Countdown of the Top 25 U.S. Dishes of the Year
I wish I knew how many pounds of food I ate this year. Forget about my two trips to Europe where I easily ate my weight. In the U.S. alone, besides going to my typical New York haunts on a regular basis, I took a number of trips to Boston, a trip to Miami, a trip to Chicago, spent nearly two weeks in San Francisco on three different business trips, visited Los Angeles twice, and most recently had a three-day eating binge in Washington, D.C. One would think that with a list of cities as long as my arm I would have eaten in every great restaurant in the country. But even an iron man like me couldn't pull that off, and I had to settle for only eating in most of them.
Recently I was thinking about what information I could extract from the past year's dining experiences that readers would find useful. I always write an article called "My Year in Review of Dining," but based on when I published last year's article, this year's version isn't due to appear until sometime in April. Then I thought of making a list of the top restaurants, like Steve's list of the groovy restaurants of the year or something like that. But that isn't exactly new information either. The ratings for a restaurant are posted at the end of each review. What's so difficult about putting them in order? So after a few days of mulling it over, I had a brainstorm and I came up with the idea of compiling a countdown of my top 25 U.S. dishes of the year. First, it's a ranking that people don't normallly see—restaurants and their chefs are usually honored by a newspaper or guidebook awarding them stars or a numerical score. But I also thought that this was a different way of honoring a chef's excellence. Especially since the number of chefs who are working in the U.S. today, and who deserve recognition, is growing every day.
Idea in hand, I sat down at my computer and began the chore of reviewing every domestic meal I ate this year, as well as reviewing every photo I took. Then, based on a combination of trying to recapture the excitement I felt at the time I ate a particular dish and my thoughts now that I have had a bit of time to think about it, I began compiling the list. At first I tried including dishes from all of my meals in 2005 but I found it difficult to compare the top Japanese restaurants in the country with French and American restaurants which place much more emphasis on culinary technique. By the same token, I found it difficult to compare domestic with European ingredients. Exactly how would one go about comparing a Bresse chicken with a chicken that has been raised at the Stone Barns in Westchester County, New York? So now having limited the list to dishes I ate in domestic restaurants, I started to compile the list. When I was finally finished, what surprised me wasn't that favorite restaurants of mine had placed multiple dishes on the list, but that a number of very highly regarded restaurants I ate in like Alinea, Babbo, CityZen, and Chez Panisse were missing from the list completely.
Lists are a funny thing. A well-constructed list offers a unique narrative on whatever topic it claims to cover. This list, as soon as the first attempt at compiling it was finished, immediately reminded me of something my friend Sandy Caust-Ellenbogen once told me after he'd returned from a trip to Europe with his family. Sandy opined that the difference between two- and three-star restaurants was that over a five-course meal, a two-star restaurant would serve you two dishes that merited three stars, but when a third dish that merited a three-star rating was served, that seemed to be the tipping point for earning the third star. At first his theory sounded overly simplistic. Two versus three dishes, can the difference be reduced to a single dish? But the more I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make. And nowhere did Sandy's observation ring truer than after reviewing this list which showed an immediate correlation between the restaurants that I gave the highest rating to over the course of the year and whether they placed multiple dishes on the list.
Now if you happen to be having dinner at a restaurant that has a dish on the list, and you don't see that particular dish on the printed menu, you should know that sometimes chefs like to whip up special dishes for me. Yeah I know, it's one of the benefits we bloggers get from chefs who happen to read our sites. But there are other occasions where I am not known to the restaurant, but special dishes end up being served simply because I have asked my captain to let the kitchen know that I would be happy if they just cooked for me. I know it sounds counter-intuitive to give up control of the menu, but as a practical matter it notifies the kitchen that you take the dining experience very seriously. Many times, a chef will respond to that request by pulling out all of the stops. But don't feel bashful about asking them to prepare something special for you, including telling them that you read about the dish on this blog. More often than not, providing the ingredients are in season, restaurants will be happy to accommodate your request. Oh sure, there are those curmudgeonly chefs who won't vary their routine for you. But in my experience, most chefs want to make their customers happy, and cooking for knowledgable and appreciative diners is something they love doing.
Don't let me waste your time any longer. Here is the countdown of my top 25 U.S. dishes of 2005. I'll be back updating the site after the holidays. There are lots of great reviews coming up in the New Year as I will soon be off to France, Italy, Spain, and the U.K. for a gastronomic tour of epic proportions. Happy holidays to everyone, and a happy and healthy New Year to all.
