best dishes of 2015…

Naples Long Pumpkin

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There was no runaway hit in 2015.  There were quite a few of them.

However, whereas in past years, canvassing through hundreds of dishes for my 25 favorite was a particularly difficult task – one that I was often unable to carry out successfully, forcing me to append a spillover list that often included just as many “runners up” – this year’s top dishes separated themselves rather easily from the pack, especially, the top ten, which cluster tightly on a shelf that sits considerably higher than the rest.*

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Bresse Farm Hen Poached in a Bladder (For 2)

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Although I still managed to put away well over a thousand plates at over 200 restaurants around the world in 2015, looking back at my year of eating produced a long, lazy yawn.  Even though I ate very well, rarely was I excited.

This caused a panic.

Have I become one of those food writers and bloggers who is tired and jaded, ruined by too many meals at the high end, or otherwise?  Have I been suspended in a thin, rarefied air for such a long time that I’ve become untethered from reality, unable to relate or rationalize?  Am I losing a sense of purpose, or a sense of enjoyment at the table? Am I expiring?  Has the time come for me to move on?

This happens you know.  I’ve seen it quite a bit – food writers and bloggers who, over the past decade, have dropped off the scene, one by one, having lost an interest in eating, or the ability to do so with as much intensity as before. Sometimes, it stems from a disillusionment with the dining culture, a creeping cynicism that, fanned and fueled by the infuriating hype and hysteria created by modern media and ignorance, blossoms into abandonment. Many succumb to exhaustion – their body, their palate, or their finances simply can’t sustain. And others realize that eating out and writing about it isn’t nearly as glamorous or lucrative as they had hoped.

And so they move on.  Can you blame them?

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7th Course: Wild Duck

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But I’ve stayed.

That’s because I am, at the very core of my being, an eater. I don’t do it for glamor, or money, or fame. And my love of eating ultimately pushes me past all of the noise which has, unfortunately, come to surround it.

Is the hype unjustified?  Terribly. Are the food media infuriating?  The worst.  Is the ignorance maddening? Absolutely. Is the culture of dining bifurcating, with the majority taking a devastating slouch towards Levittown (borrowing from the bombastic Robert Bork, who, in turn, borrowed from the witty Joan Didion)?  Sadly.  And I’ve written about all of it before.

But despite all of this, is there still a lot of good food being cooked by talented people?

Thankfully, yes.  And so, I stay.

But why have I become so bored recently?

I’ve become bored because there’s a lot of sameness.  And, even more troubling, there’s a lot of doing for doing’s sake.

Over the past decade that I’ve been blogging about food, there has been an exponential growth in education and awareness of our world’s foodways.  This has led to an increased production of higher-quality ingredients, and, even more importantly, access to them.

But availability and access to better ingredients, alone, don’t give rise to better cooking.

As the internet deluges us with information, I find few chefs thinking for themselves. There’s a lot of knowing, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of understanding. And therefore, few are creating.  So, even though the quality of what I’m eating has generally increased over the past few years, and even though I believe that the standard of cooking has been raised across the board, it has only created a wide and even field on which very few stand out.

As a result, I’ve been choosing, more and more, to eat among the restaurants that please me most, returning to them instead of venturing afield in search of others.  Although I still ate widely in 2015, I began eating more deeply within a narrower range.  This made the task of identifying my 25 favorite dishes considerably easier.  Even if my pool was richer and thicker, it was slightly smaller.  I found myself returning to the same, usual suspects for the very best: for example, ten of this year’s 25 best dishes were produced by three chefs.

As in the past, simplicity seems to have been the essential key to unlocking my heart in 2015. In particular, those dishes that showcased the integrity of one or two star ingredients – whether through flavor, texture, superb cooking, or, as in most cases, all of the above – pleased me most: vegetables, barely dressed (no. 21); simple pastas (no. 22); and nicely cooked fish (no. 14) and meats (no. 10) with a just little sauce.

I found my favorite dishes of 2015 in seven different countries on three continents. They ranged from $0.50 to 280€, and were served to me on everything from styrofoam to fine china.  I ate no. 25 on the streets of Taipei, and no. 20 in a roadside kitchen in South Carolina. No. 17 was cooked for me by a friend in his home in Berkeley, California, and no. 15 I ate over a campfire at a medieval hunting lodge in Denmark. One of the dishes – no. 5 – was served to me in a cozy log cabin amidst a snowy expanse, while no. 23 arrived on a field of mauve paisley at a VFW Hall in Cranston, Rhode Island.

As always, compiling this year-end list is a humbling reminder of just how lucky I am to travel and eat as broadly and with as much depth as I do.  I am blessed.

Out of hundreds of dishes that I tasted at over 200 restaurants in a dozen U.S. states, nine countries spread across three continents, and representing nearly 50 Michelin stars (you’ll find them all listed in this previous blog post), for the eleventh year in a row, I give you my 25 favorite dishes of 2015.

