The title of this blog post is misleading.
Superlatives, like the word “best,” are dangerous. They’re almost always misused for profit.
I have been critical of lists that claim authority over the designation “the best in the world.” The absurdity of such declarations was captured brilliantly in the movie Elf, when Buddy discovers the “world’s best cup of coffee.” You should distrust anyone who tells you that something is “the best,” especially when done with a veneer of objectivity. I won’t do it. Instead, I will tell you up front: my annual “best of” lists – like this one, in which I share my ten best meals of 2012 – are nothing more than the opinion of one man.
My methodology is simple, but not really. I’ve tried to explain it every year. My last attempt remains my best:
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.
At the end of 2011, I said: “I’ve never eaten so well, or with such breadth and depth in my life, and probably never will again.” So far, that holds true.
But fear not, I still ate very, very well last year. 2012 offered its own special splendor.
I traveled less outside of the country, and more within it. I ate at restaurants high and low, visiting roadside stands in Mexico and the highest constellations in the Michelin galaxy alike (including six of America’s ten restaurants that currently hold three Michelin stars).
Instead of reviewing my entire inventory of meals from 2012 here, I’ll simply refer you to two lists that I have already compiled and published on this blog. The first one gives you an account of all of my meals I had in the first eleven months of last year, both foreign and domestic. The second one, an addendum, lists all the meals I had in December.
Based on my observations, the overall standards and expectations of the dining experience in restaurants have increased greatly over the past few years, especially at the high end. On a sum-basis, this is great news for everyone. But, looking closely at the parts, I am troubled by much of what I see.
A very thin, fine line has begun to divide chefs and restaurants into two different camps, both of which seem to be heading in the same direction. On the outside, their vehicles look very similar – so similar, in fact, that to the uninitiated, there may be no difference between the two at all. But, while one group is blazing a trail and setting the pace with originality, flavor, thoughtfulness, and a competent hand with high-quality ingredients, the other one is stuck on a track, simply chasing the first, fueled by ambition and style, but completely missing the point of the mission.
As in years past, the meals that pleased me the most in 2012 focused on three aspects of the restaurant experience that I value the most. The first two – competency and high ingredient quality – must go hand-in-hand. If you have them both, you can’t lose. In the last decade, we have entered a Renaissance of agricultural and aquacultural wealth. For those who care, high quality ingredients are available. And boy, do chefs love to boast about their stake in the lot. But having high-quality ingredients is one thing, knowing that to do with them is something altogether different. Basically what I’m saying here is: nowadays, access is easy, delivery is hard.
A third aspect of the dining experience that I value greatly is originality. And this aspect, more than any other, is what separates the best from the rest. Anymore, it seems almost impossible to find an original voice. Everything is a remix, isn’t it? Sadly, it seems so.
But does it have to be this way? I don’t think so. It’s probably not a coincidence that some of my favorite meals – including many on the list below – are found in the more remote corners of our world, where cooks and chefs have the time and space to think for themselves.
Like last year, this year, an elite pack of five meals pulled far ahead of the rest. And within that group of five – note: only one was at an American restaurant – one meal stood particularly tall.
The second half of this year’s list was much harder to assemble. How do I not include one of my thirteen meals at the Restaurant at Meadowood, all of which were very, very good? Or, my dinner at Mugaritz, which, though thought-provoking, might have stepped a little too far into the realm of the abstract for me? Or, an epic meal at per se that was flawless from head to tail? Or, a very good lunch at Del Posto that surprised me in the best of ways? Or that simple cemita lunch in the covered market in San Pedro Sula, Mexico, that I’ve repeated and that has brought me great joy many times in the past two years?
Sadly, I couldn’t include a terrific vegetarian lunch that Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner cooked for us at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium either – it wasn’t a restaurant meal. But it definitely deserves to be mentioned here alongside my favorite meals from 2012.
Know that compiling this list is a challenge every year (it’s definitely a First World problem, I assure you).
From meals that I had in restaurants in four countries, over a dozen U.S. states, and representing over sixty Michelin stars, here were my ten favorite:
At a high bar top in the company of candles and cranes, I ate chef Matthias Merges’s soulfully satisfying take on Japanese street food. Formerly the chef de cuisine of Charlie Trotter’s for over a decade and a half, his restaurant yusho in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood offers a dynamic dining experience that, like Merges, is full of energy and enthusiasm. You’ll find a fish face with flavorful pockets to explore, and a collection of skins – some puffy, some knobby, others thin and crisp. It’s full-tilt comfort polished with a fair amount of thoughtfulness. I loved it.
