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Best 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.

***

1. Heirloom Rice Porridge (Red Medicine; Chef Jordan Kahn)
Sprinkled with bits of hazelnut, crumbled up chicken skin, echire butter, and finished with tongues of uni and a lone egg yolk, this dish was at once earthy, buttery, briny, and sweet. Growing up in Asia eating congee, it brilliantly referenced the familiar while delivering something new. I pray Jordan Kahn never takes this off the menu.

2. Tidal Pool (Manresa; Chef David Kinch)
Foie, abalone, uni, and mushroom swim in a salty kombu-dashi broth that smelled, tasted, and looked like a miniature ecosystem of marine life encapsulated in a bowl. Two details were particularly remarkable:

- The broth was primarily kombu-dashi but our waiter told me there was a bit of oyster liquor added to give it that needed jolt of salinity to taste like the ocean. Genius.
– The quality of foie gras was insane- phenomenally silky and smooth, tasting more of duck than liver, if that makes any sense.

3. Toro Senmai Maki (Urasawa; Chef Hiro Urasawa)
This has been Hiro-san’s opening volley on each of my visits in the Spring for good reason. Monkfish liver (ankimo), shiso, and pickled turnip (senmai-zuke) are wrapped up in seared toro, topped with caviar, and surrounded by a pool of yuzu dressing. A decadent study of balance and moderation, the salty brine of caviar is countered by creamy liver and oily toro while the pickled turnip and yuzu dressing tempered the richness.

4. Quinoa (Eleven Madison Park; Guest Chef Mauro Colagreco)
As has become customary whenever I visit the Big Apple, I treated my sister to lunch at Eleven Madison Park. We enjoyed it so much we decided to return for dinner on the same day, mere hours later. Little did we know Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur (1 Michelin Star) was a guest chef that night.

He delighted us with a dish meant to represent the forest floor: quinoa as soil, bits of parsley cake as moss, blobs of Parmesan cream, and the best part – mushrooms cooked in various ways to elicit a range of textures and flavors – including some that were crisp like tree bark.

5. Brassicas (Saison; Chef Joshua Skenes)
At Saison in San Francisco, Chef Joshua Skenes’ slowly roasts paper-thin brassica greens over fire, constantly moving them around to coax out a variety of flavors and textures. A vial of bonito broth laced with puffed toasted grains follows and a single quail egg finishes. There is crisp and char, sweetness and bite, a layering of tastes and textures without straying from the ingredient’s natural flavor.

6. Kani Koramushi (n/naka; Chef Niki Nakayama)
n/naka opened in April of 2011, and it quickly rose to one of my favorite Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles. Consider a hollowed out crab shell filled with crab meat, truffle-dashi, truffle shavings, shiitake mushroom, and golden egg yolk. There was sweetness from the crab, earthiness from the truffles, all ensconced in egg yolk and dashi. I’m pretty sure I blacked out in between bites from pleasure.

7. Carrots (Eleven Madison Park; Chef Daniel Humm)
Intricately flavored with cumin, topped with medjool dates, and sprinkled with wheat berries for added crunch, these roasted carrots instantly reminded me of a line in Chef Daniel Patterson’s piece in the London Financial Times, Carrots Are The New Caviar.

“All products have the same gastronomic value, regardless of their price.”

Indeed, with each bite I found myself marveling at how such a humble ingredient like carrot could be elevated, with the care and preparation normally reserved for truffles or foie gras.

8. Ganjang Gae Jang – marinated raw crab (Soban)
One of the best experiences of your life may be eating Soban’s marinated raw crab: stick a sizable piece in your mouth and suck hard. The crab meat is cold, sweet, and has turned almost jelly-like in texture, a wonderful sensation that I assure you tastes and feels far better than it sounds. Creamy crab roe then ruptures, slathering your mouth; and right when you think that one bite gets too rich, the soy sauce marinade kicks in: salty, herbal, sweet, and a perfect foil for the richness. Now get the lone shell and flip it over, add a scoop of rice and sauce, and mix it with the guts and innards (make sure to scrape the sides of shell!). Offal porridge. Spoonfuls of heaven.

9. Soymilk Panna cotta, Uni, Geoduck, Fresh Wasabi (Providence; Chef Michael Cimarusti)
Here, Chef Cimarusti beautifully reimagined ideas of Japanese cooking: cool, silky-smooth pudding with a hint of soy provided the perfect base to showcase the uni and geoduck. Cucumber, radish, and puffed rice added texture and color. A delicate dish that I stretched into many many bites.

10. Crustacean (Saison; Chef Joshua Skenes)
Two dishes alighted on my table for this course: first, a spot prawn poached in its own seawater. So simple, so delicious. Next, a mound of lobster tail, crab meat, uni, and nasturtium leaf was sided by a smear of meyer lemon cream and finished with an orange-basil-tarragon broth. The broth was bright and floral, but especially impressive was how it mixed with the cream and together complemented the buttery shellfish.

11. Farm Egg with Sea Urchin, Champagne Beurre Blanc, Brioche (Providence, Chef Michael Cimarusti)
Michael Cimarusti’s famous egg dish probably shaved off five years of my life. But of all the egg dishes I’ve had (Le Bernardin, Manresa, Petrossian, Eleven Madison Park), this is probably my favorite preparation. The sweetness of the egg and uni was fortified by emulsified butter and sprinkled with crispy brioche bits. An exercise in decadence.

12. 32-day Aged Roasted Squab (Saison, Chef Joshua Skenes)
Imagine eating the most intense-tasting squab you can conjure: rich, dark, oily, irony, and chocolatey, caressed by that great gamey flavor. Now imagine skin so crackly and crisp you could’ve heard it across the room. This was the most delicious piece of squab I’ve ever had.

13. Honey-Lavender Glazed Muscovy Duck (Eleven Madison Park; Chef Daniel Humm)
Dry-aged for two weeks, glazed with lavender honey, dusted with star anise and sichuan peppercorns, then roasted until a golden brown, I dare you to find a more beautiful duck in the city. Our captain Sophia rolled over a cart (custom-made for the duck) and carved it table-side. Skin crackled and heads turned: perfectly succulent meat ringed with fat and sheathed by caramelized skin.

14. Apple, Creme Caramel, burnt wood sabayon (ink., Chef Michael Voltaggio)
Apple and chocolate desserts are usually the last items on a dessert menu I’d order. They are often boring, staying well within the boundaries of traditional sweet desserts. But this was different. The apple and creme caramel were good together, but the burnt wood nitro sabayon sealed this dessert’s success with a savory smokiness that kept me coming back for more.

15. Clam Bake (Eleven Madison Park, Chef Daniel Humm)
“A gift from the kitchen, a recent addition to the menu”, our Captain Chris told us, as two servers brought out multiple dishes to build a clam bake. A tray of hot rocks, seaweed, and a teapot of clam chowder was surrounded by several tiny trays of bites. Hot water was poured on the stones, resulting in a chimney of steam that smelled of the sea. At its best, the upper echelons of fine dining remind me of theater, with each dish a separate act in a play. This was certainly a treat for the eyes, nose, and mouth.

***

Two closing thoughts:

- This list was not immune my preferences/biases: many dishes displayed a lightness and purity of flavor that really appeals to my current sensibilities. Many picks were Japanese-inspired in their simplicity, and my preference towards seafood and vegetables is obvious. It will be interesting to see how my preferences evolve in next years list.

- Given my deep-set love for carbs, I’m shocked a pasta dish is nowhere to be found, though the ones I had at Babbo and Marea would’ve certainly made a top 25 list.

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