutting room floor.
I will not pretend that I can detach matters of the heart from matters of the mind. I’d be foolish to make such a claim. So, on what basis do I choose the best restaurant meals I’ve had this year? The food? The service? The upholstery? The weather? The conversation? Can they be separated?
I say they cannot.
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Complete objectivity is a myth. I know you know this, and yet I feel compelled to repeat it. So, I’ll simply disclaim: this year’s list of my best restaurant meals – like every one of them in the past – is nothing more than a filtered figment. I wish I could account for the ticks and tacks that add up to the number before us. But I can’t.
Are these the most delicious meals I had this year? Not necessarily. Are they the most flawless? Not particularly. The most memorable? Perhaps, but not entirely.
For a variety of reasons – food being primary – the following ten meals set themselves apart from the rest.
In 2011, this was no easy feat.
This year took me to many of the best restaurants in the world, and to times and places here and there. I’ve never eaten so well, or with such breadth and depth in my life, and probably never will again.
I ate in Paris, 1906, and in Lyon, 1965. In a pink mesón, I glimpsed 18th-century Puebla in a mole poblano, and at a 16th-century pub on the coast of Kent, I tasted salt marsh umami in lamb pré salé. Chagall and Bonnard kept me company, whilst I ate veal and rösti alone in Zurich in the 1920s, and the king of France himself met me for lunch on a marbled terrace by the sea in Monte-Carlo, bringing with him the gilded, Bourbon opulence of the 1760s.
In Charleston, George Washington whispered in my ear while I ate foods that he might have eaten there, lost and recovered in between my time and his. In Italy, I was taken back to the future on an eel, swimming up the Po to discover an orchard of apples. And in Germany, I feasted in a fairytale castle on neue cuisine, the handiwork of that country’s most talented chefs.
On the Costa Brava, I was lost to time altogether, over and over again, recollections replayed anew by luminaries of the vanguardia – where three rocks appeared on the landscape of my memory, where a box appeared on a terrace by the sea, and where an iridescent parrotfish brought me licorice in a little, golden house with blue trim, the soul of the Mediterranean.
I threw caution off the icy slopes of St. Moritz and celebrated with white truffles. I threw good sense out the window of our rental on I-77 and drove seven hours (each way) to eat in a forlorn town in the Appalachia. I’m glad I did, that meal is one of the ten on this year’s list.
In the West Village, I ate mightily; a burger with blue cheese. In the East Village, I ate monastically; vegetables with sake and tea.
And in San Francisco, I arrived at a hearth, warm and cozy, the threshold of a new and exciting era in dining.
Those of you who read this blog regularly will know of the times and places to which I refer. And you know of the largesse from which I must choose. But if this all sounds a bit abstract, a wee apocalyptic to you, then decode these mysteries for yourself here: it’s all unpacked by my suitcase party.
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This year’s ten best meals share few similarities. They range from the charming to the epic. Some electrified, others comforted. Each was unique. But two commonalities are striking enough to be mentioned: nine of these meals were within walking distance of the ocean,* and I ate at six of these restaurants more than once this year – two of them thrice, four of them twice. A seventh one I’ve visited more than a half-dozen times in the past decade. So, most of the restaurants that appear on this year’s list have the unfair advantage of familiarity, as well as repeated opportunities to impress.
But I wouldn’t have returned without warrant, right? Clearly, I couldn’t get enough of them.
This year, the first five meals staked their claims confidently – in some cases, even before I finished eating – and held their places at the top for months, unseated and untouched by many subsequent worthies. These five are truly in a league of their own.
The remaining five slots proved much harder to assign, especially the last one. There were simply too many great meals to consider, comparable or special, in one way or another. But, I resisted expansion and split hairs to keep this year’s list at ten entries.
So, across a dozen states, eleven countries, and over eighty Michelin stars, here are the best meals I had in 2011 (click on the name of the restaurant to read more):
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1. Quique Dacosta
Collectively, the three meals that I had at Quique Dacosta in July of this year changed my life. The second one – a lunch – was not only my favorite of the three, but the best meal I had in 2011. Yet, it was far from being one of the most delicious meals I had this year. For those candidates, you’ll have to look down the list and beyond. So why did Quique Dacosta catapult so high above the rest? More than any other meal I had this year, my lunch at Dacosta’s taught me the smells and flavors of a different land. This was the Levant of Spain, where the earth and sea meet at sunrise. This was the world inside his mind. And for Quique Dacosta’s ability to carve it into mine, he finds himself atop the rest.