The Top 25
25. Mini-Bar at Cafe Atlantico Hot Foie Gras Soup with Cold Foie Gras Foam - The flavors were amazingly balanced, including the contrast of the hot soup with the cold foam. The broth was beautiful and was full of foie gras flavor, but still as light on the palate as a perfectly brewed cup of espresso. And the cold foie gras cream, well, it was thick as the best whipped cream and it was as if someone spooned some foie gras schlag on your foie gras cappuccino. A dish I am looking forward to eating again.
24. WD-50 Foie Gras Torchon with Beet Juice - Like a molten chocolate cake that oozes chocolate when you pierce it with a fork, this dish oozes beet juice instead. I had this dish at least three times, and the last time was the best version because it was nearly at room temperature. I wish chef Wylie Dufresne was interested in making the dish more opulent. It always impressed me as being restrained for a dish that revolved around a luxury ingredient. Even the beet juice could be sweeter and more viscous. A good dish that has the potential to be higher on the list.
23. Avenues Buffalo Short Ribs with Anson Mills Grits, Apricots, and Sassafras - I resisted this dish when I saw it on the tasting menu but it turned out for the best when chef Graham Parker-Bowles had the foresight to serve it to me. The buffalo managed to be lean and flavorful at the same time. Not an easy task. And the Anson Mills grits were just terrific. I could eat them for breakfast every day. Just enough sweetness and acidity from the apricots to make things interesting. A good dish from a chef to watch.
22. Craft Roasted Blue Foot Chicken with Summer Truffles and Crosnes - Chicken might be one of the most improved domestic products in recent times. The Blue Foot, a species related to France's Bresse chicken, packs more flavor than any other domestic chicken I know of. This version from chef Damon Wise of Craft was exemplary. Roasted and then sliced into eighths, and topped with crosnes and black summer truffles from Umbria. A few pieces of watercress strewn on top and you had a comfort food masterpiece with a bit of luxury shaved on top.
21. Mas Poached Maine Lobster with Sweet Carrot Consomme and Snow Peas - Few dishes haunted me as much as this seemingly simple dish from Mas's Galen Zamarra. The carrot consomme had such clarity, like the way a beautiful chicken stock that is perfectly skimmed lightly coats your tongue. Combined with a chunk of lobster that was soft but which also retained a good amount of springiness, the dish managed to be modern and classic at the same time.
20. Campton Place Aiguilette of John Dory with Zucchini, Tomatoes, and Saffron Fumet - An offering from 28-year-old Swiss chef Daniel Humm. They told us the fish was cooked sous vide, but I couldn't quite work out whether the thin zucchini scales were applied before or after it was cooked. A take-off on the classic pairing of snapper with potato scales, this was one of the more striking presentations of the year. A very delicate dish that was also gently spiced. This would have placed in the top ten dishes if Humm's approach was slightly more aggressive. Humm is another chef to watch and rumor has it that he will become the Executive Chef at New York City's Eleven Madison Park in the New Year.
19. Bouley Halibut with Summer Truffles from Oregon and Creamy Puree of Celeriac - Some dishes are fabulous because of the deft hand of the chef, and some dishes are fabulous because of the ingredients. Not to knock the poissonierre at Bouley, but this was the most exquisite piece of halibut I had ever sunk my teeth into. Perfectly prepared, with the truffles and puree of celeriac acting as beautifully subtle enhancements, it was a joy to eat and I wish I could be served fish of this quality all of the time.
18. Blue Hill Stone Barns Chicken prepared sous vide with Squid in a Broth of Almond Milk - The combination of chicken and squid is oh so Basque. And sous vide cooks the chicken oh so gently. Add the slight natural sweetness of the almond milk and you have a mini-modern masterpiece. If you closed your eyes you could imagine being transported to Spain to a restaurant like Berasategui or Can Roca. We're lucky that we don't have to travel any further than Washington Place in New York's Greenwich Village to eat this way.
17. Craft Roasted Foie Gras, bits of Strawberries, Ramps, lightly pickled Japanese Mushrooms, and Balsamic Vinegar - I always found the quality of domestic foie gras to be a bit lacking. But over the last year, this was one of two different whole roasted foie that was served to me that began to approach the type of quality you find at restaurants in France (the other foie gras dish was at Per Se). This particular dish shows how under Craft chef Damon Wise, the restaurant's cuisine has progressed well beyond the rustic Italian cuisine that Craft was known for when they first opened and moved it more in the direction of restaurants like Per Se.
16. Jean Georges, Softshell Crab in a spicy Tempura batter, crushed Cilantro and Coriander and sliced Cucumber marinated in Thai Chilies - Softshell crabs are the tuna tartar of the crustascean set. They're never bad, but I can't remember the last time someone prepared them in an interesting way. Well, Jean George finally managed to do it. Not only was the crab perfectly crispy, the spices were perfectly infused into the batter in a way that made the whole thing seamless. A dreamy dish for people who like crunchy foods that are oozing with flavor.
