Starry Tables: My Best Meals of 2014

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nahmIt’s a big, tasty world out there.  I know, I know, this sounds like quite the headscratchingly obvious statement, but sometimes, as I go through my daily perusal of online articles and social media, I’m just flummoxed at the number of Twitter fooderatis and food writers who seem to think the holy triumvirate of New York City-Chicago-San Francisco provides all the food-related news fit to print (or tweet or Instagram or happy dance to). Oh well, to each his or her own I guess. I’ve always been preoccupied with culinary context and as I said in last year’s dining roundup, I don’t believe you can really fully understand the cuisine and its historical, cultural, and sociological influences and associations unless you’re eating it within the geography it’s from. Fortunately, my life and job allowed me to eat well and thoughtfully this year in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco (yep, so I did traverse the triumvirate this year as well too, so, uh, sue me), Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Macau, Manila, Washington DC, Austin, San Diego, and Milwaukee.  I was lucky to eat at many great places this year, but though some of them had Michelin stars and World’s 50 Best restaurants rankings, my meals there were memorable and compelling because they were not only exceptionally delicious, but they clearly represented and illuminated the place of cuisine – ingredients, cooking techniques, the relationship of cooks and purveyors – within the larger cultural and historical framework.  Here then are my best meals of 2014:

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Shining Through

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I’m back! And no, I wasn’t cocooned inside Noma’s Nordic Food Lab trying to make edible moss or permanently ensconced as family butler in the Dustin Lance Black-Tom Daley household for the past few weeks. I was jaunting around Asia visiting family and friends, and sampling, as always, some of the best food you can have on the planet (stay tuned for my soon to drop Best Dining of 2014 to read about some of my Asia culinary adventures).  I was particularly intrigued by what I was hearing from both friends in the Philippines and Pinoys passing through Chicago that my hometown of Manila has started to see a burgeoning chef-driven restaurant scene.  Don’t get me wrong, Manila has always offered an abundance of culinary pleasures (as Anthony Bourdain wisely sampled) , but in my  annual trips over the past five years, I’ve always been to restaurants that served hearty, rustic Filipino food, either traditionally or with slight, modern twists to them.  Unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, and now increasingly Bangkok, Manila’s thriving, energetic restaurant scene hasn’t always been known to contain many bright examples of places driven by a single chef’s vision, ambition, or drive.  But with the Philippines experiencing impressive GDP growth averaging around 7% annually, second only to China in the region of the world that economists, wealth managers, and savvy businessmen have anointed as defining the 21st century, it would logically follow though that more disposable income and a more affluent professional class would exist in the country’s capital city. And that Filipinos who have studied, lived, and cooked in the US, Europe, and developed Asia, would come back to a booming, ambitious, opportunity-filled metropolis and open their restaurants. I managed to visit a couple of them during my Manila trip, but Mecha Uma which presented the unique cuisine of 25 year old wunderkind Chef Bruce Ricketts (the closest I can describe it as is Filipino-Japanese-global) gave me one of my most memorable meals of the year, blowing away without a doubt some of the meals I’ve had in Chicago.

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#PinoyPride

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qui_sanmigMost of the time when people talk to me about Filipino food, they start off with the question “Have you had balut?”  I tend to shut down pretty quickly any talk about balut, the boiled duck egg that contains an 18-day embryo which has gained worldwide notoriety by being frequently trotted out in adventure eating shows and Fear Factor, with an eyeball-popping mother of all side-eyes.   Yes, I’ve eaten balut (who hasn’t if you grew up in the Philippines where it is a pretty common street-food snack?).  And no, this dish which is unusual and disturbing to Western eaters (but hardly any more unusual or disturbing than some of the indigenous food of other cultures, Peruvian cuy anyone?) doesn’t define Filipino food, in the same way that a Minnesotan hot dish casserole doesn’t define American food.  It’s hardly surprising though that there’s a lack of understanding and even basic knowledge about Filipino cuisine – unlike its fellow Southeast Asian cuisines from Thailand and Vietnam it hasn’t really broken into the American culinary mainstream despite the fact that Filipinos make up the second largest percentage of Asian-Americans according to the 2010 US Census.   There are a lot of theories from both Filipino and non-Filipino food people on why this is (Filipino immigrants assimilate into American food and culture more rapidly than other cultures because the Philippines was a former US colony; since Filipino immigrants are pretty dispersed in the US there are no “Filipino-towns” where Filipino restaurants can thrive; Filipino food just doesn’t have the attention-grabbing spice and “funky-ness” levels of Thai food, etc., etc.) which will take blog post upon blog post to dissect.   So my ears perked up, my eyes blazed, and my nose twitched when I started seeing Twitter and Instagram photos late last year of modernized takes on Filipino dishes like dinuguan, chicken adobo, sisig, and halo-halo being served at qui in Austin, the new restaurant from Top Chef Texas winner Paul Qui.  I knew from being an avid Top Chef watcher (and yes I was rooting for Qui to win that season despite the presence of six Chicago chefs) that he is Filipino-Chinese and that he moved to the US when he was a kid, but did he really open a Filipino-inspired restaurant when his celebrity chef-hood could have led to a myriad of different options that are sexier, less obscure and more “foodie-friendly”? Coming to Austin and checking it out was the only way to find out.

