the best of 2014: the restaurant edition…

Ishikawa

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The sheer splendor with which my year in dining unfolded made the task of identifying my ten favorite restaurant meals from 2014 an especially difficult one.

However, forcing myself to narrow that “wide and rich field” (as I described it in an earlier post) – a process that at moments seemed merciless, requiring me to eliminate extraordinarily good meals that in any other year might have taken the crown – pushed me into a deeper examination of the restaurant experience and my own preferences and perspective with regard to it.  Doing so has brought me closer to understanding the borders of my own heart, and codifying my opinions.

This is a good thing.

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Froggy's Tavern

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But before I proceed further, I want to take a moment to acknowledge my unique position in the dining community. Lest you think that my sense of reality beyond the starched linens of the world’s top tables is distorted, I am well-aware that the vast majority of diners – even the most well-traveled ones – do not eat like I do. Even those who have the wherewithal to travel and eat with as much breadth may not desire it.  And even if they do, they may not enjoy the level of access to chefs and restaurants with which I have been privileged.  I do not say all of this boastfully.  For, from my catbird seat, I survey and remind myself on a daily basis the graces that God has extended.  I am blessed with adventures, opportunities, and experiences that I know I neither earned nor deserve.  So, when I say here that I “struggle” annually to quantify something that is so unquantifiable as the dining experience, I do so mindfully as a member of the first world, one who is thankful for having the luxury of doting on such trivialities and the opportunity to “write,” with such leisure, “about lettuce” (as a published food critic friend of mine likes to quip in moments that call for sincere humility).

For the past three years, this annual list of my favorite meals has received well over three times as many views as any other blogpost published in the twelve months preceding.  So, given the enormous quantity of new visitors these words will surely reach, I feel compelled to point out – to regular readers and strangers alike – that, as with almost everything I write on this blog, this post should be filed under opinion. Although I work very hard to segregate feelings from fact, I am not immune to bias. Therefore, I do not claim to write from any position of authority, or from any reality other than my own (a reality that, in 2014, happens to have included meals at over 250 restaurants holding over 75 Michelin stars, and spread across eight countries on three continents).  Nor do I claim to possess any credibility beyond the record that I have established here.

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Noodles, wontons.

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Important to understanding the following list of my favorite meals from 2014 is this distinction:  These are my favorite meals from last year.  They do not constitute a list of my favorite restaurants.  Nor does this list purport to establish a hierarchy of any sort. This list reflects a snapshot of chefs and restaurants at particular moments, and therefore does not represent my estimation of the worth, the abilities, or the potential of the chefs or restaurants listed, or – perhaps more importantly – those that are not listed.  Forgive me for these laborsome disclaimers, but I prefer to err on the side of clarity.

This year, I’m making quick work of the overwrought issue of methodology. Faced with splitting hairs, it came down to this simple question: given the chance, which meals from 2014 would I most want to repeat?

While this may seem like a rather obvious method for determining my annual list of favorite meals, I never felt that this method was the best method.  Why?  In past years, reasons more compelling than the degree to which I desired to return to a restaurant (based on one meal) guided me.

However, this year, that which I have relied upon in the past for guidance was rendered particularly impotent against the sheer wall of talent and quality I faced. In the past, there were distinguishable gradations of quality among my best meals – ingredients, cooking, precision, philosophy, the overall experience, etc. – that provided footholds, however small, that helped me parse the course. This year, the plane was unusually clean, the cracks and ledges so few that progress seemed impossible without resorting to a more straightforward, alternative method of selection.

Indeed, evaluating my meals from 2014 through this simpler lens provided tremendous clarity.  It also means that my personal preferences were magnified in the results. As I hinted in the introductory section of this post, pushing myself through this process of elimination revealed a lot about my values, and the way I like to eat.

Let’s get down to specifics.

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Maaemo

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Despite casting a relatively wide and star-baited net across Scandinavia last year, not one of those meals appears on my list of favorites below. Since I wrote very little about those meals last year, I feel obligated to explain my reasoning for these omissions, which, without more, may seem like a gross miscalculation. (I warn you that the following is a lengthy and detailed dissection of my thoughts on dining in Scandinavia. Those of you who are uninterested should skip ahead to the list of my favorite meals from 2014 at the bottom.)

