2010, our year in food

2010 for us, was a great year. We’ve worked our tails off, enjoyed a lot of relaxation, eaten a lot of food, and we definitely did a hell of a lot of travelling. We started it off in Napa and ended it a couple nights ago here in Copenhagen, toasting Champagne and eating oysters with the crew of AOC. In between, we’ve been to San Francisco, LA, Santa Fe, Denver, Boulder, Las Vegas, Austin, Houston, Chicago, New York, Dranouter, Antwerp, Ghent, London, and Copenhagen. Along the way, we’ve met friends and had experiences that we’ll never forget. It was definitely a flagship year for our little family.

I’ve always read many different blogs and seen their yearly “best of” lists and found them mostly interesting not because of the food and dishes that they describe, but because of the reasoning behind every recommendation. Its great insight into the writer’s preferences, who they are, and where they’ve been the past year. I personally think our list really speaks to our identity are as two individuals: we like both high and lower-end food, and put highly composed (and often more luxury and expensive) dishes on par with the ethnic and snack foods that some people just consider a part of every day life. This year, we obviously did a lot of travelling as you can see the our wayward stops of 2010, and I think our list proves a point that to us, at least, the company that you’re dining with is just as important as the restaurant you’re dining at.

So here it is:

Bruno kiwi, miner’s lettuce, parmesan, macadamia (Ubuntu, Napa, California)

This was one of the dishes Chef Fox prepared for us before he left Ubuntu in February. I think I loved it not only for its freshness, simplicity, and interesting blend of a specific sweet/sourness (kiwi) and umami (parmesan), but also because I was there to unload the truck and see Chef pretty excited (understatement) about the kiwis themselves. Miner’s lettuce grows like weeds in the ubuntu garden (and pretty much everywhere else in Northern California) and we always had huge boxes of them, so it was always good to put them to use in a way that really made that specific green work the the dish.

Breakfast Sandwich (Fremont Diner, Sonoma, California)

Fremont Diner is an absolute gem of a restaurant for Wine Country, especially if it’s a nice day outside (which it often is in Sonoma). There’s something about sitting outside on that back patio next to their garden, enjoying their simple, delicious food. It has become my West Coast version of Avec (in Chicago): my happy place where I take all the out-of-towners to impress. May be the best thing about this dish composed of a warm biscuit, griddled ham, and a thick smear of home-made jam, is that the ham (which they’re thankfully not shy in portion-size about) is cooked crispy, but cut thick enough to have a lovely chew to it. The whole sweet-salty-buttery-smokey interplay between everything is a pretty wonderous thing– it gives the dish a wholesomeness I’m sure is wholly intentional.

Barley and cauliflower, almonds and black trumpet (Relæ, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Relae was our meal of the year (with 7 days to spare too, way to finish strong, Justin and Karen.) The restaurant doesn’t complicate itself with the superfluous “high-end” items. No colorful garnishes that serve no purpose are used (I’m lookin’ at you, red-veined sorrel), and you replenish your own water and flatware. Instead, a lot of the energy is put into to food, which is truthfully proclaimed by this amazing dish; a porridge of barley, smoked almonds, cauliflower, and pickled black trumpet mushrooms. To me, what really made the dish sing is the underlying smokiness throughout every different complex bite, and that every component contributed a major part to both the flavor and texture of the dish.

Foie gras crème caramel (Manresa, Los Gatos, California)

Its hard to deny that David Kinch has become one of the most important, influential chefs in the US. I’ve never spent one day in his kitchen, but by working under and with chefs that he’s mentored, I can definitely say that he’s at the very least (but probably more), subtly influenced who I am as a cook because of what he does and stands for at Manresa. We visited Manresa in the spring, and this dish was a lesson in minimalism. Not one flavor, whether it be the gaminess from the foie, the cumin-spiked custard, or the sweet caramel were huge flavors. Rather, it was all the small, minimal flavors that came together to make one very large impact.

North Sea sepia, a sauce of the heads, ashes (in de wulf, Dranouter, Belgium)

Our foray in to the Flemish region of Belgium and the amazing family that is in de wulf is well documented in this blog (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, just scroll down all the way.) We were treated to a dish that we were most curious about, the dish made with the sepia that I struggled over to clean, day after day. What really stood out in this dish is the texture from the sepia that you can only can get from the very freshest, and best of squid, and the very light cooking time that it receives. The ashes brought a sweet smokiness to the squid that was already brimming with the brininess of the sea.

