Countdown of the Top 50 European Dishes of the Year
If putting together a list of the top 25 dishes in the U.S. was a huge burden, the task of doing it for European restaurants was enormous. The biggest problem I ran into was that I had more than 25 dishes I wanted to put on the list. I tried solving this problem in a couple of different ways. First, I contemplated making two different lists, one for traditional restaurants and one for contemporary restaurants. But when I finished it didn't sit well with me. Then I tried making separate lists for the various segments of a meal, compiling different lists for appetizers, fish courses, etc. But that eliminated the excitement of the countdown, an aspect of the U.S. list that a number of people told me they enjoyed. So I decided to take the easy way out. I expanded the list to 50 dishes and suddenly my problem was solved.
Following the same method I used to compile the domestic list, I reviewed every meal I had during the year and instinctively placed the dishes where they felt right. But after deciding to expand the size of the list to 50, I had to spend some time bouncing the bottom 30 around. I guess the practice of creating the domestic list paid off because, all in all, the list took shape rather quickly and I only needed a half dozen attempts to get it right.
As with the list of top U.S. dishes, once I was finished, I reviewed what I had done to see what it might reveal about the cuisine of Europe (or at least how I felt about the cuisine that I had eaten over the last year). A few things quickly jumped out at me. 8 of my top 10 dishes were from restaurants in France. One dish was from the U.K., and one was from Italy. Spain, for all the raves that its food gets, didn't place a single dish in the top 10. But things quickly picked up for the Spaniards, as they placed six dishes between 11 and 20. Not surprisingly (although it came out subconsciously), this is exactly how I feel about the food in Spain compared to the food in France. While I love going to Spain to eat, for some reason the chefs never hit the same heights that the best French chefs often hit.
Looking over the list to see why the French consistantly outperform the Spanish at the top end, the answer that quickly jumped off of the page was ingredients. Whether it was lamb, pigeon, lobster or veal, I had some outstanding specimens in France. And while I had some great dishes at Spanish restaurants like Sant Pao and Mugaritz, French restaurants seem to maintain a better balance between outstanding ingredients and outstanding technique. But for those of you who like to keep track of these things, the breakdown of dishes by country is:
France - 22, Spain -14, United Kingdom - 8, Italy - 5, Switzerland-1
I didn't spend enough time in Italy or Switzerland to reach any conclusions about their cuisine, but I do think the results from France, Spain and the U.K. speak to the strengths and weaknesses in each country. I visited each of those countries three times, and the French chefs were the only ones with the ability to consistently serve ethereal dishes. But where France is lacking, is in two areas: First, many French chefs are stuck in the nouvelle cuisine era, and the food can be a little tired. Second, they haven't seemed to figure out how to create a significant number of interesting restaurants below the uppermost tier. While it sounds like a good idea, you can't eat every meal in Gagnaire and Arpege. But the falloff from what I will describe as the high three-star restaurants to the two-star and low three star restaurants is significant. In fact, and the list bears this out, the cuisine in other countries has crept into the void. I would rather dine at a place like Cellar can Roca or Le Calandre than at Alain Ducasse, even though I know that my meal at Ducasse will be more technically perfect. Unfortunately, I don't see this changing in France. Outside of the very top chefs who are all in their 50's or older, there are two or three young chefs who cook interesting food, but there doesn't seem to be an entirely new generation of chefs who can turn out cuisine that is anywhere as sublime as the last two generations were able to turn out. Anyway, that's enough of my pontificating on European cuisine. On to the list. I hope everyone enjoys it.
The Top 50
50. Jacques Decoret Chestnut Capuccino with Chestnut Chunks and Burning Chestnut Shells - Okay I know you're saying, burning chestnut shells? The dish comes in three parts. A coffee mug of chestnut cappuccino, a paper cone filled with chunks of roasted chestnuts, and a small pile of burning chestnut shells. You are instructed to pour the chunks into the cappuccino and when you bend over the table to take a sip, the aroma of roasted chestnuts wafts up your nose. I have experienced this technique in a number of different restaurants but I have never heard anyone describe it. Maybe they should call it a sensory aromatic enhancement. Regardless, not only was it whimsical, it was tasty too.