In 2014, I ate at some of the best restaurants in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.  Together with Finland, these three countries comprise an area of the world that has become highly celebrated for its quick rise to the summit of global cuisine.  In my three trips to the region last year, I made a concerted effort to avoid revisiting restaurants in Sweden and Denmark that I had already visited. So, to the extent that I only revisited Geranium in Copenhagen (at the invitation of the chef), I succeeded in hitting a good portion of the remaining Scandinavian stars that I had left untouched (I note that the following discussion pertains only to these high-end, mostly Michelin-starred restaurants.)

I found what I expected: very high ingredient quality, bold flavors, unimpeachable technique, painstaking attention to detail, and enviable precision (I would go so far as to say that I noticed more precision and consistency at the high end of cooking in Scandinavia than I did in Japan). Across the board, these were, undoubtedly, among the most technically flawless meals I had ever had.

But peeling back the superficial layers that differentiated these meals from one another on the surface revealed a sameness beneath that bored me. Overall, I felt like I was having similar conversations, only with different faces in different places.

Devoted to spreading the “New Nordic” gospel of cooking, the Scandinavian chefs I encountered proved to be enthusiastic and able evangelists of their good news: the renaissance of an ancient and indigenous foodway rooted in lore and tradition.  But it is, at least from what I have observed, a relatively narrow foodway, one with a rather slim selection of ingredients.  And, perhaps because of this, the region’s food culture — admitted to me by local chefs and my Scandinavian friends alike — seems to have rather shallow, if not also undeveloped roots. Does this explain why many of these chefs’ messages seemed to overlap (short of accusing anyone of plagiarism, I remarked on the uncanny similarities among a few Scandinavian dishes in this earlier blog post).  Does this also explain the remarkable precision that characterizes Scandinavian cooking at the high-end — a skill set developed to compensate for the lack of a mature fine dining culture (theirs having sprung to life only in the last decade)?

If this is so, what then? Are the Scandinavians to be handicapped for their naturally harsh climate, one that supports a limited range of resources, and therefore, a limited number of storylines?  How far can the imaginative mind be expected to stretch these traditions, yet remain faithful to the cause and message?  And how much tolerance should we afford these evangelicals at the extreme end (eating your Christmas tree?), before we allow them to drag us into culinary martyrdom with them?

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4th Course: King Crab

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But these are big-picture issues belonging to a more philosophical realm, one that, admittedly, is beyond the practical concerns of those who do not dine regularly at these kinds of restaurants, and are therefore unlikely to notice or care about such patterns.  Yet, however remote these issues may seem, I do believe they provide context to my chief complaint about the “New Nordic” style of cooking (1), one that does have a more practical impact on dining in Scandinavia, and one that resulted in the omission of my meals there, in toto, from this year’s list of my favorites: the Scandinavian cooking I experienced at the high-end leaned too heavily on rich, earthy flavors – the flavors of game, mushroom, smoke, ash, charring, aging, curing, fermentation, and the dark caramels of Maillard – to the exclusion of all others. These super-saturated flavors appeared not only in high concentration, but also with cloying frequency.  This problem wasn’t isolated to meals I had in the cold, winter months, when food is expected to take on additional layers for comfort.  I encountered this same lopsidedness throughout all seasons, having eaten in Scandinavia in the winter, spring, and late summer.

I’ve always thought of myself as being particularly needy in the flavor department. Rarely do I find an occasion to complain that there’s too much of it. However, balance of flavor has always been far more important to me than intensity of flavor. (Here, I must point out that there is a difference between intensity of flavor and the heaviness of the food; those two are often mistakenly conflated.)  So, whether in the indulgences of classic French cookery or in the austerity of Japanese simplicity, I can find pleasure alike, so long as there is balance.

This kind of balance was missing in most of the Scandinavian meals I had in 2014.  They lacked simple counterweights – like acidity – to help offset the heaviness of the flavors, or to lend complexity or subtlety to the ingredients involved.

