After 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.).
Part of understanding cultural contexts in dining is to actually eat at the places where the cuisine originated. As noted food writer Adam Sachs says in one of the best food pieces I’ve read this year (a profile of Melbourne’s top chef Ben Shewry in Bon Appetit) “Because here’s the thing: You may think you’ve had this kind of food in Brooklyn or Portland or San Francisco or San Sebastián or wherever. But you haven’t. What you ate may have been perfectly good, but it wasn’t this. While ideas travel, taste is local.” (emphasis mine). I have always been grateful that I can travel and eat. And fortunately, this year, I have tasted local not only in Chicago but also in Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong, Lima, Mexico City, Charleston, Portland, Seattle, Boston, New York City, Washington DC, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. Here then are my top ten dining experiences of 2013.
Peranakan food crawl (Singapore) – My dear friend Des, former Chicagoan and food and travel writer now based in Singapore, took me on an afternoon-to-evening long crawl in early January through her food-frenzied Katong neighborhood, packed with hawker markets, coffee shops, bakeries, and restaurants to sample the best of Singapore’s indigenous Peranakan cuisine, a fascinating combination of Chinese, Malay, and Indonesian influences. Out-Bourdaining Anthony Bourdain, we sampled the acquired salt-sweet-funk taste of otak-otak, a mackerel fish paste wrapped in banana leaf and addictive sambal goreng, caramelized anchovies, tempeh and beans at Glory, a steam table restaurant. Des introduced me to the gloriousness of kaya toast (the authentic one, not the Susan Feniger-LA-ized one), ethereal coconut jam spread on lightly-toasted buns topped with melting butter, an ingenious adaptation of the British scone and jam combo by their Hainanese cooks during colonial times. We went to the hundred year old Chin Mee Chin Confectionary, famous for its close to definitive kaya and the stern Aunties who diligently made the jam by hand very day. We ended the adventure with dinner at Peramakan, where I had the best dish of the day: ayam buah keluak, chicken braised in the sweet pulp of the Indonesian black nut, buah keluak; cooked for days to remove any poisonous traces from the nut, it was enveloping, comforting, luscious, a lovely reminder of fast-moving first world Singapore’s more languorous past.
Quintonil (Mexico City)- I began my love affair with Mexico City three years ago, and three visits later, I’m still enamored and strongly believe it to be one of the great culinary capitals in the world today. No trip to Mexico City can ever be complete without a visit to Quintonil, #21 in the Latin America 50 Best Restaurants list this year (a rank I thought should have been higher given some of the other restaurants on the list). At Quintonil, Chef Jorge Vallejo strikes an impressive balance between elevated cooking and tradition, between contemporary, globally-influenced perspectives and Mexican culinary legacy and indigenous ingredients. The result is food you will not find anywhere else, and it will blow you away. On a late August visit, my second in two years, a smoked spider crab “tostada” with lime, radish, and habanero mayonnaise was a showstopper- tart, sweet, with a tinge of spice and a gamut of crunchy textures, all flavors carefully calibrated. So was a warming Oaxacan string cheese soup with fried pork belly and plantain, another meticulous blending of flavors, earthy and assertive yet enveloped by the delicate sweetness of the plantains. The gravity-stopping dish that night, however, was the perfectly-seared fresh tuna with avocado puree on top of crunchy bone marrow and served with a pork and squid ink reduction. Breathtaking and brazen, the tuna’s fresh sea-sweetness complemented, incongruously, by the lusciousness of both the puree and the reduction, all providing stark but welcome contrast to the decadence of the bone marrow, no flavor overwhelming the others, this dish was proof of Vallejo’s ascendant brilliance.
