Yes, this year felt a little bit more glorious than years past. Not only because I had really, really great food – in restaurants, in homes, in hawker centers – but also, since I flew close to 80,000 miles for work and a little play, I was very fortunate to have shared many generous, heartwarming, unforgettable meals with family and old and new friends not just in Chicago, but in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, Scottsdale, Minneapolis, Houston, Manila, and Singapore, as well. I’ve had meals this year with the highest-quality ingredients sourced from the best purveyors (and in one X-Marx Chicago dinner, foraged from a patch of green in Humboldt Park), spectacular culinary inventiveness from chefs at the top of their game, and unexpected pairings, combinations, and cooking techniques; but more importantly, most of these meals were also celebrations with people I cared a lot about, full of remembrances, excitement, and possibilities, with personal bonds strengthened or re-ignited or instantaneously created.
As in previous years, I’ve tried to keep this list of my most memorable dining experiences to ones in Chicago, but I had to include several from other parts of the world, including my top choice for my best meal of the year, at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village in Singapore, site of Top Chef DC’s Finale Quickfire Challenge. Happy reading!
1. East Coast Lagoon Food Village (Singapore) – As old Asia hands would tell you, the best food in the region could be found among its street vendors and cooks. Singapore’s version of street food is found in its hawker centers, open-air culinary marketplaces where a variety of cooks prepare local specialties from memory and inheritance. I joined ex-Chicagoans Des, Renaissance Person and my gym boxing class chum, and the lovely Lauren, my Chicago theater buddy, and their friends from around the world, for a singular meal at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village, a popular spot for locals since the late 1970s. It recently captured the fooderati’s imagination, though, when Padma had the final four of Top Chef DC sweat it out amongst its abundance of surprises and wonders. And Des, who grew up eating at Lagoon, made sure we ate better than the Top Chefs – amidst joyous travelers’ tales, we feasted on, among others, a refreshing rojak, the Singaporean salad of tofu and crispy vegetables made more distinct by the bold addition of Chinese preserved “century eggs”; flavorful, surprisingly un-greasy fried baby squids; and Singapore’s national dishes, the chaotic, unsurpassable chili crab, and the assertively tasty, unapologetically redolent black pepper crab, the best dish I ate this year.
2. Alinea – Every time you go to Alinea, the 7th best restaurant in the world, and one of only 81 three-star Michelin restaurants, Grant Achatz makes you realize that the best cuisine, like the best performing and visual arts, is boundary-less, in content, form, and aspiration. I re-visited Alinea in April, when one of my oldest friends, Dr. M, and his partner G, were in Chicago for a culinary weekend, and we were dazzled, mesmerized, and provoked by dishes such as Achatz’s ambitious homage to Escoffier’s filet de boeuf, complete with Marie Antoinette-like antique goblets for the wine pairing, contemporary and classic at the same time; a sexy, messy, interactive, visually picturesque pork belly wrap which defied origins and analysis; and a beautifully radiant sous vide of sturgeon, served with a stream of meticulously constructed “smoke”.
3. Avenues – I had some of the most complex, most flavorful, and most beautifully-plated dishes this year during my three visits to Avenues, where Curtis Duffy brilliantly and thoughtfully created food which, to this self-professed theater geek anyway, was the equivalent of a top-notch Stephen Sondheim musical (and received two Michelin stars in the process). I’ve gone to dinner here with some of my most exacting and globally-intrepid friends and we’ve been wowed by dishes such as perfectly-prepared salmon belly, served in the spring with vivacious apple milk, and in the winter with a masculine cod brandade; an original, memorable grains and nuts soup with sunflower broth which upended any preconceptions about what a grains and nuts dish would be (also selected by Food and Wine as one of the best dishes of the year); and a delicately grilled wagyu fillet confidently topped by Australian black truffle shavings.
4. X-Marx Chicago – In my opinion, X-Marx has transcended its roots as an “underground restaurant” and outpaced and outgrown all the other groups that are playing in that increasingly-crowded sandbox (and not only because it’s gotten unparalleled media attention this year for a non-restaurant, with coverage from Saveur.com to the Cooking Channel to the Chicago Tribune). In both its private dinners in its undisclosed location and its pop-up restaurants in Bucktown and the West Loop, Chefs Abe and Adrienne provided a true dining experience, with brazenly creative theme dinners which mixed, matched, and re-invented cuisines (FrenChinese or JapItaliano anyone?), which unapologetically demonstrated the culinary cutting-edge, and which treated its diners as educated, adventurous, and sophisticated. No home-cooking hoo-hah here, unlike some of the other Chicago supper clubs, with such stellar, creative dishes as the knockout deep fried porkchop sandwich with sambal and fried egg which I first had at the Macau dinner, and then was served in a modified version at the Best of X-Marx dinner (a dish selected by friend of From the Ledge Dash of Stash for his top ten dishes of the year); a surprising, enchanting Foie Gras ravioli with maple broth; and a glorious, perfectly seared skate wing stuffed with pork belly and served with an original purple yam puree. Additionally, X-Marx held two superb Filipino-themed dinners this year which made me want to grant them honorary Filipino citizenships (if only I could)!
