The Internet is in the midst of year-end list madness. Let us prolong the season one more day when Food Republic editors weigh-in on the year in dining out. Read more of 2014 in review: The Year In Cocktails, Bar Trends, New Booze And Looking Ahead, Fact-Checking The Year In Hyperbolic Food Shortages, Top 10 Quotes Of The Year, 25 Most Popular Recipes Of 2014
Richard Martin | Editorial Director
Last year, I named Fish & Game one of my best restaurants of the year, and I had many great experiences there again in 2014, as Zak Pelaccio and his team continued to evolve and adapt one of the country’s most extraordinary endeavors. The F&G team is intensely seasonal and local, growing as much produce as it can on a nearby farm, sourcing meats from small farmers and producers, and canning and jarring like madmen and women as the winter approaches. Some critics and snarky bloggers — can we say good riddance to them in 2015? — have turned local and seasonal into backlash-worthy buzzwords, which I find completely ludicrous given that the chefs who pursue this philosophy of cooking are trying to engage with and strengthen their communities, amongst other noble causes. With that, I’m dedicating my best of ’14 list to chefs who strive to create menus based on seasonality and on relationships with local purveyors and farmers.
Frenchie To Go (Paris, France)
I start my list with a casual takeaway spot from Paris chef Gregory Marchand, who cooks more elevated dishes down the small street at Frenchie. In 2014, he added this American-style concept, and made it possible to have a delicious egg sandwich for breakfast or a pastrami on rye for lunch in Paris, with ingredients sourced from the best French markets and purveyors. Marchand, a father of two young children, even visits Parisian markets at all hours to ensure that his restaurants feature exquisite ingredients.
Take Root (Brooklyn, New York)
Chef Elise Kornack designs the menu at this jewel box restaurant seemingly from whatever's in her brilliant mind, and her wife Anne Hieronimous delivers each lovingly plated dish to the 12 diners. It's a precious-sounding concept, but in one of the world's most competitive markets, Take Root stands out front. On a recent polar night, when a guy could almost assuredly expect a parade of root vegetables, Kornack surprised and thrilled with hits of citrus and small bites of lamb, showing that seasonal needn't be drab in the northeast winter.
Heirloom (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Charlotte, North Carolina’s dining scene lags behind other major metropolitan areas, but some young chefs, like Clark Barlowe of Heirloom, are trying to improve the situation. In a converted chain restaurant space that’s been outfitted with lots of repurposed wood, this ambitious chef is using only North Carolina ingredients, and while a visit this past summer featured uneven cooking and a harrowing dive into a wine list that features only bottles produced within the state (!), a few vegetable dishes showed promise, and I hope that the crowds that the restaurant attracts on weekends will drive Barlowe to continue down his unique path. Although I’d advise him to open his wine list up to some entries from outside the state (at least from California, Oregon, New York and Washington).
Garopapilles (Bordeaux, France)
I’ve raved enough about my meal there last month, where chef Tanguy Laviale is cooking a set menu based on what he finds at the market in Bordeaux. His cooking is a highlight in a city with a lot of culinary action, including a true locavore restaurant, Belle Campagne, with two young chefs who, like Barlowe in Charlotte, strive for 100 percent regional ingredients (minus the wine in their case).
The Lark (Santa Barbara, California)
It goes without saying that Santa Barbara would be awash in restaurants that source locally, but I was surprised by the quality of places in this sun-soaked locale. The Lark was the buzziest of the bunch, with farm-to-table dishes and a beer and wine list that took advantage of the city’s craft brewers and the Santa Barbara AVA’s excellent wineries. My dinner there came after a visit to Brewer-Clifton winery in Lompoc; later this year, Wine Enthusiast deemed their Santa Rita Hills pinot noir the 8th best bottle of the year, and rightfully so. I also met intensely dedicated purveyors during a food sourcing panel at Bridlewood Estate, including Stephanie Mutz, whose Sea Stephanie Fish is a one-woman, one-stop-shop for the best sea urchin in the biz.