(April, 2011; Charleston, South Carolina)
How is it possible for an Asian-American boy from the Midwest to have such an affinity to Southern food? Is it the pork fat, the lingua franca of the current culinary world, which you will find here, suffused into every dish with a hint of smoke? No, rather, I think it’s the story that Sean Brock weaves into every dish, a tale more finely stitched than any flavor could ever sew. When you eat at Husk, you’re eating centuries of history, clear and concise, confident and convincing. There is no guessing here – this is the South by way of the rest of the world, and the sum of many who have worked the sea and soil from the Appalachia to the Gulf, from the Lowcountry to the Mississippi River. And you’ll find its provenance on its walls: buttermilk from the Cruze Family in Tennessee; rabbit from Ashley Farms in North Carolina; fleur de sel from Midge Jolly in Key West, Florida; grits from Hagwood Hills, South Carolina. But rising above all the thought, all the lore, and all the tradition is unmitigated deliciousness. Here are those crispy pig ears that topped my list of best dishes this year, along with many others, like a meaty, molted crab with peas, or a skillet of golden cornbread, simple but amazing. Maybe it was a sense of discovery that made it particularly special, or the good friends with whom I ate that night, or Sean Brock’s infectious laugh, which rings on in my mind, but my first meal at Husk was my favorite of the three I was lucky to have there this year. And certainly, it was one of the very best meals I had in 2011.
3. Louis XV
It rolls in slow motion, edges vignetted, focus softened. And yet, the memory of my meal at Louis XV is as crisp and clean as those linens that hugged my table, as rich as the sauces and gold that gilt each plate. What can you say to pampering and perfection? Yes, please! Louis XV is one of the only restaurants left that argues for grandeur beyond hope and spoils with excess beyond reason. And yet it is not a relic. It is very relevant. It is a masterpiece. As I wrote earlier this year: behold, Louis XV: proud, prodigal, peerless.
Slow to start, when my dinner at TownHouse hit its stride, it took off and didn’t stop. In fact, it’s still going. It revisits me often and bids me to recall that sweet, hay-infused milk sauce that John Shields drizzled around farro and beef cheeks (one of the very best dishes I had this year) and the X.O. sauce that lowered a tender piece of pork a few octaves with its indescribable depth. I remember too, Karen Shields leading me through a fragrant forest of quince and herbs (one of the very best desserts I had this year), arriving at a campire, where she unearthed a molten ingot of dark chocolate, sweeping away the ash with the tang of yogurt. Poetic? Highly. Imaginative? Few exceed. What are they doing in Chilhowie, Virginia? Thinking, learning, reaching, pioneering. You can’t get there quickly enough.
5. The Sportsman
(Seasalter, The United Kingdom)
My best meal in 2008 was at The Sportsman. It eclipsed all others. So I’m not surprised to see it return to this year’s list. In January, I went back to this gastropub on those pebbly shores of Kent for two meals. The first one, a quiet dinner alone, is the one that ranks here. There is excitement in simplicity, and Stephen Harris knows this well. Monkshill lamb with a spot of potatoes; a simple tart, paved with mushrooms duxelles and capped with a fluffy egg custard; a fleshy pyramid of skate dressed with vinegary butter – one of the best dishes I had this year – and a frothy chocolate mousse, with dark caramel and a cold, milky sorbet – one of the best desserts I had this year. This meal was a joyous return to that salt marsh umami I remembered and loved so well.
6. el Quim de al Boqueria
(February, 2011; Barcelona, Spain)
Among the chaotic stacks of meat and fruit at the Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona, you will find a beautifully varnished counter wrapped around a kempt stall. This is el Quim de la Boqueria, where I had two fantastic meals this year. The first one in February was so good that I returned in July, heading there straight from the airport for a quick bite before returning to the airport to pick up my friend for a road trip down the coast (the roundtrip cab fare cost more than that lunch). Chiparones the size of gum drops, inky and tender under a fried egg. A sautéed slice of foie gras, crusted with burnt sugar, atop wild mushrooms. Razor clams and gambas, cooked on the plancha, and baby artichokes, fried until crispy. A length of butifarra with a crowd of creamy beans, and a fat blood sausage filled with rice and served with onions. These are the simple, yet spectacular pleasures of el Quim. I crave it.
