favorite dishes of 2016…

11th Course: Egg Yolk

~

In 2015, I yawned.

So, in 2016 I did something about it.

I took my foot off the culinary gas pedal, tuned out the lists and rankings, and returned to the basics. I’ve never been a conformist, but, more than previous years, I focused on eating where I had found joy before.  And, when exploring afield, I relied on those I personally knew and trusted, and followed their lead.

As a result, I ate better in 2016 than any year before.

~

Pigeon de Mesquer  2nd Course: Potato

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What makes a great dish?  I’ve examined this question now twelve times on this blog.

Although I still don’t have an answer (and don’t know that I ever will), I’ve certainly narrowed the scope of what I know will bring me pleasure.

Creativity?  Great, but not required.

Visual beauty?  Again, wonderful, but too often a mere distraction.

Story?  Context is nice, but really not necessary.

For me, simplicity is key, as is quality.  Soulmates, often separated, when found together, they sing.

~

13th Course: Beef Chop

~

 

As in the past, my favorite dishes from 2016 were incredibly simple.  You’ll hardly find more than three things on any of the plates listed below: some creamy brains with brown butter; some bones in their own broth; a pigeon with its own juice.

Representing diverse perspectives, they come from 18 restaurants in seven countries on four continents. No. 24 I ate while squatting on an overturned milk crate; no. 11 I ate standing in a bar with a floor littered with used napkins; and no. 20 found me in one of the most iconic opera houses in the world.

At the same time, there was quite a bit of overlap on this list, and with previous years’ lists.  Four of my favorite dishes from 2016 were from one meal, 11 of them were from just four restaurants, and four of them were among my favorite dishes from previous years.  As I said above, in 2016, I found favor again where I had found favor before.  And I was thrilled that the standards and consistency at those places had remained intact.

Indeed, the high concentration of deliciousness among a small group of places on this year’s list excluded many very good dishes – some of which have appeared on previous year’s lists – from making the cut.  Suffice it to say: a different time, a different instance.

Editing this list is never easy.  Unlike meals, which have many moving parts to consider, a very good dish could happen anytime, anywhere.  And so the field is particularly wide, and surveying it particularly tedious.  As in the past, this year it required me to scroll through and review thousands of plates that I had at over 200 restaurants (you’ll find them all listed in this previous blog post), in addition to many other meals with friends and family.  I wish I could tell you about more of them, like the leverpostej – a warm liver pâté with mushrooms, buried under a mound of bacon – that my friend Mark Lundgaard Nielsen’s father Torben made for Christmas dinner in Denmark – or the impromptu salted antelope fried rice Joshua Skenes made one night after returning from a hunt to find an empty kitchen, save rice, eggs, and a refrigerator of chili oil. Or what about the finnochiona and fontina sandwich , with garlic pangrattato, capers, and anchovies I had Salumi in Seattle?  These, and many others hang on the cusp of recognition here.

Historically, this post, more than any post all year, receives the most clicks on this blog (surprisingly, even more than my upcoming post about my favorite meals).  However, I insist that these anthologies remain immaterial beyond the four corners of this screen.  I make no universal declarations or pronouncements here.*  Rather, I memorialize the following 25 dishes primarily because I want to remember them. And, for the brief moment that others pass through, I hope they join me in celebrating the most delicious moments of my year, and those who made them possible. For the dozenth time, here they are.

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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Salted Anchovy Toast   Pepper Crab

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25. ROAST CHICKEN SALAD PITA
(Miznon; Paris, France)

The chicken was still slightly warm, a mix of white and dark meat.  The dressing was light – an aioli that had probably broken, it was more like oil and vinegar.  And throughout, was the fragrance of fresh parsley.  We had ordered many other things. But, as we sat at the open doorway, watching people scurry about in the rainy alleys of the Marais, this was the only thing on the table I wanted.

~

24. SALTED ANCHOVY TOAST
(Gjusta; Venice, California)

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23. CAVIAR
Shiitake and elderflower cream.
(Mielcke & Hurtigkarl; Copenhagen, Denmark)

This sounded like a disaster.  It should have been a disaster. But, like most of what Jakob Mielcke presented, it was, in fact, tremendously, and if I may say so – surprisingly – delicious.  He demonstrates that there is still value in the unexpected; a rare talent.

~

22. WHOLE FLOUNDER
Lemon, butter, caper.
(Marion Wine Bar; Melbourne, Australia)

~

21. PEPPER CRAB
(Jumbo; Singapore, Singapore)

Chili crab, every one raved.  Chili crab – you must have it when you go to Singapore.  The version at Jumbo is good; sweeter than I expected.  But what I didn’t expect is how much more I’d love the pepper crab.  Buttery and musky with white pepper, the sauce was, as we Americans would say, finger-licking good.  I’m sure there are better versions in Singapore (at least this is what I’ve been told by others). If you have recommendations, I invite them.

