The smoke, the wild, the vegetable, the historical, and the aged – many themes championed here have finally reached a critical mass in 2012. Some are already official trends for 2013. It would be easy to dismiss them as simply stylish but a few chefs have been walking down these paths for some time. And I was fortunate enough to eat their stunning dishes this year.
It was a domestic year with zero passport stamps. An island enchanted me for two days. There, I discovered a new chef and found new perspectives on old favorites. In New Jersey, a day trip from the city, an exciting meal showed two chefs ready for a national stage. In red-hot Charleston, the puzzle pieces of history and modern came together in a remarkable conversation with the past. And the embers kept slowly burning, faint smoke and bitter char, gripping me over and over again. There was no Paris. No Tokyo. No San Sebastian. But the blank pages of 2012 were filled instead with interesting chefs in the United States.
Even then, I failed to make the trek. Ubuntu alumn Justin Yu is celebrating the vegetable at his restaurant Oxheart in Houston. Viet Pham, nearby in Salt Lake City, is doing interesting work at Forage. Blue Hill Stone Barns eluded me yet again, despite being in New York; and I missed the Atera and Blanca openings by a few weeks. There was no way I could make it to Nashville for Catbird Seat, The Dorrance in Providence, or Yusho in Chicago. Los Angeles seemed like a million miles away.
San Francisco, my own city, was a hub for guest chef dinners and I missed out on all of them. Ben Shrewy, John Shields, Ideas in Food, Matthias Merges, the entire 12 Days of Christmas, Jeremy Fox, Jeremiah Langhorne, Scott Anderson, and many more. Missed opportunities.
Still, I ate very well in 2012 – one of the better dining years yet. Every high-end meal, save one that I just do not get, was very good to excellent. Food in America, all of America, has arrived. Every region has a world-class restaurant, many with a few.1 The areas outside of Michelin coverage are bubbling with talent. Here are my favorite dishes of 2012, imagined as a perfect meal.2 Only restaurants that allowed pictures are included.3
Smoked beet w/ chocolate, balsamic, & woodruf from Sean Brock at Willows Inn First Harvest Dinner
Sean Brock has been a staple of guest chef dinners. This smoked beet showed him in the perfect guest appearance. Stripped down, Brock was in elemental mode, practicing the Southern alchemy of fire and smoke. This smoked beet was a stand-out of the night. Smoked for many hours (did we wake up to their scent?), they had a great mix of smoke, mineral, sweet, & acidity. A perfect little bite that engulfed the mouth with flavor – more.
Vegetables, fermented anchovy from Saison: My Favorite Meal of 2012
Vegetables are in, Michel Bras is a household name, and similar dishes are sourced from restaurant farms – all is good. Four years ago, none of this was true. A dish, or bowl, of freshly-picked vegetables can still stand out vibrantly in a tasting menu – as an introduction, a pause, or a statement.
Here, a bowl of crudites, both farmed and foraged, sparkled in their clarity. Where are the anchovy dew drops in the Laguiole morning mist? Tucked underneath was a small Iberico ham ravioli. There was glory without it. A small brussel sprout hid in one rendition and it was more tender and sweet than any I’ve had before. A breathtaking bowl of vegetables.
Berries, grass soup, queen’s anne flowers, thyme from Willows Inn – Island as Plate
It was a sunny day and vines strangled the roadside bushes. The roads blushed with color – red dots, white puffs, and purple stains. Sun-ripened berries hung supple and plump, dangling on the vines or splattered on the road. It is the best time of the year anywhere. Of the place, in the place, the brush in a bowl – this was Lummi Island, July, plated.
Each bite was different. The tartness and astringency of the red current might dominate one mouthful before the sweet grass broth refreshed the next. Each berry broke down differently in the bite. Herbaceous tones inflected each slurp – so many dimensions and angles to the flavor. It could be served as dessert; instead, it was the official welcoming to Lummi Island – this is why we’re here. And this dish is one reason why Blaine Wetzel rocketed up my list of favorite chefs.
Glass eels, curly cress, trout roe from Elements – Explorations
Sunchoke ceviche, shima-aji puree from Elements – Explorations
Dubbed “Noodles of the sea” by the table, the glass eels demonstrated how the elements team deconstructed Japanese into their own brand of New Jersey, with perfect calibration. The roe popped salinity, mixed with spicy inflections of cress and horseradish cream, as the eels were slurped down. Excellent use of texture – pop, the slight rough of the cress, a few bits of nori, and the silkiness of the eels. In many ways, it exemplified elements’ cooking – unique ingredients, house-curing, and foraged bits.