49. Troisgros Chestnut Snowflakes with Truffle - Do you find a palate with smears of butter topped with boiled and grated chestnuts, which are then topped with shaved black trufffles, a particularly hedonistic dish? I assure you that it tastes even more so than it sounds. In fact, it's like eating pats of butter with some accoutrements. Okay, we're talking the best Breton salted butter here, and a set of more luxurious accoutrements would be hard to find. But let's call it for what it is: a dish of butter with some chestnuts and truffles scattered atop. And yes, it is completely hedonistic.
48. El Bulli Asperge Blanca - Is it real or is it Memorex? That's the question that this dish featuring asparagus tips, and what looks like asparagus stems, provokes. But while the tips turn out to be real, the stems turn out to be an accompaniment in the form of small edible tubes that are filled with olive oil. There is a beautiful minimalism about the dish, and it does a terrific job of challenging our preconceptions and expectations about the shape and taste of food. And I can't forget to mention the glorious spring asparagus that played the roll of the straight man.
47. Mugaritz Yuca cooked in Truffle Juice and Sesame layered with Taro and Winter Herbs - One of the rare vegetable dishes that transcend the category and holds its own against proteins. I love a nice starchy hunk of yucca although it's a vegetable that you don't see in Europe. This example was cut so thin that I am happy to pronounce it the most elegant piece of the root vegetable that I've ever seen. The closeness to the taro in terms of flavor, yet distinctively different because of the texture, was an ingenious combination. And the truffle juice added a luxurious scent and flavor to the dish, while the sesame added some crunch and nuttiness. Super.
46. Chez Michel - Brandade of Morue, Parmesan Crust, Caper Puree and Mesclun Salad - It takes a lot for me to rank bistro cuisine this highly, but put a simple dish into the hands of a highly trained chef and you get a little magic. Silky and elegant while maintaining the rustic quality of the dish, the parmesan crust gave the dish that funky, but delicious, combination of stockfish and cheese. I could have lived without the caper puree but the crispy mesclun salad made for an interesting dimension. Perfect comfort food and exactly the direction in which bistro cuisine should be going in.
45. Gaig "Bomba" Rice - I'm not sure why chef Carlos Gaig calls this dish "Bomba" but it is a rice dish that stands apart in a nation full of great rice dishes. Pigeon and rice is a combination. I assume the rice is simmered in a pigeon based stock. Beautifully al dente (I've been informed by a Spanish acquaintance of mine that the Spanish phrase for al dente is al dente) with a deep flavor. Lovely bits of pigeon as well. The tranch of pigeon made this dish more than just a paella and transformed it into an entree.
44. Hispania Langoustine and Potatoes - Luxury Catalan comfort food can be found at this upscale traditional restaurant about 30 minutes north of Barcelona. What you see is what you get. A perfect langoustine served in gravy studded with some of the worlds most gedempte (that's mijote to you Francophiles and if there is a Spanish word for it, someone please send me an email) potatoes. It was so homey tasting and warming that I fantasized that my imaginary Catalan grandmother had prepared it for me for a Sunday lunch before the Barcelona-Real Madrid match.
43. Nicolas Le Bec Turbot in an infusion of Morilles Brunes with Squid and Dried Figs - Of all the great restaurants I ate in last year, who would have thought that this restaurant, that otherwise served us a lackluster meal, would serve one of the year's best renditions of the fish. A wonderfully balanced dish where all of the ingredients played a central role, but none of them overpowered the delicious turbot. It had the taste of the sea, earthiness from the morels, and a touch of sweetness from the dried figs.
42. Fat Duck Cauliflower Risotto with a Carpaccio of Cauliflower, Chocolate Jelly and Chocolate Powder - This dish has been around so long that it should be considered to be a living classic. I have to say that as much as I like it, Heston Blumenthal used to serve a risotto with guava jelly and crab ice cream that I used to like even more, although to be honest, I am pining for it from memory because I haven't had it for years. But the cauliflower risotto is a worthy replacement, and I think they have the dish fine tuned perfectly by now. The nuttiness of the thinly shaved raw cauliflower with the cocoa powder that is applied through a pastry bag at the table is what transforms this dish to risotto with a capital R.
