A tangle of claws cascading from scalloped rims brimming with ice and seafood. A shoulder of goat with crispy skin and tender meat melting off the bone. Glistening turbot, straight off the coals, and trolleys laden with all manner of goodies, from sweets to cheeses.
These are just a few of the incredible scenes I was lucky to witness at tables around the world in 2019.
The restaurant experience is instructive. At its best, it provides a unique window into local culture, customs, and values. At its worst, it provides an invaluable reference point that, if not let to waste, enriches future experiences. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, collectively, they contribute to a greater understanding of both the world and self. It’s certainly true for me.
Of course, there are the pleasures of flavors and smells, and sometimes ideas too. That’s primarily why I love to eat. Often, the setting can be unforgettable, or at the very least, charming. Some of the more remarkable places I ate in 2019, include an old Greyhound bus terminal in Savannah (Mashama Bailey’s The Grey), an old saloon-era Wells Fargo Bank (in the very off-the-beaten-path Virginia City, Montana), and a wonderfully reimagined fondue restaurant, the Walliser Stube, overlooking a frozen Lake Louise with the Canadian Rockies rising dramatically from its shores.
And always, the company you keep (or don’t), becomes an unseverable – if not, often the most memorable – part of a dining experience.
When all of these factors align in the best possible way, the effect can be magical. But rarely, they do.
For me, the food must carry the day. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s the one part of the dining experience that is least susceptible to manipulation. Either you can cook, or you can’t. No amount of money – which is increasingly being poured into design, as restaurateurs spend ungodly amounts outbuilding each other; and luxury ingredients, which, without a craftsman who knows how to maximize their potential, are wasted – can make better food happen. (Don’t get me wrong: I love a beautiful dining room. And nothing ruins it more than bad cooking.) Neither can a diner’s ability to put together a lovely group of companions improve the competence of the kitchen.
Some of my favorite meals over the years have been found in humble places: a wonton shop in Kowloon; empanadas and juicy pork ribs at a roadside shack in Chile; and at the table of Doña Deyanira, who offers a feast of traditional Oaxaqueño birthday and wedding dishes at a supper club she runs out of her home in Oaxaca. And still others – increasingly so over the years – have been among the more rarified circles of fine dining.
Although I continue to seek new restaurant experiences, I have become decidedly more selective recently, preferring to devote more of my resources to revisiting the restaurants I trust most, especially in those places that I most enjoy spending time: Copenhagen, London, Paris, the Basque coast of Spain, and the San Francisco Bay Area. So, although I am partial to these places, I am more partial to good food, which luckily, I have found in abundance there.
This year – the twelfth year that I’ve issued a list of my favorite meals – there are no newcomers to what has become an increasingly stabilized rotation among an enviable pack of reliable favorites. And, because I had the great fortune of visiting quite a number of these restaurants more than once in 2019, deciding which of those meals were better than others, would be a maddening exercise in hair-splitting. Instead, as in some recent years, I’ve elected to recognize all of them for, once again, faithfully meeting the very high expectations that they have set for themselves. I present them alphabetically.
[Here is a list of all of the restaurants that I visited in 2019.]
(San Francisco, California)
As Saison waned, Angler waxed. For many, this meant that the culinary (and often mysterious ) genius of Joshua Skenes became accessible to a slightly wider audience – if a $450 meal was unattainable at the former, $150 might not be at the latter. For me, it also meant a funneling of Skenes’s wide-ranging dialectic on ingredients and cooking into more manageable silos — the refreshingly trim menu at Angler offers a collection of broadstroke sketches, instead of detailed masterpieces. When done well, as it is here, this is my ideal way to eat. (Angler first appeared on this list of favorites the year it opened, in 2018.)
I’ve been to this Basque retreat twice in October (2012 and 2016), and sat outside on the deck both of those times. I’ve been once in August (2018), and was seated in the back, private dining room with a group of friends. In 2019, I went in March, and, there being a light rain, ate in the main dining room for the first time. Chef Victor Arguinzoniz’s wood-fire cooking – everything from delicate gambas and double-shucked peas to juicy slabs of aged beef – has earned him well-deserved international praise.