Reef (Houston, Texas)
As my colleague Matt Rodbard pointed out in a roundup of places we visited during a recent trip, Houston’s dining scene is on fire. Justin Yu’s Oxheart and Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly live up to the hype, and I was impressed with Bryan Caswell’s commitment to supporting Gulf fishermen at his long-running restaurant Reef. His is a crowd-pleasing restaurant, so I don’t begrudge him sides like fried mac and cheese, but the emphasis is squarely on the seafood, and he, like the other chefs on my list, thinks about every aspect of his ingredients, from where they come from to who is providing them to how they work in a composed dish. I’d be a happy diner if this trend continues in 2015.
Honorable Mention: Tuome (NYC; see below), Husk (Nashville, see below), Rolf & Daughters (Nashville), Underbelly (Houston), Claudette (NYC), Garance (Paris)
Matt Rodbard | Contributing Editor
It wasn’t so much the East-West fusion cooking that won my heart at this stunning and serious new East Village restaurant. It was the bird’s nest of mushrooms (maitake roasted and sautéed), topped with a runny egg. I’ve seen that dish many, many times, but chef Thomas Chen (formerly of Eleven Madison Park) absolutely stuck the landing. It was so good, as was the fried chicken, the roasted skate with marcona almonds foam and the GM who bought us a round due to our wait (after several apologies and not that long of a wait). Hope this one can stick it out. The East Village is a rough place to open, and maintain.
Mott Street (Chicago)
I wrote about chef Edward Kim a bit in my story about Korean food’s very big 2014, but in general my summer visit to Mott Street woke me up a bit. Sure, Kim is not cooking with the same authenticity in mind as Hooni Kim (at NYC’s great Hanjan), but the sometimes Korean-inspired, sometimes Southeast Asian-inspired cooking is so delicious, it’s hard to forget. There’s deeply funky kimchi jjigae made with smoked bacon, and sweet-sour-hot “everything” chicken wings tossed with soy sauce, jiggery, chiles and then coated with fried shallots, poppy seeds and a tzatziki dipping sauce. Applebee’s is going to steal that shit, just watch.
Wexler’s Deli (Los Angeles)
This summer I rented an Airbnb a short walk from Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles and sat at Wexler’s counter nearly every morning, sipping coffee from nearby G&B and eating plates and plates of Micah Wexler’s exceptionally smoked lox, smoked sturgeon and smoked pastrami — in various forms (on very nice bagels smeared with light, aerated cream cheese; stacked high between slices of rye). Micah was ever-present, always willing to share a story, or piece of fatty fish collar, and is a Grade A mensch. The chef's story is evolving for sure, so watch out.
50 Kalò di Ciro Salvo (Naples, Italy)
Earlier this fall I made the pilgrimage that all card-carrying pizza freaks have either made, or plan to make: Naples. Naples, as a city, is an absolute shithole. Campania is a charming place to visit, but there is nothing charming about garbage strikes, graft, pollution and chaotic traffic that plagues the crumbling city. Also, everyone yells at each other. But god is the pizza good, and during my 24 hours in the steaming, stinking city did I find some good ones. But hands down the best is a relatively new entrant, 50 Kalò. The name translates loosely to mean “good dough” and yes, in fact, the dough is good. It’s also magic — perfect elasticity, texture and flavor (bitterness from the perfectly executed “leoparding” from the 1000 degree oven). But good dough does not always make good pizza. The toppings seal the deal: the best cheese, sun-ripened tomatoes and, of course, pork. It all comes together at 50 Kalò.
Maude (Los Angeles)
Every fond L.A. food reflection I had this year (and there were many) ultimately led back to my dinner at Maude, which was hands down the best restaurant experience I have had in years. Precise, though relaxed. Creative, though approachable. Celebrity, though exceedingly warm. Curtis Stone is a gentleman cook and has hired some of the finest cooks to help him achieve a grand vision of a monthly-rotating menu focusing on a single ingredient. Yes, this is hyperbole. Yes, I only dined there once nearly a year ago. Yes, it’s harder than heck to book a table, and more expensive than ever. But this is how it goes when writing about your favorite out-of-town restaurant that you wish you could subscribe to (see: Next). I wrote much more about my visit to Maude here.
