favorite dishes of 2018…

– Before I get on with telling you about my favorite whatnots from 2018, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you.  What follows is partly an explanation, partly an admission, and all of it a disclaimer. – – Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that my exposure to restaurants has slowly narrowed. […]


Before I get on with telling you about my favorite whatnots from 2018, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you.  What follows is partly an explanation, partly an admission, and all of it a disclaimer.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that my exposure to restaurants has slowly narrowed. As I explained in my previous post, this is largely because of my growing workload, which has increasingly determined where I go and where I eat.

But admittedly, part of it is also by choice.

When I first started this blog in the mid-aughts, I was one of the few, younger online pundits who joined the older, more seasoned pundits in voicing skepticism and cynicism about the “Molecular” (or “Modernist”) movement that was spreading around the world.  But unlike a lot of them, I was actually willing to visit these newer, more experimental restaurants.  Many of the older and wiser among us were not.  And I thought it was awfully close-minded of them.

Now that I’ve been around the block a few times, I’ve gained a little perspective and realized that perhaps it wasn’t close-mindedness.  Perhaps it was certainty – not necessarily certainty that the newer, more experimental restaurants would be bad, but rather certainty in what and where they did actually like to eat.

A decade on, I think I’ve arrived at that same place.  I’ve had thousands of meals across the world since I started writing this blog – the ledger is published for all to see.  And after eating so much unremarkable, ill-conceived, over-conceived, or sometimes, just poorly cooked food, over and over and over again, I’m not as eager to try the new as I am in returning to the good.  And now, I that I know where the good is, I go and go often.


By most standards, I still ate across a broad spectrum of restaurants in 2018.  Although I have strong preferences, I still eagerly seek out new restaurants and new experiences – usually after vetting them first. (You’ll find all of the restaurants I visited last year listed in this prior post.)

But undeniably, over the past two years, I’ve begun gravitating more and more towards the small handful of restaurants that cook the kind of food I like: excellent ingredients, minimal intervention, maximum flavor.  And this year, their impact was particularly pronounced.

For one thing, being more choosey about where I ate in 2018 netted me better food than I had last year.  But also, more than any year before, I happened to work with quite a few restaurants that I like. This not only increased the proximity and exposure I had to them, but, coupled with my preferences, it also exponentially increased the chances that I’d find exceptional food among them.

Over three separate trips to Tennessee to photograph for Blackberry Mountain, for example, I ate at the Barn at Blackberry Farm at least a half-dozen times.  Photographing for Angler, I ate there seven times – before it actually opened.  I ate at Saison five times – three times when Joshua Skenes was still the chef there, and twice after Laurent Gras took over the kitchen.  And, during my time photographing at the Twelve Days of Christmas I had 13 dinners at The Restaurant at Meadowood.  The sheer number of dishes I’ve had at each of these restaurants disproportionately outnumbered the rest of the field.

I could choose to take an egalitarian approach to my year-end collections, and in the spirit of inclusivity, feature a wider range of restaurants that I visited in 2018.  That’s the direction that the restaurant industry is tacking nowadays, and it’s utter nonsense.  There’s nothing egalitarian about the word “favorite.”  I believe in meritocracy, and will adhere faithfully to it here in giving my opinion of what I liked best about eating last year.

For the fourteenth year, you will find below my 25 favorite dishes from the previous year.  Among them are simple rice dishes, fatty meats, and something I can only describe as a parlor snack.  There are fish and fowl, and lots of crab. And there’s a whole family of buttery dough in there too – extraordinary sandwiches, tourtes, and pithiviers.  What is tragic are the high number of exceptional dishes that clusters just beyond these, which won’t be mentioned here.

[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.]

Camembert au lait cru, asperges blanches et
angélique du jardin.
(La Coquillage; St-Méloir-des-Ondes, France)

The Breton coast is famous for its oysters, and nearby Normandie is famous for its dairy.  Hugo Roellinger combined these two gifts in a bowl of fat oysters in a warm, milky bisque of Camembert and angelica.

Whipped butter.
(Publican Anker; Chicago, Illinois)

My friend Carla described this best: strangely delicious. Or maybe she said it was strangely addictive. Either way, she was right, and I’m glad she convinced me to order this odd assortment of deliciousness.

(Angler; San Francisco, California)

(Ganbara; San Sebastian, Spain)

We ordered them by the dozens, these buttery, golden mini croissants (which I think Ganbara bakes in-house) filled with waxy jamón.  And we cleared a few of these platters standing around on the sidewalk drinking Txakoli in the balmy Basque afternoon.

(Maydan; Washington, D.C.)

Chef Gerald Addison asked if he could just send a few things out to me, a single diner at the bar. Before long, there was a sprawling feast cobbled together from all over the Middle East.  All of it was delicious, especially this Persian “scorched rice” cake, a thin layer of it crisped in hot oil.