At the risk of generalizing beyond my due, the Scandinavian culture seems to be one of extremes. Even its placement on our globe is extreme, subjecting it to a harsh climate and moody light (which, as a photographer, I notice in the heavily saturated colors and high contrast of works by Scandinavian photographers). What’s to say that this same, severe aesthetic doesn’t also apply to the way Scandinavians like to eat?  While this is an intriguing thought (at least it is to me), I am skeptical that the imbalance of flavors I found at the high end of Scandinavian cooking is endemic to local culture.  My meals at the more casual end of traditional Scandinavian dining – like the food I had at Rolf’s Kök or Bakfickan in Stockholm, or Schønnemann in Copenhagen – struck great balance, using traditional Scandinavian ingredients, like fresh herbs (bright, grassy dill, for example), soured dairy, pickling juices, the bitterness of raw onions, and the sharpness of freshly grated horseradish, to help cut the intense flavors of meats, mushrooms, salt-cured fish, etc., that make Scandinavian cuisine an otherwise husky and hearty one (admittedly, these restaurants also used lemons, which grow nowhere near this region. (2)).  So, piggy-backing on my comment earlier about precision becoming the hallmark of Scandinavian chefs, I can’t help but also wonder if the overuse of richness at the high-end of Scandinavian cooking is not also a superficial way of compensating for what these chefs might lack – whether perceived or actual – in the way of a deep-rooted culinary culture; patching a shallow hole with a thick sauce.

My skepticism also stems from the fact that I found these same Scandinavian chefs to excel at balancing flavors in the pastry kitchen.  You’ll notice that the Scandinavians showed up in force on my list of favorite desserts from 2014.  Why are they so adept at creating subtlety and dimension in desserts, but seem to struggle with it beyond?  Might this be attributable to the fact that most (if not all) of the high-end Scandinavian restaurants I visited in 2014 employed the “collective pastry chef” approach to making desserts?  That, by drawing from a pool anchored deeply in the savory ensures that their pastries moor nearby as well, safely away from the sea of sweetness that is the ruin of desserts for me?  Perhaps.

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19th Course: Scallop in Söl Aroma

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If intensity of flavor was one issue, the repetition of it was another.  The Scandinavian tasting menus I’ve had tended to run long, with lots of smaller bites rather than fewer courses of more substantial size.  I happen to prefer this way of eating, as it allows for more exploration of flavor and texture, through valleys and mountains of intensity.  But, the Scandinavian tasting menus provided very little contour, presenting instead a monotonous, upward climb, piling flavor upon flavor without relief, wearing out my sense of taste and, by the end of the meal, my general interest in the food too. (This may also explain the notable pleasure I took in Scandinavian desserts, which offered a much-needed break from the relentless march that preceded them.)

As delicious and flawlessly presented as the food was in its individual parts and courses, considered in whole, it was often overwhelming. At times, it seemed as if these chefs were just showing off.  Unable to resist flexing their culinary muscles, they packed these tasting menus with as much flavor and technique as possible. This prompts the cynic in me to question whether these meals were really about proclaiming the “New Nordic” gospel, or whether they were more about the canonization of the “New Nordic” culinary gods, who used these menus to indulge their egos.

More isn’t always better.  Sometimes, it’s just more.

Perhaps this is why I preferred my much shorter meal at kadeau in Copenhagen in 2013, which made a brief but powerful impact (and, incidentally, was not only the shortest, but also the highest placing Scandinavian meal on my 2013 list), to the much longer meal I had at the restaurant’s original location on the Danish island of Bornholm in 2014.  You’ll also notice that three of the four European meals that did make this year’s list of my favorite meals were shorter, owing as much of their success to brevity as to a more well-rounded use of flavor.  But let me be clear: I am not criticizing the amount of food served at these Scandinavian restaurants. Though they fell on the generous side, Scandinavian portion sizes were well within reason. I repeat what I wrote above: intensity of flavor should not be confused with heaviness (or an excess) of food. Rather, my complaint is narrowly tailored to the lack of subtlety and balance in flavor. Here, too, let me dismiss any notion that I am tiring of long tasting menus (for that seems to be à la mode among gastronauts these days).  To the contrary, I enjoy them just as much now as I ever did (and you’ll see that reflected in this year’s list of my favorite meals).  But to earn such length and patience from me demands balance and restraint, that which the Japanese — who dominate this year’s list — have mastered so well (in addition to also possessing impeccable technique and skill). (3)

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Studio

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My tastes are undoubtedly calibrated very differently from those of the average Scandinavian (and quite possibly, yours as well — as always, I welcome thoughtful commentary, civil disagreement, and especially corrections, if supported).(4)  So, again, I remind you that what I’ve expressed here is merely my opinion. And, a lot of it has been an innocent attempt to openly work through some issues that I’ve been unable to resolve internally. (In that spirit, I also wonder aloud if the Michelin inspectors, who have yet to drop a third star in Scandinavia, struggle with similar differences of taste. For, if not, then I cannot imagine what else about these otherwise flawless restaurants is the cause of such stinginess — especially when compared with many of the three-starred restaurants I’ve visited elsewhere — including ones in Japan — which I have found to be far less impressive.)