The scent of lemons, the smell of the sea, these are the things I remember most about Mauro Colagreco’s Mirazur, perched just this side of the French-Italian border on the Côte d’Azur. On top of super-fresh ingredients and impeccable cooking, at the second of my two meals there, I was served a beautiful spectrum of flavors, colors, and textures from the surrounding land and waters, an edible rainbow.
(San Francisco, California)
I was smitten with saison the moment I walked into its rambling space, and fell further in love with it at chef Joshua Skenes’s kitchen counter. There was something untamed about it all, a liveliness of spirit that excited me. It wasn’t just a philosophy, it was innate, organic, and it welled up on each plate that arrived. This was nature at its very finest, á la saison, magnified and magnificent. This was holism at hearth and home, and one of my best meals of 2011. Oh, and the soundtrack? Totally awesome.
9. Jean Georges
(New York, New York)
Perhaps it’s fitting that I first fell hopelessly in love with fine dining under the gaze of a globe, the world and all its delicious possibilities looking down on me, a young man, dining alone in that jewel box on Columbus Circle. I can name the dish, too, that awakened me to the rest of my eating life: a trio of warm kumamoto oysters dressed with crispy bacon, sherry vinaigrette, and creamy leeks. And the desserts that followed were just as seminal – a set of four, thrilling tastes, including poached quince with goat cheese and Pedro Ximenes granité, and a red wine tart with prune and Armagnac ice cream. In those dishes, I glimpsed the exciting possibilities that awaited me in restaurants near and far, and it launched a quest that sees no end. So, it gives me great pleasure to return to Jean Georges, year after year, and find it just as exciting as, if not more so than when I first arrived (Jean Georges also appeared on my list of best meals last year). In May, I reaffirmed my faith and hope there, when I found splendor anew. Next week marks the last for Johnny Iuzzini as pastry chef of Jean Georges. I thank him for his many generosities over the years and wish him the best beyond.
(July, 2011; Cala Montjoi, Spain)
How cliché of me, right? For anyone who’s been, elBulli’s appearance on their year-end list seems all but obligatory. Truth be told, even though my first meal there in February was unforgettable, if that were the only meal I had at elBulli this year, the restaurant’s name would not appear on this list today (not even close). Instead, you’d be reading about my meal at Philippe Rochat, or The Modern, or Sant Pau, or el Moli, or Sushi Yasuda, where I had far more pleasing food. But I had two meals at elBulli this year, and the second one – in July, right before Ferrán Adria closed its doors – was far better, in my opinion. The food seemed more finely tuned; thrilling at times, even. Was it one of the ten best meals I had this year? Reluctantly, I say that it was, and I will not begrudge its rightful place among its peers. Might I have been blinded by the rarity of the occasion, softened by the lovely cast of characters that assembled on that terrace by the sea? Perhaps. But I cannot overlook the tremendous thought poured into the forty-four courses we were served that day, an anthology of tastes that took us around the world, upending each corner as we passed them by. And much of it was surprisingly delicious, on top of being innovative and challenging. I went to Cala Montjoi a skeptic, and left a believer.
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Where to in 2012? Last year, I made a bucket list and checked off nearly half of it. I dare not hope as much again, but I’ll dream anyways.
Japan remains my Holy Grail. I know it exists. It calls. I must find it.
In these United States, urasawa in Los Angeles tops my list – it’s the only of the top five off of last year’s bucket list that escaped me. Following closely behind are Curtis Duffy’s upcoming Grace in Chicago; Atelier Crenn in San Francisco; Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore; and VOLT in Frederick, Maryland. If I can make it to these five, I’ll be thrilled.
To the West, Providence in Los Angeles remains unclaimed (I don’t count the “Four on Fish” dinner I attended there in June of this year; I want a proper Cimarusti meal). In San Diego, Addison. In Lummi Island, Washington, Willows Inn.
Oregon needs to be revisited – in Portland, both Pok Pok and le Pigeon await.
On the opposite coast, the other Portland calls me to Fore Street. Also on that upper-right shelf of our country, O-Ya in Boston and Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In South Londonderry, Vermont (one of four states remaining on my U.S. bucket list), Wesley Genovart’s Solo Farm & Table (I’m still inconsolable that I missed him at Degustation).
