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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The Year of Eating Gloriously

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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. 

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Dining Memories of 2009

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p1010253.JPGAll my close friends know that I am as passionate and as intensely curious about food and cuisine, from sourcing to plating, as I am about theater, film, and art, but I rarely write about them on this blog (in the two years and change that http://www.fromtheledge.com/ has been alive and kicking, I’ve posted approximately 16 food-related entries as compared to 143 for theater and 57 for film).  There’s only so much time and intellectual capacity that I have in a year to write about all the things and experiences that have made an indelible impression on me, so sometimes culinary matters get shunted aside in favor of other blog topics.  And, as I have said previously, there’s so many other people in this gastronomy-obsessed city we live in who can write about food more authoritatively and vividly than I can (plus have more gut-capacity and better digital-photo-taking skills than I have) that unless the culinary experience was quite unique, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it.  So my dining end-of-year-list has always been my attempt to share the myriad of dishes and dining experiences that left an impression on me during the year past.  I’ve tried very hard to keep the list to my Chicago dining experiences this year, unlike in previous lists, but I had to make an exception for the arguably singular, but also ambivalence-inducing, dining pilgrimage I made to The French Laundry in the summer, where some of the dishes stunned me into speechlessness, but where the overall culinary point of view felt somewhat old-fashioned.  Here, then, are my top ten dining memories of 2009:

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Transcendence

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Underground restaurants, or secret supper clubs, have continued to prosper (hey, even Des Moines has one), so much so that in New York City last year, five of them collaborated on a two-evening Thanksgiving dinner that attracted more than 150 guests a night.  In Chicago, despite the scoffing of ornery food bloggers who will remain unnamed (whose bad moods may have been triggered by continuously needing to request seatbelt extenders on plane rides), there are probably more than half a dozen supper clubs tickling both the palates and the sense of cloak and dagger excitement of the city’s foodie community.  As my devoted blog readers know, I am a big supporter of Sunday Dinner Club, and have attended their various dinners over the past year and a half, each time bringing with me new apostles to the underground dining concept.  I have also gone to a couple more of the Chicago supper clubs, as well (and since I haven’t blogged about them or mentioned them by name, I probably wouldn’t be back).  A lot of my friends have been drawn by the “underground” or “secret” part – there’s always a thrill to anything covert, anything promising the unexpected, anything that seems to have only an “in the know” few.  But that’s only part of the equation – there’s that other word, you know, “restaurant”…and I think underground dining is so much more important to our contemporary food culture because of that:  the Sunday Dinner Club chefs for one focus on seasonal, organic food and small-farm producer sourcing; they also build a community among their attendees, who come again and again.  Plus the food is for the most part delicious.  The new-ish Chicago underground supper club, X-Marx Chicago, in my opinion, though, takes the “restaurant” part of the phrase to an entirely new level – incorporating elements of finer dining into the underground.  Last weekend, however, when it hosted a “wine dinner” with a mystery guest chef, and wine pairings thoughtfully selected by Craig Perman of the West Loop boutique wine store, Perman Wine Selections, it elevated the entire underground restaurant scene into transcendence.

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