~

Lunch

~

20. JOHN DORY
Served on the bone with orach, turnips,
native coastal greens, umami butter.
(Bennelong; Sydney, Australia)

If it weren’t for my friend Jonathan Alphandery’s commendation, I might have dismissed Bennelong as a “scene” restaurant. You go to see and to be seen, and for the incredible setting – inside one of Jørn Utzon’s sail “shells” of the Sydney Opera House.  And my faith in Jonathan was reaffirmed when John Dory appeared whole – roasted on the bone, glistening with a touch of butter.  The meat was firm, but tender, and fell effortlessly away from the bone.

~

19. SAISON RESERVE CAVIAR
Smoked in kelp, served with egg custard
and Parker House rolls.
(Skenes Ranch; Sonoma County, California)

A pound of it – a pound of caviar, wrapped in kelp – arrived at our table of three. The packet had been gently smoked in the hearth, and was carefully unwrapped before us.  It was the same set-up I’ve had before at Saison – egg custard, Parker House rolls – but family-style.

~

18. POTATO
Cheese, egg yolk, Alba white truffles.
(Marchal; Copenhagen, Denmark)

I was straight off a trans-Atlantic flight, still bleary eyed from lack of sleep, when Andreas Bagh showered my table with so much white truffle that, honestly, he could have served me cardboard underneath and I wouldn’t have known or cared. Strip away the opulence of it all – the stacks of gold-rimmed Bernardaud china, a blinding blizzard of white gold, and the setting of a grandame hotel – and you’re left with impeccable technique and the comfort of Old World simplicity: some potato purée, some cheese, and an egg yolk.

~

17. CHULETA
A salad of lettuce with vinegar and oil.
(Asador Etxebarri; Axtondo, Spain)

[This dish topped my list of favorite dishes of 2012.]

~

16. SAUTÉED BRAINS
Brown butter and celeriac.
(St. John Bread & Wine; London, The United Kingdom)

~

Bak kuh teh!

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15. PIGEON DE MESQUER
Pommes de terre.
(Clown Bar; Paris, France)

I honestly don’t know what was better, the pigeon or the roasted potatoes that came with it.

~

14. PAN-FRIED EEL
Creamy potatoes and lemon.
(Restaurant Gammel Mønt; Copenhagen, Denmark)

I’ve been told that sea eels are a rare find these days in Scandinavia. And so it was an honor for us that Claus Christensen presented us with a platter mounded with this delicacy.  Pan-fried, the segments of eel were arranged on our plates, as they traditionally are in Denmark, in a circular fashion, touching end-to-end, ringing the rim.  In the middle, a hearty spoonful of creamy potatoes, and on the side, a bowl of fresh lemons.  The eel was unbelievably clean, the meat fatty and tender.

~

13. VERMICELLI CRAB
(Mellben Seafood [Tao Payoh]; Singapore, Singapore)

What I remember most is not sitting in the hot, humid night; the damp pavement of the open-air market steaming in the light rain.  Rather, I remember this whole crab, simmering in its own broth, lusty and rich with its own roe.  We disassembled it mercilessly, divvied the parts and the broth among bowls of glass noodles, and happily made a mess of it. A hat tip to my friend Angela May for the recommendation.

~

12. BAK KUT TEH
(Founders Bak Kut Teh; Singapore, Singapore)

Two pork ribs, shaggy with meat, in a bowl of broth.  That’s all this was.  Bak kut teh – Hokkienese for “meat, bone, tea;” in Chinese, rou gu cha (肉骨茶) – is a restorative meal found all over Singapore. Founded by a pig farmer, Chua Chwee Whatt, Founders Bak Kut Teh focuses on the the flavor that the pork imparts to the broth, which is enriched with herbs and spices (most notably, white pepper).  Immensely flavorful and comforting, the best thing about this broth is that, at Founders Bak Kut Teh, when your bowl goes empty, the server comes around with another pot and ladle and fills you back up.

~

11. PORCINI AND CHANTERELLES
Foie gras and egg yolk.
(Ganbara; San Sebastian, Spain)

There were revellons in 2012 (this dish appeared among my favorite dishes of 2012; see no. 10), and there were porcini and chanterelles in 2016. The mushrooms changed, as they do when you’re dealing with finicky phenomena, but everything else about this dish was exactly the same: generous slices of seared foie gras and a velvety egg yolk, all of it seasoned with a dash of sea salt.  If there’s one reason to schedule your trip to San Sebastian during mushroom season, this is it.