41. Troisgros Scallops topped with crisp Phylo Dough, Fish Stock, Butter, Leek and Julienned Truffles - Can you imagine that this dish comes out a few courses after the chestnut snowflakes at number 49? They might as well have served all that butter and cream intravenously. I know it's boring and classic, but the ingredients were so good and the flavors were so well balanced that it had us oohing and aahing with every bite. I wish you could get scallops this good in the U.S. Come to think of it, I wish we could get cream and butter this good. And don't get me started on the truffles.
40. Da Vitorrio Risotto with Brie, Marsala Wine and Shallot Reduction and White Truffles - Is it avant garde to have two risottos at the same meal? That's what we did at this superb fish restaurant which has moved to a beautiful villa 15 minutes outside of Bergamo. It's difficult to find a modern risotto that stands up, but this was a great example. The brie wasn't integrated into the risotto and thin slices were sporadically laid on top of the rice to semi-melt from the heat of the rice. The Marsala and shallot reduction was perfectly done and although it was late January, they still had the very last of the season white truffles which made the dish ridiculously rich and delicious.
39. El Bulli Pig Fat with Crab Chinese Style - That's right you read it correctly. Pig fat. Chunks of fat that appeared to have been taken from underneath the skin (I wonder if it was before or after cooking) and served with pieces of crab in a Chinese style sauce. Super-delicious. I actually picked it up in my hand and ate it as if I was holding a sandwich. I wonder how they cook this dish? Do they do it in segments and then compose the dish, or is it all sous vide together? Interesting to know whether Adria uses Asian technique to make this dish. Really savory stuff.
38. St. John Roast Woodcock - Sounds boring doesn't it? Well not if you are talking about luscious pink meat where the texture is so creamy that you would think that the little suckers were raised on a diet of sweet cream. Perfectly cooked and it didn't look like much. And it could have been hung a hair longer to give it a slightly gamier taste. But it was really scrumptious and I wish I could get this quality woodcock in the U.S. In fact it wouldn't be a bad thing if St. John opened a branch here.
37. Tom Aikens Pork Three Ways - Sliced Pork, lightly smoked bacon and crispy pork served with lightly fried and breaded chestnuts on top of a pumpkin sauce that is artfully smeared across the plate. I really like Aikens cooking. It is reminiscent of Gagnaire's cooking but it has a signature that is uniquely Aikens. The plating style, reminiscent of Jackson Pollack, quickly disintegrates into a blur of textures and flavors. Don't underestimate the unctuous pumpkin sauce which had a touch of sweetness and held it all together.
36. El Cellar de can Roca Lightly Smoked Pigeon, Rice cooked with Pigeon Liver - A great example of top notch modern Catalan cooking. Most smoked dishes are dominated by the taste of the smoke but this was done with a light hand and you could taste the high quality of the pigeon. The small amount of rice was studded with delicious chunks of pigeon liver and a fork containing all three ingredients offered diners a reward. Modern chefs would do themselves well to spend more of their time focusing the meal on these types of dishes, while serving their more avant garde creations as amuse.
35. Da Vitorrio Seafood Rice with Scampi - I love a good seafood risotto. But never have I had one with as rich a brodo as the one I had at Da Vitorrio. Reduced to a velvety consistency without being too salty or cloying, it shows you what a kitchen can do with an ordinary dish when they take the time to get it right. The rice was perfectly creamy while remaining firm, and while I didn't get the name of the body of water that the scampi came from, it was a beautifully plump and meaty specimen.
34. Arpege Slow-Grilled Monkfish, Braised Leek, Parsnip and Celery Puree and Homemade Mustard - This dish would have made the top 20 but the fish was a hair overcooked. I guess when you slow-grill something for 2 1/2 hours things can get a bit tricky. Otherwise this dish was perfect. The leek was a candidate for the leek hall of fame. Just look at the size of it in the picture. But what really made the dish was the homemade mustard made from grains sourced from nearby Moulins. More than a condiment, it was more like a sauce that held the dish together.
33. Troisgros Warm Oysters wrapped in Sorrel with Almonds - The wonderfully firm Gillardeau oysters is what makes this dish. They even stay firm after being warmed slightly. They are wrapped in sorrel leaves that become a bit wilted from being heated, and then topped with a sliced almond. Add contrasts of sour lemons and a crunchy nuttiness, some butter and then lemon, and you have a textbook example of the Cuisine Acidulee which occupies so much of Michel Troisgros's interest.
