It’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 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.