Pujol (Mexico City) – The top dog among Mexico City restaurants is Chef Enrique Olvera’s Pujol, which effectively ushered in the golden days of Mexican fine dining when he opened it more than a decade ago. I don’t doubt that it would soon be top dog of the world’s best restaurants (currently, it is #17 in the world, and #3 in Latin America), with cooking this thoughtful, this refined, this delicious, globally-conscious yet Mexico-focused, how could it not be? I first went to Pujol in 2011 before it cracked any world’s best restaurant lists; three visits later, the restaurant has grown in confidence but has defiantly not rested on its laurels, boldly continuing to re-think Mexican cuisine. At a September dinner, I happily partook of past favorites – the sea bass ceviche taco with a chayote and hoja santa tortilla, a dish that expanded our definition of what a taco was and could be; an over-ripe banana with macadamia nuts, chili, and brown butter, a modern, magical take on a childhood dish from the Mexican highlands. But I was also stunned by new ones: a salad of rosemary blossoms and fava beans with a vinaigrette made from chicken skin stock, orange juice and lime, topped by fried cilantro, tart, fresh, punchy, it was a combination of flavors that I hadn’t tasted anywhere else. But especially, there was the 163 day-old mole madre, just black mole topped with sesame seeds, simple and complex, elemental and audacious, with depths and layers of flavor that took time for the mind to comprehend, a microcosm of Mexico on a plate.
Fat Rice (Chicago) – In a Chicago dining year overstuffed with food PR-fueled hype and unceasing paroxysms of ecstasy from food writers and Twitter foodies at the opening of the latest “chef-driven” restaurant, Fat Rice received universal acclaim and a continuous stream of diners the old-fashioned way: by putting out delicious, innovative, unforgettable food. If you’ve read this blog over the years, you know I had continuously gushed over chef-owners Abe Conlon’s and Adrienne Lo’s X-Marx, arguably the best underground dining experience in Chicago in the past 5 years. So I wasn’t surprised at all that when they opened their brick and mortar restaurant it would be continuously packed with more than hour-long waits every night, that Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton would select it as #4 (and only Chicago representative) in his widely-anticipated 10 Best New Restaurants in America, that it would be destination dining for everyone from national food writers to international chefs to BFF Debra’s work colleague from California. Abe’s food, a bold, inventive take on Macanese cuisine that was still deeply-rooted in its Portuguese and Chinese roots was unlike anything you’d eat in Chicago; Adrienne’s stellar front-of-the-house service carefully evoked the warmth and familiarity of Asian hospitality. The namesake dish, arroz gordo, a deliriously transporting mélange of rice, seafood, pork, and sausages in a clay pot was deservedly the talk of the town, but Abe’s other dishes, from a fiery stir-fry of squid and chili to a hearty pork belly braised with tamarind and the Malaysian fish paste balachang to a sexy, luxurious serradura, a Macanese dessert of whipped cream, guava, and biscuits, were all unforgettable.
AmaZ and Fiesta (Lima) – So I cheated by putting these two together. In May, I went to Lima to find out exactly why the world’s fooderati was proclaiming the city and Peruvian cuisine as the second coming of gastronomy. I wrote about it extensively here. Although I checked out Lima’s two most acclaimed restaurants, Astrid y Gaston (#14 in the world, #1 in Latin America) and Central (#50 in the world, # 4 in Latin America), the best meal of the trip for me was a toss-up between another two. At AmaZ, Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino showcased ingredients and cooking techniques from the Amazon with a sophisticated veneer, resulting in quite the unique dining experience; the giant Amazonian snails, churros, stuffed with a chorizo sofrito and tapioca balls, was a palate-expanding experience that mingled the earthiness of the snails, the richness of the sausage, and the sweet glutinousness of the tapioca. At Fiesta, Chef Hector Solis elevated the cooking of his native Chiclayo, a mountainous region in Northern Peru. His take on the traditional Chiclayo dish, arroz con pato, was stellar, the duck perfectly cooked, the rice savory with not only onions and cilantro but the decadent smothering of duck fat drippings.
The Lobby at the Peninsula Chicago (Chicago) – The Peninsula Chicago’s lobby restaurant is notable in the city as being the only hotel lobby restaurant, usually the haunt of jet-lagged tourists and expense-account-laden salesmen, with a Michelin star. And that’s because of Chef Lee Wolen’s deeply satisfying, resonant, beautifully-thought out cuisine. The perfection that was his roast chicken with brioche stuffing was widely-talked about by those who had braved the Mag Mile tourists to come eat at a hotel lobby, but on a November dinner, two other dishes clearly stood out as well: delicately succulent scallops ingenuously served with morcilla blood sausage was radiant yet fortifying; a dish of monkfish with oxtail and apples was astounding in its successful combination of two strong proteins with the sour-tart green apple service as a calming antidote. Update: In January 2014, Chef Wolen becomes Chef de Cuisine of another Michelin-starred restaurant, Boka.
