Welcome to March. Are you ready for spring?! I am. And not just because of my decreased levels of Vitamin D and growing hatred of long sleeves, but because it’s starting to pain me to see what tricks chefs are employing to counteract the lack of any fresh ingredients in their kitchens.
Before we start, this listicle is decidedly geographically challenged. I’m based in NYC and only did one notable trip in the short, lousy month known as February — off to even colder Chicago, no less. Still, I’m inspired to recount my experiences mainly because I went to so many hyped-up spots last month, some of which lived up to or even surpassed expectations, some of which fell flatter than an amateur chef’s soufflé. Another note: I encourage y’all to visit our recipe section and cook at home. I went to some of the country’s most widely praised restaurants in February but had some of my favorite meals at home, cooked by either me or my wife (sometimes with help from friends). Without further ado, the 10 best things I ate in February:
10. That cheeseburger from Au Cheval, Chicago
I’ve already semi-rhapsodized over this burger in my interview with Brendan Sodikoff, who owns Au Cheval (and no, the burger is not made of horsemeat!). I’m not the only one who thinks it’s one of the country’s best burgers — a man of good taste, Matt Duckor, said so on Bon Appétit’s website last year. In my chat with Sodikoff, he swore by the commitment he and his team had in producing a burger of such serious quality. I wouldn’t have minded being on the tasting team that arrived at this juicy, cheesy, well-sauced burger — it’s also available as a double.
9. Grilled John Dory filet with anchovy pastina and whelks, Casa Lever, New York City
The Il Pellicano at Casa Lever brought a Michelin two-star chef from Italy to what I find to be one of Manhattan’s more artful and well-designed fine dining rooms. The $130 four-course tasting menu (with $75 wine pairing supplement) would make Ryan “The Bad Deal” Sutton see red, but I knew what I was getting into by making a reservation for this sorta pop-up (yes, a food journalist who often pays and tries to makes reservations without help from PR — some of us exist!). Was it worth the expense? This John Dory dish was perfectly cooked, outfitted with unusual and tasty co-starring ingredients and paired with a crazy-ass red from Mt. Etna. This dinner was a splurge, but I don’t regret it. (P.S. Il Pellicano’s team has two more nights in the kitchen at Casa Lever; the menu’s here.)
8. Japanese pickles at Aburiya Kinnosuke, New York City
Not new, not hyped, just a great Japanese izakaya-style restaurant that is worth a visit (and a shout-out to Guy Gourmet‘s Paul Kita for introducing me to it). I had the lunch special, which consisted of Berkshire pork, fish, and rice. But it was the tart, tangy Japanese pickles that struck a chord.
7. Everything I ate at Mission Chinese, New York City
OK, so I was the last seemingly in-the-know dude I know who hadn’t been to Danny Bowien’s Orchard Street hot spot, but I am not one to follow the hype machine. Seriously, as a kid, I didn’t see Indiana Jones until like two years after it came out. Anyway, tucked in that back room at Mission Chinese, seated with my old pal James Casey from the absolutely awesome Swallow magazine (new Mexico City issue out soon!), I freaked out over kung pao pastrami, ma po tofu and everything else that passed from the plate to my tingling lips. Atmosphere always helps and I can’t lie — I was seated at the next table to Todd Selby, and Bill Murray was drinking with some gal pals nearby — but this is one overly hyped spot that blew past my expectations (and without the huge bill at the end).
6. Kale salad at Barbuto, New York City
Yup, a kale salad. (Actually, it’s on the menu as “insalata cavolo verde,” and it’s kale, pecorino, breadcrumbs and anchovies.) I had it twice in the last two months. Jonathan Waxman’s beloved restaurant serves first-class pastas, delicious pizzas, wood-fired meats. But it’s winter, I crave greens, and kale salad done right is sometimes the best antidote to the dry season for fresh food. That and things with pickles apparently. Have the ramps come in yet? Please say yes.
5. Pickle tots at Trencherman, Chicago
They are what they sound like: tater tots with strands of pickle embedded, served accompanied by slices of bresaola-style chicken with a red onion yogurt. The tots are delicious, and they’re just one of the reasons that this steampunk-outfitted newcomer to Chicago’s insanely happening dining scene will soon be showing up on every trend-chasing foodie’s must-visit lists. Chef/brothers Mike and Pat Sheerin are worth watching.
4. Butternut squash porridge at Hanjan, New York City
Chef Hooni Kim of acclaimed NYC Korean restuarant Danji just opened Hanjan, a tavern-esque spot with dishes typically found at street markets in Seoul. At a special luncheon for the launch of Korean Restaurant Guide-New York, penned by FR’s own contributing editor Matt Rodbard, Kim showcased his traditional cooking skills with this warming, soulful soup.
3. Loin and belly of lamb at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York
OK, this dish was part of a junket: The Dreaming Tree, a wine brand started by none other than Dave Matthews, shelled out beaucoup bucks to bring like 35 journalists up to Dan Barber and Co.’s temple to seasonal/regional cooking, and as I’ve noted, I never turn down an invitation to Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Barber, who worked with the team behind the California wines to pair the dishes, seemed almost apologetic in his pre-meal remarks; February is the cruellest month in his kitchen. But he made it work, especially with this exquisite lamb dish (though the “farm fajitas” seemed a stretch). And an even bigger shock: Dreaming Tree’s wines were not bad, and one, the 2012 Central Coast “Everyday” white blend, is instantly one of the most inexpensively drinkable and likeable white wines on the market.
2. Seared whitefish sandwich with lemon and herb aioli, Blackbird, Chicago
I was about to put the fish and chips from The Breslin, April Bloomfield’s pork-y palace inside Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, but like a diner choosing between a healthier option and an indulgence, I’m going to go with this classic dish from Blackbird’s lunch menu. It’s light, refreshing, and instead of fries or potato chips, this sandwich is served with some sort of vegetable crisps that taste like they burn more calories than they add on.
1. Shrimp spaetzle with spicy pork from M. Wells Dinette, Long Island City, Queens
I probably missed out on the real M. Wells experience when their original location closed due to rent issues (that not following the hype thing sometimes backfires on me), but this iteration as a sort of foodie-baiting cafeteria inside the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 is weirdly charming. Not to mention apropos. The art installations around this old schoolhouse are inventive to be sure, but chef Hugue Dufour’s menu borders on surrealist. My wife found the shrimp spaetzle with spicy pork dish to be misleading (surprise: the shrimp is the spaetzle!) and bordering on capsaicin overdose, but I couldn’t stop eating it.