favorites of 2020: the restaurant edition…

There were no days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood, which tragically burned in the Napa Glass Fire in October; no late night oyster roasts at Palmetto Bluff in November. Both had been annual fixtures on my calendar for a decade. Gavin Kaysen’s long-awaited revival of the Synergy Series at Spoon & Stable in […]

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There were no days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood, which tragically burned in the Napa Glass Fire in October; no late night oyster roasts at Palmetto Bluff in November. Both had been annual fixtures on my calendar for a decade.

Gavin Kaysen’s long-awaited revival of the Synergy Series at Spoon & Stable in Minneapolis sold out. Then, all four dinners were postponed indefinitely (thankfully, they resumed in late 2021).

I canceled flight, hotel, and restaurant reservations from London to Monte-Carlo. And my work as a photographer in the hospitality industry came to an abrupt halt in March – contracts were suspended, some ending up in the round file unsigned.

As we all know, 2020 was not a high watermark. But, I am not one to indulge the maudlin or morbid. So, instead of elongating the shadow of a dreadful year, I gleefully end my look back by celebrating its sunniest moments in eating.

Veal Sweetbreads
Auburn
Los Angeles, California

In the two months before the pandemic, I cast an incredibly wide net, returning to the familiar as well as exploring the new. Although I’ve already covered many of those places already, I pause here on a few restaurants that merit additional mention, before moving on to tell you about my very favorite meals from 2020.

In West Hollywood, I visited Eric Bost’s first solo venture, Auburn, which opened in 2019. Designed by the Klein Agency, it was one of the most beautiful new restaurants I had seen in some time. I really liked the menu format – a flexible prix-fixe, which offered a choice of four, six, or eight courses from a wide-range of selections. Although I thought Bost’s combinations a little odd at times (and yet, at other times, perfectly sensible and delicious – like sweetbreads with brown butter in a trotter ragoût), and the food a touch busy and over-plated, his technique was sound. Sadly, Auburn closed in May of 2020. However, Bost resurfaced downcoast at the end of the year in Carlsbad, where he has since earned a Michelin star at Jeune & Jolie.

I do not believe that my professional association with Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain (I have photographed for both properties, and contribute to Blackberry Magazine) should preclude me from recognizing the incredible culinary talent that they showcase. The Barn at Blackberry Farm usually gets the lion’s share of attention for good reason: not only are chefs Cassidee Dabney and Laurence Faber uniquely gifted, but it’s the only restaurant that is open to the off-property guests (with limited availability).

But those who stay on property are spoiled with an embarrassment of riches beyond The Barn at Blackberry Farm. I hardly need one hand on which to count the number of hotels or resorts that I’ve witness achieve such a high and consistent level of cooking and service across the board. I would be thrilled whichever way the coin landed, be it lunch at The Firetower (Joel Werner), breakfast (Josh Feathers) at the Main House, dinner at Dogwood (Sarah Steffen), or breakfast (Bonnie Moore) or dinner (Joey Edwards) at Three Sisters (Mountain). I’ve eaten at all of the restaurants multiple times over the past couple of years, and they’ve earned my respect and praise. If you have the great fortune of visiting, prepare to be well-fed.

I had outstanding meals at four restaurants in 2020. Two of them have become familiar favorites – one of them appears here for the seventh year in a row, the other for a third time.

One of them is a charming wine bar that first caught my eye in 2019. I returned to find it even more lovable the next year.

And a fourth restaurant, on the sunny Central Coast of California, is completely new – this was my first visit, and certainly not my last (I would return multiple times in 2021).

You’ll find all of them below, in alphabetic order. (I accounted for all of the restaurants I visited in 2020 in this prior post.)

Bell’s
Los Alamos, California

BELL’S
(Los Alamos, California)

On a roadtrip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I stopped at Daisy Ryan’s shoebox bistro in the quiet town of Los Alamos on the Central Coast, where my friend and I wallowed in one of those carefree lunches that, unchecked, yawns into dinner. We didn’t know it then, but it was the last of its kind for a long while. Irreverently styled as “Franch” cuisine by Gregory Ryan, the restaurant’s everyman extraordinaire, the menu is decidedly bistro without being dogmatically so. There were moules frites, a carousel of garlicky snails, and a terrific steak tartare. But there was also a particularly memorable egg salad sandwich with tomato jam, a beautiful tin of Spanish sardines with homemade “saltines,” and a delicious chocolate meringue overflowing with freshly whipped cream.

The Barn at Blackberry Farm
Walland, Tennessee

THE BARN AT BLACKBERRY FARM
(Walland, Tennessee)

Gentlemen who wear jackets to dinner are tragically on the brink of extinction. Nowadays, I’ve become accustomed to stifling my inner horror at what passes as acceptable in the dining room (echoes of the late Karl Lagerfeld, who once famously quipped, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.”). But here, in an old barn deep in the Appalachia, wearing a jacket isn’t just required, it’s simply the right thing to do. And that’s just one of the many things I love about The Barn at Blackberry Farm, not the least of which is the soulful cooking of chef Cassidee Dabney, pastry chef Laurence Faber, and their entire kitchen, whose collective talent is beyond words. I got to eat here twice in 2020 – once in late February, and again in September.

KONG HANS Kælder
Copenhagen, Denmark

KONG HANS KÆLDER
(Copenhagen, Denmark)

There is not a superlative left that I haven’t applied to this restaurant or Mark Lundgaard Nielsen’s cooking. Rooted deeply in French classical cuisine, Nielsen seamlessly incorporates Danish ingredients and tradition into his menu. Every dish is cooked à la minute – be it turbot or scallops, duck or venison, all of which I had at this dinner in January. My annual pilgrimage to this beautiful cellar in 2020 was my sixteenth visit.

Verjus
San Francisco, California

VERJUS
(San Francisco, California)

Just down the hill from Cotogna and Quince, in the shade of the Transamerica Building, is Michael Tusk’s wine bar verjus. Even before I was hired to photograph the place, I had already fallen in love with its terrific food, a polyglot of Mediterranean Europe. Is it French? Yes, definitely. Is it Spanish? Maybe a hint of Italian? Who cares? There’s a buttery omelet, and a syrupy pain perdu. There are conservas, milky burrata, and pintxo-style snacks at the bar. Wine? There’s a whole wall of it – from all over the world – for sale. And all of this deliciousness is packaged together under a red-lacquered ceiling in a smart-looking space designed by the keen eye of Lindsay Tusk and Mark Jensen (Jensen Architects) – truly, no detail overlooked. It quickly became one of my favorite places to eat in San Francisco. Presently, the restaurant is temporarily closed, and I eagerly await – hopefully not foolishly so – for it to reopen soon.

BUCKET LIST

I checked off quite a few items from my bucket list at the top of 2020, which included visiting Lithuania and Latvia, my 49th and 50th countries. With travel prospects uncertain, I didn’t bother compiling a bucket list for 2021 (which, at the time of writing, has concluded anyway). Yet, despite that, I’m rather pleased with just how far I got. I can’t wait to tell you about it in my next series of posts.


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