32. Tom Aikens Chicken Soup with Chicken Cassonade and Black Truffle and Chicken Broth Reduction - First they serve a small soup bowl that contains various bits of chicken and vegetables, a chicken raviolo, and a sort of beignet made out of chicken mousse. Then they pour consomme into the bowl and add a cube of a sauternes gelee which immediately starts melting from the heat of the soup. If the number of different textures and flavors in the bowl aren't enough, you have the creamy chicken cassonade with the truffle and chicken broth reduction underneath, topped by a hen egg. Over the top luxurious.
31. L'Ambroisie Turbot with a Lacquered Spice Crust - While at times Bernard Pacaud's cuisine seems stuck in a time warp, some dishes simply express the essence of their ingredients without offering the pretensions that one normally associates with the nouvelle cuisine era. Here you have a hunk of gorgeous turbot, served with a sauce which adds both flavor and texture, but which does not in any way distract from the beauty of the fish. Too bad this is being sold at haute cuisine prices. I would eat it more often if they priced in keeping with a luxury bistro.
30. El Cellar can Roca Foie Gras Nougat dusted with Cocoa Powder, Summer Truffle - The appearance was more like a bar of chocolate made by Jean-Paul Hevin than a savory dish prepared by a haute cuisine chef. The texture was so creamy, if it wasn't for the mild taste of liver you wouldn't be able to tell it wasn't chocolate. Very creative and very refined. If I had a complaint it was that you didn't get enough of it to really dig into the dish and explore the flavor combinations. I hate telling Jordi Roca what to do but, it would be interesting to see how foie gras pairs with chocolate over three or four different preparations all served at the same time.
29. Sant Pao Rice in a Gambas Broth with shelled Tail "a point" - In a year of some great rice dishes, this offering from Sant Pao chef Carmen Ruscalleda went neck and neck for the best rice and seafood dish with Bergamo's Da Vitorrio. Virtually a toss-up between the two, Ruscalleda won by a nose for having "the perfect rice". The gambas, which a Spanish friend of mine identified as the red gambas of Denia, were about as tasty as you will ever find. The flavor was so penetrating that I can almost still taste it.
28. Rochat Foie Gras Terrine with dried Cherries from Aarburg, Marc de Savoie Gelee - Foie gras that was especially creamy. But what made the dish special were the dried Aarburg cherries that managed to be a little tart while being mildly sweet. Pitted and cooked to the point where they had the perfect squoosh to them. Sometimes when the ingredients are right, simple makes perfect and the cherries played perfectly against some very high quality foie.
27. Tom Aikens Pheasant Salad with Walnuts, Parsnip Cream, Sausage made from Pheasant and aspic of Pheasant Stock topped with Parsip Cream, Sauternes Gelee - Calling this a salad is sort of like calling a foie gras terrine chopped liver. What I continue to find interesting about Aikens' cuisine is how the abstractionist plates melt away on your fork. Lest I describe how Aikens' cuisine tastes again, it was creamy, creamier, creamier and crunchy. Oh yes and there was this ham like pheasant preparation that held it all together. Shockingly good.
26. Le Calandre Risotto with Saffron, Red Pepper and Licorice - Looking deceptively like a classic risotto Milanese with a few red peppers strewn throughout, this was about as far away from a classic risotto as you could get. But at the same time, something about the al dente rice maintained a strong a connection to a traditional risotto. A bit sweet, it seemed so much more Italian than the Fat Duck cauliflower risotto. The memory of this lingers to the extent that I want to go back and try it again. Superb modern Italian cooking.
25. Grand Hotel Lion d'Or Chestnut Soup with Foie Gras and Truffles - Really two dishes in one. A sumptuous chestnut soup with a scoop of chestnut cream with shaved Black Truffles on top, and a side dish with a slab of sauteed Foie Gras with Chesnuts, Black Truffles and and slightly wilted mache. I hate to keep comparing dishes with multiple textures and flavors to Pierre Gagnaire, but this dish was like a traditional version of Gagnaire's cuisine. And I'm just a sucker for chestnuts and their natural sweetness.
