The dish that you see above (Tiger Prawn Salami from Movida in Sydney, Australia) is not one of the Top Ten Dishes That I Ate in 2013. I put it there, though, to illustrate how well I ate this year and how difficult it was to narrow everything down to the ten best dishes. My year brought me to Birmingham, Alabama (the 7-layer pecan coconut cake from Bottega would be #11 on my list), Perth and Sydney Australia, New York, Washington, and all over the city I now call home, Los Angeles. In fact, you’ll notice that 6 of the 10 items on this list are to be found in L.A. and that’s not just because I live here. It’s because of all the cities that I visited this year, L.A. remains the most dynamic and exciting food-wise. Check out my list and see if you agree.
After experiencing my first Australian-style burger with beets and a fried egg, I found myself wandering the Northbridge neighborhood of Perth and stumbling across a Taiwanese dessert place that was pretty packed for a Sunday night. Were this many people really clamoring for Taiwanese desserts? Well, one bite of the bowl you see above and I understood what all the fuss was about. The ice was sweetened just enough and all of the little balls and seeds and pearls added flavors and textures that made each bite exciting and surprising. Plus, it was just so beautiful to look at; a dessert you’d want to hang on your wall. Careful, though, it melts.
These two dishes are both riffs on the same idea: sweet and salty eggy things. The first, ordered with my friends Ganda and Zach while eating dim sum at Sea Harbour, totally took me by surprise. The buns themselves, which are marked with red dots, look rather humdrum and homogenous. Bite in, though, and a gush of electric yellow comes pouring out; a sweet and salty custard made with egg yolk that’s better than any doughnut filling you’ve had in your lifetime. It’s a wonderful rush of sweet and savory, one that will have you begging for more. Same goes for the salty turnip and egg at Ruen Pair, my favorite Thai place in L.A. A bunch of shredded turnips are cooked until deeply caramelized and then stirred together with eggs to create an omelette-like concoction that’s sweet and salty and eggy all at once. I loved it so much that recently (as in two days ago) I recreated it at home. Post forthcoming.
The waiter had to sell me on this one. I was with my new friend Cheryl, eating tapas in Sydney, and when the waiter described his favorite dish on the menu, I expected something akin to beef jerky, which I hate. But this was nothing like beef jerky; it was more like the most beautiful tray of thinly sliced meat (think prosciutto or Iberico ham) topped with a beguiling, irresistible mixture of truffle foam and poached egg. You cut it all up together and suddenly you feel like you’re royalty, with that decadent combination of truffles and beef; an unforgettable amalgamation of flavors and textures.
One of the coolest parts about living in L.A. is all the tucked-away sushi places you have to know about, hidden next to a Marshall’s or a TJ Max, almost invisible, easy to miss. Well: you don’t want to miss the sushi at 4 on 6 in Encino, which is hidden behind an Office Max and a pet food store. For $50 a person, we ate high-quality sushi that you’d pay twice as much for in New York (probably even more). The chef at 4 on 6 is known for his unique toppings: Japanese sea scallop with truffle salt, for example; or the piece you see above, the gravlax with wasabi stem and sour cream. I found this place from a random article in L.A. Weekly that lists four more like it in the Valley…now we have to check the other four off our list.
Just like mom used to make! Ha, kidding. You may be scratching your heads or rolling your eyes at this one, but I still recall the excitement of having this placed in front of us the night we celebrated our anniversary at Red Medicine. It’s a stunner of a dish, one (like the Taiwanese dessert bowl) that you want to display on a shelf as much as eat. But when you bite into this, it’s undeniably a treat: the succulents have a real snap to them, crunchy like the best lettuce. That texture next to the creamy rice pudding makes total sense, and then the citrusy snap of the Buddha’s hand ties it all together. If we go out to restaurants to eat food that we couldn’t fathom making at home, this dish wins first prize.
It wasn’t the prettiest dish that we ate the night we went to La Vara with Cara and Dara, but it was the one that had us fighting over the next bite, begging the waitress to bring us another order. What made it so good? The eggplant is cooked perfectly–battered in corn starch and deep fried until cooked-through on the inside and extra crispy on the outside–then brushed with honey and served on a cheese that’s a perfect tangy foil. It hits so many right notes, it’s hard to conceive of a better way to eat eggplant. (Luckily, part of the recipe is in my cookbook; I think we can puzzle out the rest.)
Not to make you feel bad, but Craig and I got engaged this year and you STILL haven’t sent a gift. I mean really. But this all came about because one night, Craig surprised me with dinner at Rustic Canyon and, caught up in the moment, we decided to get married. It wasn’t just the moment, though, it was the food, prepared by our Atwater Village neighbor–and confirmed culinary genius–Jeremy Fox. This was my first time experiencing his work (I first heard of him when Frank Bruni declared his restaurant Ubuntu the #2 best place to eat outside of New York in 2008). Every course we ate the night we went was stunning, but my favorite was this riff on French Onion Soup (in quotes) which featured grilled bread, bone marrow and an elegant consommé. It’s the kind of dish that shows off a chef’s skill and vision while still tasting absolutely delicious. We can’t wait to go back.
Andrew Knowlton named Alma Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant 2013 and we went there with our friends Mark and Diana soon after. The excitement in the air was palpable and the chef, Ari Taymor, seemed simultaneously delighted and overwhelmed by it all. He was on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard when he heard the news. So eating there, when we ate there, made us feel like we were really part of a restaurant’s moment; and the food totally lived up to the hype. All of it was inventive–smart but also seasonal (most of the ingredients are grown on the restaurant’s own farm)–but not pretentious or obnoxiously brainy. My favorite bite of the night is the one you see above: little English muffins topped with ingredients that are rarely paired together but that make so much sense once combined–uni and burrata, decadent and creamy and luxurious. Everything else we ate that night was memorable too; it felt like a great musician doing jazz with food. Which is why if we go again, I’m fully prepared for a completely different, no-less-exciting experience. That’s what makes all the best restaurants last.
Chengdu Taste may be my new favorite restaurant and I’ve only been once, which gives you an idea of how impactful that one meal was. There with Zach and Ganda (once again), we ate the most brilliantly prepared Sichuan food I’ve yet experienced in my life, and I say that as someone who ate at Grand Sichuan in New York on a pretty regular place. Chengdu Taste blows Grand Sichuan out of the water. The ingredients are so much fresher but, more importantly, the preparations are so much more clean-tasting and clear, you feel like every Sichuan peppercorn is placed there intentionally. This is Sichuan food with the precision of poetry and the fact that I only ate a handful of dishes from a menu that features 20 or 30 options is what I consider a personal tragedy.
When you travel halfway around the world as a food person, you want to eat something there that’s utterly of its place but also so undeniably delicious, it makes the entire journey seem worthwhile. This was that dish, experienced on my first night in Sydney with my friend Ameer at the now-legendary restaurant, Billy Kwong. What makes this restaurant so special is the way the chef, Kylie Kwong, fuses together her Chinese heritage with her Australian upbringing. This dish perfectly illustrates that fusion: it’s a Chinese preparation of an indigenous ingredient, wallaby tail. That sounds good on paper as an idea, but how does it taste? Better than the best ribs you can imagine: slick with a sweet glaze and crispy from a hot oven, I positively devoured everything on my plate. It’s the best thing that I ate in 2013 and 2014 has a hard job ahead if it’s going to top it.