favorite dishes of 2017…

– I took the lessons I learned in 2016 and applied them to 2017. Staying close to familiar quarters, I continued to bet on sure winners.  They did not disappoint. And, although many of my travel destinations in 2017 were not chosen with great food in mind, I found some great food anyway. Let me […]


I took the lessons I learned in 2016 and applied them to 2017.

Staying close to familiar quarters, I continued to bet on sure winners.  They did not disappoint.

And, although many of my travel destinations in 2017 were not chosen with great food in mind, I found some great food anyway.

Let me tell you about some of my favorites.

A dome of brains.  A paw of bear. An embarrassment of abalone the size of coins.

And birds.  There were a lot of birds.

My favorite dishes from 2017 included some of the rarer, and, admittedly, more outlandish ingredients I’ve had –  giant morels from the forests of Kashmir, for example.  Yet, they weren’t just memorable, they were delicious.

But there were incredibly ordinary things too, like poached eggs, soaking up the essence of springtime.  And a stew of fish, humble and wonderful.

A Danish Lunch
Sortebro Kro

As in previous years, my favorite dishes of 2017 span a wide spectrum.  One was found in a food court in Bangkok, another in a strip mall in Houston. Unsurprisingly, many of them come from the starry hosts of the Michelin universe.  They cost as little as a fraction of a dollar, and as much as a nice meal for two.

A couple of this year’s dishes have appeared among my favorites before. It’s a testament, I think, to the consistency of those chefs, and to my preferences.

Nine of this year’s 25 entries came from just three restaurants.  You know them. And if you know where I like to eat, you won’t be surprised to find them here with such frequency.

But those are merely superficial similarities, skewed and self-fulfilling.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a few years, you’ll be able to identify the more significant threads and themes at play.

I favor simplicity.  (I’ve said so before.)

But I also favor flavor.  And this year, there was plenty of it among my favorite dishes.

I was in Southeast Asia, where heavy fermentation sought levity in acidity and herbs.

I was in Europe, swimming in butter and cream.  And in Mexico, I scraped for sauce.

You’ll find a celebration of curries and spices, and black pepper too.  But you’ll also find softer flavors, like a porridge of corn, warm and sweet; and a porridge of rice, warm and buttery.

After sifting through hundreds of dishes from hundreds of restaurants (you’ll find every meal I had in 2017 accounted in this prior post), every year, I marvel at the small but fine collection with which I’m left at the end.  For the thirteenth year, I share it with you now.

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.

Samlor Khmer
Sailor Khmer

(Malis; Siem Reap, Cambodia)

To call the grainy, slush of river fish a “gravy” is probably inaccurate.  But that’s how it was described.  A national dish of Cambodia, this generous bowl of warm rice noodles and “gravy” was fragrant with lemongrass and green kroeung spices that stained all of it a vibrant shade of mustard-yellow.  It was a hearty breakfast.

(Somboon Seafood at Central Embassy; Bangkok, Thailand)

Pepper crab was one of my favorite dishes in 2016. That one was at an iconic crab house in Singapore.  This one is from an iconic crab house in Bangkok.  That one was extremely buttery, and heavy on white pepper.  This one was battered, fried, and heavy on black pepper.  Both restaurants offered a sweeter, orange-sauced version for which they are better known (tomatoey in Singapore; curried in Bangkok).  But at both, I preferred the pepper crab.

Preserved whole orange.
(The Grill; New York, New York)

(Himalaya; Houston, Texas)

Despite the fact that it was making me lose all sense of feeling in my face, I couldn’t stop eating this spicy, chicken curry.  But it hurt so good.  In a losing battle to fight the heat, I ate my weight in the restaurant’s delicious naan.  It was a win-win situation.

(Sean Brock for the Synergy Series;
Spoon & Stable; Minneapolis, Minnesota)

In 2017, I had three versions of Sean Brock’s Limpin’ Susan in three different restaurants.  My favorite version is the one he served when he cooked at the Synergy Series. What he refers to as the “mistress” of Hoppin’ John (a Lowcountry dish of peas and rice), Brock’s Limpin’ Susan (a Lowcountry dish of rice and okra) features Anson Mills Nostrale rice.  There’s a touch of butter, some koji made of Carolina gold rice, and of course okra. (The other two restaurants where I had Brock’s Limpin’ Susan were his restaurant McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina, and at the Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California.)

Pae Pla Salid Foo Nam Yum
Pie Pla Salid Foo Nam Yum
Supanniga Eating Room

(Supanniga Eating Room; Bangkok, Thailand)

The Thai have a magical way of turning non-crispy things into impossibly crispy things.  Here, leaf fish had been transformed into a crunchy pile of crumbs that was served with fresh herbs, peanuts, and spicy sour mango dressing; a punchy salad wrapped in frilly leaves of lettuce.

Black cod.
(The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

I had this dish twice, and of it, I wrote: “It appears to be a wedge of roasted celeriac.  But it’s actually a wedge of cabbage that has been interleaved with buttery black cod – both whole pieces as well as a mousse of the fish with a little bit of scallop mixed in for structure.  The molded half-domes (basically a bombe) are steamed, cooled to set, cut into wedges, and then pan-fried to give it a bit of color.  The cabbage practically melts away, leaving only bit of its sweetness behind.  All of it is so tender that, where the cabbage ends and fish begins, you can’t really tell.  It’s fantastic.”

Day #1314
(Pujol; Mexico City, Mexico)

Enrique Olvera’s soulful sauce is now well-over a century of days-old, deepening and brooding with flavor.  It has been on the menu at Pujol for just as long.  This was one of my favorite dishes in 2013.  Not surprisingly, it returns again.