As I said earlier, and now redouble with emphasis: the meals I had in Scandinavia remain among the very best meals I had in 2014, if not also among the most impressive meals I’ve had since I started writing this blog ten years ago.  I wouldn’t have spent so much time justifying why none of them appear below if they weren’t (instead, they fall in a tight cluster just outside of this year’s top ten, along with meals that I had at La Grenouillère in France; in de wulf in Belgium; and a handful of memorable meals in the United States that I will describe further down).  Despite being “breathtakingly expensive,” as an American chef described one of these restaurants with unexaggerated accuracy (his comment really applies to most of the high-end restaurants in Scandinavia, especially if you’re trading in U.S. dollars), I highly recommend them, and look forward to revisiting some of them in the near future.  I especially commend Björn Frantzén’s eponymous Frantzén in Stockholm; Rasmus Kofoed’s Geranium in Copenhagen; and Claus Meyer’s Studio inside of his beautifully restored, Art Deco-era “The Standard,” also in Copenhagen (where Tørsten Vildgaard is the chef) for striking a better balance of flavors than the rest. Studio, though perhaps weakest from a service standpoint, surprised me the most with its high-level of cooking and deliciousness.  I’ll also add that, although the food at Geranium seems to receive a lot of criticism for being being too manipulated, both times I’ve eaten there, I’ve been surprised by how delicious the food is. While I admit that the cooking is awfully contrived, it’s hard to argue that Kofoed has sacrificed too much of the flavor in favor of the form.

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Cobs by the fire.

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Only one American restaurant earned a place among my ten favorite meals of 2014 (it also happens to be the restaurant that gave me my best meal in 2013; note the disclaimers of my involvement with the chef and restaurant).  Despite this lone representative from the United States, I think the level of cooking and the quality of ingredients here at home is better than ever. However, originality remains our restaurant industry’s biggest challenge, we a nation that seems especially susceptible to trends and spectacle.(5)  (That topic is well-covered on this blog, so I’ll leave you to read what I had to say about it here, here, and here.)  Along those lines, worrisome too is the lack of purpose with which chefs seem to be cooking these days. I wonder if many of them ought not to pursue a career in food styling rather than cooking, as they seem much more concerned about the way their food looks rather than how it tastes – or, perhaps this is a reflection of what the consumers want (I’ve written about this before too).

I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t acknowledge a few of the best meals I had in the United States last year, which, together with the meals I had in Europe mentioned above, flock closely behind the list of meals you find below.  I had a string of highly impressive dinners at Christopher Kostow’s Restaurant at Meadowood during the Twelve Days of Christmas at Meadowood Napa Valley. Among my favorites were the nights that Blaine Wetzel and Corey Lee collaborated with Kostow as guest chefs. But, the most compelling of the twelve nights was (as it was last year) the last night, when Kostow cooked.

I had a memorable meal at L.2O in Chicago.  Chef Matthew Kirkley’s highly technical cooking there was not only stunningly beautiful, but also surprisingly flavorful.  Sadly, Lettuce Entertain You (LEYE; the restaurant group that owns L.2O) decided late last year to close the two Michelin-starred restaurant (which LEYE’s founder Rich Melman said “had never been a money maker…“).  It will reopen as Intro, a series of pop-ups, where a revolving door of guest chefs will be featured every few months.

And, to the extent that huddling over a stretch of greasy butcher paper eating barbecue with my hands counted as a meal, then my brisket lunch from Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas surely deserves to be mentioned here as well.

The rest of the meals I had in 2014, including a string of very good meals I had in Japan and in Hong Kong, are recorded and itemized in this previous post.  May I be so blessed as to eat half as splendidly in 2015.

Clicking on the names of the restaurants listed below will take you to an album of photos from that meal.

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10. KWAN KEE
(Kowloon, Hong Kong)

Shrimp wantons.