Honorable Mention: Abe Fisher (Philadelphia), Piora (NYC), Soban (Atlanta), Nightingale 9 (NYC), State Bird Provision (San Francisco), The Cleveland (NYC/RIP!), Bar La Grassa (Minneapolis), Husk (Nashville), Serpico (Philadelphia), 610 Magnolia (Louisville)
George Embiricos | Contributing Editor
Franklin Barbecue (Austin, TX)
I paid a visit to the country’s longest restaurant line during my first ever trip to Austin in April. There’s a lot more to Franklin than getting to taste the meat after (five) long hours of waiting — the wait itself is a worthwhile experience. There’s the camaraderie with perfect strangers, drinking the day away with friends and playing rock, paper, scissors to determine which one of said friends will be dispatched to bring back the city’s best breakfast tacos from Veracruz All-Natural (so good) during the wait. It’s hard to live up to any proclamation touting something as the nation’s “best,” but our group was thoroughly satisfied with the mounds of perfectly seasoned, moist fatty brisket, sausage links that ooze plentiful juices upon biting into their crispy casings and ribs that fall off the bone at the slightest touch.
Barley Swine (Austin, TX)
Despite finishing every morsel of our gargantuan lunch at Franklin mere hours earlier, our group powered through to dinner at Bryce Gilmore’s first brick-and-mortar, farm-to-table hotspot Barley Swine (it opened in 2010 as an offshoot of the chef’s food truck). We were greeted by a superbly assembled, 12-course rotating menu full of brilliantly unorthodox combinations (uni, deviled egg, lettuce and halibut cheek, pinto beans, morels, cabbage, bird jus come to mind) and an equally impressive wine, beer and cocktail pairing. At $120 per person ($121 if you buy the kitchen staff a round of beers!) — including the multitude of well-crafted drinks — Gilmore’s small, casual restaurant is an absolute bargain. His second restaurant, Odd Duck, is on the top of my wish list for 2015.
36 Hours in Chicago
I traveled to Chicago with one simple goal in mind: eat as much of the city’s best food as humanly possible. Fast-forward 36 hours and I was able to pat myself on the back, albeit with a hand that felt significantly puffier than when it arrived in town. Au Cheval’s egg and thick-cut peppered bacon-topped double cheeseburger is on the very short list for the best (two) patty(s) I’ve ever eaten. Longtime Windy City favorite Portillo’s served up quality Chicago dogs and dinner at Stephanie Izard’s insanely popular, small plate haven Girl & The Goat lived up to every bit of the hype. My only regret was an inability to somehow fit in a pie of traditional deep dish: I’ll have to return this year to finish business.
ZZ’s Clam Bar (NYC)
I held my birthday dinner at a Major Food Group establishment for the second straight year and I was blown away for the second straight year. A bouncer with a list at the door, $20 cocktails and $100+ carpaccio are not usually restaurant keys to my heart, but they play off each other oh-so-well at the 14-seat ZZ’s, located down the block from the team’s wildly successful Carbone. Those $20 cocktails are among the best and most inventive I’ve ever sampled at a restaurant, and that $100+ carpaccio is topped with generous scoops of fresh uni and caviar. Enough said.
It’s been two and a half years since I graduated from a Nashville university, and a full city restaurant guide can be devoted solely to the spots that have opened in that time. That’s how much Music City's food scene has truly taken off. Sean Brock’s second rendition of Husk has to be at or near the top of any of these lists. Located in a restored, cavernous Victorian home in downtown Nashville, the rustic Husk celebrates Southern ingredients with help from a variety of local farms and purveyors. The entire menu changes daily and we’ve learned over the years to trust Mr. Brock unequivocally, but cross your fingers (beg?) for his Carolina rice griddle cakes with pimento cheese, crispy chicken skins with white BBQ sauce and lemon thyme, and tender beef from nearby Bear Creek Farm, served alongside beets, grapes, malted barley, yarrow and lime.