‘Oxheart’ carrots scented with our ras el hanout, raw ‘white satin’ carrots, roasted cherries, ‘delfino’ cilantro (ubuntu, Napa Valley, California)

Aaron London came back on at ubuntu as Chef pretty much half way into my tenure there, so it was pretty interesting and quite exciting to see the kitchen change under a new chef. This was one of my favorite dishes that he’s ever done, which is saying a lot because it came off of my own station (you really get tired of your own dishes pretty quickly.) The first time I ate the dish the whole way through was when I accidentally made one extra and hurriedly scarfed it down in the back. I ate the whole thing, and then I ordered it again when I came in the next week with a few out of town friends. The whole dish is aromatic because of the ras el hanout– a fantastic compliment between all the different varieties of carrots, but especially for the oxheart, my favorite carrot of all time, mostly because it has a sweet, gelatinous center (when cooked correctly) that’s different from any other carrot I’ve ever had. Aaron still hasn’t given me his ras el hanout recipe, which he always put off to make only when I was really in the weeds with prep. I suppose for good reason.

Soon Tofu (Beverly Soon Tofu Restaurant, Los Angeles, California)

It was early 2010, it was cold outside. Nothing else really matters when this appears in front of you. Ethereal, spicy, slightly garlicky broth, soft tofu, and good friends. It was a great way to kick off our 2010.

“shark fin soup,” dungeness crab, black truffle custard (Benu, San Francisco, California)

I can’t understand many people’s disappointment with Benu, Chef Corey Lee’s post-TFL restaurant. It may be a testament to the influence and rising popularity of this whole “new natural” cuisine that rapidly populated itself after noma was named the #1 restaurant in the world by pellengrino (and even moreso now that their cookbook has come out.) Chefs started becoming more interested in vegetables, foraging, and self-sustained farming moreso than ever, shunning proteins as the main components of dishes. What befuddles though, me is that because of this, a chef like Chef Lee gets nailed with phrases like “soul-less,” “too inside-the-box,” and “without a point of view” when his food is anything but. You cannot expect a chef to come off of a nearly decade stint in a kitchen without taking the influences with him. Heck, I heard Grant Achatz served pommes souffle in the early days of Trio. At benu, Karen and I had an amazing meal that not only had a distinct Asian-American point of view, but also showed the chef’s background: a technically fearless cook with much respect to tradition whose not afraid to use what some may consider luxury ingredients. This dish shows every part of that: technique to create the texture of shark’s fin without actually using shark’s fin, an intense broth made with Jinhua ham, the Chinese ham dried like a proscuitto, and a custard wrought with the umami funk of truffles. There was so much contrast here: the different textures between custard and “shark’s fin”, and the weight of the dish vs the weight of the flavor. Overall, it made not only for an interesting, but tasty, complex dish.

Chicken Hara Masala (Himalaya Restaurant, Houston, Texas)

I’m not shy in stating that my favorite restaurant in Houston is Himalaya Restaurant, a Pakistani-Indian place tucked away in a shopping center off of a huge concrete freeway. Many people would assume that if an ethnic place is among the best spots in the city, than the dining scene must not be very good, but this isn’t the case. In all the cities I’ve been in this year, Houston’s dining scene probably has been the most exciting and thriving. That being said, our ethnic food really is just that good, especially in regard to Indian, Pakistani, and Vietnamese cuisines. What makes this dish so special to me is that I’ve seen amazing growth with this specific dish. It has so much so, that now Chef/Owner Kaiser Lashkari calls it his signature. So many cooks (me included) are so concerned nowadays with being the first rather than being the best. Dishes never get fine tuned. But this chicken hara masala has twisted from “good” dish to a classic that now sings with an array of spices, aromatics, and cilantro that I often dream about in between meals there.

Black cod, chervil cream, bone marrow broth (Manresa, Los Gatos, California)

When we first took our first few bites of this dish, we looked at each other, didn’t say a word, and knew what was going on in each other’s head. A perfectly cooked, flaky fish, creamy licorice flavor, and bone marrow broth, which really needs no description.

Toasted Pecan and Flax Seed with Rye Levain (Karen’s CE Class at French Pastry School w/ Master Baker Didier Rosada, Chicago, IL)

Okay so there may be a slight conflict of interest here, but the breads that Karen bring home have now become some of the best I’ve ever tasted (whether she agrees or not.) This was one of the ones we had when we went to Chicago. Somehow, baking the bread this way gave the pecans a natural sweetness that no pecan pie could ever do. No butter needed. Karen wanted to include the bread from Tartine which she had at Delfina as the table bread on this list, but I haven’t tasted it, so we’ll just take her word for it.