15. Cafe Boulud Porchetta made from Vermont Baby Pig with Frisee Lettuce and Citrus - Nobody is more shocked than I that I've nominated a lowly slice of porchetta as my number 15 dish of the year. But this offering from chef Bertrand Chemel was the best example of comfort food that I had in the U.S. this year and it even measured up against the best comfort food dish of the year which was Thierry Breton's Brandade de Morue at Chez Michel in Paris. It was so savory and it had so much flavor, and the tartness and acidity of the citrus made it a warm slice of perfection. I thought this is what the food at Babbo is supposed to taste like. How come it took a French guy to pull this one off?
14. Per Se "Oysters and Pearls". Malpeque Oysters with a Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca and Ostera Caviar - I'm on the record as saying this is the single best American dish ever created. So I'm sure you want to know, how come I have it in 14th place? Well, the dish has been around for a while, and while I still love eating it, it has lost a bit of relevancy in terms of what was new in 2005. But it's a classic. And it might possess the single best texture in a dish that's ever been created, and that includes dishes from the top French restaurants.
13. Bastide Risotto of Serrano Ham, Quail Egg, Parmesan, Parmesan Foam, and Coffee Gelee - Ludovic Lefebvre's's cuisine is luscious. While there are many good chefs working in the U.S. today, nobody evokes the feeling of dining in France like Ludo. This risotto was so rich, so unctuous, with bits of smoky ham combined with the sweet coffee flavor. So delicious that words nearly fail me trying to describe it. And we're only talking about risotto here. Me put pasta in the top 25? Nearly as shocking as the porchetta.
12. Moto, Champagne Grapes and King Crab with Creme Fraiche and Salmon Caviar - The kicker to this dish is that the grapes are carbonated. "Champagne" grapes, get it? Surprisingly, they make a wonderful pairing with the king crab that is luxuriously bathing in creme fraiche. There is something about the combination that reminds you of a creamsicle or some other food that combines carbonation, sweetness and dairy products. Chef Homero Cantu has another dish that uses carbonated fruit where a half of an orange is carbonated and you squeeze the juice over lobster and butter. But between the two dishes, I preferred this one.
11. Le Bernardin Poached Escolar served with lightly steamed Romaine Lettuce, pickled Mushroom Caps and Red Pepper and Fennel Sauce - Maybe the single best piece of fish I had this year. The quality was just amazing. So silky yet so firm at the same time. The simplicity of the dish was genuis. I had sort of been down on Bernardin for a number of years because of inconsistency, but this dish made me a believer again.
10. Campton Place Fantasy of Eggs, slow-cooked Organic Egg, Sea Urchin, Osetra Caviar, and Sea Urchin Foam - Egg dishes are all the rage in Europe but a few U.S. chefs offer dishes that are competitive. Daniel Humm's offering is top notch and is as etheral and luxurious a creation as you will find anywhere. My only complaint is that it is a bit subtly flavored, which seems to be a function of the sea urchin foam. Come to think of it, I have yet to be served sea urchin foam that is intensely flavored. The photo was taken before the foam was applied to the dish.
9. WD-50 Cod with Smoked Mashed Potatoes, Pickled Honshumeji Mushrooms, and Red Pepper Oil - Wylie Dufresne's American bistro classic. In fact it might be the single best American dish ever created that is appropriate for a casual dining experience. An absolutely perfect combination of modern cooking techniques and comfort food, where each and every aspect of the dish is an improvement on traditional preparations. Unfortunately, Wylie told me the dish is coming off the menu because "two years is long enough." What can one say other than I hope he reconsiders, and point out that Robuchon never took the mashed potatoes off the menu, nor did Senderens stop making Canard Apicius. Or think of The French Laundry without "Oysters and Pearls"? I know artists are restless, but sometimes there is value in maintaining consistency alongside progress.
8. Bastide Cote de Veau Roti avec Choucroute "Imaginaire" - If the domestic veal chop served in this dish was replaced by the quality that you get at a place like Troisgros, I would have had to seriously consider this dish for the best dish of the year. Even using domestic veal, it did as good a job as any dish I had this year to evoke the true spirit of fine dining. On its face it seems simple. A roast veal chop served with a creamy mustard sauce that is flecked with cumin. Adorning the plate is a deconstructed choucroute that centers on Cole Slaw Gelee, Braised Red Cabbage with Bacon, a tranch of Saucisson de Francort (hot dog for you sticklers), braised Bok Choy, and steamed Fingerling Potatoes. Cerebral, clever, luxurious, and delicious all at the same time. What more can one ask from a chef?
