I know you’re probably sick of these end-of-the-year listicles, but after a year that took me all over the country, I just had to do a list of the 10 best dishes that I ate this year. I ate so much good food, in fact, that 2012 may very well have been the best eating year of my life. I mean, I went to The French Laundry this year (for our friend Diana’s 30th birthday) so that would make good sense. But most of these meals, as you you’ll see, weren’t super fancy… Many, in fact, were quite cheap. What I’m proudest of in considering this list is how I sussed out such exceptional food in so many different cities: I have you (especially those of you on Twitter) to thank for that. And now, without further ado, the 10 best things that I ate in 2012.
1. Oysters and Pearls at The French Laundry. (Yountville, CA)
There are many reasons this shouldn’t be the #1 dish on my list: I had this dish before (at Per Se for Craig’s birthday), it’s been around for a really long time (it’s Thomas Keller’s most famous dish), it’s part of an obscenely expensive tasting menu and only available to those who can score a table. So why put it at the tippy tippy top of my list? Because this dish is the summit, the highest peak you can reach when it comes to experiencing food at its grandest and most luxurious. If you cook food, if you read about food, if you aspire to eat great food, it all ends here. This dish is like reaching the end of the internet. Everything great you can imagine–the freshest oysters, the most exquisite caviar, all unified in a creamy, briny tapioca–happens in this dish. It’s so inspired, in fact, that it’s hard to conceive of anyone making it at home. Yes, I’m aware that I can Google an example of someone making it at home but that’s not the point. The point is that at one of only two locations in the world–The French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New York–you can eat a great artist’s greatest dish. And I ate that dish this year and it’s the best thing that I ate all year. So there.
2. The Two Meat Plate at Franklin Barbecue. (Austin, TX)
I struggled with this because you could make an argument that this was the #1 best thing that I ate this year. That’s why lists like these are silly. How can you compare a meticulously plated dish of Oysters and Pearls at The French Laundry to a lovingly assembled, no-less-passionately cooked plate of brisket and pork ribs and beans and coleslaw at Franklin Barbecue? Both experiences involved a dramatic build-up: at the French Laundry it was scoring the reservation and making our way to Napa; at Franklin Barbecue, it was cueing up early in the morning to have a decent spot in line when the doors opened at 11. Maybe there’s a psychological trick to this: that the greater the work involved in scoring a dish, the more you’ll enjoy it. Regardless: this was the best barbecue I’ve ever had with the caveat that I haven’t had serious barbecue anywhere else (Kansas City, here I come). I absolutely loved everything I ate at Franklin which is why it earned the #2 slot.
3. Parker House Rolls at The John Dory. (New York, NY)
Man can’t live by bread alone, but I’m thinking he could if April Bloomfield’s making it. You know that I’m obsessed with her from the 10 Best Things That I Cooked in 2012; but these Parker House Rolls (which I ate at her sunniest, most welcoming restaurant, The John Dory, on my birthday) deserve a prominent place on this list too. They’re out-of-this-world wonderful; as decadent and delicious as bread can possibly be, which is saying a lot. I loved dipping this in The John Dory’s lobster chowder, but just by themselves these rolls are worth your attention; they’re the single best argument against an Atkins diet I can imagine.
4. Smoked, Cured Hamachi on Yucca Chips at Uchi (Austin, TX)
What a strange and delightful dish this was…a dish that I ate at the counter at Uchi in Austin after my flight back to New York was canceled due to Hurricane Sandy. I was torn about going out to dinner that night: I sat in my hotel room all afternoon watching the news, worried about everyone still in the city. I almost stayed in and ordered room service but instead I ordered myself out. How often would I be in Austin? I needed to experience one of its top rated restaurants. And the meal that I ate at Uchi was really memorable: bright, refreshing, creative, fun. And this dish was my favorite dish of the night; almost like a pile of nachos only reinterpreted in Japanese fashion. Instead of tortilla chips, yucca chips. Instead of cheese and pickled jalapenos, fish. And raisins. And Asian pear. It’s hard to describe how those things work together, but they do work together…It’s a dish you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else, which is what made it so great.
5. Cocoa Rigatoni with Wild Boar Ragu at Hearth. (New York, NY)
I make pasta a few days out of every month which means I eat a lot of pasta over the course of a year. I avoid it at restaurants because I make it so much at home, but at Marco Canora’s Hearth you’d be really foolish to avoid his pasta. And this particular pasta, which I ate with Craig’s parents and aunt and uncle a few weeks ago when they came to New York, is something you should actively seek out. It’s a rigatoni made with Marco’s pasta extruder and he adds cocoa to the dough to give it a dark, bitter flavor; that bitterness pairs exceptionally well with the sweetness of the wild boar ragu. In fact, the harmony of flavors and textures here is so extraordinary, I have no idea how Marco achieves it. I mean, I cooked with him for my book but he taught me gnocchi (the best I’ve ever had) and dandelion salad and bracioli. Next book, I want to learn this… or maybe I don’t. This would be dangerous to know how to make at home: I’d eat it all the time and turn into a wild boar. Maybe it’s best to continue enjoying it at Hearth.