Sunchoke ceviche reversed the traditional notion with a fish puree supporting the earthy vegetable. Roasted tomatillo punctuated with spice but lent a smoky background note. Miscellaneous freshwater plants, “duck food”, added texture and greenery. It nailed the essence of ceviche with new ingredient combinations. And it was also my favorite dish of the elements’ meal – superb. elements is a restaurant that is worth the (small) effort.4
cuttlefish, strawberry, smoked roe from Aubergine – Fog of the Sea
Strawberry and cuttlefish haunted as a careful orchestration of unlikely partners. With each bite, the roe popped, burst into brine, and finish with a taste of smoke. And sweetness would cling to the smoke. The strawberries too would breach, bright and acidic at first, but left a faint sweetness that paired with the smoke. They mingled with the chew of the cuttlefish textures. A stunning work of art from Justine Cogley – a Charlie Trotter veteran. If you’re visiting the Bay Area, blaze down the 1 or through the mountains, and allocate a night for Carmel two hours away – believe.
Smoked salmon from Willows Inn – Island as Plate
Early in the morning, puffs of smoke emanate across the grounds of Willows Inn and mix with the ocean overcast. Salt and smoke fill the crisp air. It is the soul awakening – the smokehouse. You see the white puffs driving into the parking lot. Its smells lazily cling in the air around the inn. And it competes with the sun-setting horizon as one of two views outside the restaurant. On an island teeming with artists, the Willows Inn team too has elevated their craft to an art with this traditional device.
Caught nearby using old Indian netting methods, the salmon was thrown into the smoker. After smoking all day at very low temperatures, the fish is served directly from the smokehouse. The first plates begin scenting the room, and the smell builds with each new serving. It sweats, with little if any albumen, but mostly it smells – wonderful. Each bite captures the mouth with smoke, letting faint sweet touches out. Its texture is creamy with a raw warm center. It is a remarkable piece of fish.
Charleston Ice Cream from McCrady’s – Seeds of Muse and Obsession
Creamy, buttery, nutty with just enough flowers and herbs to cut its richness. The smell was intoxicating – of butter and nuts – and, on a cool February Charleston evening, with fireplace crackling, it was also the smell of warmth and comfort. And it was the smell of history,5 of reclamation, of talking to the past, of imagining the glory where an entire city and region was defined by a simple grain. It was the centerpiece of the menu, the restaurant, and it was just rice.
A signature dish.
A successful decoder ring, an unambiguous statement of “this is what we do.” It encompassed everything about Brock and McCrady’s and focused it on one plate. It is a relatively simple product, taken to an obsessive level. Brock claims this is the dish that changed the way he cooks. After six meals over four years, I agree.
30-day venison tartar, shaved smoked venison, wild rose, cress, blackberry from Willows Inn – Island as Plate
The single red meat dish of this Willows Inn dinner was the first official course – venison tartar. This immediately piqued my curiosity – how would this work? I’ve challenged the narrative where red meat must conclude a tasting menu in previous posts. If used as supporting role, or in smaller portions, the satisfaction from eating red meat could be used earlier in the menu. However, very few chefs venture beyond the protein with a side of vegetable or puree – a caricature of the possibilities.
A tartar was made from 30-day aged venison, whose game and minerality gave the dish backbone. Shaved smoked venison, mostly seen in the photo, perfumed and enveloped the mouth, smoothing the strong flavors of the meat. This was already great. Cress and blackberry jabbed with pepper and tartness, bringing dimension to different bites. But those glorious notes of the wild rose! They complemented the smoke above and the game below, engulfing the dish with a wonderful light floral quality.
Flowers are omnipresent on today’s menus, in appearance, but why are their floral flavors not more fully explored in the savory?
And again venison – this time smoked over tea and sitting atop luscious duck liver. Still bloody red and tender, each bite packed a wallop of earthy smoke. This smoke formed a backbone for the dish as the sweet notes of the duck liver danced around. Puffed rice added a bit of contrasting texture.
Duck liver, venison lightly smoked over tea from Aubergine (post will come)
Old tuna, old beef from Saison – My Favorite Meal of 2012
38-day wood pigeon, cured things from Saison (meal never written)
Saison continued their protein aging dishes in 2012, often in small but powerful quantities. There was aged tuna macerated in Burgundy, tuna ham, 38-day Mendocino lamb, 88-day beef, and other small pieces of funky protein over the course of a few meals. The fish is the most interesting, as it is still a black art, but the composed dishes of aged meat are surprising in their restraint.
Old tuna, old beef, a humble name for the minerality- and salinity-driven proteins, grass and seawater in an infinite tug between surf and turf. Old tuna, old beef, but just as importantly, Pungent Herbs, as they stand against the slightest funk of age.
My dish of the year. From my meal of the year.
The 38-day wood pigeon was intense but just short of a cheesy funk. The pickled things provided some interesting pairings – cherry blossom, dragon berry, olive, pear, & more. All of the intensity of a late-stage meat course without the heavy palm-sized baggage.