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A bowl of shrimp wanton filling sat abandoned and unwrapped in one corner of this rather plain-looking noodle shop in Sham Sui Po as we squatted nearby on pedestal stools slurping at our steaming bowls of “bamboo noodles.”  These jook-sing noodles are so named because the eggy dough is rolled out with bamboo logs, giving them a particularly elastic texture. Our table crowded with bowls of noodle soup stained with the soy-braised gelatin of ham hocks, and ones swimming with plump shrimp wantons.  I delighted in a simple plate of jook-sing with ginger and scallion, lubed up with some chile oil, and a tall, sweaty glass of ice milked tea on the side to cool me down. Even the oppressive humidity of Hong Kong’s summer couldn’t dampen our appetites for such a soulful fare. What was certainly one of the most unembellished meals I had in 2014, this noodle lunch was a simple pleasure shared among good friends. Sometimes, as it is here, those kinds of meals can be among the very best.

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9. SOUVENIR
(Ieper, Belgium)

Souvenir

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I wrote fondly of this Belgian newcomer earlier this year: “Souvenir is one of those restaurants that every food writer longs to find: new, unsung, far-flung, and – most-importantly – good. Actually, I would say that my lunch there was great – unexpectedly so for a restaurant that was so new, and so scantly staffed.  [Icelandic chef Vilhjalmur] Sigurdarson had only one other in the kitchen – a young, Flemish cook named Aster Welleman. And Sigurdarson’s wife Joke, eight-months pregnant at the time, tended the front of the house with only one other server.”  And yet, they turned out six tidy, delicious, and exciting dishes that, together, turned out to be one of my favorite meals from 2014.

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8. THE SPORTSMAN
(Seasalter, The United Kingdom)

The Sportsman

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Stephen Harris, chef of The Sportsman, is one of the few repeat players on this annual list (meals at this restaurant have consistently been ranked among my favorites – the restaurant appeared at no. 1 in 2008 and at no. 5 in 2011).  And, deservedly so.  Deeper conversations with Harris have revealed a mind churning with curiosity, guided by principle, and devoted to his craft of cooking.  Added to all of this is a great sense of humor and a humility, both handsomely framed by sparkling wit. And his food is as thoughtful and charming as he is, if not also as honest.  You will rarely find so dependable a friend as The Sportsman, where my meals have always been simple, but incredible. Here are captured the flavors of that dramatic meeting of sea and land that you’ll find outside of his door on the windswept coast of Kent.  On my latest visit in November of 2014, they were just as true as I remembered them to be.

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7. HEDONE
(London, The United Kingdom)

10th Course: Pigeon

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If this meal had one flaw, it was the over-generosity of Swedish chef Mikael Jonsson, who kept me spellbound at his counter for longer than I expected, but whose wizardry warranted every minute of it.  Jonsson’s understanding of ingredients is perhaps surpassed only by the sharpness of his palate (I have eaten with him a few times, and his impressions are keen, his analysis accurate). He is incredibly fussy, but not without cause. His ingredients are of impeccable provenance, quality, and care: alabaster sea scallops the size of a small fist, lobster so candy-sweet that he served it raw in its grilled shell, brill shimmering with opalescence, a menagerie of game fowl aged just so, and enormous white truffles unblemished from rind to core. The bread, which he bakes in-house, is also very good (celebrated by many as the best in London). His plates are as clean and pure as the flavors you’ll find on them. Hedone is on Chiswick High Road in London. Go.

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6. FUKAMACHI
(Tokyo, Japan)

8th Course: Uni in Shiso

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The idea of an entire meal of deep-fried food might seem repulsive anywhere outside of one of Japan’s best tempura houses.  At Fukamachi, a Michelin-starred restaurant near Tokyo’s Kyobashi Station, fish of all shapes and sizes, shrimp (and every part of them), sea urchin wrapped in shiso, and vegetables of different textures and colors were all perfectly cooked, bound in an ultra-light cloud of fried tempura batter. Despite the seemingly endless parade of food straight out of the fryer, it never felt heavy or greasy.  I never tired of it.  It was magnificent.

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5. FROGGY’S TAVERN
(Montreuil-sur-Mer, France)

Côte de Cochon Gras Fermier

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Despite its cheeky name, the cooking at Froggy’s Tavern is anything but a joke. [Chef Alexandre Gauthier cleverly turned the centuries-old English slur of calling Frenchmen “frogs” around on the Brits, who now cross the Channel to flood his seaside town and eat at his restaurant every summer.] From a chalkboard, prix-fixe menu I ordered artichoke with vinaigrette, a “fatty” pork chop (which, like all of the main courses on the prix-fixe menu, was served with roasted potatoes, a tartly dressed salad of greens, and a jar of mustard), and roasted mirabelle plums with vanilla ice cream. I couldn’t resist adding a wedge of Camembert in between, which arrived with some bread and a slab of butter.  Time seemed to slow as I was left alone and uninterrupted to enjoy this simple, yet spectacular spread of humble riches under a cloudless, late-summer sky in an ancient, walled city in the north of France.  It was perfect.

