In selecting a list of best dishes from 2011 I faced the difficult task of choosing those which stood out on their own, outside the context of the meals in which they appeared. My favorite dishes from this year are very different from my favorite meals, which will be shared in a shortly upcoming post. For me, 2011 was a year of many discoveries. It was the year I had the realization that Mexico is on par with some of the greatest culinary destinations of the world, including Japan, China, France, and Italy. It was a year where the food scene in Sweden skyrocketed forward and is now on track to catch up with neighboring Denmark. It was also a year where I realized one does not have to travel very far for exceptional eating. Some of the best restaurants are right here in the United States, and San Francisco, Charleston, and Chicago are leading the pack.
This list was inspired by the wonderfully variedposts by my friends Chuck Eats and the Ulterior Epicure, with whom I shared many of the below meals. It was particularly interesting how our varied tastes led to different determinations of favorite dishes of meals we both thought were exceptional.
Of all the places I've visited this year, these are the dishes that particularly stood out.
#25 Birria de lengua de res (Birria "el Zalate", San Jose del Cabo, Mexico) (Photos)
Stewed cow tongue topped with crispy raw onion, cilantro, and finished with a squeeze of lime. The meat so soft it could be eaten with no more than a spoon. The stew was served with corn tortillas.
#24 Espardenyes (Rafa's, Roses, Spain) (Photos)
When shellfish is this fresh, it rarely needs more than a dash of salt and olive oil to create an outstanding dish. Even though El Bulli is closing, Rafa's remains one of the most delicious local restaurants in town.
#23 Onion, ricotta, shortbread crumble (Eleven Madison Park, New York) (Photos)
A slowly roasted onion with layers that, when spread open, looked more like a flower than a vegetable. The subtly sweet onion was served with warm ricotta, a crunchy shortbread crumble, and diced pickled onion.
#22 Summer fruits and vegetables (Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York) (Photos)
A beautiful slab of garden vegetables, fruits, and herbs that was as fun to eat as it was delicious. Each bite was different was a different combination of flavor and texture that all seemed to work together.
#21 Raw lamb with kale (Mistral, Stockholm, Sweden) (Photos)
Sheets of raw lamb with fried and air-dried chips of crispy kale. As the only meat course during this meal, when taken in context, the flavors were more akin to a fish than a meat. The pairing with this dish was also exceptional, a buttery glass of champagne "comme autrefois."
#20 Sea urchin, abalone, salmon roe cocktail (Donguri, New York)
A martini glass of abalone, sea urchin, and salmon roe with a light vinaigrette and sprinkled with fresh herbs. With shellfish this fresh, minimal preparation is all that is needed to create an exceptional dish. The only problem with this dish was how quickly it was finished.
#19 Tabacco, funghi porcini, & noci (Il Canto, Siena, Italy) (Photos)
What was once a place where I had one of the worst meals of my life recently served me one of the most hauntingly interesting dishes I've had in recent memory. Slices of raw porchini mushroom covered in mushroom dust and raw tobacco. The tobacco-sting somehow made the mushrooms taste sweet. I am now convinced Chef Paolo Lopriore is a genius who is not afraid to take risks, even if it leads to some dishes not sitting well.
#18 Structures of Peach (Schloss Berg, Germany) (Photos)
Chef Christian Bau, at the forefront of the “new German cuisine” movement, has a commanding understanding of textures and complimentary flavors. In this dish, decorated with spheres of different textures and flavors of rose, champagne, and red fruits, everything comes together into a light and fruity dessert lifted with a hint of champagne.
This dish consisted of prawns just barely cooked sitting atop a carrot-prawn bisque. There was a beautiful vegetal sweetness from the carrots that nicely complimented the prawns. Chef Carme Ruscalleda is truly one of the greatest chefs in Spain whose cuisine will hopefully receive more attention now that neighboring El Bulli has closed.
#16 Cemita de Milanesa (Cemitas Lupita, Cholula, Mexico) (Photos)
Thinly pounded and breaded veal cutlet served with herbaceous pápalo (Bolivian coriander), hand-pulled local quesillo, freshly scooped avocado, sweet and smoky chipotle, and crispy red onions, is drizzled with olive oil and served inside a scooped-out sesame-egg roll. This seemingly simple sandwich, made at a small stand at the back of a hectic market in Cholula, is one of the most complex tasting and delicious sandwiches I've ever eaten. This sandwich is worth a trip to Cholula alone.
#15 Pozole de Hongos (Topolobampo, Chicago) (Photos)
This dish showed me that Chef Rick Bayless has a masterful understanding of Mexican sauces and their flavors, and most importantly, his ability to reproduce them in the kitchen. This variation of pozole was one of the best pozole dishes I have ever eaten, with just the right amount of subtle smoky spice dancing on the tongue until the last bite.
#14 Beets cooked over the embers (McCrady's, Charleston, South Carolina) (Photos)
These beats soaked up the flavors of the fire during the slow roasting which, when combined with the caramelized sugars of the beets, made one of the best tasting beets I've ever had.