24. Les Magnolias Peppered and Herbed Tuna smoked under a Chef's Toque - No other ingredient has become as redundant as tuna. Whether served as tartar, carpaccio, sushi, seared on the outside, peppered, or simply grilled and served with a sauce, the proliferation of tuna dishes has made what can be a regal fish seem ordinary. But Jean Chauvel has breathed some new life into the fish by delicately smoking it under a paper chef's toque. A marvelous presentation and the tender and delicate chunks of tuna are delicious.
23. L'Astrance Baby Pyrenees Lamb with Leeks, Truffle Sauce, Red Wine Puree, sliced Eggplant and Miso - How fortunate we were that the first baby lamb from the Pyrenees was available in mid-January. No more than 45 days old, the flavor of this dish was as delicate as the meat was tender from the sous vide method of cooking. And while it might be a subtle point, only a culinary wizard can figure out how to make red wine and miso be harmonious. Pascal Barbot deserves kudos for doing it perfectly.
22. Tom Aikens Chestnuts and Foie Gras - Three dishes between numbers 22 and 37 stands for the proposition that Michelin has been slow to award Aikens his second star. This dish is like getting stuck in a foie gras and chestnut snowstorm. A layer of foie covered with chestnut mousse which is then covered by a thin layer of milk skin. Then the whole thing is showered with cubes of foie and cubes of chestnut mousse. As if that isn't hedonistic enough, the whole concoction is topped with chestnut foam. A marvel of luxury and creaminess!
21. L'Astrance Celery Soup with Black Truffle Puree and Parmesan Foam - Pascal Barbot is expert in working with close flavors and balancing them so well that what should be a subtle difference becomes a clear delineation. In many ways I can see this dish at Arpege, but it clearly has Barbot's signature on it. It looks so simple but one little spoonful offered a great deal of complexity. Easily the soup of the year.
20. Mugaritz Foie Gras served on a charcoal grill with Crystalized Yucca in a Date Stone Consomme - Beautifully tender foie gras. I can't remember ever being served warm foie gras that was this gentle while having so much flavor. The crystallized yucca added a touch of naturally sweet starch. And the date stone consomme (two dishes on this year's list with date stone consomme) made this one of the best new foie gras preparation I've had in years.
19. Arzak Oysters with Rice Paper, Potato Shoots and Chives - An elegant warm oyster dish where the elegance doesn't come from champagne or some other enhanced sauce. Beautifully plump and meaty oysters (Gillardeau?), that didn't give off much liquid when you bit into them. The super thin rice paper and the shoots and chives added both a little bit of crunch as well as a subtle oniony flavor, but were more about texture.
18. Fat Duck Best End of Lamb with Onion Puree and Thyme - A dish that belies that idea that the food at the Fat Duck is weird. These few slices of lamb ringed by a succulant layer of fat are about as tasty an example of lamb as you can find. The onion puree is whipped into an airy and thick consistency, and it offers a mashed potato-like comfort in support of the lamb. After a trip where I ate at a number of restaurants that featured nouvelle cuisine and which served sauces that were cloying and salty from being over reduced, this dish demonstrated the brilliance of modern culinary technique when it is applied properly.
17. El Bulli Milk Skin Canneloni with Iberico Pancetta and Vinegar and Anchovy Caviar - Think of the the skin that forms on the top of a pot of boiling milk. You take layers of that and wrap it around itself until you form what appears to be a canneloni. Then take thin strips of Iberico pancetta and wrap it around the canneloni, and dot the plate with anchovy caviar and vinegar. Add a little milk foam to act as a sauce and you have something that is super light, super tasty, super modern and super delicious.
16. El Cellar can Roca Lobster, thick Lobster Bisque Sauce, Mint Foam and Chocolate Gem - Given this list of ingredients, some chefs would go for the gold by creating a dish that is completely over the top. But Jordi Roca obsesses so much about balancing flavors that I thought this approach limited the end result. Don't get me wrong, this is a top notch effort and a stunning dish. But a 10% increase in the intensity of flavors and this dish would easily be on the top ten, maybe the top five.