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4. SAISON
(San Francisco, California)

Patina.

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Unfettered and unafraid, in 2014, Joshua Skenes and his restaurant Saison continued to pioneer the frontier of quality and flavor in the United States. Although Skenes’s food can be as mercurial as his mood, the level of cooking at Saison remains consistently excellent.  In 2011 I wrote: “Good chefs tell stories. They convey a sense of time and space. Great chefs tell fairytales. They create time and place.”  I group Skenes with the latter (and last year, Michelin finally agreed, awarding him and his restaurant the coveted syzygy in its constellation).  Of the four meals I had last year at Saison, the first one, in February, was my favorite. And it ranks here among the very best.

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3. ISHIKAWA
(Tokyo, Japan)

Genko citrus.

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The kappo-style kaiseki dinner that I had at Hedeki Ishikawa’s counter was not as lyrical as the one you’ll find at no. 2.  Nor did it offer the alluring aroma of smoke that perfumed the food you’ll find at no. 1.  But, lovely in its subtlety, admirable for its confidence, Ishikawa’s cooking was steady and sure, offering a more traditional, familiar style of comfort.  It was a beautiful experience.

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2. MATSUKAWA
(Tokyo, Japan)

Making wagashi.

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Tadayoshi Matsukawa’s self-named kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka neighborhood remains largely shrouded in mystery. That’s because the six seats at the restaurant’s counter go only, with few exception, to those who have been recommended to the restaurant by regulars. Of the many kaiseki meals I experienced during my three weeks in Japan last year, Matsukawa’s kappo-style meal was, perhaps, the most poetic. The textures, colors, and flavors composed a worthy tribute to spring in Tokyo: a tea of cherry blossoms; blushing blood clams the color of sunset; silky amedei bathing in a velvety vegetable broth thickened with kudzu; and tender bamboo shoots, simply grilled. As our journey tapered, we enjoyed the last moments in silence watching Matsukwa and his assistant assemble our sweet ending with pairs of chopsticks, coating a pinch of red bean paste with a fluffy layer of milled, sweet rice.

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1. IFUKI
(Kyoto, Japan)

Norio Yamamoto

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It was perhaps prescient that, of all the meals I had in 2014, my dinner at Norio Yamamoto’s Ifuki last March was the only one for which I found the time to dedicate a blog post. Delphic I am not, but, as it turns out, the smoked-kissed kaiseki dinner that I had in this hushed corner of Kyoto’s Gion district was my best meal last year.  In my remembrance of it, I wrote: “Luxury is not found simply in plushness or pleasantries.  Without confidence and consistency, these are merely platitudes, deployed to distract and deflect. To me, luxury in dining is the ability to trust, and ultimately give yourself over to the chef and the experience without worry or want.  It is the thoughtfulness of Japanese chefs, like Yamamoto – their obsession over quality, detail, and consistency – that makes dining at their hands luxurious, despite the austerity, and sometimes, asceticism of the setting.  And the incredible humility and softness with which it is delivered makes it all the more wonderful.”  If you have a chance to pass his way, stop and submit yourself to Norio Yamamoto for a taste of true luxury.

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Every year, I update an ongoing bucket list of restaurants I’d like to visit.  Here is my tally and balance:

BUCKET LIST

I covered a lot of ground in 2014.  I checked off over 20 restaurants on last year’s bucket list, including all of the restaurants I named in Atlanta, New York, Denmark, and Belgium, and the vast majority that I listed for California, as well as restaurants in Chicago, Austin, The United Kingdom, Sweden, and France.

And, I finally made it to Japan.

So, moving up on my list this year are SingaporeTaiwan, and Australia (for which I repeat my wishlist from last year: Tetsuya’s, attica, and Brae.  But I am unforgivably behind in this part of the world. So Aussies – you who represent my largest readership outside of the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom: speak up!)

In France, I’d most like to visit Sa.Qua.Na in Honfleur, and Alexandre Couillon’s La Marine in Noirmoutier.