Honorable Mention: Eleven Madison Park (NYC), Dirty French (NYC), The Fat Ham (Philadelphia), Bacaro (Providence, RI), Gato (NYC), Galatoire’s (New Orleans)
Jess Kapadia | Senior Editor
Kaitlyn's Apartment (Park Slope)
I always start off this list with a meal I cooked, except I didn't cook the best home-cooked meal of 2014, my friend Kaitlyn did. I just made the tater salad. She followed Thomas Keller's recipe for Ad Hoc fried chicken to a T and the results were perfection. She gave her undivided attention to a major, fridge-consuming mass brining then dredged each piece in Keller's gluten-free Cup4Cup flour (a crazy secret ingredient to massively crunchy fried chicken), dipped it in buttermilk, then Cup4Cup again and let rest and harden slightly before frying in a pot that definitely, definitely had a thermometer in it.
The Lalu (Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan)
I had a lot of incredible meals during my trip to Taiwan, but the best Asian restaurant experience of my year was at the Lake View Chinese Restaurant on the 7th floor of the awe-inspiring, historic Lalu hotel and resort overlooking Sun Moon Lake. After tea-smoked duck eggs, quivering soy-braised pork belly in fluffy steamed buns, incredibly savory king mushrooms, beef tongue, actual General Tso's chicken and course after course of delicious regional desserts, I sat by the infinity pool overlooking the massive lake and Insta-napped (that's where you fall asleep Instagramming all the food you just ate) while the chefs I was traveling with did …something in the kitchen.
Husk (Charleston, SC)
Husk had been on my bucket list for some time. We're big Sean Brock fans here at Food Republic if you hadn't heard, and Husk is a Charleston institution for a stocked cornucopia of reasons. Chiefly, their stocked cornucopia. Seriously, their charcuterie program is off the meat hook. Everything's made and aged in their adjacent facilities. I'd say don't fill up on appetizers because there are cheeseburgers, herbed chicken fat-roasted oysters over rock salt and just about the best shrimp and grits you can find, but this is no appetizer. It's a big slab of wood covered with much smaller slabs of just about the best cured meat you can find, and worth the trip down by itself.
Surprise wild card of the year! From the good folks at Benihana (hear me out) came KOA, noodle-mecca and secret obsession of rappers. Their newly invented spin on ramen, sorba, is made with ultra-premium soy milk flown in from Japan and is more of a noodle dish with soup rather than a soup dish with noodles, according to owner and Japanese restaurant maven Tora Matsuoko. Everything else on the menu is awesome too, particularly from the cocktail page. You'll need something to cool your jets when the addictive to eat and say HeHe-Ah-Hee Chicken melts them clean off. Say hi to Flavor Flav.
Topping Rose House (Bridgehampton, NY)
I'm one of those insufferable jerks who goes to the Hamptons every chance they get. If one of Tom Colicchio's restaurants is involved, I'll be on that Cannonball train faster than you can say "lobster roll." The Topping Rose House, a stone's throw from the train station, was not only one of my favorite hotel stays of the year, but their large-format pig roast dinner in the property's farmhouse was one of the best meals. The long communal table highlighted inimitably flavorful produce from the on-property heirloom gardens in myriad salads and sides, flanked by local day boat scallop crudo, housemade kielbasa, crunchy, fatty pig skin shards and tons of smoky, juicy pork and ribs right off the carcass (as nature intended). Seriously, what's more natural than eating spit-roasted pig alongside tons of peak-ripe fruits and vegetables? Nothing, except a dip in the saltwater pool. An hour after digesting, of course.
Honorable Mention: Din Tai Fung (Taipei), St. Anselm (Brooklyn), Ethos Gallery 51 (NYC)