Perfect Meal for 2008

Using the same idea from last year, here’s my perfect meal for 2008 – comprised of dishes I ate in 2008. It is obviously not a perfect meal as there’s an abundance of seafood dishes but these were the dishes that impressed me most. I ate out a lot more than I planned, and the list reflects the geographic and cultural diversity of my adventures.

Interestingly, the list reads very different from my best meals. Masa (NY) and Urasawa (LA) kept serving me the best sushi of my life with each successive visit but it would be impossible to list just one dish – those meals are systems with emergent properties; the same would go for Sushiso Masa in Tokyo too. The only memorable dish at Le Meurice was the first entry in this list. Take this for what it is – a fun compilation of great dishes that serves as an obligatory “year in review” post – not necessarily the great meals of the year.

I’ve left the original descriptions mostly intact, with the restaurant names linked to the original reviews, with two restaurants not having been reviewed yet (Sushiso Masa and Ryugin.)

Le Meurice – Paris, France – Sardine with quinoa

The sardine with quinoa, an exciting take on sushi, was the best bite of the night, and possibly the (summer France) trip. The proportion of quinoa to sardine was perfectly balanced, the work of an Urasawa or Masa. The slight pop of the quinoa elevated the bite to masterpiece – this could be a new sushi.

Providence – Los Angeles, CA – House-cured Tasmanian Sea Trout, Mint, Caviar

A stunning bite with a medley of textures. The sea trout belly was pristine with a luscious oily mouth-feel. The caviar and mint broke up the fat, while the caviar and puffed rice popped with each bite. It’s on the busier side but it was a remarkable bite of balance, flavor, and texture.

Sushiso Masa – Tokyo, Japan – Lightly grilled swordfish

One of the best bites of my life, thanks to the precision grilling and a just-melting layer of fat between the skin and meat. Stupendous.

Sa Qua Na – Honfleur, France – Daurade poche au citron vert, feuilles de liveche & coriandre, un bouillon clair a la noix de coco et huile de Combava

A piece of sea bream was placed in a stone bowl and it was (barely) cooked by a broth of coconut and lime oil. Fresh leaves of lovage and coriander were added. This is a signature quality dish – a tantalizing blend of careful flavors, none overpowering the fish, all masterfully balanced. A mix of east and west that would be difficult to improve – the sort of precision and refinement I would hope to find at Olivier Roellinger (and wish to see at L’Astrance.)

McCrady’s – Charleston, SC – Poached Scallop, Fresh Coriander Berries, Mango Vinegar

This was just a beautiful dish that hit every button for me. The scallops were cooked sous vide in olive oil and presented in a modern style. Again, some strong flavors that were quite balanced. A Manresa-quality dish that shows Chef Sean Brock’s acumen with cooking and ingredients.

Ryugin – Tokyo, Japan – Red Snapper from Osaka area

The waitress explained the waters there are very turbulent and that these fish are quite strong. She said the meat would not be buttery; instead, quite muscular. The trade-off, of course, was taste – perfect – I could taste the ocean with each bite – a piece of fish that will ruin fish for me in the US. Each bite had a depth of flavor, strong followed by subtle, that I’ve rarely experienced. This was the best piece of fish, among many, during my Japan trip (and my life.)

Koju – Tokyo, Japan – Deep-fried abalone

The minimalism of the (Koju) meal, and perhaps of all kaiseki, is encapsulated in this dish. The frying on the abalone was beyond reproach – an even thin layer, brought to life and punctuated emphatically by lime and salt. A masterpiece.

Jean Georges – New York, NY – Foie Gras Brulee with Sour Cherry-Yuzu Marmalade

The crust was tough while the cold foie inside was very creamy. The textural sensations were on par with the tastes; again, a wide range – the hard crunch of the shell, the ’softer’ crunch of the brioche, and the creamy foie inside. The marmalade gave the dish just enough acidity. Excellent.

Ryugin – Tokyo, Japan – Char-grilled Natural Large Eel w/ Aroma of Japanese Peppers, monkfish liver

The waitress explained that most eel, even in Japan, is farmed; but that the chef has a special connection for wild eel. I couldn’t argue with her – this was even better than the eel I had at Koju the previous week (which changed eel for me.) Words can’t describe and I won’t try – it was remarkable in flavor and texture.

Rene Redzepi (of Noma) at Manresa – Tartar of ox, wood sorrel, juniper and oyster emulsion (RR) (picture from Very Good Food)

This is a Noma signature so it was fitting to see it on the (Rene Redzepi) menu – but it wasn’t just stuck in somewhere – it belonged here, exactly. I don’t know long the ox tended fields, if at all, but the meat was aged for 48 days. The flavor was gamey, deep, complex, and long-lasting. That alone would have been enough but the other ingredients grounded it (literally?) and connected the meat back to its environment. And to further the connection? Eat with your hands. This was the climatic point of the meal – everything before it had built to this point.

Koju – Tokyo, Japan – Kamasu around matsutake, lime, Japanese beef

The plating on this dish captures what I assume to be the essence of kaiseki – the season indistinguishable from the food – fall on a plate. The kamasu (barracuda), slightly overcooked by my standards, had a smoky flavor that meshed well with the matsutake. The Japanese beef took the fattiness of wagyu and combined it with an *intense* dry-aged flavor – it was the best of both worlds, right there in three incredible bites. I have read that the Japanese do not dry-age their beef but these morsels had it in spades.

Manresa, Los Gatos, CA – Wood pigeon baked in salt, asparagus “achillea millefolium”

Pray this is on the menu if you make the trip to Los Gatos – intense flavor.

It was a great year in dining. The economy may certainly put a damper on 2009′s adventures but I hope to make it to Noma (Copenhagen), Seattle, Tokyo, and possibly Paris if the Euro continues its falls against the dollar. Happy New Year!

- chuck

  • Steve Plotnicki

    Not a single cooked meat dish?

  • chuckeats

    When was the last time you had a great cooked meat dish? :) (Actually, last year’s list did not include any either.)

    I went back over last year’s meals and I did realize I missed two meat dishes that could be considered in the same league – so I added them.

    But you know the sorry state of good tasting meat in the US; and, despite everyone’s desire to innovate, most everyone still just plumps a giant piece of protein at the end of each meal.

    - chuck

  • Misha

    The wood pigeon at Manresa is an absolutely stunning dish. Even 6 months later, I still remember everything about it in vivid detail. The hot stone cooked veal breast I had at Vetri about a month ago is not far behind.

  • Loving Annie

    I haven’t eaten at any of those places (yet), but what a lovely idea that would be, to take a favorite course from everywhere ! Your pictures are making my mouth water…

    Loving Annie

  • ulterior epicure

    Japan awaits me, alas. Great list. Sounds like the perfect meal to me too.

  • Michael

    I assume that the ox is the same as at noma, that is a musk ox from Greenland. They now also serve it as a seared filet with beets, milk skin and smoked marrow balls, with which they won the main course first prize at Copenhagen Food Week this year.

  • chuckeats

    Michael, actually, if memory serves me correctly, the ox was sourced locally (as was most everything from that meal.)

  • Faine G

    Gorgeous post. I want to devour everything on the page.

    I have family in Los Gatos…it’s a travesty I haven’t been to Manresa yet.

  • josh

    south west virginia has some fine, grass fed meats chuck!


    …you know you’ve got the makings for a fine high end “Glossy Coffee Table” BOOK here. I’d buy one.