(Charleston, South Carolina)
Last year, when Husk appeared near the top of my list of favorite meals, I wrote: “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.” It remained so in 2012, when I returned for a wonderful brunch that included Brock’s grandma’s recipe for fried chicken, and delicious snacks like fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese and Benton’s ham.
(New York, New York)
Despite the cab ride to crazy town that preceded it, my meal at Jungsik was a dazzling display of refinement in an arena where refinement isn’t expected. Using classic, Old World cooking techniques to showcase Korean flavors and sensibilities, Jungsik stands to move Asian food forward in the United States, to break the glass ceiling that only the Japanese have been able to do thus far. It is exciting. And you’ll find it in TriBeCa, in the former Chanterelle space on the corner of Hudson and Harrison Streets.
7. The Oval Room
Tony Conte’s food at The Oval Room surprised me in the best of ways, a partnership of acid and heat conspiring against a fatty middle. His cooking is sort of Italian, sort of Asian, and non-stop delicious. Conte is a master of flavor, perhaps more than he is a technician, which is saying a lot give his precision. He overlaps them in unexpected ways, like pairing toasted hazelnuts with white truffle, garnishes to casarecce pasta in a creamy fonduta. Or beets, which he used as a filling for ravioli, and spiced wine, which he used to stain clarified butter; an inky spill of claret. Both were brilliant couples.
6. La Teca
La Teca is more of a supper club than a restaurant. Doña Deyanira runs this small operation out of her home in Oaxaca, where she cooks authentic Oaxacan dishes, many of which are usually only made for celebratory meals once a year. I was lucky enough to experience her cooking with a group of friends; a cheery night of garnachas (little gorditas topped with pulled pork and cheese) and tamales (a variety of fillings), mezcal and wine. Her chipotle relleno – stuffed with beef and dried fruits – was one of the best dishes I had in 2012.
(San Francisco, California)
Joshua Skenes paints quiet, peaceful, pastoral scenes of land and sea with excellent ingredients and live fire. His understanding of ingredients and ability to showcase them is outstanding. He unlocks flavors with tremendous subtlety, like in a bowl of brassicas and grains, over half a dozen varieties of each, all of which were cooked separately to maximize flavor and to tailor textures. Saison was on my list of best meals in 2011, and it returns this year with even more confidence.
(San Sebastian, Spain)
Simplicity can be thrilling. Ibai proves this is true. Some percebes (barnacles), steamed and served with nothing but the briny sea water within; some rice with clams and garlic; and an entire sole, basted in butter and vinegar and crusted with salt: these are the flavors of the Basque coast of Spain, beautifully told at Ibai.
3. Yu Ne Nisa
The food in Oaxaca is like the food of no other place. At once crude and refined, it is a distillation of wordy history into pithy sentences with just as much meaning. Be not fooled by its simple appearance. There are no abbreviations in the lexicon of Oaxaca’s culinary language. There is only depth, only complexity, and only flavor. At Doña Ofelia Toledo Bacha Pineda’s restaurant, Yu Ne Nisa, you will find it all in a rainbow of moles and much more. If you’re chasing authenticity, look not further. You’ll find it here.
2. Martín Berasategui
(San Sebastian, Spain)
There is friction of flavor here, a finely tuned suspension of aromas and textures. At Berasategui, you will find challenging ingredient combinations that are brilliantly balanced: coffee with asparagus and chocolate; bluefish with endives and smoke; and foie gras with smoked eel and green apples. And yet, his food is immensely comforting, like a warm bowl of squid broth, with tender strips of cuttlefish and a ravioli of squid ink, or a beautifully aged strip of beef that could have been served alone with nothing more than a dash of salt. This restaurant represents Michelin three-starred excellence at its very best.
1. Asador Extebarri
I’m still thinking about that rib-eye; the one that was aged and then grilled and served sliced with the bone. That was my favorite dish from 2012. I’m also thinking about that “flan” of queso fresco; the one that seemed more air than fat, and just a bit tangy too. That was my favorite dessert from 2012. And everything in between was amazing, all of it gently smoked on a grill in the middle of nowhere in the Basque mountains of Spain. If luxury is found in quality and simplicity, then there’s plenty of it at Asador Etxebarri, where I had my best meal of 2012. No other came close.
At the end of 2011, I put 82 restaurants and the country of Japan on my bucket list. In 2012, I managed to check off a quarter of the list. Japan remains unvisited. Where to in 2013? A boy can dream:
The entire country of Japan remains on the top of my bucket list.
Otherwise, in Asia, I most want to visit Singapore. I want to crawl through the hawker fare and eat at Iggy’s and Tetsuya’s.
