As is typical for people with anxious personalities (read: neurosis), I’ve been contemplating (read: obsessing over) my best restaurant bites of 2009 post for the past month.
Err… three months.
Okay, fine, ever since I published my “Best Bites of 2008” post last year.
It’s a tricky thing to reduce a whole year of eating out into just ten bites or dishes. What qualifies a bite for such an esteemed designation? The shock of a unique, yet surprisingly delicious combination of flavors? A taste that elevates the senses and creates that over-used feeling of umami? Or something that evokes a glassy-eyed, “wow” reaction?
I’ve spent weeks reminiscing over the meals I’ve eaten this year, engaging in a vicious internal debate about whether, for example, the duck confit at Noca or the soft-shell crab at Tavern are superior to other contenders.
I loved the duck confit, but did I love it more than the duck breast with roasted peaches at Rustic Canyon?
And then I’d start to panic about the items I’d already deemed worthy of the list.
LA-OC Foodie thought Gjelina’s fingerlings were underseasoned. I fretted. Was I wrong about them? Did they need more salt? Or were they just as perfect as I remember them to be?
And, then I began picturing the loudly pontificating detractors.
“I can’t believe you are including something from a CHAIN restaurant! How dare you call yourself a food blogger?!”
“Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, again? Seriously, do you eat anywhere else? You are soooo not the next Jonathan Gold. You aren't even worthy of your Yelp profile!"
But then, last night, as I frantically uploaded pictures before my dinner date with Anna from Banana Wonder, I came to a realization.
A bite isn’t made perfect by the flavor or texture alone – a bite is made notable by the entire experience of eating it.
The company makes a difference. The surroundings make a difference. The service makes a difference. And the mood and expectations of the diner in that particular moment make a difference.
It’s impossible for two people to have the exact same reaction to a particular dish or plate because no two people are the same. Of course I’m going to respond differently to my first ever taste of runny eggs than someone who has dipped their toast in a river of golden yolk every morning for the past ten years. And of course I’m going to attach more significance to a bite that is taken on a particularly memorable occasion than one taken when I’m grouchy and anxious to get home to watch “White Collar” on Hulu.
Different circumstances, different personalities, different tastes and different backgrounds are the reason that so many food blogs can successfully coexist. I can read twenty reviews of LudoBites at Royal/T because I know that each review is going to bring a unique perspective to the table. One diner loves the squid with chorizo oil, another finds it undercooked for his tastes. One diner raves about the hangar steak, another raves about the veal with udon.
It is with this realization that I can confidently go forth and announce the following as my top ten bites of 2009. I don't expect everyone, or even anyone, to agree with my choices, because, as I mentioned, it's my list -- and I'll fill it with as many dishes from Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza as I see fit, gosh darn it!
Or, maybe just the ones that, like my other favorites, I fell in love with at first bite.
Animal’s pork belly with kimchi, peanuts, chili soy, and scallions
Up until I savored the caramelized chunks of pork belly at Animal this past May, I was under the impression that pork belly would be a gelatinous, gag-inducing wad in my mouth. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s meaty chunks of fatty pork shocked me with their tender shreddability, and were elevated even further when paired with the sweet and spicy elements on the plate.
Ricky’s Fish Tacos
I didn’t believe Danny from Kung Food Panda when he insisted that Ricky’s fish tacos are the best in the city. I didn’t believe that I could find gastronomical delight from a stand on a street corner in Silver Lake. And I didn’t believe that one bite of the delicately battered fresh fish taco could stretch my lips into a smile so big that everyone in my vicinity took notice. I’m still smiling today just thinking about it.
LudoBites 2.0 Foie Gras Croque Monsieur
I didn’t like foie gras the first two times I tried it. At all. The texture was unpleasant, the aftertaste harsh and vicious on my tongue, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how many wasted calories I was ingesting. But then came a foie gras tart, and then… the foie gras croque monsieur during my third visit to LudoBites at BreadBar. My roommate said it was “like Christmas in [his] mouth.” I couldn’t agree more.
Sam Woo’s Roasted Duck
Our waitress hated me, I was tired and dirty from a 10-mile hike to the Bridge to Nowhere, and I was not in the mood for Chinese food. But then I took a bite of the restaurant’s succulently tender, crisp-skinned roasted duck, and suddenly all was well with the world again.
Huckleberry’s Green Eggs and Ham
“I’m going to get salmonella poisoning.” I thought when I tore my fork through my first runny yolk at the Westside’s favorite brunch spot. I was appalled by the streak of yellow saturating the homemade English muffin on my plate, and had to check with my friend Ashley multiple times to confirm that it was okay to eat. It was. So okay that I’ve gone back for the dish three more times since. Turns out, I love runny yolks.
Osteria Mozza’s Stracciatella w/ Celery and Herb Salad
No “Diana Takes a Bite” top ten list would be complete without the inclusion of something fresh from the hands of my chef idol, Ms. Nancy Silverton. So fresh, in fact, that I only just enjoyed this dish last night. It sealed my 2009 Mozza memories with an appropriate kiss. The lightness of the salad was the perfect foil for the decadent buffalo mozzarella cheese. When our server saw Anna and my bare plates, he joked, “Disgusting, huh?” Disgustingly good.
Cafe R+D’s Chopped Chinese Chicken Salad
Even now, I hesitate to admit that one of my favorite bites of the year was a $17 salad from a chain restaurant. At a mall. In Orange County. But just looking at the picture sets my tongue awash with longing for the addicting combination of pliant noodles, crunchy nuts and vegetables, tender chunks of chicken, and sweet mango. I don’t care how much it costs my reputation and wallet – I love this salad.
Pizzeria Mozza’s Bianca pizza w/ the addition of fennel sausage
I tried to delete the image from my head and pick another pizza instead – perhaps the now-closed Riva’s patate simplice with fontina cheese, yukon gold potatoes, rosemary and sea salt, or Marche Moderne’s Alsatian Tart Flambee. I tried to forget about the chewy yet crisp crust, the lush application of fontina and mozzarella cheese, and the arresting kick from the pleasantly greasy sausage. I tried and I failed. Pizza this well-executed can’t be forgotten.
Gjelina’s Crispy Fingerling Potatoes w/ Truffle Oil, Herbs and Parmesan
My mom loves potatoes so much that in college her friends nicknamed her “Spud.” If all potatoes tasted like Gjelina’s crispy fingerlings, I might end up with that nickname too.
Canele’s French Toast w/ Fig Compote and Marscapone
Simply put -- it’s the best damn French toast I’ve ever eaten. So good, in fact, that I’m willing to put my dainty Christian sensibility aside and use the word “damn” to describe it.