4505 Meats Burger (4505 Meats Stand, Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, San Francisco, California)

It’s really hard for me to get really excited about a burger. After all, it’s just a burger, right? Not if it’s a 4505 burger, recommended to me my Misha of @tastybitz via Chuck of @chuckeats. I’ve had it just once, but it was juicy, meaty, slightly smoky, salty, and sandwiched with a toasted bun that had a great chew to it. I pondered getting a second one, except that they were out when I went back. I won’t make that mistake again.

Dry Aged Squab (Roberta’s, Brooklyn, New York)

Okay so this isn't the squab, but it's the only picture we got from Roberta's that night. And this was one hell of a pizza (maybe best of the year? shoot)

If I could include my entire meal at Roberta’s, I would, but the whole night is a bit of a blur to me thanks only in partially to the wine at the Le Fooding event and the tallboy Nerga Modelos I had while waiting for the table. Everything that night hit the spot, the raw glass shrimp, the pizzas, the pastas, the wood-fired bread, but especially their in-house aged meat. There’s a very specific and fine line between aging meat and letting meat rot, and Chef Carlos and the guys over at Roberta’s have nailed that aggressive funkiness that only well-aged meat can get. We did have a huge aged rib-eye, smothered with bone marrow that night, but I was especially impressed with the aged squab, heavily charred, cooked to a rosy red, and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt. It tasted of a long, round gaminess that lingered on for the rest of the meal.

secret breakfast ice cream (Humphry Slocombe, San Francisco, California)

My cousin, Vanessa, introduced us (and more specifically, Karen) to Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream late last year (2009). And every so often, Karen has to get her fix of their secret breakfast ice cream. There’s nothing wrong with cornflakes and bourbon, but there’s really nothing wrong with it when it comes in the form of ice cream. I personally like mine also with a scoop of Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee ice cream, but Karen loves it straight up.

Butterscotch “sundae” (Redd, Yountville, Napa Valley, California)

Chef Plue’s desserts are comforting, tasty, and thankfully not too sweet. While I think a lot of people are doing “interesting” dessert these days, for some reason we always gravitate to the the things that are the simplest, and that we know and love. It must be the Chinese in us, as Chinese “dessert” normally consist of a plate of fresh fruit. Chef Plue ties the two (interesting and comforting) together very well, but this dessert  with foamed butterscotch sabayon, vanilla rum ice cream, caramel corn, and crunchy chocolate crumbles hits all the right spots. It’s a very grown up way of eating flavors you probably enjoyed as a child.

Canale (Boulettes Larder, Ferry Building, San Francisco, California)

Okay so maybe the biggest reason I’m including this in the list is because it took us nearly five different times of going to Boulettes Larder to actually get this canale (they run out quickly.) So absence may have aided in how good this thing actually tasted, but it really was an amazing few bites. Crispy on the outside, light and custard-y on the inside. Caramelized, lightly sweet, and wholly luscious.

Bar sausage and Trappist beers (de Kauwakkers, Dranouter, Belgium)

Bar sausages are good. Trappist brewed beers are real good. But having both of them with good friends are goooo-ood.

2010 was a fantastic year, and we’re starting off 2011 with a bang. Bastard in Malmo, noma, volt in Berlin, and the hopes of The Sportsman, The Hind’s Head, Le Chateaubriand, l’Arpege, and a whole host of other places that I’m really hoping we get to before we run out of money.

But I guess I’d rather be full of good food and broke than filled with bad food and lots of money.

Happy New Year.

About Justin

We cook, and bake at Oxheart Restaurant in Houston, TX. www.oxhearthouston.com
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3 Responses to 2010, our year in food

  1. ChuckEats says:

    the Manresa foie caramel should’ve made my list but then it would’ve been disproportionately Manresa 🙂 and i would’ve got my butt up to Napa – i’m sure the oxheart carrot dish would’ve made my list too! your comments on Benu are definitely interesting – and i believe there’s a lot of truth to them (but i disliked my meal.)

  2. Justin says:

    @Chuck: I was actually a little surprised not to see it on your list. Aren’t you due for a Manresa update anyway?

    About benu, I didn’t think you would like it. The way he composes dishes doesn’t really seem to match with the dishes that you like the most, but I hope you agree that his cooking, just because it has a lot of attention to technique, doesn’t make it soul-less, as I’ve heard from many people.

  3. I’m glad you have some Korean up there, soon dubu (tofu) is my favourite Korean soup. Though if you ever have encountered Budae Jigae it probably would have been up on your list too. Its the only thing that I can think of that incorporates processed cheese, hotdogs, spam and instant noodles that doesn’t make you want to hurl. I had some in Toronto….so dirty good. Maybe I will post a pic on my blog so you can see it in all of its glory.

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