Here are the rest of the Best Dishes of 2008:
The nugget was perfectly cooked. The coat of breading was thick and generous, yet managed to be loose and light. The coating had a wonderful fragrance – sage, which, together with the fresh lime flesh served off to the side, created a bouquet of fragrance. The wood sorrel dressing (green pool) pinched a high, bright, and zinging sour note, and with the lime, helped cut the heaviness of this sweetbreads. This was a dynamic preparation of sweetbreads, which I will not soon forget.
If you ever want to know what Jerusalem artichokes taste like, all you need do is taste just one spoonful of this soup and you’ll never forget. This was a bowl of warm liquid chenille tasting of flint and earthy sweetness. Pure artichoke. Amazing. This soup was hearty and soul-satisfying. It chased away all of the chills that had settled into my bones from the cold, rainy trek to St. John.
This pasta dish would have only been a shadow of the dish that it was had it not been spiked with (a single) chili pepper. The flavor was as deep as the ocean is wide. The broth was intensely infused with clam juice and I will not soon forget how heavily drunk with white wine these noodles were.
This is the first year that a ravioli dish failed to make it onto the 25 Best Dishes list for the past three years. But that’s not reason to ignore Bosi’s “Raviolo of Hen’s Egg.” As soon as I pricked open the raviolo, brilliant orange river of liquid gold gushed out, commingling with the buttery sauce full of black truffle shavings and puree of smoked potato. The sliver of caramelised Cevennes onion played a vital role – providing a sweetened relief to the onslaught of richness.
To describe the role that cheese plays at the restaurant as a program is an understatement; obsession might be over-aiming. That it’s a curriculum, is more on point. Cheese is the restauarant’s raison d’être. Since I have more than just a passing interest in cheese, I’ll note that the selection is incredible – there are over sixty in the house on any given day. You can smell them too; Mr. McCalman, drives his pungent bus, piled high with about half of the available cheeses, around the dining room throughout service. He’s a more articulate but no less enthusiastic (or sassy) morsel-pusher than your local dim sum cart wench.
I’m a card-carrying member of the ramp cult, a short-lived, but passionately attended seasonal revival. That ravioli, a blissfully fat pillow stuffed full of emerald green ramp puree, was such a joy. Despite its pungency, the ramps paired perfectly with the crisp bacon, neither of which disturbed the delicate, sweet, and perfectly-poached lobster meat.
The wine pairing really helped boost this dish in my estimation. The sommelier poured Patz & Hall Chardonnay (2005). It cut nicely across the pork fat and married wonderfully with the faintly sour vinaigrette.
The chicken sausage was extremely moist and flavorful. It got a nice garlicky kick from the skordalia, which functioned as an adhesive for the chunks of cheese on top. I didn’t get any feta from the sausage itself. Maybe it was all that yummy sheep’s haloumi that covered it up. Sure, it was pretty base, but I loved this hot dog. Loved it.
Not one to gravitate towards soups, I was pleasantly surprised by the “Tortilla Soup,” which Fearing made famous at the Mansion on Turtle Creek (it was still on the menu, non-attributably entitled “Mansion Tortilla Soup,” when I had lunch at The Mansion on Turtle Creek just a couple of days later). Thick but smooth, like the best tortilla soups usually are, it possessed immense zest and zing, laced with acid and a late-blooming heat. The bowl contained a commingling of shredded chicken, cheese, and cabbage, diced avocados, and jalepenos topped with a tangle of crunchy strips of fried corn tortillas that rose to the top as the warm soup was poured in table-side. The flavors were convincing and the textural elements playful. This was the best thing I had (the recipe is on the restaurant’s website).
34. Smoked Salmon Salad
Executive Chef Linda Duerr
Kansas City, Missouri
Without a doubt, this is one of the best salads I’ve ever had in my entire life. The salmon had been rubbed with smoky spice rub and smoked over pecan wood. The imparted flavor married wonderfully with the dices of roasted apples and the toasted whole pecans. The backdrop to all of this flavor were fresh velvety leaves of baby spinach dressed with a savory-tart onion and cider vinaigrette.