In Europe, I carry over my list of restaurants in France, which include Ducasse’s Plaza Athenée and Pierre Gagnaire’s eponymous restaurant in Paris; Michel Bras in Laguiole; Troisgros in Roanne; les Prés de l’Eugenie in Eugenie les Bains; and Sa.Qua.Na in Honfleur. I add to that list le Grenouillière, which is located in Madelaine sous Montreuil.
To the north, I have outstanding dates with Kobe Desramault at in de Wulf in Dranouter, and Sang Hoon Degeimbre at l’Air du Temps in Noville-sur-Mehaigne. Both are in Belgium.
I finally visited the Basque country in 2012. But my tour was not complete. I would like to return to visit Elkano in Guetaria, and Akalare and Arzak in San Sebastian, among others.
I also made it to Copenhagen at the beginning of this new year, checking off relæ, noma, and Geranium. But many remain: Søllerød Kro, Manfred’s, Radio, Geist, AOC, and Matthew Orlando’s upcoming Amass are among them.
In neighboring Sweden, I bring forward Matthias Dahlgren and Restaurant Frantzén/Lindberg, both in Stockholm, and Fäviken in Järpen.
In Germany, I’d like to visit Vendome in Bergisch-Gladbach, and Tim Raue in Berlin.
And in London, I’d like to visit Hedone.
In Australia, the only one left on my bucket list of continents (well, unless you count Antarctica): Tetsuya’s, attica, and Royal Mail.
In Mexico City, I’d like to get to Quintonil.
I’ve been to South America once. I’d like to return, not only to Argentina, but also visit Chile and Brazil as well.
In the United States, Austin begs me to visit. I need to see uchi, and uchiko, and a whole party of food trucks and barbecue joints, including Franklin’s and Snow’s. Paul Qui is opening his own restaurant there – Qui – and I hope to eat there as well.
In the South, I still haven’t been to Highlands Bar and Grill or Bettola in Birmingham; or Miller Union and Empire State South, both in Atlanta; or FIG in Charleston. These need to be visited, among others, like oxheart in Houston.
In New York, I hope to eat at blanca, despite its quasi-photography ban (blanca allows photography, but ask that the photographs not be posted publicly). And in Chicago, Goosefoot awaits, Chris Nugent’s restaurant in the city’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.
In Boston: Menton, Craigie on Main, and clio.
On the west coast, I would love to get to animal, Providence, and urasawa, all of which are in Los Angeles. In the Bay Area, where I did a considerable amount of eating in 2012, I still haven’t eaten at flour + water or una pizzeria napoletana. In Seattle, I want to visit Canlis; and on Lummi Island, Willows Inn.
Will John and Karen Shields open a restaurant in 2013? If they do, consider me there.
Both Portlands – Oregon and Maine – need to be visited. As does Alaska.
Nearer to my home, I need to get over to St. Louis to eat at Gerard Craft’s pastaria. Up I-35 in Minneapolis, I want to visit The Bachelor Farmer and piccolo. I never made it to The Boiler Room or The Grey Plume in Omaha in 2012. And I didn’t make it to Mount Vernon, Iowa, to eat at Lincoln Café either. Perhaps I shall explore my own region more in 2013.
Restaurants I’d most like to revisit? Frasca Food + Wine in Boulder tops my list, followed closely by Jungsik in New York City, saison in San Francisco, The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, and Manresa in Los Gatos, California. I would also love to eat again Husk in Charleston and vetri in Philadelphia. Abroad, The Sportsman in Seasalter, U.K. begs for me to return, as do Quique Dacosta in Denia, Spain, Asador Extebarri in Axpe in the Basque mountains, and Pujol in Mexico City. And, what I wouldn’t give to have a another date with the king of France on that marble terrace at Louis XV in Monte-Carlo.
Photos: The former saison in the Mission, San Francisco, California; the bar top at yusho in Chicago, Illinois; oil and vinegar dispensers at Asador Etxebarri in Axpe, Spain; Doña Deyanira in her kitchen at La Teca in Oaxaca, Mexico; kama (fish collar) at yusho in Chicago, Illinois; Sean Brock’s grandma’s fried chicken and fixings and Husk in Charleston, South Carolina; Jungsik seaweed salad at Jungsik in New York, New York; red beet ravioli with brown butter and spiced red wine syrup at Oval Room in Washington, D.C.; a smattering of dishes at La Teca in Oaxaca, Mexico; smoked local caviar with chicken gelée at saison in San Francisco, California; percebes at Ibai in San Sebastian, Spain; shrimp rice with fried plantains at Yu Ne Nisa in Oaxaca, Mexico; “2011 Squid Soup” at Martín Berasategui in San Sebastian, Spain; and grilled sea cucumber with beans at Asador Extebarri in Axpe, Spain.