The late, great Diana Vreeland once said: “A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste––it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.”
I couldn’t agree more.
There is a growing class of restaurants with no taste, and an army of identity-less chefs serving identity-less food to accompany it. You could swap the menus from one of their restaurants to another, and you might not know the difference.
Sure, we’ve come a long way. We, as a society, have become more educated about food. We’ve created access to higher-quality ingredients. And, in our ever-shrinking world of technology and travel, we’ve constructed a communal “cloud” of knowledge from which all may download. As a result, we are able to demand more and get more out of our foodways.
But, what is infrastructure if there is not an intelligent, opinionated, and thoughtful user base? Despite the progress we’ve made, there remains a mindlessness to cooking, to eating, and to food writing these days that scares me. Often, the gap between what it is that I see, hear, and read and what it is that I eat is hard to bridge. At the high end, there is a lot of preaching and marketing and grandstanding in auditoriums from Copenhagen to Mexico City, and on glossy print covers from New York to Paris. The ideas sound great, and the philosophies are grand. Yet, so often at the table, very little of that glory appears. Or, sometimes that glory appears reflected, borrowed or copied from another.
Where are the voices? Where are the visionaries? Where can I get a taste of the verisimilar these days?
Who is cooking food that comes from the heart and not from the internet? Where is the paprika?
This is the sixth year that I have the pleasure of sharing with you the ten meals that impressed me the most in the calendar year preceding. And this is the sixth year that I struggle with identifying and articulating what it is about these meals that put them at the top of my list. I think I expressed this best in 2011:
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.
But, I’ve noticed a pattern.
Looking back at the now-sixty meals that impressed me the most over the past six years – that’s including the ten that appear here – the vast majority have one thing in common: they captured a unique spirit and perspective. In these meals, I heard their master’s voices, saw their visions, tasted the verisimilar, and encountered their hearts, and some paprika too. And that is why, amidst a sea of identity-less meals, it brings me great pleasure every year to recognize the ones that have had something special to say, the ones that I will not forget.
Many of these meals are better categorized as experiences, defying both description and definition. I can tell you what I ate at Quique Dacosta on the shores of the Levante of Spain, or at The Sportsman on the windswept coast of Kent in the U.K., or at Asador Extebarri, located in a quiet corner of the Basque mountains (meals at these three restaurant topped my list of best restaurant meals for the years 2011, 2008, and 2012, respectively). But, I can’t tell you, with any accuracy or specificity, what the experience of eating that food was like, because I had never encountered anything else like it before, and often, since. Many of the meals that I’ve named among my “best” are wholly and uniquely the products of culinary auteurs, who wade against the common tide into the uncharted territories of their soul, conveying, and, at their best, creating time and space that does not exist elsewhere.
Sounds romantic? Impractical? Ideal?
The best meals that I’ve had are all of those things and more.
While I spent quite a bit of time abroad in 2013 (collectively, I spent over a month in Chile, half a month in Europe, and I went to Mexico twice), the bulk of my restaurant eating was done in the United States. (I gave a thorough and full account of every restaurant meal I had in 2013 in a prior post.)
As in past years, out of the hundreds of meals I had, an elite pack of five sprinted to the top this year, separating themselves effortlessly from the rest. And, as in the past, this year, I spent the majority of the time that I devoted to creating this list weighing out the entries in the second half.
I wanted to include a truly special dinner that Dan Barber cooked for my friend Adam and me at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and an equally memorable dinner that I shared with Adam at Enrique Olvera‘s restaurant Pujol in Mexico City. I hoped to express how wonderful I thought my meal at Jorge Vallejo‘s restaurant Quintonil (also in Mexico City) was, or how much I appreciated the artisan craftsmanship and dedication that Anthony Mangieri puts into the pies that I had at una pizza napoletana in San Francisco (the quality is there, I’m just not a neapolitan pizza kind of guy).
In New York City, I had outstanding meals at Del Posto and casa mono, both of which I considered for this list. And I had more fun at Carbone than at any other meal I had in 2013 (The soundtrack! The waiters in maroon tuxes! The table-side Caesar! The smug and savvy commentary on Italian-America!); that’s definitely worth noting.
Chile should be proud to call Rodolfo Guzman a native son. I had three eye-opening and unforgettable meals at his restaurant Boragó in Santiago, where I toured many regions and indigenous subcultures of his country from the comfort of my table.
Based on my dinner at Quince in late November, I thought Michael Tusk and his team were worthy recipients of a second Michelin star this past year. That was definitely among the most memorable meals I had in 2013.
If Michelin were to travel down the coast to Carmel-By-The-Sea, I’m confident they’d find at least one star owing to Aubergine at l’Auberge Carmel. I loved discovering Justin Cogley‘s food over the course of three dinners there this year. He has a unique voice and an impeccable palate. I know I will continue to see good things coming from his corner.