The Butcher and the Bee (Charleston) – When everyone comes to Charleston, all they can talk about is the food. And I had several good meals there in October, my first visit since 2004. Yes, I went to Sean Brock’s celebrated Husk, but the one meal that remained with me was a lunch at hip, buzzy, casual sandwich shop The Butcher and the Bee, where a robust oyster stew deliriously filled with plump sweet-salty oysters and the flavors of generously tart tomatoes and bittersweet collard greens, seemingly simmered for hours, encapsulated the seductiveness of contemporary Southern cooking. The meal also included a delicious pork belly sandwich which had traces of the flavor profile of banh mih and a stellar silky, curried cauliflower, terrific reminders of how this proud city has embraced the world amidst its centuries-old culinary legacy.
The Walrus and the Carpenter (Seattle) – Hours-long waits and deafening national media buzz for Chef Renee Erickson’s tiny seafood counter can create dining expectations that can lead to crushing disappointment. But in November, amidst several exceptional meals in what is probably one of the most exciting dining cities in the US currently, my post-Thanksgiving meal here was the most memorable, and the most indicative of what makes Seattle dining worth boarding a four hour flight for: the freshest, sweetest, briniest oysters imaginable from Puget Sound; an imaginative snail roulade with firm squash skin encasing tender snails caressed with a creamy sauce; simply roasted dates lovingly drizzled with a vanilla-infused olive oil that teased the palate with a dizzying range of sweetness. This was food that was simple yet creative, locally-sourced, painstakingly and thoughtfully prepared.
Kam Fung (Hong Kong) – I’ve spent some time in Hong Kong over the past couple of years, and there is always no shortage of great dining experiences in this food-mad city. On my January trip, I had several excellent meals as expected, from a revisit to the best dimsum on the planet at Michelin-starred Fook Lam Moon (which was on my best dining of 2011 list) to a first visit to New York Times reviewed Ammo at the Asia Society. But none can beat a mid-morning jaunt to a traditional cha chaan teng, those fast-disappearing coffee shops that marked the romantic Hong Kong of yore. At Kam Fung, hidden in a sidestreet in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong island where storefronts seemed frozen in time (or at least by a hazy Wong Kar-Wai film set in the 1960s), I sat with elderly men reading Cantonese newspapers at formica tables and partook of the most satisfying dining experience of the trip: otherworldly egg tarts with firm buttery crusts containing lush custard centers, washed down with smooth yet full-bodied milk tea, the nuanced concoction of tea and evaporated milk, one of the few lingering representatives of Hong Kong’s colonial past.
Sous Rising (Chicago) – When I first heard of Sous Rising, a new underground supper club in 2012, I was a little skeptical – given that the most talked-about supper clubs such as X-Marx and Iliana Reagan’s One Sister were all morphing into their brick-and-mortar, licensed, aboveground restaurant versions, hadn’t underground dining already jumped the shark? But I gave Sous Rising a try and boy was I glad I did. Chef Jake Bickelhaupt cooked in all of Chicago’s finest, leading-edge restaurants, from Charlie Trotter’s to Alinea to Schwa, and his cuisine is as ambitious, as boundaryless, as beautifully-conceived and plated as those of his former kitchen homes. But it is also thoughtful, personal, inimitable. And the warm, polished, stylish service his wife Alexa extends to their supper club guests is an irreplaceable complement to the food. On a blisteringly cold February evening of 12 courses that lasted three hours, a graceful bounty of delicious, sometimes-too-beautiful-to-eat plates emerged from Jake and Alexa’s home kitchen, but two dishes stood out, both evocative of spring and rejuvenation: a gently playful potato and milk soup with peas and potato chips, and a whimsical but confidently crafted “winter corn” dish comprised of popcorn, a black bean and corn cake on a fava blossom puree, and an egg yolk with cream of corn. Update: Sous Rising is morphing into its brick-and-mortar, licensed, aboveground restaurant self, 42 Grams, beginning January 2014, at 4662 N. Broadway in Uptown.