Here in the Midwest, I’m looking at Sidney Street Café; I shall be in St. Louis anon. In Omaha, both The Boiler Room and The Grey Plume, and in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Lincoln Café. Colby and Megan Garrelts are opening a new restaurant in Kansas City next year, Native; I’m excited. Rick Bayless’s xoco never seems to be open when I’m in Chicago, so I include it again, along with RIA and Matthias Merges’s new Yusho.
I’ve acquired a taste for the South, and I’d love to explore it more. I still haven’t been to Highlands Bar and Grill or Bettola in Birmingham; or Miller Union and Empire State, both in Atlanta; or FIG in Charleston. These need to be visited, among others.
I’ve done fairly well emptying my New York bucket list. But there remains far too much to fit here, including Torrisi Italian Specialties, Annisa, Blue Hill at Washington Square, and Dovetail. Otherwise, little excites me in New York these days. Instead, I’ll be pleased to revisit my favorites, including Jean Georges, le Bernardin, Café Boulud, The Modern, aldea, and Eleven Madison Park. Oh, and I haven’t been to per se for a proper meal since Eli Kaimeh replaced Jonathan Benno (I only had desserts in the Salon this year). I probably should go back. And I must be the last man on earth unimpressed by my meals at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, so I’d like to give that place another try too.
In Salt Lake City, forage.
Abroad, I’m overwhelmed.
In London, Mikael Jonsson’s Hedone.
There is much eating to be done in Paris: Agapé Substance, Passage 53, le Dauphin, le Chateaubriand, and Yam’tcha, just to name a few. At the high end, I still haven’t been to the frilly le Meurice or le Pre Catalan in the Bois de Boulogne, or Pierre Gagnaire on the rue Balzac (not likely, unless Gagnaire is the kitchen). After my thrilling meal at Louis XV this year, I’m even willing to hazard Ducasse’s Plaza Athenée. Otherwise, France remains a minefield of missed opportunities. I’d love to finally get to Michel Bras in Laguiole and Troisgros in Roanne. And in the South, les Prés d’Eugenie at Eugenie les Bains, and in the North, Sa.Qua.Na. in Honfleur.
The Basque remains unvisited: Arzak and Akalare in San Sebastian; Elkano in Guetaria; Mugaritz in Errenteria; and Asador Extebarri in Axpe.
In Belgium, Kobe Desramault’s in de Wulf in Dranouter, and Sang Hoon Degeimbre’s l’Air du Temps in Noville-sur-Mehaigne. In Copenhagen, Rasmus Kofoed’s Geranium, Christian Puglisi’s relae, and Thomas Herman’s Restaurant Herman. In far-flung Järpen, Sweden, Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken. In Stockholm, Frantzén/Lindeberg. In Langen, Germany, Restaurant Amador, and in Bergisch Gladbach, Vendome.
Where else? Singapore. I want to crawl through the hawker fare and eat at Iggy’s and Tetsuya’s.
And Australia, the only one left on my bucket list of continents (well, unless you count Antarctica): Tetsuya’s and Royal Mail.
Places I’d like to revisit? Too many to count. I’ll start with the ten restaurants that appear on this year’s list of best restaurant meals. To it, I add: frasca food + wine in Boulder; The French Laundry in Napa; coi in San Francisco; and niche in St. Louis. In Paris, I will return first to Ledoyen, and then la Bigarrade. In London, Koffman’s at the Berkeley and St. John Bread & Wine. And in the Netherlands, Oud Sluis.
* Okay, so Jean Georges is a long walk from the ocean, and so is saison. But I’ve walked to the shore from both, so I consider it walkable.
Photos (from top to bottom): At table at Louis XV, Monte-Carlo, Monaco; corn husks on the cob at Husk, Charleston, South Carolina; elBulli, Cala Montjoi, Spain; beets at Quique Dacosta, Dénia, Spain; Dave’s clams with bacon at Husk, Charleston, South Carolina; baba au rhum at Louis XV, Monte-Carlo, Monaco; oyster stew at TownHouse, Chilhowie, Virginia; mushroom tart at The Sportsman, Seasalter, U.K.; razor clams at el Quim de la Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain; dorade with peaches at Mirazur, Menton, France; Joshua Skenes with “old ass pigeons” at saison, San Francisco, California; steamed cod at Jean Georges, New York, New York; curried oysters with oyster plant at elBulli, Cala Montjoi, Spain.