And, I must also tell you about [One] in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As I said of chefs Daniel Ryan and Kim Floresca in Eater’s year-end round-up of “Food Writers and Experts on Chefs and Restaurants to Watch in 2014, “Their pedigree is unmatched: between them, the two have worked at elBulli, Per Se, The French Laundry, Alinea, TRU, among other kitchens, including The Restaurant at Meadowood, where Floresca was executive sous chef and Daniel Ryan was the sous chef (in charge of pastries). Assisting Ryan in pastry at [ONE] is Jonathan Fisher, who just spent more than a year in the pastry kitchen at El Celler de Can Roca under Jordi Roca. I ate at [ONE] [in November of 2013], and I see that they are striving to bring a new perspective to the dining scene in “The Triangle.” They’ve got talent, energy, and enthusiasm to spare. More importantly, they understand and care about quality. I hope they succeed.”
As you can see, I ate very well and had many memorable meals in 2013, including dinner at Christian Puglisi‘s restaurant relae in Copenhagen, and The Hunt menu at Next in Chicago. Unfortunately, only ten of them can make the list.
So, I leave all of those meals behind, recorded and mentioned for posterity, and give you the ten best meals I had in 2013. [NOTE: two of the restaurants that appear on this year’s list, and at both of which I ate more than once in 2013, deserved to appear multiple times. However, the meals that I had at these two restaurants would have so dominated the list as to make it uninteresting. So, instead of making you scroll through a list consisting mostly of meals from two restaurants, I decided to rank those restaurants according to their strongest showing. They both did quite well. One of them ranked at no. 1, the other at no. 2.]
(Princeton, New Jersey)
He is a pioneer, Scott Anderson is. His food is challenging, engaging, and honest. Rarely do I leave a meal feeling as exercised as I do when I leave elements. At a meal that I had at the restaurant’s “kitchen table” in September of 2013, Anderson and his chef de cuisine Mike Ryan showcased the bounty of the woods around them. Both avid foragers and outdoorsmen, they created a tasting menu comprised of nearly a dozen different mushrooms: gyroporus castaneous, tylopilus alboater, aborted entoloma, xanthaconium sepperens… The meal was not only a lesson in Latin and biological classification, it was an exploration of texture and flavor. And it was magnificent. You’ll find Scott Anderson and his frontier in Princeton, New Jersey.
I’ll admit, I was skeptical: how can any restaurant live up to the dubious title of “best in the world” (see no. 10 in 2011)? But, setting aside the storm of hype that has swirled around Rene Redzepi‘s restaurant noma in Copenhagen, I really did have a terrific meal there last year. It was full of color, texture, and flavor. There was excitement in the slightly unfinished feel of some of the dishes we saw (after our meal, we were told that some of our courses had not been put on the menu yet). And, taken altogether, it conveyed a sense of time and place in such a way that makes noma, udoubtedly, one of the most important restaurants in the world right now.
Everyone knows Rasmus Kofoed as the only man to have won all three statues at the Bocuse d’Or. But I also know him to be a tremendously thoughtful cook and artist. It’s easy to be distracted by the precision of his craft, because it is so shockingly sharp. On a superficial level, it is what makes him a great chef. But looking past the form, his food functions as a delicious allegory of his place and culture. Every dish I had at Geranium last February appeared as an icon, outlines and silhouettes of the smells, the sights, and the flavors of Kofoed’s Denmark.
7. DI FARA PIZZA
(New York, New York)
If the merit of a meal were expressed soley by the intensity of pleasure experienced divided by the variety of food consumed, or by the amount of money spent (but not by the amount of time spent waiting for it), then the two-slice pizza lunch that I had at Di Fara Pizza would boast a quotient that would put it fields ahead of most of the meals on this list. Two slices: one from a round pie, and one from a square one. That’s all I had. And that’s all I needed to have to finally understand and believe all of those who went before me calling Domenico DeMarco an artisan and national treasure. He and his little pizzeria have been on the corner of 15th Street and Avenue J in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn since 1964. I’m sorry it took me so long to get there.
6. THE RESTAURANT AT MEADOWOOD
(Christopher Kostow presenting at the Twelve Days of Christmas;
St. Helena, California)
“The day I lose a sense of wonder about all of this is the day I’m in trouble.” In the practiced perfection of Michelin-starred cookery, I prefer to see what a chef will cook, and how well he performs in the less scripted moments of his career. The dinners at the Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood aren’t entirely unscripted. But in the twenty-four days and dinners that I’ve spent with Christopher Kostow at the Restaurant at Meadowood over the course of two of these dinner series, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him leap afield and explore. It is in these adventures that I’ve found my most memorable and delicious moments at his table. They’re self-assured journeys, technically sound at every turn. And yet, there is a spontaneity that sparks the imagination, inspires thought, and – above all else, instills a sense of wonder. In 2013, I found all of this on the twelfth night, the night that Christopher Kostow cooked at the Twelve Days of Christmas.