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Krung Thep

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nahm_crab curryIn the monster 1980s pop hit “One Night in Bangkok” (which came from the equally monster Broadway musical flop Chess), Murray Head sings “One night in Bangkok makes the hard man humble.”  The city of Bangkok is indeed humbling for both first-time and returning visitors– with its dense urban sprawl (it’s in the top 20 biggest cities in the world); with its frenzied, often gridlocked traffic; with its pungent, lively, cacophonous city life in which you can get anything and everything your heart desires, it is a city like very few in the world, fascinating, mesmerizing, discomfiting. Bangkok is also universally acknowledged as one of the great dining cities in the world, especially when it comes to its deservedly-famous street food.  The culinary-focused flock to Bangkok and find themselves in street food nirvana, slurping beef noodles in the narrow alleys of Bangrak, tearing into skewers of grilled pork along Sukhumvit Road, sweating through the spiciest duck curry they’ll ever have on backpacker ground zero Khao San Road. I love visiting Bangkok and I’ve chowed down its sois during past trips (the memory of the gloriously crisp, sweet-salty fish cakes I had in a no-name stall along Sukhumvit Road in the mid-nineties continue to ruin any pleasure in eating  fish cakes in Thai restaurants in the US) . But two weeks ago, in early January, coming back to this great enthralling city after more than a decade, I was determined to experience the thriving fine (or finer) dining scene that many “foodie” visitors overlook. I was specifically interested in finding out what the big deal was about Nahm, recently anointed as #32 in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and #3 in its satellite Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, helmed by controversial chef David Thompson.  So despite being tempted by all the grilled and fried delights so easily accessible even right outside my hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 24, I reserved my stomach (anxious for potential regrets if Nahm turned out to be a dud) for Thompson’s white-table cloth shrine to Thai cooking.

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Tablehopping in 2013

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glory steam tableAfter skipping a year, I’m glad to be back with my list of best dining experiences of the year.  And of course the definition of “best” for me is different from that of the myriad of food writers, diners, bloggers, Twitteratis, et al who have also put together their year-end lists.  For those of you who have been reading my blog since I published my first list in 2007, “best” for me definitely means memorable, delicious, mostly unique or singular. But culinary context has been increasingly on my mind over these past few years as well:  cuisines and the conventions of dining can never be separated from the broader culture they evolved from; every ingredient in a dish, every cooking technique used, every dining protocol adopted has a cultural meaning and years of history behind it. In the increasingly borderless dining world that we in the developed countries, well, eat in, where chefs use non-native ingredients and demonstrate influences from different cuisines in their cooking and where diners embrace dishes that are unfamiliar and palate-expanding, culinary context, for me, is essential. In my hometown Chicago, despite being one of the most vibrant dining cities in North America,  I’ve been disappointed that some of this year’s most heralded dining newcomers have disregarded context in favor of “chef-fy” precociousness and hipster diner pandering, with disastrous results (case in point: my worst meal of the year was at an alleged Southeast Asian influenced restaurant  in the West Loop helmed by a “breakout” young chef where no Southeast Asian flavor profiles or techniques were visibly apparent. You cannot serve a “green papaya salad” in a Southeast Asian-influenced restaurant, regardless of how minimal that influence is, without, uhmm, fish sauce. Other than the green papaya, that’s kinda the point of the dish.).

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Where Young People Go to Retire

Dance, Food, Theater, Travel No Comments »

campo still standing hereYou would think that with my day job which entails crisscrossing the country racking up both air mileage and time zone discombobulation, there would be few places in the US that I would not have been to. In reality though, I haven’t really spent that much time in the Pacific Northwest. For the past several years, I’ve stared longingly at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s website, devouring the descriptions of the offerings in its Time-Based Arts (TBA) Festival, an international festival of cutting-edge theater, dance, and performance art which occurs for two weeks every October. The TBA Festival curator used to be Mark Russell, who also programs the highly-regarded Under the Radar Festival in New York City’s Public Theater. So over the past few years, the biggest names of edgy, unconventional theater from The Wooster Group to Nature Theater of Oklahoma to Australia’s Back to Back Theater to Baryshnikov dancing with the Donna Uchizono Company have shown up in Portland in the fall. So finally, this year, with cultural wanderlust and curiosity winning over work and Chicago personal life scheduling conflicts, I headed into what Fred Armisen calls the place “where young people go to retire”.  In addition to taking in a couple of performances at the TBA Festival, the trip was also an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and to satiate a non-theatrical, culinary curiosity: is Andy Ricker’s PokPok, winner of James Beard awards, subject of frenzied national food media coverage, and hot restaurant export warmly-embraced by usually skeptical, world-weary New Yorkers, truly the second coming of Thai food?

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