6. Fried Pig’s Tails at Night + Market. (Los Angeles, CA)
Even though L.A. restaurants didn’t make my Top 5, they have a strong presence on the bottom half of this list and that’s because L.A. is a really wonderful eating city, filled with hidden treasures that you can either dig up yourself or find via our main food guru, Mr. Jonathan Gold. Night + Market is one of those restaurants that everyone was talking about at some point, and for good reason: it’s food that commands your attention, whether you’re just a schmo like me or you’re David Chang or Rene Redzeppi, both of whom dined at Night + Market when they came to town. This is Thai food with the speakers turned to 11; there are chiles, chiles galore. And the dish that best embodies this bold approach to Thai cooking is the one every foodie has to eat when they go visit: the crispy pig tails. If that intimidates you, don’t let it. Just think bacon (in tail form), deep-fried, and coated with chiles and lime juice. Each bite is a crunchy, spicy, fatty marvel…and perhaps the best “welcome to Los Angeles” taste in town.
7. The Greek Yogurt, Strawberry, Rhubarb and Coconut Dessert at ink. (Los Angeles, CA)
Yes, I’m the guy who orders fruit desserts when there’s a chocolate option. I find them refreshing and more dynamic than that same old chocolate, butter, cream combination that makes chocolate people go gaga. But even with fruit desserts, there are only so many directions you can go: cobbler, crostada, trifle, pie. Michael Voltaggio, who may be L.A.’s most talented chef (next to Nancy Silverton and a few others), takes that notion of limited fruit dessert options and totally squashes it at his restaurant ink. with this intriguing and beguiling concoction of yogurt cream, raspberry granita, and all kinds of fruit (some detectable, others mysterious) that left me absolutely speechless as I ate it. Each bite had me scratching my head but also patting my belly because I enjoyed what I was eating so much. At the end, I had no idea what I’d just consumed, but I loved it. It’s not hyperbole to say that Michael Voltaggio is a genius.
8. Noodles and Dumplings at Tasty Noodle House. (San Gabriel Valley, CA)
The lead picture at the top of this post is a picture of the noodles that I ate at the Tasty Noodle House in the San Gabriel Valley. The dumpling that you see above was also consumed there and in both cases–the noodles and the dumplings–the experience was revelatory. I long knew that the San Gabriel Valley was home to some of the best Chinese cooking in the United States (some say it’s the best outside of China), and after getting burned at Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village I almost didn’t go back. But then one day I did go back and thanks to something I read by Jonathan Gold, I pointed my car to the Tasty Noodle House. And the food that I ate there (as you may be able to tell from the photos) was striking because it was so clean-tasting, so pure, so lovingly made. Each dumpling was like a little present; each noodle, a chewy meditation on everything good about flour and water. In fact, I enjoyed my meal so much the first time I went to Tasty Noodle House, I went back a second time a few days later. And even after those two visits, I’d still barely scratched the surface: Jonathan Gold left a comment on that post (which you can’t see because I’m having trouble importing old comments) telling me all about the dishes that I missed. And that’s just one restaurant in one shopping center in one enormous valley. When I get back to L.A., I have my work cut out for me.
9. Seafood Curry at Cardamom Hill. (Atlanta, GA)
I can’t stop singing the praises of Asha Gomez, who I met in Atlanta while writing my cookbook. At the time, she was a celebrated home cook; after I cooked with her, she went on to open a restaurant, Cardamom Hill, that’s getting huzzahs from magazines and newspapers across the country. And for good reason! I finally got to eat there with my friend Josh when I stopped by Atlanta on my book tour, and not only was I delighted to see Asha there in the kitchen cooking up a storm, but right there with her was another one of my cookbook’s chefs, Omar Powell, who’s now her chef de cuisine. It was like a family reunion only most of it happened on the plate. And the plate that dazzled me the most (and almost all of the plates were dazzling) was this simple-looking dish of seafood curry served with rice. The flavor Asha achieves here is really astonishing: it’s deep (Josh likened it to a Mexican mole) but also, strangely, light. The food at Cardamom Hill is inspired by the food Asha ate growing up in Kerala; and you can feel the love Asha has for her home country in every bite. It’s one of America’s best new restaurants (Bon Appetit agrees).
10. The Pancake at Canelé (Los Angeles, CA)
It’s a giant puff of a pancake, almost obscene in its girth. It comes to the table at Canelé in Atwater Village and people stop talking because, well, “did we really just order that?” Yes you did and one bite of the crusty edge, dusted with powdered sugar, and you’ll know you made a very, very good decision. You may accuse me of over-carbing this list, but can we just admit that carbs are the best things you can possibly eat? And if you’re going to eat carbs at breakfast, this is the breakfast you want to get. It’s one of the main reasons I’m excited to go back to L.A. this Sunday.
Honorable Mentions: Pastrami at Langer’s, Short Ribs at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, the Waffle at The One-Eared Stag, Cod Fried Rice at Mission Chinese Food, Shaken Dosirak at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, Oysters at Blue Plate Oysterette, Sausage at Pok Pok.