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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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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