Saturday, January 10, 2015

Best Restaurant Bites of 2014

I know. Just when you thought I was done, my hands wiped clean of 2014, I had to go and do this.

Basically, I'm aiming to write as many best of 2014 posts as I did actual posts last year. Or, the far more boring truth that I just really really like lists and felt compelled to eke out one more before I take down my Christmas tree and move on with 2015, already.

So, here we go… my favorite dishes I enjoyed outside of my apartment this year [with the usual (yawn) disclaimer that this list excludes any items I had at clients, even if they were, potentially, worthy of inclusion].

Squid Ink Spaghettini with Dungeness Crab, Uni Butter, Sardo Cheese, and Charred Kumquats from Orsa & Winston in Los Angeles
When Cathy and I made plans to dine at Josef Centeno's arguably most culinarily ambitious restaurant in what has become a veritable Centeno Complex at 4th & Spring Street in Downtown Los Angeles, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd read about the buttery, Japanese milk bread, stared into the eye of the "Breakfast in a(n Egg) Shell" across many an Instragram feed, and heard rumors of an exquisite, almost redundantly creamy risotto crowned with sea urchin and texturally reprieving geoduck. Centeno's foray into fine dining requires the diner to exhibit trust - to submit to his culpable hands via a tasting menu format that does not defer to dietary preference. As Cathy and I learned last February, to the trusting go the spoils. What was most unexpected, aside from the near flawless progression of courses that seamlessly balanced precision with nuances of whimsy, was the supplemental dish we ordered on a, well, whim. The squid ink spaghettini's al dente strands could have stood alone with perhaps no more than a sheen of oil or gloss of butter and been spectacular. But the marriage of the noodles with sweet crab, luscious uni butter, sardo cheese, and game-changing charred kumquats brought this dish into closed-eye-revelation territory. Nearly twelve months later it still stands out to me like an exclamation point amidst a block of punctuationless text. 

Courtesy of Republique's Facebook
French Fries at Republique in Los Angeles
In the moment I remember thinking, "These are really good fries." Then, a minute later, pausing mid-fry to, again, reflect, "Really really really good fries." Partially provoked by the assistance of splashy pours from Wine Director Taylor Parsons, two orders of the assertively salty, crisp strands barely seemed sufficient to cover our party of three girls, even with the roast chicken, agnolotti, crusty baguette with Normandy butter, and roasted cauliflower that were also nourishing our table. The next day I thought perhaps I was mistaken in my over-hyperbolic response, blinded by too many sips of whatever it was that was keeping us so well-hydrated that evening. Yet, within weeks Jonathan Gold proclaimed himself similarly enamored, and I pumped my fist in vindication. These truly are the best fries I've experienced in Los Angeles. 

The BeeSting Pizza at Roberta's in Brooklyn, New York
A study in the reasons why savory needs sweet, and sweet needs spicy, and we all need this pizza. Thin slices of spicy soppressata find their foil in a seemingly misplaced drizzle of honey on this now iconic NYC pie that also demonstrates the importance of a crust with enough character to stand up to its toppings. Obviously, there's something in the water out there. I'll take a pitcher. 

The Strawberry Cronut at Dominique Ansel in New York
The not-so-humble pastry that started it all: Multi-hour lines. Pre-ordering frenzy. Imitators peddling all iterations of imitations. The thing is? The cronut really is everything one hopes and wants a croissant-donut hybrid to be... maybe even more. 

Santa Barbara Prawns with Lentils at Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos
These prawns, likely still moving 10 minutes before we were served them, provided ample justification for the spontaneous road trip my brother and I took up to Santa Ynez on a Sunday afternoon this past June. We were there, of course, to sample the acclaimed flatbreads for research prior to his October wedding in the area, but left with a taste memory that superseded that of even the prized pizzas. The prawns, a delicacy on their own, became even further superlative against the earthiness of the stewed lentils. We scraped the plate clean, and then I sucked the heads. 

Rhubarb Crumble Ice Cream from Salt & Straw in Los Angeles (via Joan's on Third)
My initial introduction to Salt & Straw, Portland's beloved small-batch ice cream purveyor, came via a scoop of Rhubarb Crumble with Toasted Anise from Joan's on Third on one of the hotter days of the summer. I finished it before my co-worker and I could make it back to the office - a mere five-minute work from the cafe. I could say it's because I didn't want the ice cream to melt in the hot sun, but the truth? I couldn't pause to take a breath between bites. I had the same problem when we bought a pint of the California Peaches and Lemon Crumble for a birthday luncheon, and when I visited the brick-and-mortar shop on Larchmont for a scoop of Almond Brittle with Salted Ganache. Salt & Straw makes homemade haute. And ridiculously irresistible.

Savory Bread Pudding with a Fried Egg at Sqirl in Los Angeles
When Chef and Jamstress Jessica Koslow tells you to order something, you comply. So while we had already requested two orders of the sorrel pesto rice bowl, a slab of brioche toast with fresh ricotta and Santa Rosa plum jam, and more sweets than I care to admit here in honor of Daniela's last-days-of-LA brunch, we ordered it. It, being the piece de resistance of our two-person feast - a square of warm, cheesy, savory bread pudding with a fried egg on top. Though I'd already taken half my rice bowl to task when it arrived, I couldn't stop stealing bites from the cast iron skillet. It was, after all, a farewell-to-LA brunch. Even if it wasn't my farewell. 

Courtesy of Yelp

The Catalan Tomato Toast, or "Pa Amb Tomaca" at Smoke.Oil.Salt in Los Angeles
In a year defined by toast - of thin tartines strategically draped with smoked salmon and chives, of avocado mashed into sturdy whole grain platforms, and of highfalutin nut butters smeared over highfalutin heirloom grain breads - Chef Perfecto Rocher's "Pa Amb Tomaca" was, quite literally, the toast of the town in 2014. Even now, typing this as the rain falls outside my window, I am thinking how lovely a meal it might make tonight. Just a plate of rustic bread, purposely charred into caramelization, imperfectly garnished with crushed tomatoes and their jus.

Ode to Zuni Chicken at a.o.c. in Los Angeles
Suzanne Goin's Ode to Zuni is an ode worth playing on repeat. The presentation of this chicken-for-two (or more), mounded atop an oblong platter with vibrant green olives, greens, and torn, toasted bread, invites a communal experience. It says, "Pull up a chair. Stay a while." It says, "Drink a little too much. Laugh louder than you may think is acceptable in a restaurant of this caliber." It says, "There is no other white meat. Drop mic. Suzanne Goin, out." 

Nectarine & Raspberry Vacherin with Crème Fraîche and Almond Nougatine at a.o.c. in Los Angeles
My favorite sweet dish of the year undoubtedly goes to Pastry Chef Christina Olufson's sorbet and meringue layered vacherin cake, an inspired take on the classic French dessert. While it's tempting to attribute this praise to the timing of its presentation as the culmination to a laughter-fueled 31st birthday dinner spent with friends, it would be negligent to do so. This show-stopper straddles the divide between cake and sorbet, over-the-top and not-enough-on-top, and sweet and tart, never veering too far in either direction. It's just... right. And the perfect way to end both a meal at a.o.c. and a final best of 2014 list here.

1 comment:

Gastronomer said...

Now that was a tasty year! Here's to an even more delicious 2015...starting this coming Monday :)