15. Da Vittorio Sea Bass with Tomato and Zucchini baked in a Bread Crust - They brought out a large pot covered in a bread crust. They sliced the crust away and an incredible aroma wafted out of the pot and filled up the room. Steaming hot, can I tell you that this was the softest piece of fish I ever ate without falling apart. Amazing quality. As good as any piece of fish you will ever find in France. Delicious crunchy zucchini and the use of tomato during winter didn't detract from this wonderful dish. The whole thing was light as a feather.
14. Sant Pao Espardenyes with Courgettes, Parsely Pesto and Potato infused Olive Oil - In English Espardenyes are sea slugs. They are a specialty of Catalonia and are sort of a mix between razor clams and squid. What really made this version special was the potato which was somehow worked into the olive oil to give it body. Think of the opposite of mashed potatoes mixed with olive oil. This was olive oil with a spoonful of mashed potato worked into it and it gave the impression of seafood that had a light coating of potato and oil.
13. Troisgros Frog's Legs with Coriander, Ginger, Tamarind, Lemongrass, Hazelnut and thinly shaved Cauliflower - Most dishes featuring frog's legs use them as a delivery system for garlic. But Michel Troisgros has decided that they are deserving of a far more complex set of Asian inspired spices. The dish is finished off with some olive oil and clarified butter and that wraps the grenouille in a luxurious viscosity. The shaved cauliflower adds earthiness and considerable crunch. By far the best frog's leg dish I've ever tasted.
12. L'Ambroisie Warm Oyster served in a cool shell with Watercress Mousse and Osetra Gold Caviar - We're talking luxurious here. A Gillardeau oyster, silky watercress mousse and a lump of osetra gold caviar. The warm oyster/cold shell combo sounds like a gimmick, but it really isn't and it adds a dimension to the dish. I ate only one as a sort of serious amuse but I would like to knock off half a dozen. Gary Danko serves a successful copy of this dish using lettuce cream and a slightly lower grade of caviar. More chefs should copy this concept as it is a classic dish that will never go out of style.
11. Mugaritz Slow Cooked Beef Cheeks with Pepper Tears - Adoni Aduriz has the potential to become the best chef in the world. I consider this dish as his masterpiece. Beef cheeks cooked sous vide for 35 hours and then topped with a thin gravy made from the beef juices and extracted piquillo peppers. I've had it twice and it's over the top rich and soft enough to eat with a spoon. The pepper tears have a great clarity to them and the flavor lingers on and on. He has managed to pack an entire beef stew into four or five intense bites of meat and gravy.
10. Le Calandre Stockfish in a Langoustine Emulsion, Piemontese Red Rice Crisps and Mantecato Rice prepared Sushi style - A snowball of bacalao is whipped with olive oil until it is nearly smooth. The ball is set in a bowl with langoustine emulsion and it's topped with two Piemontese red rice crisps. The crisps are sandwiched around a thin layer of glutinous Mantecato rice that is prepared sushi style. You take a bit of the stockfish on your fork, dunk it in the langoustine emulsion, put it on top of the rice crisp, and eat it like an open-face sandwich. Heavenly stuff. I cant imagine there is a better restaurant in all of Italy than Le Calandre.
9. Arpege Parmesan Risotto with Winter Vegetables - Not really a risotto dish but a vehicle to showcase the extraordinary vegetables from Alain Passard's farm in the Loire Valley. Okay, Monsieur Bordier's exceptional salty butter from Britany is showcased as well. But the vegetables are the main event and let me tell you, they were from another planet. The carrot alone was the single best example of a carrot I ever ate. And the dish is just swimming in butter. Just look at that picture. Completely and totally hedonistic and we're talking vegetables and rice here.
8. Troisgros Sweetbreads with Endives, Grapes, Capers, Mustard, Citrus and thinly sliced Lemon - The quality of these perfectly cooked Charloiais sweetbreads were superb. When I mentioned how good they were to Michel Troisgros, he told me that 35 years ago his father and uncle developed a method for cooking sweetbreads and the restaurant still uses that method to this day. The sauce was a medley of acids, and the combination was luxurious. A fine example of Michel Troisgros' cuisine acidule at its very best.
