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Manresa – Los Gatos, CA

My meal at Manresa did not begin at the restaurant, but at Love Apple Farms, 13 miles away. I’ve long wondered if the farm was chef David Kinch’s secret weapon to deliciousness. Is this what separates Manresa from other restaurants? Is this why David’s cooking is so reflective of the surrounding area, like a fine Burgundy wine?

Visiting the farm and chatting with owners Cynthia Sandberg and Daniel Maxfield clarified everything. It would be remiss to think about Manresa without thinking about Love Apple Farms and vice versa. David forged a relationship with Cynthia around 10 years ago, and it has grown into an exclusive partnership. David is given carte blanche on deciding exactly what to plant, resulting in access to ingredients that I imagine few other chefs in the country do.

Walking the farm’s rows engages your senses: every few steps and you smell something new. Herbs, fruit, and vegetables –many of which were foreign to me– are everywhere. I wish I had more time to spend at the farm, but dinner beckoned.

As part of Manresa’s 10-year anniversary celebrations, chef Kinch partnered up with chef John and Karen Shields, formerly of Town House Restaurant in Chilhowie, Virginia. Together, they served me nine courses that were amongst the most memorable I’ve had in recent memory.

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Roli Roti – San Francisco, CA

It seems implausible that the best Italian porchetta sandwich I’ve ever had in my life, a deliriously sinful symphony of swine, comes out of a food truck in San Francisco.

But once you see the unusually long queue and catch that first unforgettable whiff of pork wafting through the air, you will reconsider. It tickles your arteries with anticipation.

The Roli Roti truck is a mobile rotisserie. On one side of the vehicle, collosal columns of pork and chicken rotate slowly on spits while their drippings bathe a pile of roasted potatoes below. Roli Roti truck virgins are so mesmerized they start snapping cellphone pictures and forget to fall in line.

Standing behind those columns of meat stands Thomas Odermatt. He looks a bit like Thomas Keller to me, but maybe that’s just me. Son of a Swiss master butcher and owner of the Roli Roti truck, he’s taken great effort to ensure his porchetta is not merely roasted pork stuffed with herbs.

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Atelier Crenn – San Francisco, CA

Atelier Crenn is a restaurant I want to love. One I admire and one I want to succeed.

Chef Dominique Crenn is wildly talented. And her pastry chef, Juan Contreras, served me the best dessert I’ve had in recent memory (more on that later).

Together, they are the most promising duo I’ve encountered in a long time.

The food is innovative and achingly beautiful. Dominique calls it “Poetic Culinaria”, where food, like art, is a medium of expression that stimulates one both visually and intellectually.

But perhaps I entered the restaurant with overly optimistic expectations, or maybe it was an off-night. I left the restaurant merely content, not blown away.

I can’t say I loved every dish. Over the span of 19 courses, it seemed like plates were coming from two separate kitchens: some dishes were incredible; others were mediocre. My meal, while technically sound, ended up being a roller coaster ride of highs and lows.

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Best Dishes of 2011

It is hard to believe that my little patch of cyberspace is over a year old. I half-expected it to fizzle out after a few months, and never did I imagine it would put me in touch with so many passionate food lovers and chefs.

2011 was the best year of eating I’ve ever had, and I’m incredibly blessed to have shared many meals with dear friends.

I’d like to commemorate my first anniversary with a recap of the fifteen best dishes I had in 2011 (started with ten but that proved too difficult).

- This list is in no particular order (ranking them proved to be impossible).
- Likewise, this is not a list of “perfect dishes” but rather ones that moved me in one way or another– a reminder of what a great year of eating 2011 was.

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Saison – San Francisco, CA

Six weeks ago, I experienced a meal that left me gob-smacked.

It upended expectations and altered perspectives. I can’t remember the last time a meal made me think this hard about food.

Chef Joshua Skenes is doing something truly refreshing at Saison. He speaks a different language and cooks with a different vocabulary. One I haven’t seen in many Western restaurants in America. Whereas others add flavor through an additive process (more ingredients, more complexity, more embellishments), Skenes takes away. His food uses deceptively simple cooking techniques to fully extract an ingredient’s maximum natural flavor.

Fully extracting an ingredient’s maximum natural flavor. Upon first glance, this may sound trivial; but imagine eating the most intense-tasting squab you can conjure: rich, dark, oily, irony, and chocolatey, caressed by that great gamey flavor. That is exactly what Skenes served me.

He unlocks an ingredient’s pure flavor with shocking proficiency. Fish and meats are carefully aged from weeks to months to deepen flavors. Live spot prawns are lightly poached in the very seawater it was caught– simplicity giving way to complexity. Hand-foraged flowers and herbs shock and delight. And of course there is the open wood-burning fire hearth. Used in nearly every dish, the crackly flames imbue everything they touch with a rustic charred goodness that launches flavors into the stratosphere.

I can say without creeping into hyperbole that Saison is the best meal I’ve had all year.

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Red Medicine – Los Angeles, CA

Jordan Kahn’s Red Medicine might just be the most misunderstood restaurant in Los Angeles.

The local media (for the most part) have written lukewarm reports of the restaurant; likewise, food-loving friends expressed pallid thoughts, ranging from “disappointingly mediocre” to “overpriced Vietnamese cuisine”. Of course, one can’t help but wonder if palates were biased due to Red Medicine’s public outing of the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, S. Irene Virbila, in December 2010. It certainly didn’t leave a pleasant taste in anyone’s mouth.

My first experience with Red Medicine was in early February. I ordered a good bit of the menu but like many, left feeling uninspired. The meal was too heavy, too sweet, and devoid of nuance (more on that later). It was certainly not worth writing a blog post on.

But with some family and friends visiting me in Los Angeles, I decided to pay Red Medicine a return visit. We tackled most of the menu, and it was then I realized Jordan’s strength: vegetables and herbs!* The dishes I had were so good I returned in a few weeks with a good friend to relive my favorites.
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LudoBites 7.0 – Los Angeles, CA

By 3:58PM, I was already logged to opentable.com continually clicking the reserve button only to have the same message staring back at me: “Reservations Will Open At 4PM”. No worries I told myself, better safe than sorry. After all, I wasn’t sure what to expect from LudoBites, Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s wildly popular pop-up restaurant. Its last iteration crashed Open Table, sending throes of hopeful diners into collective mutiny– I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

A minute passed and all of a sudden I was in! For a split-second I didn’t register what had happened but quickly regained my senses and shifted to auto-pilot, clicking on dates and filling out blanks. Before I knew it, I had a reservation to Ludobites 7.0. Success!

Little did I realize how lucky I was… turns out every table for every night had sold out in under a minute!

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