Want to generate some warm feelings about 2016? Try to make a list of all the great dishes you ate this past year.
That’s my feeling as I reflect on the vast array of amazing food that has come my way in 2016. From New York to Copenhagen, Seoul to Washington, I sampled truly remarkable cooking. The transportive bowl of uni and yuba at Akashi. The magnificent burger whose secret is, believe it or not, in the topping, from Augustine, down in New York’s Financial District. When in doubt, order the curly-edged malfadini from the exceptional newcomer Lilia in Brooklyn. In fact, there was so much good food in New York this year, the top dishes could have come exclusively from here, as with last year’s incredible list. But then I would have missed the stunning tart with a buttery seaweed crust from Copenhagen's Noma, in the restaurant’s last months before it reinvents itself in a new location.
Reviewing my favorite dishes also makes me think about cities with major food scenes I can’t wait to get to next year. San Francisco, Shanghai, Mexico City, here I come.
And it makes me realize one more thing: It’s time to go on a diet—next year. Happy holidays to all!
Radish pie | Noma, Copenhagen
When famed chef Rene Redzepi gets obsessed with something, you know it. This summer, it was all about vegetables; his Noma menu had almost no meat. One highlight of an extraordinary meal was a modest-sounding radish tart. But here’s what goes into that individual little pie. The crust was made from kelp and butter, so it was flaky with a seaweed hit. The fudgy filling mixes yeast with coriander, fresh horseradish, and reduced cucumber juice; it was tangy and fermented, brightened by the floral cucumber. It was covered with flower-shaped, braised-radish strips. The dish was almost as pretty as it was delicious; Redzepi cooked the radishes in beet juice to amp up the bright red color.
Cacio e Pepe | Emmer & Rye, Austin
Is it possible that the most classic of pastas can be improved upon? Although the answer will almost always be no, occasionally you can get a yes, as with the blue durum wheat cacio e pepe at Emmer & Rye. At that Austin farm-to-table destination, chef Kevin Fink geeks out on grains to extraordinary effect. Not only does he make his supple pasta with freshly milled grains so it tastes as if it comes directly from a wheat field. Even better, Fink adds a little fermented tomato water to its buttery coating, injecting a refreshing tartness and a hit of sweetness. It’s the most brilliant of reinventions.
Quenelles with Lobster | Le Coucou, New York
If there’s a dish to bring all the classic French food lovers out of hiding, this is it. Quenelles are like dumplings made of feathers (actually, fish); at they’re best, as at the dazzling Le Coucou, they’re simultaneously light and creamy and ever-so-slightly firm, suffused with the gentle flavor of pike. They’re swimming in a sea of buttery tomato and brandy sauce Américaine that’s buzzed to make it foamy, along with a lobster tail that makes it extra luxe—so much that’s great about French cooking in one shallow bowl.
Black Pepper Pastry | Pineapple & Pearls, Washington
It’s been an outstanding year for bread and butter; places are working harder than ever on their fermentation for deep, dark-crusted loaves and butter so flavorful it could double as cheese. But the version I can’t stop thinking about is the divine service at Pineapple and Pearls, where chef Aaron Silverman makes gorgeous mini-loaves of black pepper-studded pain au lait, or milk bread, which is like a croissant masquerading as a biscuit. Presented in a little chest, the other compartments include decadent whipped foie gras and sour cherry preserves. The pain au lait doesn't really need them, but sometimes you just have to go overboard.
(Note: Pineapple & Pearls could have two dishes on this list: The other is an awesome, attention-getting Thai red curry finished in a gravity-defying Japanese coffee siphon.)
Vegetable Terrine | Kadeau, Copenhagen
Noma sucks up most of the culinary oxygen in Copenhagen. Yet there’s a remarkable, elegant prix-fixe restaurant across town: Kadeau, which more people should know about. One of chef Nicolai Nørregaard’s classics also happens to be one of the restaurant world’s most stunning dishes. Consider it the redemption of the vegetable terrine: Layer on layer of seasonal produce from the garden of Kadeau's sibling restaurant on the Danish island of Bornholm. I found carrots, porcinis, kale, Asian pear, plums, beach onion and plums—each specially pickled or marinated, sometimes grilled—a wonderful barrage of flavors and textures. Added benefit: It’s a winner on Instagram.
