After nearly a year of eating at home during the pandemic, I was eager to get out and gobble up 2021. Thankfully, I found cooking alive and well in the re-opening world.
I returned to some of my favorite places for my favorite things. So, you’ll find a few familiar names on this year’s list of my favorite dishes. But, I also explored places new to me, and found some wonderful eating there too.
By now, most of you know how I like to eat. I like simple cooking – a couple of high-quality ingredients maximized for flavor, and served hot.
But, as you also know, I’ve lamented the lack of this kind of cooking in recent years. Although I see things slowly turning around, too many professional kitchens are still obsessed with artifice and mimesis and suffer from over-plating and over-garnishing (it’s practically a pandemic of its own).
I really don’t ask for much: a nicely cooked piece of meat with a bit of its own juice, seafood in a little butter, a well-made and well-cooked pasta tossed in a hearty sauce, a comforting bowl of rice… But these things require skill, confidence, and patience. And they beg of the cook not just knowledge about ingredients, but understanding of what best to do with them. Sadly, social media savvy has displaced these valuable commodities.
Gratefully, there are fine exceptions. It takes a bit of looking, and you’ve got to wade through a lot of noise, but there is plenty of simple and sublime cooking worth celebrating. Here are 18 dishes that merited special mention in 2021.
18. SOFT-SCRAMBLED EGGS
Fried sage, oven-dried tomato.
(Maison Troisgros; Ouches, France)
When it’s done right, soft-scrambling is my favorite way to have eggs. At Maison Troisgros, they’re served at breakfast, almost the texture of custard, simply with an oven-dried tomato and a fried sage leaf. It was perfect.
17. SMASH PATTY BURGERS
(Priedite; Los Alamos, California)
Given a choice between a burger and almost anything else, I’ll almost always choose anything else. But even I am not immune to the siren call of a sizzling griddle once in a while, especially if onion and cheese are involved. Admittedly, the conviviality of a cookout adds to the appeal. It was just one of those lovely gathering of friends, when pitmaster Nicholas Priedite grilled up some smash patty burgers to order, with onions and cheese, in a sesame bun.
(Urfa Dürüm; Paris, France)
These large, round Kurdish flatbreads are stacked and steaming on the restaurant’s counter when you walk in. You can order them with a variety of toppings – usually a tomato-based spread of spiced minced meat or vegetables (I ordered lamb). They’re rolled up into a hearty and steadying lunch out the door.
15. RIGATONI ALLA VODKA
(Carbone; New York, New York)
I typically run away from hype because it’s almost always unwarranted. But the rigatoni alla vodka at Carbone is an exception. Let’s be clear – at $32 in 2021, it’s now, $34 in late 2022 – it’s an outrageously priced plate of pasta. And yet, our table of six eagerly ordered three of them to share. What makes Carbone’s rigatoni remarkable is how silky it is, uniformly enrobed in creamy vodka sauce.
(Aubergine; Carmel-by-the-Sea, California)
13. AGNEAU DE LAIT EN CROUTE DE POIVRE
(l’Ambroisie; Paris, France)
A nicely cooked saddle of milk-fed lamb, with a bit of its own sauce. And to the side, a caramelized sheath of endive. These simplicities are not beneath chef Bernard Pacaud – known for eye-popping quantities of caviar and truffles – but rather celebrated at his restaurant in the Place des Vosges.
12. LE PETIT ROUGET
Rouge au vert.
(Le Bois sans Feuilles; Ouches, France)
11. BERKSHIRE PORK CHOP
(The Charter Oak; St. Helena, California)
There’s always a homey meat dish (or two) on the menu at The Charter Oak, and I always order it. It’s the perfect meat and gravy topping for a bowl of the restaurant’s Komachi rice with cultured butter. This time, it was juicy slices of pork, thinned out with a tangy, mustard vinaigrette. My immigrant Chinese father, who perennially complains about being dragged to “Westernized” restaurants was overjoyed to find something so comforting, so familiar, so delicious.
10. LES GRENOUILLES
(le Central; Roanne, France)
Opposite the Roanne train station is the Troisgros family’s bistro, opened in 1995, serving hearty home-style dishes, both French and ones inspired from the family’s travels abroad. The highlight of our lunch was a cast-iron skillet with a dozen, meaty fried frogs legs bubbling in hot garlic butter. Boy, were they tasty.
9. PAINTED HILLS HANGER STEAK
Sweet potato, pickled beet, arrowhead spinach,
fermented chili, and kale broth.
(The Firetower at Blackberry Mountain; Walland, Tennessee)
Joel Werner’s cooking seems incredibly straightforward at first glance, but always surprises with a twist of acid, or a hit of spice, and always, a lot more flavor than you might expect. I loved this hanger steak so much that I ordered it twice.
8. BRAISED CHICKEN THIGH
Fermented mushroom, charred cabbage, crispy rice, and dill.
(The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, Tennessee)
Cassidee Dabney is the Midas of Appalachia’s humble ingredients. In years past, she has dazzled me with collard greens, cabbage, beets, and okra. In 2021, it was a braised chicken thigh with some rice and dill.
7. SEAFOOD STEW
(Cotogna; San Francisco, California)
I love it when chef Michael Tusk shows up at my table, because it usually means I’m about to taste something extraordinary. This time, it was a velvety stew of sea bass, mussels, crawfish, leeks, and potatoes, which he carefully ladled out of a copper pot.
6. FLEUR DE SAINT-PIERRE
Á la truffe noire.
(le Bois sans Feuilles; Ouches, France)
5. SAUMON Á L’OSEILLE
(le Bois sans Feuilles; Ouches, France)
I had been told by a number of people who have worked in the Troisgros kitchen that Pierre Troisgros’s signature dish – salmon with sorrel – is always prepped and available, even if it’s not on the menu. Even so, I made sure to ask for it in advance, and the restaurant eagerly made it for me. To be honest, I was expecting to be underwhelmed. But no. This is was an incredibly elegant dish – a beautiful filet of salmon, barely cooked, in a rich sauce of butter, white wine, and crème fraîche laced with tart sorrel leaves.
4. HEN EGG
White truffles, brown butter, sourdough.
(Addison; San Diego, California)
3. WAGYU TOURTE
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)
It’s no secret that I think Mark Lundgaard Nielsen is one of the most talented chefs cooking right now, and I’ve been very lucky to have eaten at his table many times. He’s a master of classical French cooking, and his tourte is always a masterpiece. Whether filled with veal, foie gras, duck, or wagyu beef in 2021, this bronzed beauty has been among my favorite dishes every year I’ve had it.
2. ROTISSERIE SOLE
With clams and mussel sauce, served on the bone.
(Esmée; Copenhagen, Denmark)
At Esmée, chef Andreas Bagh roasts birds, and meats, and sole, whole, which Peter Pepke, the restaurant’s consummate manager, fillets, table side. The fish, beautifully roasted, was served with clams, and a rich mussel sauce studded with salmon roe.
1. REGIIS OVA RESERVE CAVIAR
Koshihikari rice, smoked sabayon, sesame.
(Addison; San Diego, California)
Far be it from me to tell William Bradley what to do, but I would give the title of this dish to the rice. Don’t get me wrong, the caviar was excellent (and there was a gleaming heap of it). But to me, it played a supporting role. The warm rice, together with a whisper of white sesame oil, was the star of this show.
2 replies on “favorite dishes of 2021…”
Thank you, Happy Holidays!
Wow I really enjoyed reading that- thank you so much!