(Sortebro Kro; Odense, Denmark)

I’m not sure what to call the buffet of wonderful that John Kofod Petersen serves for lunch at his cozy inn on the Danish island of Fyn.  Technically, it’s not one dish. But this magnificent spread of traditional, Danish foods does arrive at your table artfully crowded on a tray.  For my latest visit, there were pickled herring, smoked herring, fried plaice, meatballs with sauerkraut and lingonberries, beef tartare with relish, summer crayfish, and small shrimp served with all the trimmings – mayonnaise, sour cream and smoked cheese with chives, diced green apples, curried egg salad, red onions, raw egg, and potato salad. And, of course, because it’s Denmark, it comes with stacks of sliced bread and copious butter.

(Christopher Kostow for The Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Jimmy Red corn from South Carolina (courtesy of Sean Brock), abalone from the waters of the Pacific – a delicious example of culinary cross-pollination at the Twelve Days of Christmas, here born to fruit by Christopher Kostow.

Asparagus Cream
Boulette’s Larder

House-cured lardo, carrot, garlic-quail sauce.
(Bistro Bohème; Copenhagen, Denmark)

I so enjoy the hearty, classical French cooking of Per Thøsteson, a veteran of Paul Bocuse’s kitchen at l’Auberge du Pont de Collanges. At its best, it’s simple, hot, and delicious, like this plate of juicy quail veiled in lardo and radiating with garlic.

Potato purée, parsnip.
(Chez l’Ami Jean; Paris, France)

Beware the shot, they always warn when you order the (wild) wood pigeon at Stéphane Jégo’s Chez l’Ami Jean.  Aged until the meat goes waxy, the roasted bird is presented halved or quartered, legs clawing the air.  Some might find its pungent flavor offensive.  I think it’s rather perfect.

Poached eggs.
(Boulette’s Larder; San Francisco, California)

Pig skin, peanuts, herbs, and betel leaves.
(Eathai at the Central Embassy; Bangkok, Thailand)

To the left, a basket of fried pork croquettes – smashed, they disintegrated into crunchy crumbs of pork floss.  To the right, a tangle of white strips of blanched pork skin.  The two were tossed together with fresh herbs, peanuts, and a pungent dressing. The flavorful salad was served with a stack of betel leaves, used as wrappers.  I’m assuming it’s a rather traditional Thai salad, and if you know what it is called, please message me; I’d love to know.

(Blaine Wetzel; Lummi Island, Washington)

The claypot of rockfish and mussels simmered and steamed on the beach as dark clouds scraped across the horizon.  A cold gale chased away the daylight, leaving us in the glow of campfire. It was the perfect night for a comforting fish stew.

(Saison; San Francisco, California)

“Bear paws or fish, one cannot have the luxury of both,” my (Chinese) dad used to say.  I’ll admit, the spectacle of a knuckled paw, unnervingly similar to a human hand, is worthy of discussion. But is it worthy eating?  Joshua Skenes made it so.  The gelatinous pad – what is actually the palm of the paw –  was joined by cuts of both bear loin and rib and served with steamed rice, pickled mustard greens, cucumbers, a gorgeous torpedo of roasted yam, and Saison’s phenomenal biscuits.  How would you describe this strange ensemble?  Like most of the dishes that emerge from Skenes’s kitchen, the only way to describe it is: extraordinary.

Carotte, reine des prés.
(La Marine; Noirmoutier, France)

Pretty and precious: those are the kinds of dishes I expected to find at La Marine. Instead, Alexandre Couillon surprised me with immensely flavorful cooking as well.  Buttery and tender, this fat curl of lobster tail was ringed with a colorful carousel of carrots and chard, all of it blessedly fresh and hot out of a pan.

Stuffed with mushrooms with spices, and Parmesan chip.
(Manish Mehrotra for The Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Stuffed with foie gras and veal, with chanterelles.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

Mark Lundgaard Nielsen has a way with just about everything he cooks. His birds show particularly well.  This deboned quail was filled with a farce of foie gras and veal, and smothered with a velvety sauce of chanterelles.

Black trumpet mushrooms, nori.
(Christopher Kostow for The Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Ginger, scallions, dashi.
(Clown Bar; Paris, France)

The gentle sting of minced scallions and ginger.  The creamy fattiness of calf brains – two lobes intact, pristine and beautiful – gently poached and quivering in a spot of dashi.  Simple, delicate, lovely.

Á l’émincé d’artichaut, golden caviar.
(l’Ambroisie; Paris, France)

Filets of sea bass in tuxedo on a field of caviar: if you’ve had it, you’d never forget it.  Bernard Pacaud’s iconic escalopines de bar was one of my favorite dishes of 2008.  I’ve been thinking of it ever since.  And in 2017, I found it just as I did before. Exquisite.

Seaweed-poached duck liver, roasted quince.
(Saison; San Francisco, California)

I had the lacquered quail at Saison a couple of times in 2017.  My favorite version was the last one, when it arrived with a roasted plaque of duck liver that was as beautifully burnished as the bird.  There were wedges of quince too, roasted until meaty and sweet.

Australian black truffles, brown butter.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

(Saison; San Francisco, California)

One rarely sees a dozen abalone tumble out of a single ladle. Grilled with wild boar fat, then stewed with seaweeds, these tiny abalone were served with little more than a concentration of their own juices.  This was Joshua Skenes at his finest, and therefore cooking at its finest.

Featured photo: Lacquered quail at Saison in San Francisco.

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