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:

– In January, I ate at David Thompson’s shrine to the gloriousness of Thai food which has attracted both acclaim and derision (what a white guy is claiming to be a Thai food jedi master?!). Well, I’m firmly on the side of those raving and acclaiming, and enthusiastically, wholeheartedly agree that it deserves its #1 place in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and #14 rank in World’s 50 Best Restaurants.  Nahm is ferociously traditional; keeping the use of chilis at the full-body sweat levels of Bangkok’s famed soi stalls, and employing all the intricate, time-intensive techniques of the street food vendors.  But it is also graciously contemporary, with sexy plating and surprising ingredient combinations.  My ten course meal had many highlights, and you can read about them all in my blog post here, but there were two that stopped me in my tracks: the best curry I’ve ever had, a sumptuous, silky, enveloping coconut and turmeric blue crab curry with calamansi, and a mesmerizingly delicious dessert that showcased the best of Southeast Asia: pandan noodles, black sticky rice, taro root, and chestnuts in sweetly majestic coconut cream, served with the queenly mangosteen.

best dining_ryuginRyugin (Hong Kong) – Acclaimed Japanese chef Seiji Yamamoto opened a branch of his Michelin 3 Star Tokyo jewel in Hong Kong, aiming to replicate the experience of dining in Roppongi on the 101st floor of the International Commerce Center, Hong Kong’s tallest building, by flying in ingredients from Tokyo daily and putting his protégé Chef Hideo Sato in charge.  It looks like the younger sibling has come into its own, with Hong Kong’s Ryugin having already received 2 Michelin Stars and debuted in this year’s Asia 50 Best Restaurants at #50.  Its 10 course kaiseki menu is spectacular: during my December visit, a delicate yet fiercely umami mushroom chawanmushi with snow crab meat and roe spoiled me for any future chawanmushis; a simple but wondrous dish of fresh Hokkaido uni on perfectly-cooked koshihikari rice with seaweed reflected the inspired genius of Japanese minimalism.  But it was Chef Sato’s take on the traditionally robust sukiyaki which blew me away and literally made me shed a tear: gently sliced Kagoshima wagyu beef, beautifully rare, lay on ethereal sukiyaki broth with red onions, chrysanthemum leaves, carrots, and an egg boiled at the temperature of onsens, or Japanese hot springs.  This was the story of Japanese culture and life on a plate; mixed together, the dish was buttery heaven. (Photo: wagyu beef sukiyaki with onsen egg)

– Chef Paul Qui is probably the most awarded young chef in the US currently, having won Top Chef Texas, a James Beard, and Food and Wine Best New Chef among others. He is also probably the most exciting, serving a unique, sophisticated cuisine at his Austin restaurant qui that seamlessly and gracefully melds together his Filipino roots, his Asian culinary interests, and his French cooking background. Call me biased, but I loved my May meal, composed of elevated takes on Filipino cuisine, and you can read all about it in my blog post here.  I was particularly awestruck by Chef Qui’s bold, gravity-stopping take on the humble dinuguan, Filipino pork blood and organ meats stew. At qui, he served airy gnocchi, unctuous pork belly, and earthy mushrooms with a refined take on the vinegar and blood sauce, still unapologetically authentic in its sour-tart-bitter flavor profiles yet elegantly complementary to the luxurious ingredients.

best dining_gagganGaggan (Bangkok) – I was back in Bangkok for a weekend in November, and this time around I wasn’t going to miss Gaggan, the most surprising addition to the 2014 World’s 50 Best  list, and the highest debuting restaurant at #17 (it currently ranks above former World 50 Best darlings Astrid y Gaston, Pujol, and The French Laundry; it is also #3 in Asia 50 Best list). Chef Anand Gaggan calls his cuisine “progressive Indian”; some food writers have called it molecular gastronomy and modernist as well. Whatever it was, the food at Gaggan was some of the best food I’ve eaten this year: a deliriously complex soup of morels, asparagus, and artichokes with a 62 degree Celsius egg and truffle chili air was flawlessly executed and breathtakingly served in a dramatic black stone bowl; a minimalist sandwich (if you can call it that) of onion water baguette, foie gras mousse, hazelnut candy, and onion chutney was luscious, sweet-earthy. But what I loved the most was Chef Gaggan’s take on a heritage dish: a Chettinad-style chicken curry with South Indian rice noodles and coconut rice was hearty and mature, fiery yet balanced.  I loved Gaggan (despite some dismaying service snafus) because although it used contemporary techniques and plating, it was still deeply rooted in the complexity of India which possesses one of the towering culinary traditions of the world. (photo:  “down to earth” soup).

42 Grams (Chicago) – I was one of the guests at the first dinner of Sous Rising in 2012, the underground restaurant that Chef Jake Bickelhaupt and his wife Alexa ran out of their inviting Uptown apartment.  So when they took the underground above ground with 42 Grams, an intimate 18-seater that continued the highly personalized experience of Sous Rising, I wasn’t surprised that it would receive euphoric,   universal adoration: five star reviews and 2 Michelin Stars in its first year.  Because Chef Jake’s dishes continued to not just use the best, most astounding ingredients and the most precise techniques but also more importantly evoked highly personal stories through cuisine. In January’s Winter Menu, his tribute to culinary legend and previous employer Charlie Trotter was simple, elegant, sophisticated:  perfectly sliced salmon sashimi with trout roe and phytoplankton, with a glass of dashi to sip. In June’s Summer Menu, a spectacular dish of mojama, the Spanish dried tuna, served with an asparagus ice cream evoked memories of summer seaside jaunts; a meticulously constructed dish of perfectly cooked egg yolk, ramps, bulgur, and amaranth was a jawdropping reinvention of Wisconsin breakfasts.