(Los Gatos, California)
This was my fourth meal at Manresa since David Kinch first captured my imagination and impressed me with his evocative cooking in 2006. In the years since, I’ve watched his food evolve. He has developed an important partnership with Love Apple Farm, a biodynamic garden. And his focus has moved slowly from West to East. But his demand for quality ingredients and dedication to cooking remains uncompromised. In early December of 2013, I had what was perhaps my best meal there yet. And I eagerly include it among the five best meals I had last year.
I had already secured reservations at Geranium, relae, and noma. But I had one lunch spot left on my forty-eight-hour tear-through Copenhagen, a very last-minute add-on to my trip to France. So, I cast out my lines in an open bid for some direction. The first two bites came from chef David Toutain and my friend Laurent Vanparys (who now owns a biodynamic wine bar in Paris called épure). They both told me to go to kadeau. I didn’t know much about Rasmus Kofoed (not to be confused with the chef of Geranium by the same name who appears at no. 8 above) or Nicolai Nørregaard, or their home island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea (where the restaurant kadeau originated) when I arrived on that frigid afternoon in January. But over the course of a delicious, two-hour lunch, they shared their “beloved island” with me through a series of deeply soulful and satisfying dishes that showcased the savory (here, I am speaking specifically of meaty, umami, salty flavors) side of both their land and sea. The food at kadeau was bold and flavorful, confident and comforting. It was the type of food I like to eat. And it was done extremely well.
3. RANCHO DOÑA MARIA
There was a plate of tomatoes, roughly chopped, and slivers of white onions, raw. There was a giant empanada, fresh from the mud ovens, with a blistered crust and a filling of ground beef and onions, sweet and melted. There was an incredibly juicy pork rib, rubbed and smoked. And, at the end, there was a generous block of leche asada, glazed with a cinnamon-infused syrup. In four incredibly simple, yet spectacular plates of food, Doña Maria, who owns a little road-side shack off the Autopista los Libertadores about forty minutes outside of Santiago, Chile, gave me one of the very best meals I had in 2013.
2. WILLOWS INN
(Lummi Island, Washington)
Chef Blaine Wetzel may be one of the greatest minimalists of our time. He understands that the integrity of an ingredient is its only, true asset. And, because he understands and can identify the integrity of ingredients, he’s unafraid to let that stand alone. A smoked oyster, a strip of smoked salmon, some venison tartare on rye toast, a caramelized nugget of sunchoke, a grilled shiitake mushroom cap: these are just a few of the simple, but unforgettable courses he served to me at the second of two meals that I had at Willows Inn last year. For many reasons – including the fact that a violent storm had left the entire inn without electricity, and so we ate by candlelight alone – that meal was particularly memorable. But, because of the food, it was magical.
(San Francisco, California)
There are two types of restaurants to which I return repeatedly: restaurants that I love despite their flaws; and restaurants that I love because they’re flawless. Joshua Skenes‘s saison is one of the few that falls in the latter camp. I ate at saison nine times in 2013 [disclosures about these meals were made in a prior post], and nine times I left convinced that saison is one of the most exciting restaurants in the United States right now. Skenes not only understands and appreciates quality, more importantly, he is able to communicate it through his cooking, which focuses on maximizing the potential of every ingredient. Although my meals at saison had been steadily showing more and more promise over the past three years (read what I had to say about my first meal there in 2011), my third full meal at saison this year – in August – achieved a critical mass of maturity and sophistication that I had not seen before. And it was the best restaurant meal I had 2013.
At the end of this post ever year, I update an ongoing bucket list of restaurants I’d like to visit. In some years, travel and fortune take to me more than in other years. Here is where I stand, and where I’d like to go in 2014:
JAPAN, JAPAN, JAPAN, JAPAN! Japan remains at the top of my bucket list. I hope this is the year I finally cross it off.
Otherwise, in Asia, I most want to visit Singapore.
In France, I’d most like to visit Sa.Qua.Na in Honfleur and le Grenouillière, which is located in Madelaine sous Montreuil.
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.
In Copenhagen, I hope to eat at Matthew Orlando’s Amass.
In neighboring Sweden, I bring forward Matthias Dahlgren and Frantzén, and add Gastrologik; all three in Stockholm. And, there’s Fäviken in Järpen.
In London, I’m a couple of years late to Hedone. In that city, I’d also like to visit Kitchen Table and Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner.