Black Pork Curry Hopper | Hoppers, London
I didn’t know what a hopper was before I hit the Sri Lankan restaurant, for which the dish is named, on a picturesque street in Soho. In fact, I didn’t know much about Sri Lankan cooking. Now I’m addicted. A hopper is a large, salad bowl-shaped and -sized pancake made from fermented rice and coconut milk. It’s sweet and tangy and a bit spongy, a fantastic vehicle for a range of curries and condiments that accompany it in small vessels. The black pork kari is an intensely spiced, dry curry that’s perfect for dipping into with a torn-off piece of the hopper, along with a little vibrant coriander chutney from a tiny bowl next to it.
Chicken & Rice | Hong Kong Soya Chicken, Rice & Noodle, Singapore
Sometimes you travel for a dish, and it’s all the better for the journey you made. Sometimes that destination dish comes to you, and it’s still outrageously good. So it was with the world’s most famous dish of chicken and rice from a Michelin-starred Singaporean stall that popped up in New York. The chicken is braised with soy sauce and Asian herbs and spices in a recipe that’s so secret, it’s valued at $2 million. The result is mahogany-colored poultry with an alluring salty-sweet glaze that permeates the meat, served with long grain rice that’s even better, because it’s enriched with that powerful chicken fat.
Cheesecake with Truffles | Momofuku Ko, New York
Some dishes sound so delicious you know you’ll love them. Warm, truffle-topped cheesecake is not one. But I was sitting at the counter at David Chang's Momofuku Ko when chef Sean Gray presented me with a square that was piled high with grated white truffles, and there was no escape. I took a bite. It was lights-out good. The slightly sweet, two-inch-high cake is made from a soft, ripened sheep milk cheese baked with whipped egg whites; it’s airy but very moist, like the best kind of soufflé, especially when someone rains earthy bits of truffle on top.
Dry-aged Rib Eye | Breslin, New York
The Breslin’s rib-eye for two has always been a steak you dream about. (Not to mention that the dining room is one of the coziest places to eat prime meat in New York.) But the dish has gotten even better since founding chef April Bloomfield opened her new White Gold butcher. The rib eye (from the cattle that Bloomfield butchers) is dry-aged for 42 days before new Breslin chef Trevor Kunk seasons it well with salt before roasting it in its rendered fat. The caramelized beef is tender, chewy, and charred, accompanied by a Béarnaise sauce spiked with lots of black pepper, tarragon, and pickled shallots. The ultra-crispy, thrice-cooked fries on the side should be dipped into the Béarnaise and the rich juices from the meat.
Yuba with Uni | Akashi, New York
“Everyone in New York likes uni,” said chef Yoichi Akashi, simply and accurately. At his small, subterranean omakase spot, the sushi Nakazawa veteran wants to represent Japanese cuisine beyond sushi. He decided to serve uni with yuba, or tofu skin, as something unique. The small dish of delicate, gently chewy, house-made yuba with sweet uni (often from Hokkaido, so it’s especially creamy) in a dashi broth with the smallest garnish of wasabi made me feel like the queen of the ocean.
Whiskey Burger | Augustine, New York
Keith McNally is a burger expert. His restaurant Minetta Tavern is home to the landmark Black Label burger, boasting a patty made from a mix of flavorful dry-aged beef. At McNally’s newest place Augustine, chefs Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla make this burger with a blend that features brisket; it’s a little bit funky and and exceptionally juicy. What takes this burger over the top, though, is the buttery topping of scotch-laced onions whose flavors soak right into the meat. It’s all covered with a oozy layer of melted Comté cheese. The crowning touch: McNally likes to serve it with a shot of whiskey.
Welsh Rarebit Croissant | Dominique Ansel London
Is this the U.K. version of the Cronut? While those coveted, trademarked pastries sell out in New York almost as soon as the doors open, at Dominique Ansel London, Cronuts are still available into the afternoon. (Cronut hoarders, take note.) There, another Dominique Ansel pastry bewitched me. This mountain-shaped savory croissant is flaky outside and creamy within, filled with Guinness-spiked cheddar béchamel sauce and grainy mustard, with a little cap of melted fontina on top.