#12 Boiled meats ... not boiled (Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy) (Photos)
Boiled meats is a particularly nostalgic dish for Chef Massimo Bottura who grew up eating them in his home. As a homage to his roots, chef Bottura created a skyline of different parts of beef and pork sitting behind a vegetal foam made to resemble central park. This New York City tribute was inspired a recent trip.
#11 Vuelve a al vida (MeroToro, Mexico City, Mexico) (Photos)
The former chef of Ensenada's Laja, Jair Téllez, recently opened a Baja-style seafood restaurant in the heart Mexico City. Despite being in the middle of the country, the fish is unbelievably fresh. This chilled dish, based off the Mexican "return to life" tomato drink known for alleviating hangovers, features chunky stripes of sea urchin and barnacles with cubes of fresh cucumber and flakes of parsley. I could eat this dish all day.
#10 Marinated mackerel and sesame ice cream (La Vie, Osnabrück, Germany) (Photos)
I know I love a meal when I anxiously await the next course. This was the case at La Vie, where I was sitting at the edge of my seat in anticipation. For this appetizer, wedges of mackerel sat next to a subtly sweet sesame ice cream the nutty taste of which still lingers in my mouth. The flavor of sesame really complemented the oily skin of the mackerel. This dish was chilled, fresh, light, and full of flavor.
#9 Sashimi on ice (Kozue, Tokyo)
Few things make me happier than a plate of fresh sashimi. Here, slices of sweet shrimp, red snapper, fatty tuna, fluke, sea urchin, and squid are served on a bed of shaved ice keeping them chilled until the very last minute.
For this dessert, Chef Achatz stepped out of the kitchen, rolled out a silicon table cloth, and began plating our table with dessert. Before our eyes he created a gorgeous edible painting, splashing sauces of blueberry, chocolate, and caramel. This dish was as delicious as it was interactive and exciting. Chef Achatz is truly thinking outside the box not just for flavor, but also for the dining experience as a whole.
Choosing favorite dishes from Chef Enrique Olvera's 2011 menus at Pujol was painfully difficult: there were too many. In this dish, eaten in the fall, slowly roasted pork was laid over a poblano-infused corn tortilla and topped with serrano chile, small dollops of poblano cream, and a smoky and tangy chipotle sauce. With dishes like this, Chef Olvera reminds us that Mexican cuisine should be receiving a lot more attention than it does, and that it has a cultural depth and flavor palate that competes with the greatest cuisines of the world.
#6 Scallop in three servings (Frantzén/Lindeberg, Stockholm, Sweden) (Photos)
With this dish, Chef Björn Frantzén demonstrated his deft understanding of Japanese cuisine and his ability to apply it to Scandinavian ingredients. For the first part, a scallop was cooked in its shell with a lemon sabayon and topped with shaved truffle. Then, the second part was served raw after having been marinated and bound in confit of its roe with a bouillon of dried scallops, algae, and dried girolles. Lastly, for the third serving, the cooking juices were poured into the shell and drank as a soup.
#5 Chile en Nogada (El Mural de los Poblanos, Puebla, Mexico) (Photos)
A breaded poblano pepper stuffed with minced pork, nuts and dried fruits, topped with a chilled walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and fresh parsley. August in Puebla is my favorite time of the year: walnut season. It's the only month of the year when chiles en nogada should be eaten. This dish, created by nuns to represent the colors of the Mexican flag, is truly one of Mexico's greatest dishes. And El Mural de los Poblanos serves the best version of it I've ever tasted.
Local tigernuts and chocolate-covered foie gras in white truffle cream broth. The dish was spotted with house-infused white truffle oil. The mixture of sweet, salty, and vegetal is what made this dish so interesting. Chef Quique Dacosta's cuisine is original, spontaneous, and exciting. With this restraint in particularly, it was unbelievably difficult picking a favorite course from my three meals.
A seemingly simple assortment of sea bream, lobster, pen shell clam, horse mackerel, kindai bluefin tuna belly, amber jack, and striped jack had very complex tastes. The bones of each fish were slowly roasted over Saison's open hearth and infused into white soy, creating a separate soy sauce for each fish which was discreetely brushed atop. Skene's "bone sauce" added a depth to each piece of fish without overpowering its delicate natural flavors.
A warm panna cotta topped with an abalone gelée, sprinkled with fresh abalone. The creamy, milky panna cotta was a brilliant accompaniment that brought everything together without distracting from the subtle flavor of the abalone. This understated dish was full of the flavor of the deep sea.
#1 Smoked trout rib (Husk, South Carolina) (Photos)
An impromptu dish Chef Sean Brock contrived, made from parts of a fish ordinarily considered scrap, turned out to be my favorite bite of the year. The smoky meat of the trout hugged its thick plank of spine: we had to work for the delicious meat. The sweetness of the barbecue glaze in combination with the subtle smoke made this finger-licking dish my favorite of 2011.