January 7, 2012

Top 10 dishes of 2011

Reflecting back on this past year of eating, I realized two things: (1) nearly all of the new restaurants we tried in Seattle were somewhat disappointing, but (2) every restaurant we love continues to be as good as ever.

I told LaV that I can't put anything from Spinasse or Sitka & Spruce on my annual top 10 list anymore because they'd be guaranteed to make it each year, with amazing dishes like fuls medames with harissa and a mistakenly-ordered albacore tuna wowing us at S&S, and the spectacular simplicity of a single roasted leek, fontina fonduta and ligurian olive oil creating a moment of transcendence at Spinasse. Going on more than four years now, our experiences at both restaurants continue to be treasured moments.

Even though most of the memorable dishes of 2011 were from outside of Seattle, there were still some real gems that made it into the top 10 from local spots. Here they are, in no particular order:

Xiao Long Bao, Crystal Jade (Shanghai). Our biggest gastronomic goal for our trip to China was to find the ultimate xiao long bao. After trying all of the major players (with the humbly appointed Jia Jia coming in second, in my opinion), we were amazed at the XLB at Crystal Jade--an international chain restaurant conglomerate, of all places! Much larger than any other version we tried, the skin was silky smooth and extremely thin, but contained an incredible amount of sweet, clean broth that enveloped a flavorful, nicely textured filling of pork. Score +1 for chain restaurants.

Blood Clam Nigiri, Sushi Oyama (Shanghai). Based on a post in a local Shanghai blog, we nabbed a reservation to Sushi Oyama and proceeded to have the most exclusive, intimate and luxurious sushi experience of our lives. Fish selected specifically for that day, kept in wooden boxes to ensure the perfect temperature for optimal flavor release from the fish oils. Unbelievable chu-toro. Actually, unbelievable everything. If I had to pick a favorite, it was the blood clam nigiri from the waters off of South Korea. Sweet and clean, with just a delicate lingering taste of the ocean... Oyama-san's knife skills ensured the texture was pure silky tenderness. This meal, beginning to end, was the most perfect sushi experience I can imagine.

Caramelized sea scallops, citrus supremes, sunchokes, candied marcona almonds, Book Bindery. This was our third visit to the Book Bindery, this time for a Mother's Day dinner with my mom. I'd had mixed feelings about the preparations on the first two visits, but they nailed it with this meal. LaV had a very nice slow-poached hen egg with tagliatelle, parmesan broth and herbs, but I was the happiest with scallops that had the optimal contrast between seared exterior and rare interior. Flavorwise, the pairing of the caramelization of the candied almonds with the caramelization of the scallops, while offset by the citrus, was inspired.

Agnolotti di Guido, La Quercia (Vancouver): We'd been wanting to try this neighborhood gem in Vancouver for a while. If the currency exchange wasn't as unfortunately disadvantageous as it currently is for the U.S. dollar, we'd be there all the time. This small, cozy restaurant delivers on every level, and the mastery behind these beautiful agnolotti was evident in the pasta (filled with veal, chard, ricotta and parmigiano), whose texture was a true delight, along with the soul-filling flavor of the veal jus reduction that dressed them. Very special.

Soba, fresh yuba sheet, Cocoron (New York): Think of the most perfectly cooked, cascading folds of egg you can imagine. That was the texture of the yuba sheets served with the soba at Cocoron, a tiny noodle shop in lower east side. The flavor of the accompanying broth for dipping the soba and the yuba was simple, but densely flavored. What a great way to catch up with an old friend on a rainy evening in New York. The best soba meal ever? So far, yes.

Tripe with bone marrow and local black truffles, Artusi. It's been a long time since Spinasse has had tripe on their menu, the first dish from Jason Stratton that truly captivated me. I secretly hope that tripe makes a return to the other side, but until then, Artusi's version will more than suffice. Paired with bone marrow and truffles, the dish teeters on the edge of being completely over the top. It's a dish that even impressed my formerly vegetarian friends (you two know who you are).

"Potato salad," Castagna (Portland): I'd been wanting to try Castagna for more than a year, but we couldn't seem to find time for the stars to align. Then we found out that Matt Lightner's last day would be July 30. So on July 30, we were enthralled by an astonishing meal of modern, local, natural food. For me, the most impressive dish of the meal was this composed dish of potato, dehydrated potato crisps, dill, creme fraiche dressing and nastursium flowers. Each flavor and texture was precise and pitch perfect. Other than Sushi Oyama, probably the highest technical precision of any of the meals we had this year.

Multiple dishes, Little Uncle. My favorite new restaurant in Seattle this year, hands down. Wylie and PK have created a magical place where the flavors of the dishes transport you instantaneously to another place. The intensity of the flavors, the brightness of the spices, the uber-funkiness of the funk... and every week, a good portion of the menu changed. After my first visit, I went back three more weeks in a row. Among the favorites: kanom gui chai (griddled rice cakes stuffed with garlic chives, soy and fried garlic oil), nam prik kai (pungent shrimp paste and chili dip, fried local sardine, cha-om omelet, veggies) and phad phet pla mueg (spicy stir fry with squid, fresh bamboo, green bean). They've just opened up their new take-out shop, serving their last pop-up meal at La Bete last month. Great food made by truly great people.

House-cured lox, creme fraiche, The Corson Building. During an impulse meal on a weeknight at the Corson Building, we ordered the house-cured lox on a whim, even though neither of us was particularly inclined to get it. Turned out to be a terrific decision. The gentle cure on the lox reminded me of the sparkling flavor of Aki-san's house-smoked salmon at our beloved Sushi Sho. They've just mastered simple flavor components so well here.

Homemade Japanese-style curry, by LaV. LaV and I are both huge fans of Japanese curry rice, but admittedly, we typically use the standard curry blocks from the grocery store. One night, I came home to the lovely smell of curry wafting through the air. I picked up a spoon and lifted the lid to the pot... wait, something was different. The aromas were much brighter. I took a spoonful... wow, a totally different clarity of flavor. You could actually distinguish the garam masala from the ginger. I said to LaV, "Wow, this is really good! Did you change the brand of curry?" She looked at me with a proud, beaming grin... "No, it's made FROM SCRATCH!" And appropriately, she has a "secret ingredient" that makes it all work. Epic. And no turning back. This also wins the award for most unexpected, pleasant surprise.

Runners up: Crispy Local Smelt, Angiolina Farm cucumber salad, cherry tomato (Babar, Seattle), Salad of composed garden vegetables (Mission Hill Winery, Terrace Restaurant, Okanagan), Akaoni Ramen (Benkei Ramen, Vancouver), Grilled Cuttlefish with Fava Beans and Tomato (La Quercia, Vancouver), Carnitas burrito (Mexican Fiesta, San Diego), almond croissant (Honore).

Best wine we had this year: 1997 Cardinale (insane)

Spirit of the year: Novo Fogo Gold, Cachaca Organica (good in so many ways, the aging makes the difference).

Favorite place for a cocktail: The Pourhouse (Vancouver), particularly since my favorite Seattle bartender left for New Zealand.

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