5. Animal (Los Angeles) – Even Grant Achatz was tweeting about his dinner at Animal, and I couldn’t blame him since I had one of my best meals of the year in Jon Shook and Vinny Detolo’s rough-and-tumble, no-pretensions, balls-out shrine to meat-eating. My very dear LA-based friend, Chef Mako, and her husband Kevin, one of my favorite couples in the world, took me to the restaurant. Over stories only long-time friends could share, we had a superb meal with two stand-out dishes: a brawling poutine with very tender ox-tail gravy, and Shook’s and Detolo’s certifiably insane version of the Hawaiian loco-moco- foie gras, fried quail egg, spam fried in duck fat, and hamburger patty piled, messily, seductively, on top of one another, maddeningly, incomparably delicious.
6. Girl and the Goat – I’ve had the pleasure of Top Chef Stephanie Izard’s wonderful, brilliant cuisine before at the now-shuttered Scylla and her Wandering Goat supper club, but I had to go three times, and dragged unabashed Steph fan BFF Debra with me to two of those times, to make sure that her superb cooking could withstand the crazy media-generated hype for the hottest restaurant opening in this food-obsessed town. And it could and it did- the cuisine at Girl and the Goat was powerful, confident, ingenious, and wildly delicious, topped by an out-of-this-world beef tongue, so tender and un-gamy, with crunchy masa strips, spiked with cilantro sauce, a globalized, absolutely original take on Mexican chilaquiles.
7. Chizakaya – The other notable opening of the second half of 2010 for me, aside from Girl and the Goat, was Chizakaya, a not-your-purist’s take on the izakaya, or Japanese after-hours, small-plates serving pub. My pet peeve, the self-proclaimed Chicago food experts who encase themselves in seatbelt extenders on airplanes, scoffed at Chizakaya’s “inauthentic” menu on food forums and blogs, which was great for me. I didn’t have to fight it out with their pompous guts to sample Chef Harold Jurado’s inventive dishes: a lovely, fragrant blue crab congee which was more evocative of a terrific risotto; addictive fried chicken thighs with dashi mayonnaise; and stop-in-your-tracks togarashi-flavored crispy pig ears.
8. Uncle Mike’s Place – Filipino breakfast, comprised of sweet sausage (longanisa) or marinated pork (tocino) with fried egg and mounds of garlic rice, is unapologetically hearty, the product of a country built on sweaty, backbreaking work on farmlands. For me, this breakfast always conjured up fond memories of family trips and lazy adolescent summer days home from school, when life was so much simpler and clearer. And to have shared the kind of breakfast I grew up with, in an incongruous, long-standing diner in the middle of Chicago’s industrial zone, presided over by the charm and warmth of Uncle Mike and his Filipina wife, with either dear Filipino friends who possessed the same evocations and remembrances, or equally dear non-Filipino friends who were astounded and elated, comprised some of the highlights of my dining year.
9. The Purple Pig – If Animal was the dirty-talking, snarling, daredevil sexy older brother, than The Purple Pig was the more refined, more thoughtful, equally-sexy younger brother with a flaming streak of naughty. Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr.’s food, showcasing all parts of pig wonderful, showed a little more restraint, but no less daring, than Shook’s and Dotolo’s. Over the course of several meals in the year, I was amazed by the hearty, vibrant pig’s ear with kale and fried egg; the tart-bitter-sweet shaved brussel sprouts with pecorino cheese; and the robust pork neck gravy with ricotta. And in an early spring dinner, I was astounded by a bold stewed pig’s tail, an acquired taste for the culinary adventurer.
10. The Peninsula Manila Lobby Halo-Halo (Manila) – Halo-Halo is the quintessential Filipino dessert- a tall tumbler packed with shaved ice, cooked fruit, preserved fruit, beans, purple yam, leche flan, and ice cream, doused with condensed milk, it is an integral part of the Filipino experience, whether as a treat during languid summer days, or as part of a celebration or a special occasion. With its layers and incongruities, poets and sociologists alike have said the dish could function as a metaphor for Filipino identity. The one served at the Lobby of the Peninsula Manila was arguably one of the best in the rambunctious city I grew up in- creamy, sweet, crunchy, pasty, icy, and full of unidentified delights. Sharing it with my brother and my dad, after 13 years away from the Philippines, was irreplaceable.
(Photo: The mega-delish Chili Crab at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village in Singapore)