The title of each dish below is hyperlinked to a photo of that dish.  In some cases, I’ve written about the dish in a previous blog post, which is hyperlinked from either the chef or restaurant name that appears below the title.

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Braised pork rice.   1st Course: "l'Aujourd'hui 'Classique'"

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25. BRAISED PORK RICE
(Lao Dian Tou Tainan Yi Mian; Taipei, Taiwan)

This rich, flavorful pork ragu – not a tomato-based meat sauce, rather, it’s a chunky, oily, meat sauce, with just a touch of sweetness – is commonly spooned over rice or noodles in Chinese cuisine. Usually a rather inexpensive fare, it can be found at street stalls and night markets all over Taipei, like at Lao Dian Tou Tainan Yi Mian on the busy Tonghua Street, where friends took me one night. Some of us had the braised pork with noodles, and some of us with rice. I’ve always preferred it with rice, as I think the rice soaks up the fat and flavor of the ragu better. I’ll admit that this version isn’t the best I’ve had. But it was pretty great, enough to lure me back the next night, when I sat elbow to elbow with strangers at one of many tables that spilled out of this tiny food stall onto the sidewalk. At $0.50 a bowl, it is, by far, the least expensive entry on this year’s list of my favorite dishes.

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24. PORK PATTY MELT
Meunster, caramelized onions.
(Trou Normand; San Francisco, California)

Imagine a juicy breakfast sausage – those shapeless patties barely held together by a loose, large grind – sandwiched in a buttery, golden, grilled cheese with sweet, caramelized onions.  This thing was fantastic.

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23. POLENTA
(Mike’s Kitchen at VFW Post 2396; Cranston, Rhode Island)

As the ladies at this “permanent pop-up” (as my friend Ben Sukle aptly described this restaurant) would say, this polenta was “to die for.”  It was the only thing that Sukle, a chef in nearby Providence, insisted we order that night.  The enormous, molten block of baked cornmeal, suffused together with lots of cheese, arrived in a shallow casserole smothered in red sauce.  It should’t have been good. But it was extremely so.

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22. TAGLIOLINI “CARBOMARE
Monterey squid, gaper clam, samphire.
(Quince; San Francisco, California)

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21. L’AUJOURD’HUI “CLASSIQUE
Le gargouillou de jeunes légumes, herbes,
graines germées, tomatillo verde.
(Michel Bras; Aubrac, France)

Could this dish, which has been copied in some form or another by chefs around the world, possibly live up to its legendary reputation?  While I was unprepared for the rainbow of colors in this “gargouille” – especially given how late it was in the season (in fact, it snowed the night we spent at Michel Bras) – I was completely taken by how comforting it was, with a warm, velvety, vegetable sauce poured over this table-top garden.

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Meat & Three

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20. CLAM CHOWDER
(JT Farnhams; Essex, Massachusetts)

It was over this bowl of buttery cream, looking out over the marshy waters of Essex, that I realized: the reason oyster crackers don’t go soggy in clam chowder is because the soup, when made correctly, is far more fat than liquid, especially in the version served at JT Farnhams, where the puffy little crisps floated likes rafts on a cap of golden butter.

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19. FRIED CHICKEN
Lima beans, collard greens, cornbread.
(Martha Lou’s Kitchen; Charleston, South Carolina)

“Your mama sure did teach you how to clean a chicken bone,” she said softly, more to herself than to me. I have to admit, I was a little nervous with Martha Lou Gadsden sitting across from me, watching me eat. So her compliment was reassuring. It took a while for my “meat and three” to come out of her small kitchen, she explained, because she fries to order. Her chicken, as she proudly pointed out, was seasoned all the way to the bone, hot and full of flavor.  I can’t say that I liked her cornbread – it was too soft, too sweet, and too fine for me, reminding me a lot of white, vanilla box cake. But her lima beans – creamy and rich – were awesome, as were the collard greens, pocketed with shaggy pieces of ham, that had been suffused with pork fat.

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18. BRESSE FARM HEN EN VESSIE
(Épicure; Paris, France)

Clocking in at 280€ – even if split in four, to account for the fact that this dish came in two services, and was intended for two people – this chicken is the most expensive “dish” on this year’s list.  After birthing the Bresse hen from the pig’s bladder in which it had been poached, our tuxedoed waiters carved the bird table-side, and plated the suprêmes (breasts) in a garland of of spinach packets stuffed with a royal of giblets, crayfish, and chanterelles all sauced with a rich vin jaune broth.  While my friend and I worked on this first service, back in the kitchen, the dark meat was carved from the carcass and plated with little more than a rich meat jus and a tuft of young herbs, all of which arrived at our table capped under a foggy glass dome.

