January 2, 2011

Top ten tastes of 2010

On New Year's day, I always enjoy looking back at the past 12 months and thinking of the eating experiences that really stood apart from the others. These memories tend to also be a great reference point to other important moments over the course of the year (time with friends and family, special events, quiet times with each other) connecting us back the thoughts, experiences and emotions from these cross-sections in our lives.

Our opportunities for unique eating experiences were limited by a few things this year, including a good chunk of time where I was eating mostly super healthy energy food for training, as well as the intense busyness of work over the past couple of months. Even still, we were blessed with some really extraordinary food moments in 2011.

Here are my ten favorites, as they occurred over the course of the year:

Photo by Eisaku Tokuyama

multiple yakitori, Zakkushi. Oh Vancouver, what a food haven you continue to be for us. During our trip for the winter olympics this year, we made our first visit to this little yakitori bar and were in total bliss. No scene, no attitude; just beer and grilled meat. With charcoal imported from Japan, every item on the menu is grilled to perfection... glorious notes of sweet, fragrant smoke permeating each bite. My favorites are chicken heart, mochi-yaki, and asparagus with pork (sliced so thinly it literally fuses to the asparagus during grilling). Places like this just don't exist in Seattle, but it's easily worth every second of the 2 hour drive north.

calamares en su tinta, Txori. Dear Txori, your run in Seattle was too short and our relationship with you far too brief. Thank you for the glimpses of deliciousness you gave us, especially your squid pinxto, stuffed with its own tentacles, and lacquered in its own ink. A small bite of refined flavors and textures, capturing a picture of gentle wafts of ocean breeze.

Photo by Joseph Lee

dates and carrots on chickpea puree with harissa and honey, Sitka & Spruce. We've continued to have our share of fantastic eating at Sitka & Spruce, whose fantastic new location fits just right (though a tiny part of me still misses the old location in Eastlake). This dish in particular stands out in my mind because (1) we originally decided against ordering it, and (2) it was eye-opening to taste a set of disparate flavors somehow precariously balanced just enough to enhance the flavors of the primary ingredients (rather than losing them in the jumble). The spice of the harissa was tempered by the creaminess of the hummus and the sweetness of the honey and dates, letting the carrots shine. I tried making the dish myself... it didn't work. Much respect.

pistacchio gelato, D'Ambrosio. How is it that Ballard has a better pain au chocolat than any my wife could find in Paris, and now has some of the most stunning gelato I've ever tasted? Marco and his father are spinning magic in this gelateria, where it's all about purity of flavor and perfect consistency (the strawberry gelato has the most incredible texture, considering the absence of any dairy). But the nut-based gelatos are the stars, and the king of them all is the pistacchio, made from Pistacchio di Bronte, harvested from trees in a specific hillside in Sicily that only yield fruit every other year. You can't make this stuff up. The best is when you watch someone taste it for the first time... invariably, their eyes widen and they exclaim, "It tastes like... pistacchio!" Exactly.

crottin frais, The Calf and Kid. This simple goat's milk cheese from PĂ©rigord has a mild, nutty flavor and a decadently soft, creamy texture. Nothing incredibly complex or challenging... no funkiness... just pure guilty deliciousness.

avocado, Mexico. On our trip to Playa del Carmen, we had phenomenal guacamole made from the greatest avocados... simple, ordinary, specatcular tree-ripened avocados. Unbelievably rich and unctuously creamy, the stuff of dreams. Nothing here like it.

Photo by Antoinette Bruno, starchefs.com

the bitter handshake, Mistral. Cocktails reigned supreme in 2010, and Seattle continues to have some of the best bartenders in the country. Everyone loves Murray Stenson at the Zig Zag and Tavern Law has gotten a ton of press, but my go-to place for serious cocktails is the bar at Mistral. On my first visit, I tried The Bitter Handshake (Fernet Branca, blood orange reduction, rye whisky, and simple syrup), watching in awe as Ashley carved an ice sphere out of a block of ice with a chef's knife. A Fernet cocktail? One of the best drink experiences... it struck all the right notes.

first of the season porcini, broiled and raw, Spinasse. I should really keep Spinasse off the Top 10 list because it's hard to stay objective about any of their amazing preparations, particularly anything involving the three T's: tajarin, tripe and trotters (a bowl of their tripe is easily one of my favorite comfort foods now). But on the evening of September 17, LaV and I were treated to a magical dish: one single porcini mushroom, delivered to the restaurant earlier that day. One part was broiled to the point of caramelization; the remainder was shaved thinly and plated raw. Two totally different flavors, 100% umami. If ever there was an argument for the supremacy of simplicity in featuring the best characteristics of amazing ingredients, this was it. A special moment that satisfied the soul. Plus the entire team at Spinasse just rocks.

totten inlet mussels with potatoes and horseradish, The Willows Inn. I've already blogged about how much we enjoyed our meal at the Willows Inn, and how much we think of Blaine Wetzel's talent. This particular dish was the most restrained expression of delicate flavor nuances and pairings, each bite like a reflection of the environment around you. We can't wait to go back.

steak tartare, farm egg yolk & toast, The Walrus and the Carpenter. No reservations and a 2 hour wait at prime time... but somehow on our first visit, we walked in and had the fortune of snagging two inexplicably unoccupied seats at the bar. Great cocktails, fantastic oyster selection (and expert shucking), but my favorite taste was the best steak tartare in Seattle. Simultaneously clean (grass-fed) and decadent, velvety but with just enough texture... all you need is an icy martini to go with it. Our favorite new restaurant opening of 2011.

Some other noteworthy things:

Best spirit: Ebb and Flow Vodka, Sound Spirits. Killer flavor, smoothness and lightly viscous mouthfeel even at room temperature. This is Steven Stone's hobby/passion, and he knows exactly what he's doing. Yet another artisan you want to get to know. Seattle, this is an amazing place to have in our city. The gin has just been released, and more spirits are on the way.

Best kitchen tool: Prospect 240, Cut Brooklyn: Sharpest, most balanced and comfortable chef's knife ever, made by Joel B., a ridiculous craftsman and one of the coolest guys you'll ever meet. This knife deserves its own blog post some day, but for now let me just say it's completely unreal. Everything you've read about it is true... and then some.

Most unhealthy moment: May 22 at 3 am: roasted bone marrow, grilled sardines, steak tartare, frites at Blue Ribbon. Not proud, but not that ashamed either.

Honorable mentions: maple bar at sunrise donuts (redmond), kennebec fries at cru (vancouver), spot prawns (multiple versions); perfect sanma nigiri at miyabi; shigoku oysters by taylor shellfish, homemade pesto with mortar and pestle, alfajores in the mission, burger at magnolia village pub, grilled loch duart salmon with preserved chanterelles at solbar (calistoga), pizza romana and capelli ricci al telephono at oenotri (napa)

Here's to a great 2011...

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