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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Shining Through

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I’m back! And no, I wasn’t cocooned inside Noma’s Nordic Food Lab trying to make edible moss or permanently ensconced as family butler in the Dustin Lance Black-Tom Daley household for the past few weeks. I was jaunting around Asia visiting family and friends, and sampling, as always, some of the best food you can have on the planet (stay tuned for my soon to drop Best Dining of 2014 to read about some of my Asia culinary adventures).  I was particularly intrigued by what I was hearing from both friends in the Philippines and Pinoys passing through Chicago that my hometown of Manila has started to see a burgeoning chef-driven restaurant scene.  Don’t get me wrong, Manila has always offered an abundance of culinary pleasures (as Anthony Bourdain wisely sampled) , but in my  annual trips over the past five years, I’ve always been to restaurants that served hearty, rustic Filipino food, either traditionally or with slight, modern twists to them.  Unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, and now increasingly Bangkok, Manila’s thriving, energetic restaurant scene hasn’t always been known to contain many bright examples of places driven by a single chef’s vision, ambition, or drive.  But with the Philippines experiencing impressive GDP growth averaging around 7% annually, second only to China in the region of the world that economists, wealth managers, and savvy businessmen have anointed as defining the 21st century, it would logically follow though that more disposable income and a more affluent professional class would exist in the country’s capital city. And that Filipinos who have studied, lived, and cooked in the US, Europe, and developed Asia, would come back to a booming, ambitious, opportunity-filled metropolis and open their restaurants. I managed to visit a couple of them during my Manila trip, but Mecha Uma which presented the unique cuisine of 25 year old wunderkind Chef Bruce Ricketts (the closest I can describe it as is Filipino-Japanese-global) gave me one of my most memorable meals of the year, blowing away without a doubt some of the meals I’ve had in Chicago.

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