best dining_the eightThe Eight (Macau) – I’ve probably eaten more dimsum than Martin Yan in my life, but the dimsum at Macau’s 3 Michelin Star The Eight at the Grand Lisboa Hotel, the dowager queen of Macau’s thriving casino scene, was beyond exquisite.   The Eight differentiates itself from your run of the mill teahouse joint through meticulously and whimsically crafted dishes.  Succulent prawn dumplings were shaped like river fish; comforting pork cha siu bao were presented as hedgehogs (with their spines strikingly carved in the dumpling dough).  Although showy in appearance, the heritage tastes evoked memories of lingering mah jong games and well-worn teacups filled with calming tea.  But I loved the most the opulent deep-fried egg foam balls stuffed with pork with a hint of truffle, and served on a bird’s nest of fried noodles, decadently satisfying.  The meal ended with complimentary delicate Macanese egg tarts and the restaurant’s justly-famous silky milk tea.  And The Eight’s stunning, James-Bond-film-in-real-life setting, complete with goldfish pond hallway, gold and lacquer walls, automatic doors, a massive crystal sphere in the middle of the dining room, and size zero servers in slinky cheongsams, was such a memorable accompaniment. (photo: river fish-shaped prawn dumplings)

Cuc Gach Quan(Ho Chi Minh City) – In January I was in Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City only to politically-correct Westerners and the Vietnamese Communist Party) and stopped by Cuc Gach Quan, beloved by both Bourdain and Brangelina, in the hectic District 3.  Vietnamese food is one of the most soulfully complex in the world, shaped by the complicated interaction between a rich, multi-faceted indigenous cuisine and assertive French colonialism.  It was difficult to choose which dishes to try amidst Cuc Gach Quan’s voluminous menu, but I finally settled on a dazzling dish of sweet plump prawns perfectly stir-fried with zucchini flowers, packed with all kinds of strongly umami flavors, from fish sauce to soy sauce to indecipherable;  a delightfully crispy sea bass in passion fruit sauce which tasted French in provenance but Southeast Asian in outlook; and most especially, addictively enchanting fried chicken in fish sauce, filled with layers of sweet-salty-sour.

best dining_domD.O.M. (Sao Paulo) – I came back to buzzing, sprawling Sao Paulo for a client meeting in July and finally managed to snag a reservation at D.O.M., one of the most talked about restaurants in the world (currently ranked #7 in World’s 50 Best and # 3 in Latin America 50 Best) helmed by one of the most talked about chefs in the world, Alex Atala, as famous for his food as for his shirtless photos wrestling with crocodiles and giant Amazonian fishes, and MAD symposium video decapitating a chicken onstage. I thought the 12 course tasting menu, packed with unexpected, unfamiliar ingredients from the most bio-diverse country in the planet,  was both dazzling and frustrating, containing spectacular dishes such as a surprising tart-bitter-salty filhote fish in a tucupi (the sauce extracted from grating and juicing the manioc root, considered lethal when raw) broth with marinated tapioca balls and an elegant yet confident dish of perfectly poached egg yolk in a chicken broth with an earthy cara (a type of Amazonian root crop) puree and beef jerky, ingredients which worked insanely and beautifully together.  But there were major duds as well such as seasoned Amazonian ants on a tree trunk plate (overhyped) and heart of palm “fettuccini” carbonara (unmemorable).  But brilliance can be maddening at times. (Photo:  filhote with tucupi broth).

best dining_teteTete Charcuterie (Chicago) – Tete Charcuterie from co-chefs Thomas Rice and Kurt Gozowski  always felt like the most Chicago of all the new restaurants that opened in the city this year: unassuming, hard-working, packed with all kinds of stick-to-your ribs meaty deliciousness, from the headiness of dry-aged smoked bacon to the lovely masculinity of mortadella to the astounding soulfulness of Filipino longganisa sausage made in-house and served with the most mind-alteringly delicious dried shrimp fried rice.  But Tete this year also hosted monthly after-service choucroute dinners in collaboration with other chefs, in which a whole pig was served in a variety of dizzying, delicious ways, from sausages to porchetta to roasts to sexy toppings on vegetables (yeah crispy pig ears always make those greens taste better!). I managed to make it to two of the dinners this year, in July with the Trenchermen’s Patrick Sheerin and in September with Bohemian House’s Jimmy Pappadopolous. These choucroute dinners with generous amounts of food served family style, the chefs mingling casually with the guests, drinks overflowing, and conviviality and friendship bearhugging the air would be a unique highlight in any Chicago dining year. (photo c/o @mstashwick: September choucroute dinner)

Mecha Uma (Manila) – Having spent the first twenty years (or so) of my life in Manila, the city is a key part of my DNA.  But I still didn’t expect my late November meal at Mecha Uma , one of Manila’s newest and most exciting restaurants under 25 year old culinary savant Chef Bruce Ricketts, to make, well, mincemeat of many of the meals I had in Chicago and the rest of the US this year.  I wrote about the meal in detail here.  Weeks after my trip, I’m still thinking of Chef Bruce’s modern Japanese cuisine underlined by a unique Filipino sensibility, especially the crab meat dish that contained a whipped egg that mimicked crab roe  so beloved by Filipinos both visually and taste-wise and a simple yet nuanced (and labor-intensive) dashi-simmered rice, part Italian risotto and part Filipino arroz caldo, with scallops sashimi and fresh ikura, shucked by hand and marinated in sake, a dish ambitiously global and confidently modern, but evocative of Filipino traditions and tastes.  Just like booming , ambitious yet still imperfect Manila at the end of 2014.

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