7. Jean Georges Snapper Sashimi with Champagne Grape Gelee, Champagne Grapes, and Buttermilk Chervil Sauce - This dish, all by itself, demonstrates both the genius of Jean Georges as well as why French chefs often outdo their Japanese counterparts. The concept of setting thin slices of luscious snapper in a Champagne grape gelee is brilliant. The fish, rich in its own right, was perfectly enhanced by the acidity and sweetness, not to mention, creaminess of the gelee. Add the crunch and small blast of acidity and sweetness from the Champagne grapes, all bound together by the beautifully thick chervil sauce, and you have the best raw fish dish I ate this year.
6. Blue Hill Stone Barns Savoy Cabbage stuffed with Duck Legs and Foie gras, served in a Mushroom Broth studded with bits of Sweetbread - My grandmother never made stuffed cabbage like this. What gave the dish that extra bit of oomph was the coarseness of the grind. Besides having incredibly deep flavor, the texture was perfect, and a vast improvement over the minced meat one usually finds in stuffed cabbage. The sweetbreads were a lovely touch adding a completely unexpected flavor and texture. They didn't tell us the dish had sweetbreads, but I somehow managed to figure it out on my own. After dinner we went back to the kitchen, and I asked Dan Barber about it and he gave me the food detective of the year award for nailing it.
5. Manresa Cap of Prime Rib roasted in Suet with Porcini and Whey Polenta - My one trip to Manresa this year revolved around an abbreviated menu which didn't give David Kinch much of a chance to wow us like he did in 2004 with dishes like Twice Cooked Foie Gras with Quince Sauce and Foie Gras Caramel. But he did manage to include this fantastic piece of beef into our meal. I'm a steak fanatic, and this was the single best hunk of beef I had all year. And that includes Peter Lugers. According to Chef Kinch, it came from a farm in Pennsylvania and it was delivered to the restaurant after having already been aged for 28 days. The beefy flavor was amazing, and the taste of the aging process was prominent on the palate. I wish I could get my hands on some rib steaks from that farm and throw them on the grill.
4. Per Se "Beets and Leeks," sous vide Maine Lobster with a Red Beet Essence served with melted Leeks and Pommes Maximes - Drop dead good. The lobster was just a hair past rare, but still had a nice little squoosh to it, but not the way lobster tastes when it is still raw and translucent. Intensely sweet beet essence. The melted leeks and pommes, while adding a dimension of earthiness to the dish, were almost incidental because of the intensity of both the lobster and the beets.
3. Blue Hill Loin and Baby Back Ribs of Vermont Baby Lamb with Beluga Black Lentils and Roasted Vegetables - This dish is to lamb dishes what the Manresa cap of beef dish was to beef dishes. The quality was just astonishing and something I'm not used to seeing in the country. Given that one of my other favorite dishes this year was Cafe Boulud's Porchetta made from Vermont baby pork, maybe I should consider getting a weekend home in the state.
2. Bouley Dayboat Maine Lobster with Tomato Sorbet, Almond Cream, and Cubes of Candied Watermelon - Oh the joy. David Bouley is a saucier par excellence and he has no equal in this country. This particular dish had so much going on for it, especially in the all-important troika of sweetness, acidity and savoriness. A dish at a level so high that I am having a difficult time describing the multitude of flavors and textures that just a single bite would yield. And of course, the slight brininess of the lobster is always present and never drowned out by the glories of the sauce and watermelon accoutrement. Masterful.
1. Bastide Homard "Cheminee," Lobster cooked in Court Bouillon spiced with Vodouvan, Orange, Grapefruit, and Lemon segments, finished with Vodouvan Butter and served on Udon Noodles - Based on a dish Alain Passard used to serve at Arpege in the 1990s, there are two things about the dish that are unusual. First, a hole is punched into the lobster's back and a paper chimney is inserted so sweet butter can be spooned into the chimney as the lobster is poaching, and the unusual qualities of the Vodouvan spice mix made from cumin, fenugreek, lentils, garlic, tumeric, curry leaves, ricin oil, and onions. Another dish which demonstrates how French chefs can incorporate techniques and spicing that are usually found in Asian cooking, while outdoing their Asian counterparts in the process. This dish had more viscosity, and more bite to it, than any other dish I had this year. Only the Charolais Sweetbreads with thinly sliced Lemon at Troisgros managed to match it in terms of mouthfeel. There is so much going on here that it was difficult to grasp everything in a single bite. Not even after finishing the dish am I confident I completely comprehend all of the moving parts. Having it again on my next visit to L.A. is at the top of my agenda. You will not find another dish in the United States that evokes the French fine-dining experience as much as this one does. It's a worthy number one dish and is a standard that restaurants in the U.S. should aspire to. Bravo.