The romantic side of me, the one particularly enamored of Old World dining, bids me to Kong Hans Kaelder, that centuries-old cellar in Copenhagen (and the first Danish restaurant to receive a Michelin star – 1983) that has recently been refreshed with a new chef (Mark Lundgaard) and team (headed by Peter Pepke).

In neighboring Sweden, I bring forward Matthias Dahlgren and Gastrologik (both in Stockholm), and Fäviken in Järpen. To these I add Daniel Berlin, located near Malmö.

In London, I would like to visit Kitchen Table and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.

And to the south, in Spain, Azurmendi.

In South America, Peru remains highest on my list, with ColombiaBolivia and Brazil not too far behind.

Although I’ve done a pretty good job of whittling down my bucket list in the United States, there still remains a lot of eating to be done at home:

I skipped Charleston in 2014 (for the first time since 2011). So, this year, I hope to get to FIG, The Ordinary, and macintosh.

In Houston: oxheart.  In New Orleans: Donald Link’s Pêche Seafood Grill and Justin Devillier’s Petite Grocery.

If I can time it correctly, I’d like to make that journey to Chilhowie, Virginia once more, and visit John and Karen Shields at Riverstead Inn.  When I do, perhaps I’ll use Washington, D.C. as my gateway so I can swing by The Dabney and see how Jeremiah Langhorne is doing. I’d also like to see if I can get a table at Rose’s Luxury too.

In New York, I need to visit Enrique Olvera’s new restaurant Cosme. And now that momofuku ko has moved to a new space, and David Chang has lifted his ban on photography there, I officially end my embargo and add it to my bucket list; I’ve never been before.

In Providence, Rhode Island: Ben Suckle’s Birch; in Philadelphia: Eli Kulp’s Fork.

Looking west: my friend Viet Pham is opening his own restaurant in Salt Lake City soon. When ember + ash opens, I’d like to go.

I had a promising preview of Mourad Lahlou’s self-named Mourad in San Francisco. Once it officially opens later this month, I’d like to have the full experience.

And I need to get to both Portlands, in Maine and in Oregon.

My globe trotting has left me regrettably behind on the restaurant scene in my own Midwest region.  In Minneapolis, I need to get to The Bachelor Farmerpiccolo, and Gavin Kaysen’s Spoon & Stable, a restaurant that I photographed last year before it opened.  In Omaha, I still need to eat at The Boiler Room and The Grey Plume.

And, of course, I’m always circling back to restaurants I’ve visited before.

In the United States, I’d most like a second look Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson’s Frasca Food + Wine in Boulder (my last and only meal there was in December of 2008).  Scott Anderson’s elements in Princeton, New Jersey and David Kinch’s Manresa in Los Gatos, California have closed and reopened since I last saw them, so I’d like to revisit both.  I don’t feel like I got an adequate sense of Joseph Lenn’s cooking at the Barn at Blackberry Farm when I ate there in 2014 as a part of a conference I attended, so I’d like to return to Walland, Tennessee for a dinner there.  Since his dinner at the Twelve Days of Christmas last year impressed me so much, I’m also hoping to get back to Corey Lee’s Benu in San Francisco in 2015.  And, I didn’t make it to Blaine Wetzel’s Willows Inn in 2014, so I add that here as well.  Lastly, Joshua Skenes’s Saison in San Francisco, and Christopher Kostow’s The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa have earned a permanent place among my the restaurants I’d most like to revisit, as does Sean Brock’s Husk in Charletson, South Carolina.

Abroad, I’d most like to revisit Asador Extebarri in Axpe in the Basque mountains; Studio in Copenhagen; and Maaemo in Oslo.  And, of course, who wouldn’t want to have a second date with Louis XV on that marble terrace at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte-Carlo?

~

1As a result of the great, Nordic diaspora, I include the many denominations of “New Nordic” cooking that is now practiced globally by its disciples.

2. Although my gross ignorance about Scandinavian horticulture makes it especially perilous for me to venture too far into this foreign territory, I’ve questioned whether the lack of acidity at the higher end of Scandinavian cooking is due to a dearth in acidic flora.  Even still, with very low (or no?) amounts of citrus growing in the area, the Scandinavians have access to a myriad of naturally occurring forms of acid – malic from apples; succcinic from rowan berries; as well as a wide range of acids that are byproducts of fermentation, i.e. vinegar.