Without a doubt, my favorite dish from my 30th birthday dinner was “Pork;” more specifically, pork belly. The cube of bacon was fried until crispy – the outside somewhat like crackling, the interior soft and supple with hot layers of collagen, fat, and meat. I’ve had a lot of creative treatments of pork belly in my time, but this one, which was painted Southern with molasses-braised collards, grits, and a bourbon-maple barbecue sauce and black truffles (Southern France), was truly extraordinary. The barbecue sauce was fantastic. It beat the best of what my hometown of Kansas City has to offer in the way of sweet sauces.
I ate this standing up, negotiating armfuls of *stuff* – including my camera – elbow-to-elbow with 84 gazillion other people at this year’s James Beard Awards in New York City. And yet, all of those inconveniences seemed to fade away during the few short bites of the velvety discs of pasta lightly coated with an intensely walnut-flavored pesto and garnished with marjoram and Parmesan. It was primal-quenching bite that made me want to crawl onto the tiny plate, tuck myself between the silky sheets of pasta, and fall asleep. Vetri’s team was making the pasta on site, cooking, and plating it all within an area half the size of my kitchen.
l’Arpége has an amazing talent for making flaky pastries. This roasted endive heart was nestled in a puff pastry cup so light and airy that the slightest movement of air threatened to carry it off the plate. Magnificent in its simplicity. Confounding in its lightness. And heart-warming in its beauty.
A thin shaving of Massipou (a French mountain sheep’s cheese) leaned onto a pretty, rosy round of poached quince, which sat atop of a round of dense, yet crisp and flaky, pastry (think shortbread crossed with puff pastry) and attended to by swatches of quince syrup. What at first seemed like cheese accenting another dessert, the cheese – slightly musky with a leathery saltiness – actually took the lead role on this dish. The sweet-tart quince fell back and played a nice accompaniment. The tart shell was crisp.
This soup forced me to find new and creative ways of using a spoon, like as a pavement stripper, scraping the enamel off of the china in order to get every little drop of that velvety, naturally-sweet soup. The truly wonderful thing about that soup: it was simply green peas pureed with stock with some salt and pepper. No butter. No cream (except for the crème fraîche added at the last minute). I also found myself bobbing for those crunchy crumbles of garlicky croutons.
Of my 20+ course extravaganza at per se, Di Brunno Brothers “Burrata” was my favorite course. Our captain presented a ball of freshly made mozzerella (shipped by the Di Brunno Brothers in Philadelphia to per se once a week). Cutting off the top knot, he carved the ball open, revealing a creamy textured filling of burrata cheese. Seasoning it with sea salt, pepper, and drizzling that famous Armando Manni olive oil over it, the server closed the ball back up and pounded it around to get the seasonings distributed. Wedges of the mozzerella with burrata were cut from the ball and set atop each of our plates which contain a crusty garlic-rubbed toast (i.e. bruschetta) topped with thinly sliced heirloom tomatoes (imported from The French Laundry garden in California), yellow onions, and baby arugula leaves. This was truly a great dish.
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Here are the rest of the Just Desserts of 2008:
The “Sorbet, Pie” was nothing like I had imagined. Instead of a wedge of something molded and frozen, I was delightfully surprised by a colorful trio of frosty quenelles – blueberry-lavender, sour cream, and anise-hyssop sorbets – lined up on a strip of pie dough and dusted with brown sugar streusel crumbs. It reminded me of what Sherman served at the James Beard Awards: anise hyssop and goat cheese sorbet with rhubarb relish and herb (chive) shortbread. Delicious.
This was ghastly good. This sorbet was intense – it was essentially frozen cider. It had a bite, a sweet center, and a nice, long, tart finish. I’m not sure how the vodka was supposed to be taken – with or after the sorbet – but it was very smooth and clean-tasting vodka.
Like many restaurants, La Belle Vie’s pre-dessert was more brilliant than its often more sombre and burdened successor. At my meal in January, the pre-dessert featured a sprightly arrangement of blood orange sections – fanned out like a starfish – garnished with sweet, candied kumquat and a spectacular sabayon crème brûlée. It was dainty and daft.