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17. AGNOLOTTI
Potato, white truffles.
(At home with friends; Berkeley, California)

Some of the most talented cooks I know aren’t found in the professional kitchen. Formerly a cook at both Cyrus as well as The French Laundry, Alex Pitts is one of them. He’s not only incredibly bright and articulate, he also has a sharp palate, which serves him well as the assistant winemaker at Scholium Project under Abe Schoener, where he currently works. At a recent dinner he hosted at his house to celebrate the launch of his own wine label Maître de Chai (which he started with our friend Martin Winters, who was formerly a fellow cook at Cyrus and who is currently a sommelier at The Restaurant at Meadowood), he made tender pillows of agnolotti, which he filled with potato purée and enrobed in butter.  Over all of it he shaved a white truffle that he had brought back from Italy. This dish stood out among the company of very good friends in very good cheer.

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16. CURED WILD BOAR PARTS
(Saison; San Francisco, California)

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White Asparagus

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15. WILD DUCK
(Nakkebølle Gods; Fyn, Denmark)

After a spectacular hunt, during which 20 veteran hunters downed over 600 birds in 2 hours, my friend Mark Lundgaard Nielsen plucked one fresh – the body still warm – raised a fire on the lawn of the medieval hunting lodge where we hunted, and roasted the bird whole on a broken branch that I found. Taking a hunting knife, he unzipped the bird onto a cutting board and sprinkled a little salt over it. The bird was juicy, flavorful, and very tender, surprisingly so given how fresh it was. It was one of the best things I ate last year.

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14. COD HEAD
Fried cod tongue and potato salad with lovage.
(Matur og Drykker; Reykjavík, Iceland)

I had fish heads (not in a Chinese restaurant) three times in 2015 (coincidence or trend?).  Twice I was served whole-roasted fish heads by a chef as a part of a tasting menu (cod with dill oil at Bror in Copenhagen, and tilefish glazed with maple-mirin butter at Contra in New York). Both were very good. But the one that I loved the most was the giant cod head that I ordered off the menu at Matur og Drykkur in Reykjavík.  It was as large as my own head, and had been cooked in chicken stock with dulse.  Spilling out of its giant, gaping mouth were battered and fried pieces of buttery cod tongue.

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13. WILD ASPARAGUS
With shrimp, blanquette sauce fortified with Danish cheese, and chives.
(Falsled Kro; Millinge, Denmark)

These logs of white asparagus were as fat as they were tender. And Per Hallundbæk, chef at the centuries-old Danish inn Falsled Kro on the island of Fyn, smothered them with a rich, buttery blanquette sauce, sharp with Danish cheese and studded with tender shrimp, that showcased their milky sweetness.

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12. SMOKED BEEF RIB
Black pepper, black vinegar.
(Justin Yu presenting at the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

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11. NAPLES LONG PUMPKIN
Coconut, Swarnadwipa.
(Saison; San Francisco, California)

These pumpkins, grown by Saison’s head farmer Adam Rusk, are checked for ripeness, cut from the vine, and then let to age in the sun to thicken its skin.  Properly cured in this way, the gourds can keep for up to a half a year or more, preserving the remarkable, dewy sweetness of the flesh inside.  To show off both the meatiness and breezy freshness of the preserved pumpkin (this one had been cellared for nearly six months), chef Joshua Skenes presented it in a couple of different ways, including a steaky block that had been slightly dehydrated above the hearth, concentrating its flavor and imbuing it with smoke, as well as freshly grated pumpkin that was unexpectedly juicy and bright.

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6th Course: Stag au Povire.

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10. STAG AU POIVRE
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

I watched my friend Mark Lundgaard Nielsen shoot this stag in the wild.  I saw it decapitated, gutted, and skinned. I helped unhang the carcass and load it into Lundgaard Nieslen’s car.  I watched him and his sous chef break the carcass down the next day.  And later that night, he served it to me, prepared au poivre, table-side flambé and all. But, beyond the rare proximity that I had to this piece of meat, following it literally from field to table, I was astonished by how tender and delicious it was.  For that, I was completely unprepared.

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9. PARSNIP
Burnt gjetost toast, parsnip, and white truffle.
(The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

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8. SALTED SHEEP RIBS
Cabbage from Fokhol glazed with lamb fat and vinegar.
(Maaemo; Oslo, Norway)

I smelled it before I saw it.  And its taste lingered long after it had left the table. As I wrote in an earlier blog post about this salted sheep rib (a traditional Christmastime meat for Norwegians), which had been glazed with a tangy vinegar sauce: “We used our fingers to pick the meat off the bone.  It was dense and salty, and funky in the way that I like sheep meat to be.  I especially loved the flavorful pockets of fat in between, which were even more pungent than the meat.  This dish was a compelling rebuttal to my earlier complaints about the thinness of modern Scandinavian cooking at the high end.  Here was a dish that was grounded in tradition, and yet refaced to great affect.  It was not repackaged beyond recognition.  Nor did it come with a social studies lesson (I had the benefit of knowing the cultural significance of the cured sheep meat in Norwegian cookery only because I stumbled upon it at a market in Bergen and inquired about it out of curiosity). The story wasn’t in its ties to Norwegian nationalism, or some other geeky footnote.  The story was, simply, its deliciousness.”

