As editor of Food Republic, you get certain priveleges, and I’m a fairly resourceful guy even if I’m off on my own with nary a celebrity chef in sight. So I ate (and drank) extraordinarily well whether on official business or taking detours while going about my personal business throughout 2012, in my native New York, in Europe, and around the U.S. from L.A. to Austin to Miami to Martha’s Vineyard and beyond.
How well did I eat? I’ve just spent several hours taking notes, looking back through photos, studying menus and trying to recall the best of the best, and I come up with like 58 things that I could go on and on about. My wedding alone would make a lot of people’s year-end highlight reels. Held on a farm in Ghent, New York, the rehearsal dinner was a pig roast helmed by Zakary Pelaccio and featuring the crew from his soon-to-open restaurant in Hudson; the roast featured corn and other vegetables from nearby farms, and freshly baked pies. I imagine my first meal at his new place will be on this list next year. My wedding ceremony the next day featured catering by the restaurant Local 111 and its talented chef Josephine Proul, again made exquisitely with ingredients from around the area, about two hours north of Manhattan.
As tempting as it is to list such memories here, as well as all to include incredible meals I had in friends’ homes, or in my own kitchen, or on beaches or in backyards, I’m sticking to more publicly pegged remembrances. And I’ll admit, there are holes here; running this website and having a family kept me more tied to New York than ever before, which means that places like San Francisco, Nashville, Tokyo, Portland (Oregon), Copenhagen and Chicago, to name a few, are not represented here. (Those places were covered on Food Republic throughout the year, but I didn’t make it personally.) Even still, narrowing the list to 10 is no easy task. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but I want to do justice to all the great chefs out there who made me leave their establishments with a Cheshire-cat grin on my face. Here are the 10 moments I’m going to call the most memorable of 2012:
10. I’ve spent a good part of the last half-decade worrying about what the hottest restaurants in New York City are, which makes just about everyone I know and their cousin come to me in search of recommendations. For the first half of the year, I went on auto-pilot. When the question was “Where should I eat?” My answer was almost always Tertulia. Seamus Mullen‘s ode to Spanish cuisine is brilliant, reliable and eminently satisfying. If you desire things like whipped salt cod with baked egg and roasted peppers, you will be in heaven. I had several lunches here that could make this list on their own, and taken as a whole, these meals make the list as one memorable experience.
9. I had heard a lot of hype about the Voltaggio brothers, even publishing a couple of complimentary pieces by one of the few people I know who ate better than I did this year, contributing editor Matt Rodbard. At a special lunch at Michael Voltaggio’s ink. during Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival, I got to taste what all the fuss is about. The brothers teamed up for a multi-course meal in which they one-upped each other with dishes like sea urchin fennel toast with dungeness crab (Michael) and lamb loin and belly with pumpernickel gnochetti (Bryan). When it comes to the Voltaggios, believe the hype.
8. In a year in which social media has perhaps the greatest impact on the restaurant industry of anything that wasn’t an actual ingredient, I had my own revelation thanks to a simple tweet. A NYC publication that I don’t recall tweeted something about reservations being available at Frej, a pop-up restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that was only serving dinner — a five-course set menu — Mondays through Wednesdays. I had been waiting for the so-called New Nordic Cuisine craze to hit New York, and here was a chance to see it in action. Chef Fredrik Berselius was turning out almost comically minimalist Swedish dishes that exploded with flavor. The presentation was austere, but a dish listed as “sunchoke, pear, elderflower, beef liver” was so much more than the sum of its parts. Now, somebody instagram a photo from Frej’s replacement in the space, Berselius’s new Aska.
7. I try to avoid going to too many industry dinners, but I’m really glad I made an exception when I was invited to a fairly intimate gathering of high-wattage food magazine editors to eat dishes from Michael Symon‘s new cookbook Carnivore. The dinner, prepared by Symon and Jonathan Waxman at the latter’s Barbuto, reminded me that brawny fare like bone marrow could be as delicate and exquisite as, say, the New Nordic Cuisine — in the right hands.
6. Full disclosure: my wife works for the man, but I am a full-on subscriber to Alain Ducasse‘s philosophies about food. The French legend’s adherence to natural, flavorful, un-fucked-with ingredients is inspiring, and when he devotes a restaurant to an idea, the result is usually refined excellence. Case in point: Rech in Paris, an unfussy and yet completely elegant restaurant where seafood plays all the starring roles. Highlights for me included crab made into a sort of club sandwich, sizzling tiny shrimp, a buttery Dover sole, and as a cheese course, a “famous Camembert” that lives up to the haughty billing: it was the creamiest, most delicious variety of the cheese I’ve ever had.