I came late to Elkano – my first meal here was in 2018. My second meal here in March of 2019, was every bit as terrific. While the dramatic coastline leading to Getaria is reason enough to make the journey, what’s on the menu at Elkano is the real destination: seafood from local waters – bream, sole, turbot, langoustines, prawns, goose barnacles, crab – coal-kissed and unadulterated.
KONG HANS KÆLDER
I first ate at Kong Hans Kælder in March 2015, shortly after it reopened with its current chef, Mark Lundgaard Nielsen. In the five years since, there isn’t a restaurant that I have visited more frequently and with as much enthusiasm as this Danish temple of continental fine dining. (In 2019, I ate at Kong Hans Kælder for the 15th time. This restaurant has previously appeared on this year end list of favorites in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.)
In an era when so many young chefs sail towards the irresistible glimmer and glamor of culinary horizons in the distance, it’s reassuring to find a few who anchor steadfastly to the bedrock of classical cooking. Andreas Bagh not only adheres faithfully to the fundamentals, and carries them out dutifully with shocking precision and care, but revises the romantic opulence of yesteryear with his vivid and often breathtaking presentations. (2016, 2018)
THE BARN AT BLACKBERRY FARM
Little did I imagine when I first ate here in 2014, as a guest of a conference, that I would one day get to work with this outstanding culinary team and have the pleasure of dining here again. Last year, chef Cassidee Dabney and pastry chef Laurence Faber knocked my socks off with their use of humble ingredients and soulful flavors. After having had about a half dozen meals here over the last two years, I declare unreservedly that they are among two of the most talented chefs in America right now.
THE RESTAURANT AT MEADOWOOD
(St. Helena, California)
The horrifying events of 2020, including the Glass Fire in Napa that destroyed The Restaurant at Meadowood, have deepened the well of memories made here. Having spent seven Decembers on property photographing the Twelve Days of Christmas, I have logged more hours in this restaurant than any other in my life, much of which were blissfully spent eating. Not only have Christopher Kostow and his team brought to me flavors from around the globe, but they have gifted me their ever-evolving, and exciting new Napa cuisine year after year. My first meal here in 2019 – the night before the dinner series commenced – was, far and away, the best meal I’ve ever had at The Restaurant at Meadowood – clearing over 90 previous hurdles by a wide margin, is quite an accomplishment. Although I know that I will not be dining at The Restaurant at Meadowood for some time, I am assured that Kostow’s days of impressing me are far from over. (2013, 2015, 2017, 2018)
(Seasalter, The United Kingdom)
A full decade before Angler even opened, and years before I first heard of Kong Hans Kaelder, or dreamed of going to The Barn at Blackberry Farm, I was thunderstruck by Stephen Harris’s cooking at this seaside gastropub. His alluring use of salt marsh umami – fresh seafood from local waters and lamb pré salée from local pastures – has lured me back to the coast of Kent nearly a half a dozen times since — (2008, 2011/1, 2011/2, 2014, 2016)
I started this bucket list years ago to track the places I wanted to visit. And over that period of time, this annual exercise has provided great motivation for me. Since this annual post comes so late in the year, it is evident that 2020 will not be a great year of travel for me, so I will suspend my bucket list until the end of this year, looking forward to 2021.
In 2018, I wished to spend more time in London, and to see some of the surrounding countryside. In 2109, I did just that. I also wanted to check out a few restaurants in New Orleans. I did that too.
I hadn’t been to Canada in quite a while, and fortuitously, work took me twice. I had also expressed regret over not having visited New York at all in 2018 – the first year in over a decade in which I hadn’t visited. So, in 2019, I went thrice.
You can read about all of these travels and more – like my brief stopover in Andorra, my 48th country – in my annual travel summary.
Featured photo: The hearth at Angler Los Angeles.