Kerre Melk Stampers by Kobe Desramaults in Willows Inn First Harvest Dinner
Sometimes the dish is merely a wow. Here, a collective wow silenced much of the dining room. Kobe’s Kerre Melk Stampers was his take on a traditional Belgium dish but it still retained his trademarks. Potato, buttermilk, peas, goat whey, and arugula – everyday ingredients. Dairy is used more for its acidity. This dish expertly straddled a line between lightness and creaminess, with just enough richness to be pleasurable. It was my favorite dish of the night and, for that, unfortunately, my notes are bare. In de Wulf should be on everyone’s food itinerary.
Frozen pine from Aubergine (post will come)
Snow fell in Carmel just before the New Year with this sublime dish of liquid nitrogen cream cheese flavored with pine. Every bite was just a touch gummy, requiring an extra chew that swathed the mouth with strong pine notes. Seated by the window, you could just feel the Holiday air rush in. And that chew was just so satisfying! A small tang from the sour cream hung on the finish. Followed by the Candy Cap, Maple, Sorrel below, these two desserts were a stunning end to my last meal out in 2012. Eat your Christmas Tree!
Elements of Coal and Ash from Atelier Crenn (post never written)
Pastry chef Juan Contreras has a flair for dramatic presentation but his desserts taste even better than they look. Newly minted two Michelin stars, it could be argued he is completely under-the-radar. Here, eggplant is used as dessert, braised in chai spices. Smoked cashew ice cream resonates with the visual cues of coal and ash. The Food Fashionista has an excellent breakdown of the dessert, its components, and techniques. Contreras is the perfect pairing for Crenn.
Preserved carrot, hazelnut praline, spruce, white chocolate by John Shields in Willows Inn First Harvest Dinner
John Shields also has a way with liquid nitrogen but there was none on Lummi Island. And, as mentioned in the Willows Inn First Harvest Dinner post, this dessert was so good that notes suffered. It is John Shields making dessert – that alone says enough!
There were more.6
And what of next year?
Sweden, it calls. Frantzén/Lindeberg looks stunning. Ekstedt could be caricature or brilliance, and I’m hoping for the latter. Of course, Faviken. Australia looks very interesting right now – Attica, Royal Mail Hotel, Garagistes (Tasmania), and others. Japan, oh Japan – Sawada still takes my breath away.
Locally, Saison moves to a new space. Justin Cogley just wowed me last week at a marvelous Aubergine dinner. Somehow, I did not manage to make it to Trey Foshee’s Tbl 3 last year. Meadowood is a must for 2013. Canlis, Forage and Oxheart are not that far away. Suna, The Dorrance, Wolvesmouth, Yusho, Grace, Providence, Blanca, the list goes on. And I always have a blast in Charleston, always.
1 – Why are there so many end of the year lists? I like Frank Chimero’s post on the strong desire for edges and structure.
And if you asked me tomorrow what my favorite dishes of 2012 were, the list would probably change. This is very difficult to put together and I’m sure I missed something. And I may have eaten something better but I like to use this yearly post to showcase what I find most interesting and very good.
2 – Without an understanding of their economics, I think Michelin should make a US guide for starred restaurants. The results would be surprising. While there probably would not be any additional three-star restaurants, there are enough two-stars, and many many one-stars to make an interesting publication. And road trips are the best!
3 – Actually, the only restaurant that did not allow photos was Masa, New York, where A Life Worth Eating and I shared a meal. Which is a shame. Every item on the menu would be considered for this post. It is, bar none, the best sushi in America – for ingredient and rice quality. It is not the greatest experience but it is amazing food – equal to a Tokyo three-star. Beef supplements ($150), truffle supplements($100+), and $50 ice cream truffle sundae supplements add insult to injury. Our meal, at just under three hours, was my longest of five meals there; usually, it’s an hour and half tops.
4 – In fact, given their work with meats, seafood, and fermentation; I will go further and say 2013 might be the year elements breaks through and receives the acclaim they deserve.
5 – Considered one of the foundations of historical Charleston cuisine, and culture; Charleston Gold Rice nearly came and went within three-hundred years. It is a long grain rice that is very aromatic and flexible in its starchiness. It was exported and known world-wide as one of the world’s best rices. It fell out of favor during the Great Depression and was left for dead. If not for the work Dr Richard Shulz, and later Anson Mills, it may still be sitting in the USDA seed bank.
6 – Other impressive dishes from the year:
crab, peas, fava – Aubergine
Raw scallop w/ fennel & rose water – McCrady’s
Local waters octopus, mussels, squid ink juices, lemon thyme, truffle bread puree
tuna ham, dried sea urchin, tuna gelee – Saison
“kamado-san” – kani gohan, dungeness osumashi, & pickles – Kyle Connaughton
liver, toffee, milk, bread, beer – Saison
85-day dry-aged & cured wagyu ribeye, emulsified wagyu fat – Elements
Burgundy-macerated aged tuna – Saison
Husk fried chicken
Candy cap, maple, sorrel – Aubergine