My Top 10 Restaurant Dishes of 2008

There are 15 days to go in 2008, so there’s definitely a chance I’m being too hasty with this list of my favorite restaurant dishes of 2008. But reading through my archives, these were the dishes that popped out immediately, that triggered specific synapses in my brain to fire darts into my salivary glands, making me hungry to repeat the experience of eating these dishes all over again. Are you ready for the reveal? Let’s start with the best.

#1: Pulled Pork Sandwich, Gramercy Tavern


It’s highly controversial to declare the greatest pulled pork sandwich of my life to be a sandwich crafted and created in New York City, but I’m a controversial kind of guy: this sandwich, brought to life by Gramercy Tavern chef Michael Anthony, is pure bliss on every level. The meat comes from Ossabaw pigs, the bread comes from Balthazar, and somehow the balance of all the components–including the coleslaw and pickled onions on the side–make this my favorite restaurant dish of 2008.

#2: Banana Cake, Momofuku Milk Bar


Dessert is my weakness, my constant indulgence, my chosen vice. I eat lots of dessert, make lots of dessert, and it’s very rare for me to encounter a dessert that feels entirely new; but such was the case with the banana cake at Momofuku Milk Bar which I ate, for the first time, only a few weeks ago. It’s a beguiling cake: layered in a way you’ve never seen a cake layered. Sure, there’s the cake layer–and the cake itself has an extraordinary texture, almost like a meringue–and then there’s a fudge layer (yes, a whole layer of fudge) and THEN there’s the banana layer, which glows a phosphorescent yellow. It’s a memorable cake, a dangerous cake; if you live in the East Village, beware–one bite, you’ll be back so many times, you’ll need a personal trainer.

#3: Parmesan Creme Brûlée, Perbacco


I suppose if I had any criteria for this list, it’d be: what did I taste this year that felt entirely new? That didn’t taste like anything I’d ever tasted before? Either because it was so uniquely good (thus, the pulled pork sandwich at #1) or because, literally, I’d never tasted anything like it; which brings us to the Parmesan Creme Brûlée at Perbacco. Highlighted by Frank Bruni in his review, this dish is (almost) exactly what it sounds like: an unsweetened creme brûlée infused with Parmesan cheese. Before you say “yuck,” think about it—cheese often pairs well with something sweet, and here that something sweet is the crusty, sugary layer on top of a creme brûlée. A dose of Balsamic vinegar marries that savory to the sweet and makes this dish a showstopper.

#4: Quesadilla, Brooklyn Flea Market


Technically not a restaurant dish, for this list the rule is: if I pay for someone else to prepare the dish, it’s a restaurant dish. And I’d gladly pay and pay and pay, forevermore, if I could eat this quesadilla again and again. This was my first experience with the Red Hook vendors (Latin American vendors celebrated for their authentic food sold from trucks) and it wasn’t even it Red Hook, it was in Fort Greene. The line was huge, I was wary, but then–for just a few dollars–they gave me the mammoth quesadilla you see in the picture. It was revelatory; every component a masterpiece. I made a huge mess eating it, but I didn’t care. I was in quesadilla heaven.

#5: Scottish Langoustines, Per Se


The food cognoscenti might attack on learning that I put a dish from Per Se beneath a quesadilla eaten in a parking lot, but for me the glory of eating at Per Se–which we did, last February, for Craig’s birthday–is the cumulative experience. It’s not about individual dishes, it’s about being transported to a realm of great indulgence and coddling. Everything was so precise and so beautiful, how to pick a favorite? It’d be like visiting Versaille and trying to name a favorite mirror. With that said, this dish of Scottish langoustines served, according to the menu, with “slow Roasted Young Beets, Preserved Horseradish and Kendall Farm’s ‘Creme Fraiche’ with Bulls Blood Greens and Dill-Infused Oil” stood out. As I wrote in that post: “Of all the dishes, this, for both of us, captured what Per Se does best: takes wonderful ingredients, prepares them in a way that enhances their natural splendor and then dresses them with clever, artful flourishes that elevate it to a whole other plane.” Overall, that meal was my favorite of 2008; it’s such a significant, impressive, overwhelming experience, how could it not be?

#6: Toasted Coconut Cake with Brown Butter Sorbet, wd-50


I’m still trying to make sense of our dinner at wd-50. What to make of foie gras tied in a knot? What to think of pizza pebbles made from powdered pizza components bonded by garlic oil? I’m really not sure. But the dessert there–dimly photographed above–was, to me, the apotheosis of everything the restaurant was trying to do. It was a classic dish (a coconut cake) presented in a revelatory way. There were squiggles, there was foam; there were little bits here and there and then that sorbet at 4 o’clock on the plate. But more important than how revelatory all of this was, what really matters it how it tasted: and this really, really tasted good. I’d want to eat it again many, many times. And that, ultimately, should be the test for any great restaurant dish; no?

#7: Sugar-Snap Peas, Momofuku Noodle Bar


Sometimes a great artist reveals himself in his smaller works. Take this dish of David Chang’s: it’s deceptively simple. It’s sugar snap peas sauteed with miso-butter, topped with grated fresh horseradish and slivered radishes. Just four ingredients, really, and yet the fact that they pair so well together, that each component serves to balance the whole dish, is the work of a master.

#8: Bone Marrow, Blue Ribbon


This is a classic New York dish that I experienced for the first time this year: the bone marrow at Blue Ribbon. You spread it on toasted brioche and your life suddenly improves significantly. It’s wildly decadent, but not the kind of thing you do every day; and it’s a celebration of that much-maligned commodity, the thing we’re all supposed to be so scared of but which gourmets, gourmands and food-lovers everywhere openly adore: FAT.

#9: Braised Whole Bass with Chili Miso, Szechuan Gourmet


After a lifetime of eating at Grand Sichuan on St. Mark’s it was time to discover a new Chinese restaurant, and the moment came after a night visit to the Museum of Modern Art. Diana, Craig and I hopped over to Szechuan Gourmet and indulged in a multi-course meal based on the review that came out a few weeks earlier in the New York Times. All of the dishes were memorable, but this one–the whole braised fish–was fiery and intense and interactive; with the sweet bits of meat buried among the bones, we performed careful extractions and were rewarded with flavor explosions in our mouths; chased, of course, with Chinese beer.

#10: Lemon Meringue Pie, Fairway Cafe


A classic dish made well is nothing to shake a stick at. And this lemon meringue pie from The Fairway Cafe is both a classic and made extraordinarily well. The picture speaks for itself: the meringue, fluffy and toasty, and the lemon curd tart and creamy. The whole meal was fun and reasonably priced (keep that in mind, during our economic crisis) but this pie was the star of the show.

And that, dear readers, concludes the list of My Top 10 Restaurant Dishes of 2008. I say “my” and not “the” because, of course, it’s based entirely on my own taste. What were the best restaurant dishes you ate this year? Send me in the right direction, and your fave of ’08 may be mine in ’09.

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