~

Sole  2nd Course: Turbot Pané

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10. BLACK TRUFFLE AND BEEF BROTH
Brown butter, Danish mushrooms and chestnuts.
(Marchal; Copenhagen, Denmark)

The cocotte was so molten-hot that we couldn’t touch it for quite some time. So my friends and I resumed conversation, while the incredible aroma of meat and earth spread over our table.  When I finally did attempt the soup, I fell headlong into its deepness, an unfathomable richness of flavor that words cannot accomplish.

~

9. SALTED ANCHOVIES
Pan con tomate.
(Asador Etxebarri; Axtondo, Spain)

[This dish also appeared on my list of favorite dishes of 2012.]

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8. TURBOT PANÉ
Caviar and beurre blanc.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

Who does fish pané any more?  Mark Lundgaard Nielsen does.  And he does it brilliantly.  This turbot, laminated with a golden-brown bread crust, arrived on creamy beurre blanc studded with caviar.  It was as flawless as it was delicious.

~

7. BOAR
Madeira cream sauce and Italian peach.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

One doesn’t think of boar as a particularly elegant meat. But at Kong Hans Kælder, Mark Lundgaard Nielsen made it so. Tearing out the heavy curtains that begin lowering around that time of the year, smothering what warmth lingers in the early autumn, he served the young beast with a light cream sauce of Madeira and a wedge of late-harvest peach.

~

6. SOLE
Pan-roasted with vinegar glaze.
(Ibai; San Sebastian, Spain)

[This dish also appeared on my list of favorite dishes of 2012.]

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8th Course: Prawns of Palamós

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5. SLIPSOLE
Grilled in seaweed butter.
(The Sportsman; Seasalter, The United Kingdom)

[This dish also appeared on my list of favorite dishes of 2014.]

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4. PRAWNS OF PALAMÓS
(Asador Etxebarri; Axtondo, Spain)

Two bundles of silk wrapped in crêpe paper, spooning in a bowl.  I’ve had these prawns before, and I was eager to have them again.  They had been barely cooked – gently warmed.  And served only with a wet napkin.  They were perfect.

~

3. POCHAS
(Ibai; San Sebastian, Spain)

A good stock, and a touch of olive oil: a humble bowl of creamy, stewed beans holds its own, hovering near the top of this list.  If it’s possible to capture the endearing gruffness and warmth of the Basque in one spoonful, I found it here.

~

2. EGG YOLK
White truffles and roasted peppers.
(Asador Etxebarri; Axtondo, Spain)

~

1. LOBSTER Á LA NAGE
Chervil.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

The name says it all: tender, young lobster swimming in a bit of its own, creamy broth. I had dozens of dishes spread across five meals at Kong Hans Kælder in 2016, most of which would top the very best of what others have to offer.  And this lobster à la nage crowned them all.  It was as simple as it was elegant, and for a moment, it provided a quiet retreat as I ate alone in silence in that candlelit cellar in Copenhagen.  Tusind tak, Mark Lundgaard Nielsen.

~

 

* As I have annotated in the past: “…although I created this annual post [twelve] 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 [2016], 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 [2016], 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.”  So, this year, I have changed the title of the post to “favorite dishes of 2016…”.

Photos: Egg yolk with roasted peppers and white truffles at Asador Etxebarri in Axtondo, Spain; pigeon de mesquer at Clown Bar in Paris, France; Andreas Bagh shaves an obscene amount of white truffles over a potato purée at Marchal in Copenhagen, Denmark; the bloody chuleta at Asador Etxebarri in Axtondo, Spain; the anchovy toast at Gjusta in Venice, California; pepper crab at Jumbo in Singapore; sautéed brains with brown butter and celeriac at St. John Bread & Wine in London, The United Kingdom; the bak kut teh, and side dishes at Founders Bak Kut Teh in Singapore; the whole sole in vinegar glaze at Ibai in San Sebastian, Spain; turbot pané at Kong Hans Kælder in Copenhagen, Denmark; and prawns of Palamós at Asador Etxebarri in Axtondo, Spain.

~ by ulterior epicure on January 14, 2017.

One Response to “favorite dishes of 2016…”

  1. I finally got to Etxebarri for the first time this year, about a week after you did. Our menu was almost identical. Those prawns are just too much. The whole meal, and day was wonderful – the drive down from Bilbao and the drive from the restaurant to San Sebastian via teh back road. I’ll be back, hopefully A LOT. Cool that you were able to come out to Australia this year as well. Our dining scene is getting real interesting. My New Year’s resolution is to enjoy more late-night Late-Night Sandwiches at Bar Brosé

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