5. Another guy whose philosophies I’ve come to admire is Linton Hopkins. I’ve yet to make it to one of his restaurants in Atlanta — the high-end Eugene, and more casual Holeman and Finch — but we shared a breakfast pizza at Pulino’s in NYC, and while it was damn tasty, the conversation is what was most memorable. We ended up talking about a lot more than what I was able to include in our FR Interview, everything from politics to music to how Americans got off track and started eating terribly. I’m admittedly not a big Atlanta fan — my six-month stint there years back led me to refer to the city’s urban planning concept as “mall to mall carpeting” — but I’m gonna get down there first chance I get to see what Linton’s cooking.
4. Closer to home — across the street from my home, actually — Dale Talde opened a restaurant in late 2011 that emitted a lot of buzz and kept the crowds coming throughout 2012, with inventive plays on Asian classics (the pork-filled pretzel dumplings rank highly in NYC’s best and most consistently great dishes, in my opinion). I eat here often, but one day in 2012, co-owner David Massoni told me a secret: They were starting to offer takeout. Now I love the lively scene at Talde — it’s great for dates or for group outings — but late this summer, I called in an order, picked it up, and my friends and I gathered in my backyard for a Talde feast that left the whole table floored. I took out again just this past weekend: tried some new dishes (samosas!), some old favorites, same result. This is a restaurant that is fast on its way to becoming a Brooklyn institution.
3. In late April, the main team behind this website and its co-founder, Marcus Samuelsson, trekked down to Texas for the first Austin Food & Wine Festival. Marcus was a headliner of course, and we’d partnered with the W Austin to host one of our mobile Test Kitchen and Interview Lounge/After Party deals. Our first night in town, myself, Rodbard, managing director Nate Landau and associate editor Jess Kapadia took a cab out to the oddly located Uchiko to see why — besides winning Top Chef — Paul Qui was the hot chef of the moment. Qui wasn’t in the kitchen that night, and a persistent fire alarm threw a wrench in the atmosphere, but the Japanese-influenced dishes came one by one, each one nearly blowing our minds. Over the next few days, the city and the festival — which is destined to become a hot ticket in the years ahead — made for a whirlwind of smoke, brisket, sausages, tacos and margaritas, but Qui’s work at Uchiko (which he’s since left) and East Side King food trucks — where I stood outside a dive bar eating Korean-style ribs and washing it down with a local craft brew — put him high on our radar as one of the most exciting chefs in the country. (And one of the most stylish.)
2. I’ll say it again: I’m loathe to include industry events on a list like this. But what am I supposed to do when I get invited to a lunch at Per Se fêting Thomas Keller for his S. Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants Lifetime Achievement Award? And I sit at a table with, among others, Matthew Lightner of Atera and Laurent Gras? The dishes were, of course, artfully composed. The wines paired perfectly. The room is elegant. This is a classic dining experience on any given day, but when you get to converse with some of the great culinary minds of our day between speeches by Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, well, that’s why this job sometimes make me feel like one of the luckiest guys on earth.
1. My most memorable meal of 2012 wasn’t all about the food, though the dishes that the self-proclaimed Young Turks turned out at Ten Bells, a formerly down-on-its-tooth pub in the east end enclave of Spitalfields, were uniformly delicious, edgy, fun. No, this was the experience that epitomized just about every trend of the year, and it all added up to sheer enjoyment. This was a pop-up (trend 1), with two buzzy young chefs (2) cooking up a set-course menu (3) served by hipster wait staff (4), accompanied to a soundtrack that’s like an indie rock critic’s Spotify playlist (Blur to Pulp to Pavement) (5), in a setting featuring art by the chic-est names (Tracey Emin, Banksy) (6), with a crowd of diners that could double as the staff to a fashion magazine (7). In the wrong hands, this formula would mean disaster, but that was the thing about 2012: more and more chefs and restaurateurs are starting to understand that creativity doesn’t begin and end in the kitchen. Diners want great food, but they want an experience to remember. I hear a dude in Chicago’s even selling tickets to eat at his restaurant now. I’ll have to try that place in 2013.