January 3, 2010

My top 10 dishes of 2009

Now that we're at the end of the year, it's time to take a look back at the last 12 months and ponder how well we did over a full year of eating.

I always like to start off with reading Jonathan Kauffman's list--particularly this year, since he's leaving Seattle to lend his writing talents to the SF Weekly (major bummer for us, huge win for SF). With the downturn in the economy and the unexpectedly crazy bleeding ulcer that put me out of commission for a few weeks, there was a lot less flash and a lot more comfort and simplicity in the food we ate. But that doesn't mean there was a shortage of dishes that absolutely sparkled. In fact, this was probably the best year of eating we've had.

But what puts a dish into the top 10? The dish has to be more than just delicious. It has to have some unique, perhaps intangible characteristic... maybe the surprise of its delectibility, the way it perfectly captures the emotions of the moment, or the transformative impact of its flavor. The following are my picks for the top 10 dishes of a terrific gastronomic year:

Heirloom tomatoes and japanese cucumbers from our garden. I have to start with the results of our first stab at gardening. Our landlord gave us free reign over a portion of the property adjacent to our house with the most fertile soil and the best sun exposure, and the results were amazing. We were blessed with a spectacularly warm extended summer, perfect for the development of our tomato plants. The black crims and sungolds adapted spectacularly to the soil, giving us tomatoes that had the sweet perfume of roses and strawberries with a gentle, but bright acidity. And the most lovely, fresh, crisp japanese cucumbers whose flavor had a hint of ripe watermelon. I'm curious to see if we can replicate the results this summer.

Matsutake dobin mushi, Miyabi. I feel like every time I go to Miyabi, there's something new and interesting to try that I've never seen before. Masa's fish selection is intensely seasonal, and this year we were treated to things like baby abalone, live razor clam, needle fish, flying fish (not just the roe), and fluke belly. Other favorites included their intensely comforting beef tongue stew and the sharply spiced squid stuffed with cod roe. But my favorite dish from Masa this year was the matsutake dobin mushi, a delicate, supremely simple dish of dashi broth, sake, and steamed matsutake mushrooms. Masa's version included chunks of tender chicken thigh and shrimp, all served in a clay tea pot. Magically earthy, slightly sweet broth with the wonderous aroma and flavor of seasonal matsutake... the kind of dish that makes everything else fade quietly to the background.

King Salmon, Hedgehog Mushrooms, Kabocha and Aioli, The Corson Building. This dish was one of the bigger surprises of the year. We were enjoying a simple meal on a Wednesday night, when the Corson Building has its limited, a la carte selection. The combination of salmon, kabocha and aioli wasn't the most appetizing in my mind when I read it on the menu, but for some reason I went for it anyway. Best salmon dish I can remember. Absolutely perfectly cooked, beautiful troll-caught salmon, with the creaminess of the aioli unifying each of the elements. I knew it would be on the top 10 list after the first bite.

Halibut crudo, garden kumquat salsa, Jefftember (Sonoma, CA). Every year, we have the pilgrammage known as Jefftember. This year's festivities were held at an estate in Sonoma with an epic kitchen, which provided more than enough space for Riley and I to collaborate on a few meals. Riley, ever the forager at Jefftember, snagged some fresh kumquats from the garden and made a phenomenal kumquat salsa (shallot, cilantro, vinegar, lime juice) for the fresh halibut we found at the market. The beauty of the dish was the perfect balance of flavor and seasoning, not an easy feat when trying to feed a dozen people. But Riley totally nailed it.

Soft farm egg with potato, alliams, fermented black garlic and pork jowl, Commis (Oakland, CA). With every year that passes, the food scene in the Bay Area feels more and more distant. But I was paying attention to two restaurant openings in 2009: Commis in Oakland and the re-opening of Quince in the old space occupied by Myth in San Francisco. Commis is a special addition to the East Bay dining scene and would have easily been one of our favorites if we still lived in the area. Chef Syhabout's magical sous vide egg dish was clearly one of the best of the year. The genius of the dish is the addictive sweet earthiness of the fermented garlic, creating a connective contrast to the unctuous richness of the egg yolk and soft pork jowl.

Lamb meatballs in tomato sauce, Bar Mingo (Portland). LaV and I took a trip to Portland this year for our anniversary and wandered all over town, enjoying some of the best the city has to offer. During a meal at Beast, we got a recommendation from one of our communal dining companions, Alan, to check out Caffe Mingo. We went, but opted for Bar Mingo next door and had a series of terrific small dishes. The meatballs were an absolute stand-out... some of the best I've ever tasted. Tender in texture with a rich depth of flavor... I wish I could make meatballs like this. And ridiculous at only $5 during happy hour.

LaV's Homemade Peach Pie. An epic summer produced amazing produce in the Pacific Northwest. And after the beautiful late summer trip to Oregon for our anniversary, we found ourselves back home with an abundance of absolutely beautiful peaches. I know Georgia is supposed to be the place to get peaches, but I can't imagine peaches getting any better than these. LaV decided to take a stab at making a peach pie from scratch, and her first attempt at the half-butter, half-shortening crust resulted in, without a doubt, the most delicious slice of pie I've ever had the pleasure of eating. So flaky, so flavorful, and without a single flaw. Seriously.

Prawn, Extebarri (Spain). Every so often, you may encounter a flavor experience so unique and monumental, it changes how you think about food. This year, lightning struck during our lunch at Etxebarri, and the dish that triggered the moment was a single (albeit, gigantic) perfect prawn. Cooked gently over a custom-built grill, the sweetness of the almost-translucent flesh was masterfully paralleled by the sweetness of the aromatic smoke of house-made charcoal. It forever changed what I expect a prawn to taste like, what kind of cooking I expect from a grill, and how ingredients can express their intended flavors. Unbelievable texture and flavor extraction, totally transcendent. One of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.

Steak, Etxebarri (Spain). As much as I hate putting two dishes on this list from the same restaurant, there was no way I could honestly exclude the grilled steak of Etxebarri. The ribeye came from a type of hard working cattle called Galician Blonde, whose tough, lean muscle fibers are softened by a more leisurely retirement later in their lives, combined with almost three months of dry aging. The result is an unbelievable amount of flavor with the most amazingly tender texture. This wasn't just steak, this was a carnivorous revelation. As I said then, I have no expectation of having a better steak. Ever.

Soup of tripe, pork belly and garbanzo beans, Spinasse. We experienced this dish on the evening of December 30th, barely in time for it to make this list. But what a dish! The soup has the most humble of ingredients (and also appears quite humbly tucked away on Spinasse's menu for $9). It made its first appearance on their menu about two weeks ago, and it's one of the most emblematic comfort foods I ate all year. I'm not normally a big fan of tripe. It doesn't bother me as an ingredient, but it hasn't ever been anything I've ever longed for... until now. Slowly braised until velvety and soft, while also absorbing all of the flavor of the deeply flavorful broth, making it a critical ingredient for both flavor and texture. With this dish, Spinasse now has my favorite salad (chicory salad with rabbit), pasta (tajarin with pork ragu) and soup dishes in Seattle.

Looking forward to what the new year has to offer (and hoping that Sitka & Spruce will be just as good in its new location).

Honorable mentions: pata negra, baby octopus, canned seafood at El Xampanyet, hazelnuts from our tree, fresh walnuts from Ener and Tiffany, red velvet cupcake at CupKates, the Arzak egg, Belgian fries at Wurstk├╝che.

No comments:

Post a Comment