I have a history with prune and Armagnac ice cream. Prune and Armagnac ice cream made both the Just Desserts of 2006 (Jean Georges, New York, New York) and the Just Desserts of 2007 (The Modern Bar Room, New York, New York) lists. This year, I’ve found a version that bests both of those. The prune and Armagnac ice cream at St. John is prunier and headier with Armagnac than any other version I’ve tried. This was is spectacular and left me quite winded.
Capogiro needs to have an accompanying 12-step recovery program. Well, actually, that would be stupid of them. They make money off of addicts like me. Ever since I took my first taste of Capogiro’s ethereally smooth and almost froth-like gelato, I was hooked. At first, it was innocent, late night runs back in 2004 when I first discovered the tiny (original) store on the corner of 13th and Sansom. I was being somewhat naughty. Then it was a quick, but cautious slide downhill to afternoon visits, in between meals. This year, on a five-day trip to Philadelphia, I fell off the wagon. I went in every day after lunch and dinner for a week, trying nearly every flavor they had to offer. I admit, I’m a little obsessed, but his stuff really is just that good.
We were encouraged to try anything and everything on this legendary chariot of sweets, and so my friends and I unabashedly asked to try it all: 12 cakes, lemongrass-soaked pineapple, Grand Marnier-macerated strawberries, and ile flottante. While I can’t single any one item out as being sub par, there were quite a few that left a more lasting impreession. They included the Grand Marnier-soaked strawberries: fresh, glowing orbs of liquor – somehow the Grand Marnier had penetrated but not compromised the structure of the fruit; the “Kona” cake: Bananas Foster meets cappuccino; the “Tahiti” cake, a creamy tropical breeze involving coconut and other tropical fruits (I’m fairly certain pineapple was one of them); and the “Venetian” cake, which was, perhaps, my favorite – it was a square of pistachio dacquoise layered with a sour cherry marmalade and pistachio brulée paved with a cinnamon-kissed chocolate mousse. It was the cinnamon spice, which shot through each bite, that made that last dessert particularly compelling.
This was a truly amazing dessert. By themselves, the cornmeal doughnuts (more like a doughnut holes) were rather forgettable – they had a nice sturdy crumb, but otherwise, lacked character. Yet, Chef Virant saves the day with a touch of tang – buttermilk ice cream. Together with buttery, crunchy caramel popcorn, the composition was magically transformed into something truly extraordinary.
Deceptively sophisticated and tiny, but good. This silky pot de crème was winter-spiced and topped with a layer of crunchy cinnamon toffee perfumed with cardamom and perhaps ginger. It was everything pot de crème should be – it had a nice weight and smoothness. It’s insane how simple and unassuming this dessert seemed when it was served. And, yet, to take a bite of it was to have a whole new understanding of desserts. Low expectations = BIG rewards.
“Rhubarb” was the most creative and innovative, and, like all of Iuzzini’s desserts, playful. This one would probably appeal most to the “technoemotional” and “molecular gastronomized” diners out there, although that is certainly not what I liked about it. I preferred the two more traditional desserts on this presentation: the Rhubarb Sorbet, gorgeously swirled with neon green lemon verbena ice cream, and the Warm Rhubarb Clafoutis Tart. The combination of flavors in the former was spectacular; the herbaceous, lemon verbena ice cream brightened and complimented the rhubarb very well. (I’m reminded of a different combination of fruit ices in the same colour scheme.) The clafoutis tart, we were told, was mama Vongerichten’s recipe. Served warm, the clafoutis was comforting, less like a creamy nut-bound clafoutis and more like a rhubarb crumble in a crisp tart shell. The strawberry crème fraîche was a beautiful shade of rouge, and tasted like it too.
If only all (Jewish) new years could be so sweet. This little round of sticky sweetness was nicely spiced and very moist. Solomonov cleverly deconstructs the recipe somewhat by serving the cake with coffee ice cream and a rich raisin (crème) anglaise sauce.
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