3. In response to the many emails I’ve received over the past few weeks inquiring whether I will be attending René Redzepi’s noma “pop-up” in Tokyo, my reply was: No.  I have very little interest in what chefs do on their culinary peregrinations. I am far more interested in what they learned abroad, and how they incorporate it into their sense of place at home, which, if I understand it correctly, is the crux of the “New Nordic” message.  If, as Redzepi has said, he is using his time in Japan as a learning experience, I will be very interested to see how, if at all, his time in Asia affects his cooking as a Scandinavian chef. Will he merely bring back Japanese ingredients and products and inject them into his cooking, which seems the extent to which most chefs “learn” from their time abroad (which is why I have no interest in what chefs are doing when they travel). Or, will he return with a deeper understanding of a different philosophy and perspective that will affect the way he approaches his own indigenous culture and ingredients?  The latter is far more compelling to me than the former.

4. In an earlier post, I noted that the salt seasoning in Norwegian cooking seemed noticeably heavier.

5. Have you seen this “Hipster Business Name Generator?”  As I wrote in this year-end round up of “Dining Grievances” on Eater, “Can we please stop naming restaurants after old-timey general stores? And what’s with all the ampersands. It’s getting a bit silly.”

Photos: A single flower at Ishikawa in Tokyo, Japan; the cobblestoned courtyard leading to Froggy’s Tavern in Montreuil-sous-Mer, France; jook-sing noodles and shrimp wantons at Kau Kee in Sham Sui Po in Kowloon, Hong Kong; Tadayoshi Matsukawa presenting a course at his kappo-style kaiseki counter at Matsukawa in Tokyo, Japan; a wine steward rushes by in service at Maaemo in Oslo, Norway; “King Crab” at Frantzén in Stockholm, Sweden; “Scallop in Söl Aroma” at Geranium in Copenhagen, Denmark; the beautifully tiled open kitchen and counter at Studio in Copenhagen, Denmark; shaved corn cobs drying on the hearth at Saison in San Francisco, California; unwrapped shrimp wanton filling at Kwan Kee in Sham Sui Po in Kowloon, Hong Kong; the steamy window at Souvenir in Ieper, Belgium; The Sportsman at night, Seasalter, The United Kingdom; pigeon at Hedone in London, The United Kingdom; making uni and shiso tempura at Fukamachi in Tokyo, Japan; the “Côte de Porc Fermier Gras” at Froggy’s Tavern in Montreuil-sur-Mer, France;

~ by ulterior epicure on January 11, 2015.

3 Responses to “the best of 2014: the restaurant edition…”

  1. Eating in Nordic countries is always a challenge, especially if you come from a place where immigrants do much of the cooking, and flavors happen to be big and bold. It takes me about 5 days to start going stir crazy from the Nordic monoculture, but I have to wonder if this isn’t endemic of any region built around a common set ingredients and flavors. Because I don’t find myself in Nordic countries very often, I tend to pack the itinerary with the best the region has to offer, which ends up being high-end New Nordic places. I doubt the locals really eat that way. And appropriately, Manfreds was my favorite meal in Scandinavia this year, even though Relae, Aamas and Maaemo were clearly more refined on every level.

  2. You definitely have to go to Rose’s Luxury ( btw, Akira (Akuto) is close friend to Aaron. Akira would set you up in a heart beat. John would be happy to have you at Riverstead. He mentioned about you when I helped him opening it. It would be awesome to see you post about Riverstead. The Shields work their tails off to get it started. I hope they will fulfill their dream finding investors to open a Relais & Chateau caliber Inn / restaurant for them. Lastly, you definitely have to check out Birch. You will love everything about it there. Please check out kitchen, you will be surprised how small it is. Ben and Heidi have a great team of staffs there. While in Providence, check out Nick’s on Broadway. What Derek has been doing is very admirable. He is a sustainable advocate. Jake Rojas in Newport is also doing amazing thing. And North is a gem as well. James M. is also close friend with Aaron and Akira back in their Momofuku days. Have not used your gift card yet. Unfortunately Oud Sluis closed. Thank you for all great posts once again.

  3. Reblogged this on Kenneth Leung, Thinking, Eating, Seeing and commented:
    List of the best dining by esteemed food blogger ulterior epicure. Makes me feel inadequate with whatiskeneating.com food blog LOL. Great blog to check out restaurants and meals you may not get a chance to do, and a few you may. I have found a few places in my home town of SF that I didn’t know about

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