Pink Peppercorn Malfadini | Lilia, Brooklyn
One of the year’s breakout dishes came about by accident. Before she opened her super-popular Italian-accented Lilia, chef Missy Robbins needed to determine how many ounces of pasta her new bowls held. All she had on hand was pasta, butter, and Parmesan, plus some pink peppercorns from a demo. She tested the yield, then decided to taste it. Robbins fell instantly in love. So did all of New York. The chewy texture of the delightful, ripple-edged malfadini pasta coated with butter and cheese and the sweet, spicy hit of peppercorns, is like the ultimate grown-up version of a comforting childhood pasta.
Peeky Toe Crab with Uni and Kohlrabi | Eleven Madison Park, New York
The hautest of seafood salads. The revered chef Daniel Humm loves uni, just like me (see Akashi, above). At his Eleven Madison Park, he sets lobes of it alongside shredded peeky toe crab meat, mixed with bonito mayonnaise and a delicate lobster consommé gelee. It’s a fantastic celebration of seafood flavors, from funky uni to layers of sweet crab and lobster, with briny bonito underneath a cover of pickled apple and kohlrabi slices. Humm serves the dish in cool weather; he says the shellfish is best when the waters are cold.
Pickle Vinegar Hot Chicken | Husk + Mission Chinese Food Pop-Up, Brooklyn
Like pizza, the cult of fried chicken is widespread and devoted. Two of the country’s most exciting chefs— Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food in New York, and Sean Brock, of McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston, S.C.—occasionally mash up up their monumental fried chickens, to the rabid delight of fans. The one I had was at food conference Taste Talks this summer. I’ll let Brock describe it: “You take our Husk fried chicken, with our spice breading, and you fry it, then you toss in Husk's five fats—butter, lard, country ham fat, bacon fat, chicken fat—with that Mission Chinese chicken wing powder, that numbing wonderful Sichuan peppercorn mixture. Then you take the juice from our Husk pickles and you flavor it with fish sauce. You dip the fried chicken in it, and it’s OK because our crust is so sturdy, it’s bulletproof. Then you put some sliced pickles on top, and you serve it up. It’s insanely delicious.” Agreed.
The Emmy Pizza | Emmy Squared, Brooklyn
As a confirmed lover of melted cheese, I confess to being absurdly happy with just about any pizza at Emmy Squared, where the specialty is rectangular, Detroit-style pies. That means there’s a bready base covered directly with cheese before the sauce and toppings arrive. In the oven, the cheese fries around the sides, making it crispy, salty and greasy; the edge pieces are absolutely the best. Picking a favorite pie at Emmy Squared is hard. I’ll go with the signature Emmy: a comfortable layer of mozzarella with piquant, pickled banana peppers, red onions, and a generous drizzle of ranch dressing to put the already rich pizza over the top.
Banchan Bonanza | Sigol Bapsang, Seoul
I can tell if I’ll like a Korean restaurant by the quality of the banchan, or small plates, that precede the meal. The only problem is that usually, there’s just a small selection: a couple kinds of kimchi, some tiny fish, a wee potato salad. In Seoul, I solved my problem at a little place decorated with ancient Korean cooking implements and specializing in dozens and dozens of banchan. The cabbage kimchi is excellent—well-fermented and seasoned, slathered with chili paste—as are the stir-fried glass noodles and the fish cake strips. Are these the world’s best banchan? I’ll have to do further research. But every once in a while, quantity wins.
Bananas Old Fashioned | Barmini, Washington
Here's a gorgeous, tropical version of a classic old-fashioned. At the brilliant Barmini (which adjoins another brilliant avant-garde Jose Andrés venture, restaurant Minibar), Miguel Lancha has a list of 120-something cocktails. The funnest might be this extravaganza, with banana-infused bourbon, cinnamon, and sugar, that’s cooked sous-vide so it’s supremely smooth in texture and flavor. It’s as transportive as a drink can be.
Espresso Soft Serve | Coffee Collective, Copenhagen
The boutique Coffee Collective has a cult following around the world for its well-sourced beans and incredibly smooth brews. But perhaps its most ingenious move is to have created the ultimate coffee soft serve. Flavored with intense, freshly brewed espresso and made with a rich, Danish ice cream base, then sprinkled with a little fresh-ground coffee, the result doubles as a super-indulgent breakfast and a sumptuous hit of quality caffeine.
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