This post is the second of a three part series. The first was my top 10 meals of 2012. Next up: best coffee of 2012. In compiling this list, I faced the difficult task of choosing dishes that 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 can be viewed here.
For me, 2012 was an incredible year. It brought me from Noma to Sukiyabashi Jiro, from Tickets to Saison and Masa. Nearly 200 Michelin stars later, 2012 was the most diverse eating year of my life. But despite the many dishes I've consumed (and pounds I've gained) in fine-dining restaurants, the dishes that stick out in my mind this year are the simplest ones. Not the caviar and foie gras from Europe, but rather the shellfish tostadas from Mexico's Baja peninsula and fresh fish from Tokyo.
Of all the places I’ve visited this year, these are the dishes that particularly stood out ranked one through twenty five.
#25 Torta ahogada (Xoco, Ilinois, United States) (Photos)
This is an example of a dish where Rick Bayless and Amado Lopez take the traditionalGuadalajara version of this "drowned sandwich" and improve upon it. By using a crispy French baguette and standing it upright, the bread doesn't get soggy (unless you want it to). I find myself grabbing one of these every time I'm in Chicago.
#24 Chimney smoked lobster (Ekstedt, Stockholm, Sweden)
In a restaurant whose kitchen doesn't use electricity, chef Niklas Ekstedt cooks everything over an open fire as it was done centuries ago. This firm lobster dish has hints of smoke and nut and is intensified by the sweet taste of butter.
#23 Gemelli con le sardi (Next: Sicily, Ilinois, United States) (Photos)
I was skeptical about Next's Sicily menu, but this dish simply blew me away. Introduced as the "emblematic dish of Sicily" a perfectly cooked gemelli adorned a colorful Sicilian plate crowned with currants, pine nuts, fennel, mushrooms, and a sliver of seared sardine. This dish showed me that Chef Dave Beran's rustic cooking is just as compelling as his fine-dining cooking.
#22 Mole amarillo (Yu Ne Nisa, Oaxaca, Mexico) (Photos)
I brought my friend The Ulterior Epicure on my second visit to this Oaxacan eatery. I mentioned to Chef Doña Ofelia how I'd always been meaning to try an authentic mole amarillo from the Istmo. Insisting that hers was the best, she snapped her fingers and a cook ran out to fetch a ten pounds of yellow tomatoes. We returned the next day where she presented us with shrimp rice cooked in yellow mole, topped with fried plantains. The balance of sweet, salt, sour, and spice was incredible. This dish is worth a trip to Oaxaca alone.
#19 Blue lobster (Frantzén/Lindeberg, Stockholm, Sweden) (Photos)
This dish of blue lobster with yellow girolles, apricots, and Tasmanian winter truffles was both colorful and delicious, held together with a touch of butter. Chef Björn Frantzén's cooking is better than ever, drawing his technique from Japan and France emphasizing local Swedish ingredients.
#18 Peeky-toe crab (Atera, New York, United States) (Photos)
Chef Matthew Lightner's ligher cooking comes through in this dish where a chilled lump of crabmeat sits in a fragrant gel of wild ginger gelée dotted with tapioca and toasted shrimp.
#17 Salmon trout (Amaranta, Toluca, Mexico) (Photos)
Chef Pablo Salas's Amaranta should be getting a lot more attention. My meal last year was one of my top ten of 2011. This year, I returned with my friends docsconz and petermerelis. Focusing on food from the land-locked Estado de Mexico, Chef Salas is a proponent of local lake fish, particularly salmon trout. The texture of this fish is firm like wild salmon with thin striations of fat even though its flavor is milder. Salas explained that he feeds the trout crayfish to enhance their flavor. The trout was rubbed in adobo spices, sauced with a manzano chile cream and served atop a bed of esquites. (Full disclosure: this meal was comped as part of Mesamerica.)
Chef Quique Dacosta removed his dedicated à la carte rice menu a few years ago in favor of two more varied, tasting-only options. Chef Dacosta is one of the world's experts on Spanish rice, and while I do miss the old menu, traces of it remain scattered throughout the new menus. Here, liquorice and orange flavors brighten up the intense flavor of the rice.
#15 Esquites (Eno Petrarcha, Mexico City, Mexico) (Photos)
I didn't know Eno made esquites--boiled corn cut fresh from the cob topped with mayonnaise, spices, and queso cotija--until I saw Chef Enrique Olvera eating a bowl of them for lunch. This is a street food that Chef Olvera improves upon by mixing several varieties of corn, whipping the mayonnaise from scratch, and grating cheese sold by a local vendor. These are addictive.
#14 House soba (Matsugen, Tokyo, Japan)
A bowl of house-made soba noodles dressed with bonito flakes, two varieties of seaweed, scallion, cucumber, shallots, and a dab of freshly grated wasabi. Crowning the middle a sunny-side up egg whose yolk pours out when mixed.
#13 "De eso" (Itanoní, Oaxaca, Mexico) (Photos)
A simple dish of a corn tortilla, hoja santa, and quesillo. Itanoní is essentially a tortillería that happens to serve food. Each tortilla, made from one of three varieties of masa (white, yellow, or blue) is pressed to order. The tortilla is thrown atop a comal until it inflates, and layered with a fragrant hoja santa leaf and stringy quesillo. This is a dish that shows how far a well-made tortilla can go.