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7. DUCK
Glazed in orange sauce, with celeriac purée.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

As I wrote earlier, this “duck, roasted whole, arrived at my table bronzed and burnished.  The bird, with its long neck curving towards me, was carved and plated with a dollop of celeriac purée, the rounded sweetness of which was cut short of a full circle by the bitter fragrance of orange in a sauce that glowed with warming spices.  I’ve never had duck à l’orange so vibrant, so alive before.  The outstanding sauce work made it so.”

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6. BEET “FIRE IN THE SKY
Bone marrow, roasted over the coals.
(Saison; San Francisco, California)

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8th Course: Radish

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5. WILD DUCK
“Tasty paste.”
(Fäviken Magasinet; Järpen, Sweden)

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4. SMOKED RAW SEPIA
Salsa mexicana, avocado.
(Cosme; New York, New York)

The texture of the squid was exquisite, slippery and silky, and just a touch slimy. The smoke was pronounced, but not cloying, rounded out by a bright, lively “salsa mexicana” and creamy avocado. This dish is what chef Enrique Olvera does best: he makes you long for a Mexico that doesn’t actually exist outside of his restaurants.

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3. SALT-BAKED TURBOT
Olive oil “blanquette,” small winter leek, bianchetto.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

I had salt-baked turbot twice at Kong Hans Kælder last year. Although I count both of those dishes among the very best I had in 2015, I list here the first instance, which I described in an earlier blog post: “Uncapping the golden dome of a baked, salt-dough crust, [chef Mark Lundgaard] Nielsen revealed a steaming tranche of turbot.  He gently filleted the meat off the bone, plated it with some melted leeks, and smothered it all with velvety, white sauce.” Over this, he shaved rust-colored bianchetto truffles, which “magnified the grassiness of the olive oil in this lighter version of ‘blanquette’ sauce to produce a flavor almost indistinguishable from white truffles.” [Here is a video of sous chef Andreas Bagh serving the salt-baked turbot on my second visit.]

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2. OUR CORN
Butter, white truffles.
(Christopher Kostow presenting at the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

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1. RADISH
The whole plant, cultured butter.
(Saison; San Francisco, California)

Chef Joshua Skenes halved the meaty funk of his house-cultured butter with the grassy sharpness of radishes in this spectacular reexamination of a classic pairing.  A spoonful of the golden, clarified butter was drizzled over a a shingled tent of daikon, under which assembled a rainbow of radishes – cooked, raw, and pickled; root, stem, and greens. Together, it was a dynamic meeting of flavors and textures that arrived at a rare crossroad of thoughtfulness and deliciousness.  For these reasons, this dish sits atop all others I had in 2015.

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* As I wrote last year: “…although I created this annual post [eleven] years ago with the title ‘best of…,’ in the years since, I have come to dislike the misleading nature of it (for a more in-depth discussion why, read here). I do not claim, of course, that these are the 25 best dishes from the year [2015], for I have not eaten all of the food prepared in all of the restaurants around the world.  Even if I were, by some gastronomic miracle, to have done so, and survived, who am I to pronounce what is the “best?” Rather, these are the best dishes that I had in [2015], in my opinion.  That is why I have deliberately avoided using the word ‘best’ to describe the food mentioned in this post, preferring, instead, to refer to them as ‘my favorite’ dishes.  I realize this is a rather pedantic point of clarification, but one that is important to me.”

Photos: Naples Long Pumpkin at Saison in San Francisco; our tuxedoed waiters plating Bresse farm hen cooked en vessie at Epicure at le Bristol in Paris, France; wild ducks, still smoldering, presented on a bed of pine at Fäviken Magasinet in Järpen, Sweden; braised pork rice on the sidewalk of Tonghua Street in Taipei, Taiwan; Michel Bras’s colorful gargouille at his eponymous restaurant in Laguiole, France; the meat and three plate of fried chicken, lime beans, collard greens, and cornbread at Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina; fat logs of wild, white asparagus under a buttery sauce of Danish cheese and shrimp at Falsled Kro in Millinge, Denmark; Peter Pepke, the maître d’ and house manager of Kong Hans Kælder preparing the table-side flambé for stag au poivre, Copenhagen, Denmark; drizzling clarified, cultured butter over an assortment of radishes at Saison in San Francisco, California.

~ by ulterior epicure on January 11, 2016.

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