In Australia, the only one left on my bucket list of continents (well, unless you count Antarctica): Tetsuya’s, attica, and Brae, where Dan Hunter has recently landed.
Now that I’ve been to Argentina and Chile, Peru becomes a priority, with Bolivia and Brazil not too far behind.
I finally made it to Austin. But I missed Franklin’s and Snow’s. So I need to go back.
In 2013, I finally made it to Birmingham, Alabama and the “Triangle” of North Carolina (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) in the American South. In 2014, I hope to turn my attention to Atlanta (a city that I flew through over three dozen times last year, but where I only left the airport once): Linton Hopkins’s Restaurant Eugene, Steven Satterfield’s Miller Union, and Anne Quatrano’s fabled Quinones at Bacchanalia.
In Charleston: FIG and macintosh.
In Houston: oxheart.
I go to New York at least once or twice every year. This year, I’ll be headed to Luksus, Betony, estela, contra, and Cosme (Mexican chef Enrique Olvera‘s recently announced intentions for the Flatiron). My friends Gerald San Jose and Jin Ahn, together with chef Chung Chow (all three are alumni of per se), hope to open noreetuh, a casual Korean concept, sometime this year. If and when they do, I’ll be calling for a reservation.
In Chicago, Chris Nugent’s Goosefoot tops my list, followed by Sixteen at the Trump.
In Boston: Menton, Craigie on Main, Oleana, o-ya, and the classic Clio, among others. I haven’t been to Beantown since I did time at Lowell House nearly two decades ago (eeks!). And in nearby Providence, Rhode Island, Ben Sukle‘s Birch.
On the west coast, I would love to eat to animal, Providence, urasawa, and Jeremy Fox‘s Rustic Canyon, all of which are in Los Angeles. In the Bay Area, where I did a considerable amount of eating in 2013, I still haven’t been to nopa, or Hawker Fare. And Pim, when are you opening Kin Khao?
According to what John and Karen Shields recently told me, they’ll be opening their unnamed restaurant in Georgetown by late summer. I’ll be there. And Jeremiah Langhorne (most-recently the chef de cuisine of McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina), when and where are you opening in D.C. this year? (Oh, and Little Serow too, if the line isn’t too long.)
Both Portlands – Oregon and Maine – need to be visited.
Last year, I said that I wanted to explore my own (Midwest) region more. That was an utter failure. In my defense, I did check off a couple of restaurants on my St. Louis list. And, I did manage to canvass my hometown (Kansas City) rather thoroughly, especially for having barely been home. But I still need to make my way up I-35 in Minneapolis to eat at The Bachelor Farmer and piccolo. Up I-29 in Omaha, I’d like to eat at The Boiler Room and The Grey Plume. Hopefully, I’ll find time to be more neighborly in 2014.
Here are the restaurant’s I’d most like to revisit in 2014: In the U.S., Frasca Food + Wine in Boulder tops my list (my last and only meal there was in December of 2008). Otherwise, there are five restaurants – in my opinion, five of the most exciting restaurants in the U.S. right now – to which I’d like most to return: Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington; saison in San Francisco, California; Aubergine at l’Auberge Carmel in Carmel-By-The-Sea; elements in Princeton, New Jersey; and Manresa in Los Gatos, California. A year with meals at those five restaurants, alone, would be a fantastic year.
Abroad, I’d most like to revisit The Sportsman in Seasalter, U.K.; Quique Dacosta in Denia, Spain; Asador Extebarri in Axpe in the Basque mountains; kadeau in Copenhagen; and Pujol in Mexico City. And, I’ll keep hoping for another date with the Louis XV on that magnificent terrace at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte-Carlo.
Photos: Rasmus Kofoed’s Bocuse d’Argent, Bocuse d’Or, and Bocuse de Bronze statues in his kitchen at Geranium in Copenhagen, Denmark; staff meal in progress at noma in Copenhagen, Denmark; squab on the stovetop at saison in San Francisco, California; a mink coat, a door, and a Christmas tree at The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California; place setting and leather-bound wine list at Willow’s Inn in Lummi Island, Washington; a shelf of fermentation jars at elements in Princeton, New Jersey; mussels at noma in Copenhagen, Denmark; white chocolate and pine-coated “green eggs,” petits fours at Geranium in Copenhagen, Denmark; Domenico DeMarco slicing pizza at Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn, New York; trays of herbs in hoop house at The Restaurant at Meadowood’s garden at the Montessori of St. Helena in St. Helena, California; Manresa at night, Los Gatos, California; kadeau in Copenhagen, Denmark; blistered empanadas coming out of the dung ovens at Rancho Doña Maria off of the Autopista los Libertadores forty minutes outside of Santiago, Chile; aged venison tartare and rye toast at Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington; the hearth at saison in San Francisco, California.