One last longing glance at the delicious year that was 2011. Here are 10 “best bites” that you might want to put on your “To Eat” list for 2012.
When members of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) descended on Charleston, S.C. last fall, every chef in that food-crazy town set out to outcook his colleagues. We had extraordinary lunches and dinners everywhere we went. But the most exciting food in my book was at Charleston Grill, where chef Michelle Weaver knocked the socks off our party of 10 food writers. We loved the butter-poached Maine lobster with wild mushrooms and preserved lemon atop a sweet corn puree; the sweet potoato “casserole” ravioli with pork belly pecan streusel; and the impressive Charleston Grill Crab Cake with Creek shrimp and lime-tomato-dill vinaigrette, pictured here. But the real standout for me was the voluptuous seared foie gras with aromatic bourbon-cider sauce. Trimmed with sautéed apples, poufy cider doughnuts and sumptuous mascarpone sauce, it was sensational.
There were a lot of rave-worthy dishes at Michael Chiarello's Bottega in Napa valley, where we celebrated my mother’s 89th birthday in late fall. But the ethereal potato dough raviolo of chef de cuisine Robert Hohmann managed to be in a league of its own. The delicate pasta package was filled with spinach and ricotta cheese and topped with an organic, soft-cooked egg that mingled its vivid yolk with a brown butter sauce flecked with fresh sage. It was all showered with shavings of fresh black truffles. Simple. Sensational.
In truth, I adored all the food I tasted at Yerba Buena, on New York’s Lower East Side. The booze, too. (The Poquito Picante was my favorite cocktail of 2011.) But if I have to single out just one of the boldly flavored, beautifully presented Latin dishes, it would be the pan-seared, miso-glazed black cod that was done with aji panka, a Peruvian pepper with a distinctive smokey, fruity taste; shiitake mushrooms; and choclo corn, an Andean variety with a nutty flavor and substantial texture. (This photo is from Starchefs.com, a site which includes other Yerba Buena photos that will make you drool.)
Tautog. Never heard of the beast? Neither had I. Until, that is, I stumbled upon the Atlantic Ocean fish at The Little Owl, an enchanting bistro in New York’s Greenwich Village. The tautog’s flesh is firm and pearly and sweet, thanks to its high-fat diet of fiddle crab and mussels. Chef/co-owner Joey Campanaro pan-sauteed the filet and crowned it with an aromatic “salad” of cherry tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, garlic, lemon zest and fresh thyme. Brilliant.
I wasn’t really expecting great food at the Vintage Restaurant in Sun Valley, Idaho when I visited late last summer. It’s a funky little place, a tiny wooden cabin in the middle of the village , with seating in a rather neglected little garden. However, when the sun went down and the Christmas lights went on, the place was magical. And the food was fabulous. I especially loved the Sweet Corn Rock Shrimp Tamale (pictured below), with its perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp, snappy aioli-like sauce, and colorful confetti of corn, carrots, onions and tomatoes. This was lip-smacking bliss.
If you knew gnudi like I know gnudi…..you’d buy a plane ticket to Seattle today. I found the most ethereal little dumplings -– like biting into a cloud, really –- at Lark, a lovely, low-key restaurant across from Seattle University. Everything I tasted at this “small plates” emporium was superb, but it was the noteworthy gnudi embellished with arugula and toasted pine nuts that really rocked my world.
Not only was chef Dan Kluger’s signature black sea bass creation at ABC Kitchen one of my favorite dishes of 2011, it was one of the best seafood dishes I’ve ever tasted. Perfumed by the marjoram and mint, basil, dill and jalapeño tucked under the seared skin, it was presented with baby potatoes cooked in water infused with rosemary and tarragon, lemon zest and ginger. The accompanying wilted spinach, dressed with lemon confit, made this dish a triple triumph of taste, texture and scent. (Photo from PeekAndEat.com.)
A dumpling by any other name……tastes even better when it’s called a knödel, I love the round, hefty “dumplings” of Austria, German and Südtirol (the German-speaking, northernmost region of Italy), and tried to eat at least one every day of my month-long hiking trip last summer. I found the best, a simple but sublime version, at Gasthof Fürberg am Wolfgangsee, a rustic country inn on the shores of Lake Wolfgang, south of Salzburg in Austria. Light and airy, the knödeln were made of flour, fresh spinach, herbs, and cheese, and set afloat in a parmesan and butter broth. Showered with shaved parmesan and roasted cherry tomatoes, they were a decidedly elegant riff on a rustic staple.
Everybody says the food is not the thing at Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village. And, in fact, the A-list clientele, the camaraderie, the consorting, the seeing and being seen really are more important than what’s on the plate or in the glass. Nonetheless, I was completely smitten by the signature chicken pot pie when I dined there last spring with restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. (I’d never snag a table on my own….this is, possibly, the toughest restaurant in town to get into.) But the poufed, well-burnished package, which spills decadently over the edges of the plate, offers tender chicken, peas, carrots, crimini mushrooms and pearl onions, and can hold it’s own in this den of distractions. It’s comfort food with a cosmopolitan touch. (By the way, rabbit gets pretty fabulous treatment here, too, showing up in an excellent pasta dish with morel mushrooms and fava beans; and a top-notch rabbit terrine studded with pistachios. )
Sometimes a memorable dish is memorable because it inspires you to cook it at home and enjoy it over and over again. Case in point: Spaghettini with Flaked Cod, Broccoli Rabe, Garlic, Chili, White Wine, and Rustic Breadcrumbs at Union Square Café in New York City. I’ve been a fan of this Danny Meyer restaurant since it opened in 1985. Every time I go I find a dish (or two or three) that I can’t live without. On a visit last spring, I flipped over the grilled lamb chops “scotta dita” served with a potato-gruyere gratin, and the spring greens ravioli with preserved lemon. But it was the simple spaghettini with sprightly flavors that I loved most, and now make at home whenever I get the craving. This photo is from Mission:Food; the post includes the recipe.