7. Pierre Gagnaire Puree of Jerusalem Artichoke with Truffles in a Truffle Sauce, Sliced Chestnuts with Truffle in a Trufle Sauce, Gateau of Chicken Liver Mousse with a Quinoa Crust, Truffles in a Truffle Sauce - Talk about a myriad of flavors and textures. This was part of Gagnaire's truffle menu from January 2005. This dish (or I guess you could say series of dishes) was like playing three dimensional culinary chess. You would take a small bite of one dish and the flavors would linger in your mouth while you took a bite of the next dish. Layers of complexity and texture would build as you repeated this process over and over. Unfortunately Gagnaire would not allow me to take a photo of the dish but it was a true demonstration of his genius.
6. Fat Duck Foie Gras with Almond Fluid Gel, Cherry and Chamomile - Heston Blumenthal's dish has managed to create a great foie gras dish that isn't as dependent as other dishes are on the quality of the liver. Blumenthal slow-cooks his foie in a way so that any liquid evaporates and the cube of foie seems sort of like a little but dense sponge cake. You cut a little piece off of your foie cake and you use it to sponge up the terrific flavor combinations found in the sauce. Exceptional, especially considering how hard it is to come by an interesting warm foie gras dish.
5. Jacques Decoret Pigeon served in a Date Stone Consomme mixed with Beef Bouillon and Lemongrass - After a meal full of burning chestnuts shells and balloons that explode in your mouth to release an oyster milkshake, Decoret served us this exquisite hunk of pigeon in a consomme that reminded me of lemon verbena tea. A beautiful and delicate combination, the quality of the pigeon exceeded that of the one Michel Troisgros served us the night before, and the consomme was clear and focused. Decoret is a great chef and he is wasting away in Vichy. I wish he would move to Paris and, tigether with his friend Pascal Barbot at L'Astrance, give us another good modern restaurant in Paris.
4. La Chamarre Veal with Meat Jus flavored with Foie Gras, puree of Parsnip, Jerusalem Artichoke, Hazelnut, Shallots and Asparagus - They slow-sauteed this gorgeous hunk of veal in salted butter for two hours. The result was amazingly tender and flavorful and the runner-up for the best meat dish of the year. Slow cooking is all the rage these days and this dish is a prime example of the benefits. It's no surprise that the protein in slow-cooked dishes is usually paired with some kind of vegetable puree as smooth and creamy meat attracts smooth and creamy vegetables. Right out of the Arpege playbook. Go back and look at the plating on the slow-grilled monkfish and it is nearly identical.
3. Michel Bras - Poached and fried Gaulloise Blanche Chicken, Artichokes served with Aligot - It's amazing how the best chefs can turn comfort food into something exquisite. Never did I ever taste a chicken as good as this Gaulloise Blanche that Michel and Sebastian Bras served me last May. It was slowly poached and then fried with the skin side down to get it crispy. The flavors were amazingly clean and pure, but the flavor of chicken was deep and intense. And the aligot was a joy. So good you wanted to rub it all over your body.
2. Pierre Gagnaire Saddle of Lamb with Gratin of Pear and Celery - One more slow-cooked dish. The texture was so amazing that I asked for an audience with Gagnaire so he could tell me how the meat was cooked. It seems they put the saute pan on the flame and when the lamb reaches a certain temperature they take it off and rest it. After it cools down, they repeat this technique until the meat cooks through, a process that takes two and a half hours. The lambwas the softest piece of meat I ever had, although it was fully cooked through. And the meat just melted into the creamy celery and pear gratin as if they were raised together and hadn't first met each other on the plate that evening. It was so different and unusual, not to mention delicious, that we talked about how good it was for weeks afterwards.
1. Arpege Slow-Poached Breton Lobster with Sauce Vin Jaune, smoked Potatoes and shaved Truffles - The land, the sea, the earth, and wine. What is so impressive about Alain Passard's cuisine is that each component of this dish is interchangeable. The night I was there he served his sauce vin jaune with lobster. But it could have been with line-caught sole and it would have been just as delicious. And combining lobster with truffles? Who would have thought it could be done so perfectly. Considering that, in addition to the three dishes that he has in this year's top 50, there are three other dishes on the list from chefs who are disciples of Passard, and the top dish on the U.S. list comes from Bastide's Ludovic Lefebvre who is also is a disciple, Passard's influence and contribution to cuisine is monumental.