(Jose Enrique for the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Jose Enrique described this dish as Puerto Rican “hangover food,” made from rice and leftover scraps.  His version included pork and chicken sausages, onion, garlic, tomato, capers, and turmeric, which Enrique says grows all over his native island.

Charred broccoli, lemon balm, and garlic chive
(The Dabney; Washington, D.C.)

Jeremiah Langhorne served two crab dishes side-by-side.  One was a tomatoey Maryland crab soup with okra with just a bit of spice to it.  I loved it.  The other one was this buttery bisque with blue crab and garlic chive.  This one was extraordinary.

Preserved lemon, herbs, and drippings served with
steamed California-grown Komachi rice with cultured butter.
(The Charter Oak; St. Helena, California)

Katianna Hong excels at comfort food.  And this dish was Katianna creating comfort at its best. The tender chicken, bathing in its own juices and drippings, was served with a side of steamed and buttered Komachi rice. Although they were served with a smattering of other dishes, you didn’t have to tell me who in the group were the happy couple.

Shiitake and curry sauce.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

I had this tourte a couple of times: once at Mark Lundgaard Nielsen’s restaurant in Copenhagen, and again in Kansas City at The American Restaurant, when he made it for a Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner.

A simple lettuce salad.
(Asador Etxebarri; Axpe, Spain)

Fatty, dry-aged meat so old that the tallow had yellowed; and a side of crisp lettuce, tartly dressed: Perfect.

Marrow, Waffles, Caviar

Pistachio, duck liver, confit of leg, and curry sauce.
(Marchal; Copenhagen, Denmark)

Drawn butter.
(Angler; San Francisco, California)

Cultured cream, ghormeh sabzi, mutton fat, crumpet.
(Christopher Kostow for the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Bone marrow, banana waffles, grilled banana peel butter.
(Saison; San Francisco, California)

I am often a guinea pig for Joshua Skenes. Thankfully, his trials are far more successes than errors, and I am the lucky beneficiary of this windfall, especially since Skenes’s whims and inspirations come and leave quickly. Much of what I get to try never reappears again; a one-time taste of something extraordinary.  Here is one such fleeting moment: a giant bone marrow served with heaping amounts of caviar and a stack of super-light and airy waffles (more crisp than soft).  And then the grilled banana peel butter – that was phenomenal.

(Sota Atsumi for the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Morels in cream sauce.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

Yogurt, herbs.
(The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, Tennessee)

California rice, matsutake, white truffles.
(Christopher Kostow for the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood)

Mesclun d’herbes, potagères.
(l’Ambroisie; Paris, France)

Fat snails under a thin, ultra-crispy sheet of potato, all of it radiating garlic.  And yet, afterwards, no garlic.  Exquisite technique, bold flavors, soft touch; that is why I love Bernard Pacaud’s cooking at l’Ambroisie.

(Elkano; Getaria, Spain)

Not since my meals at Ibai (San Sebastian, Spain) have I had a whole fish cooked with as much skill.

Beef broth, smoked butter, cured beef and radishes.
(The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, Tennessee)

Sunflower seed praline, black truffle.
(Saison; San Francisco, California)

There was sunchoke in this this dish. It was hard to tell under the avalanche of Perigord truffles of impeccable quality and smell.  But there was sunchoke in this dish.  Just trust me.

Clams and fennel.
(The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, Tennessee)

(Saison; San Francisco, California)

A rich crab bisque, a dollop of tangy buttermilk.

Foie gras, smoked chicken broth, and herbs.
(The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, Tennessee)

Like a lot of Cassidee Dabney’s cooking, this dish used simple ingredients to create incredible layers of flavor.  The backbone of her cooking is solid, and she ventures just enough off-script to add bit of adventure and excitement.  Notice, four of my ten favorite dishes this year were from her kitchen.  Here, the smoked chicken broth infused with foie gras was exceptionally balanced and sophisticated.

Photos: Sunchoke (no. 3) at Saison; Pigeon Tourte at Marchal (no. 15); Sally Fox’s Mutton by Christopher Kostow at The Twelve Days of Christmas (no. 13); Pickles and Homemade “Saltine” Crackers at Publican Anker (no. 24); jamón bocadillos at Ganbara (no. 22); Persian Tahdig at Maydan (no. 21); bone marrow with Saison Reserve Caviar and banana waffles at Saison (no. 12); Parmentière d’Escargot at l’Ambroisie (no. 7); a whole turbot at Elkano (no. 6); Toasted Grains and Seeds (no. 5), and Carolina Gold Rice (no. 3), both at The Barn at Blackberry Farm.

Categories Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

1 reply on “favorite dishes of 2018…”

As a Baltimore native I was pleasantly surprised to see that two of the twenty-five came from the mid-Atlantic. Anymore trips to DC in your future?