It's been an incredible year filled with culinary experiences in locations ranging from Toluca to Tokyo. Choosing my favorite meals from 2011 was very different from choosing favorite dishes. To create this list, I examined the dining experience as a whole, factoring in the progression of dishes and overall story they told. I can only hope 2012 will bring as much culinary excitement as this year has. A few events in particular made 2011 one of the most exciting eating years in recent memory. The closing of El Bullí, perhaps the most hyped restaurant of the decade, passed the spotlight to other deserving restaurants like Quique Dacosta and Sant Pau for the first time. Hopefully 2012 will bring these restaurants the international attention they deserve. Sean Brock continued to promote the incredibly varied and delicious cuisine of the American South, inspiring other American chefs to look into the rustic cuisines of their childhoods and bring them to the dining room. Mexican cuisine started to gain more international attention, led by the refined cooking of chefs like Enrique Olvera. And chefs like Joshua Skenes reminded us that the simple cooking techniques are often the most diffiult, requiring unwavering attention and patience.
Only time will tell how these restaurants develop in 2012. Happy New Year.
Below is a list of my top ten favorite meals from 2011.
#10 Amaranta, Toluca, Mexico (Chef Pablo Salas) (Photos)
An hour west of Mexico city lies the landlocked state of Mexico, home of Toluca-native Chef Pablo Salas. Chef Salas uses ingredients and techniques from his home region to create rustic pan-Mexiquense dishes not typically found elsewhere in Mexico.
#9 Mistral, Stockholm, Sweden (Chef Fredrik Andersson) (Photos)
At Mistral, each course was a minimalist work of art, highlighting the varied scope of flavors and textures found in locally harvested Swedish vegetables. This meal—paired entirely with white wines—was light and fresh, exposing the rich produce available throughout the country. Chef Andersson has a unique understanding of balance, combining different vegetables to create a synergy that makes nature taste its best.
#8 Frantzén/Lindberg, Stockholm, Sweden (Chefs Björn Frantzén and Daniel Lindeberg) (Photos)
This was a meal utilizing traditional cooking techniques to take advantage of Sweden's finest ingredients. With an emphasis on slow cooking and a blatant obsessiveness over ingredient quality, Chef Björn Frantzén takes exceptional care to enhance each ingredient's natural flavor. It is only a matter of time before this restaurant receives its third Michelin star.
#7 Sant Pau, Sant Pol de Mar, Spain (Chef Carme Ruscalleda) (Photos)
At Sant Pau, Chef Carme Ruscalleda melds her wild imagination with traditional Catalan cooking to create an experience both unique and inspiring. Her use of color and appreciation for fine art makes her platings some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Most importantly, the cooking was exact and meticulous, with each colorful ingredient contributing to the dish's flavor as well as creative presentation.
#6 Manresa, Los Gatos, California (Chef David Kinch) (Photos)
With a masterful understanding of ingredient quality and simplicity, Chef David Kinch knows when to step back and let nature speak for itself. My meal here in 2011 was refined and comfortable: this restaurant has really transitioned from a local, neighborhood place to one that deserves a lot more international attention than it’s currently receiving. The restaurant currently has two Michelin stars, but if this isn’t a three star restaurant at this point, I’m not sure what is. In the meantime, now is the perfect time to go; I have a funny suspicion the restaurant is about to get a lot busier.
#5 El Bullí, Roses, Spain (Chef Ferran Adrià) (Photos)
This was a magical meal where the cumulative experience was far greater than each individual course combined. My recent meal emphasized progressions of flavor, where three or four courses in a sequence balanced each other out, rather than the individual components of a dish by itself. The interactivity of the meal was nonpareil, with our table full of fun and excitement at every course.
#4 Pujol, Mexico City, Mexico (Chef Enrique Olvera) (Photos)
Mexico has a rich and varied culinary history that remains relatively unknown outside of the country. What makes Pujol particularly special is how its talented chef, Enrique Olvera, takes traditional nostalgic Mexican dishes, de-constructs, improves, and later re-assembles them for the dining room. Chef Enrique Olvera is at the forefront of exploring and sharing his country's incredible cuisine with the rest of the world.
#3 Husk, Charleston, South Carolina (Chef Sean Brock) (Photos)
The American South remains full of mystery and legend, with Chef Sean Brock leading a new culinary movement to uncover its past and bring the Southern dishes he grew up with into the dining room. His obsessiveness over ingredient quality and flavor is creating a market for small regional farmers to re-grow ancient grains that haven't been seen south of the Mason-Dixon line in over a hundred years. 2011 was a very exciting year for American cuisine. If things continue on this path, 2012 will be even more exciting.
#2 Quique Dacosta, Denia, Spain (Chef Quique Dacosta) (Photos)
Quique Dacosta is currently the most exciting restaurant in Spain. My second meal at Quique Dacosta fused the simplicity of local ingredients with highly conceptual, precise cooking of Chef Dacosta that told a cohesive story about the region and its history. This was a beautiful meal full of surprises, both visually, and in terms of flavor.
#1 Saison, San Francisco, California (Chef Joshua Skenes) (Photos)
My meal at Saison took me by surprise. Made as a last-minute, same-day reservation per the recommendation of my friend Chuck, Saison was my favorite meal from 2011. Each course had an element of fire from the outdoor hearth, whether seen in roasted bones used to make a sauce or in a piece a meat being cooked directly over the embers. With a firm understanding of a kind of simplicity that captures the essence of what makes Japanese cuisine so special, Chef Skenes is able to leverage Saison's hearth to accentuate and broaden the natural flavors of fish and meat without distracting from the ingredients' natural flavors.