#12 Diver scallop and plantain (Quintonil, Mexico City, Mexico) (Photos)
Sweet diver scallop from the Baja dressed with olive oil, herbs, and warm plantains. The plantains added a nuttiness to the already-sweet scallops enhancing their flavor. Chef Jorge Vallejo knows when to step back and let great ingredients speak for themselves.
#11 Mackerel and sea urchin (Laja, Baja California, Mexico) (Photos)
Chef Jaír Téllez of Laja and MeroToro is a genius and should be receiving a lot more attention than he currently does. His dishesdon't look particularly "Mexican," but he will be the first to remind you that all the ingredients indeed come from the Baja ... even the olive oil. This simple dish at a hacienda in Mexico's wine country embodies Chef Téllez's seafood-focused Baja-style cooking.
#10 Back cove oyster (John Shields, United States / restaurant coming soon)
This was my first experience with the cooking of Chef John Shields, formerly of Town House, at an event at Elements in New Jersey. This dish, a raw oyster under a bed of raw new spruce leaves, blanched spinach, and an infusion of various seaweeds that gave it a fresh herbal-umami combination. Shaved atop the dish was chilled radish milk binding everything together. This dish left a lasting impression on me because I haven't encountered many dishes where herbs actually enhanced the flavor of raw shellfish. I can't wait to see what Chef Shields opens next. My only regret is not having visited Town House before it closed.
#9 Hokkaido crab salad with sea cucumber roe (Sushi Yoshitake, Tokyo, Japan)
In this dish, different cuts of chilled Hokkaido crab were lightly dressed in dashi and topped with a dollop of creamy sea cucumber roe. The roe tasted like sweet sea urchin with an intensity similar to shrimp brain.
#8 Cheeseburger (Husk, South Carolina, United States) (Photos)
Chef Sean Brock's version of the iconic American cheeseburger. This is a burger where the bun intentionally gets soggy after a few minutes. It's overflowing with American cheese, sour pickles, and crispy white onions. It's the best version of the generic fast-food burger that I've tasted.
This is the kind of dish where Chef David Kinchreally shines, a fundamentally Japanese dish with a subtle European influence. The broth was made from infused rice water, and when combined with the finely chopped root vegetables, created a texture and creaminess similar to risotto.
#6 Grains and seeds (Atelier Crenn, San Francisco, United States) (Photos)
In this dish, Chef Dominique Crenn served smoked and toasted grains and seeds of varying textures and flavor. Bottarga was shaved atop the pile of grains adding an intense salting to the dish. The combination reminded me of chicharrón, bringing out the inherent meaty flavor of the nuts. A dashi broth was poured table side to bring everything together.
#5 Diver scallop aguachile (Los Aguachiles, Quintana Roo, Mexico) (Photos)
The best shellfish in Mexico comes from the cooler waters of its Pacific coast, but Los Aguachiles in Playa del Carmen does a phenomenal job with the seasoning. In this creative take on an aguachile, Baja diver scallop is topped with local greens, deep-fried onions, raw onions, cucumber, and an array of homemade salsas. The toasted onions add an umami that compliments the sweetness of the shellfish.
#4 Sea urchin tostada, diver scallop (La Guerrerense, Baja California, Mexico) (Photos)
At the end of the day, this is what I want to eat almost all the time--the food that dreams are made of. At this Ensenada street stall, introduced to me by my friend Bill Esparza, Doña Sabina Bandera prepares a daily assortment of ceviches as well as live clams and scallops. It's best to start with a yellow corn tostada with a layer of one of her ceviches before piling on the raw shellfish, avocado, and spicy condiments.
When it comes to the perfect piece of akami, or lean tuna, Chef Jiro Ono is the one to prepare it. Lean tuna is the most revealing of all cuts of tuna since the fattier cuts can hide imperfections in the quality of the fish. Chef Ono prepares it with a masterful understanding of timing, making sure that it gets to you quickly: after about 5 seconds the warm rice begins to warm the cool fish.
#2 Live clam tostada (Mariscos "El Güero, Baja California, Mexico) (Photos)
At this Ensenada street stall, live clams are shucked and served atop a yellow corn tortilla so quickly that they're still moving on the plate. El Güero generally carries a variety of seasonal clams. In this tostada, almejas chocolatas and almejas pismos are dressed with cilantro, scallions, red onion, a mixture of raw homemade chiles, and a generous squirt of lime.
#1 Radish and oyster (Geist, Copenhagen, Denmark) (Photos)
This dish embodies everything I like about Bo Bech's cooking: it's simple, original, precise, and focused. Here, raw radish was sliced into strings to mimic spaghetti. The sauce was made from raw gillardeau oysters, sheep's yogurt, and a dash of lemon and black pepper. What first struck me about this dish was how it smelled: so pristine that it hardly resembled an oyster. Rather, it had the sweet honey-like smell of shellfish. The lemon added a hint of acidity to brighten up the yogurt and the black pepper added a very subtle heat at the end of each bite. The radish was sweet and crunchy. Chef Bech is onto something: a pure and clean style of cooking emphasizing vegetables using meat and fish solely to enhance their flavor.