Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best Bites of 2011- Restaurant Edition

Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles in Soup from Xi'an Famous Foods

It was a good year for lamb.  And spice.  Whether eating cross-legged at a street vendor in Indonesia, using newspaper as a plate in Sri Lanka, or sampling the latest creation from celebrity chef Jose Andres in Las Vegas, it was a year full of memorable bites.

In no particular order.... 

Head on prawns, a la plancha, anchovy butter, tarragon. The Bristol, Chicago

It had been about eight years since my last time in Chicago.  January in Chicago lived up to my weather expectations (bone rattling cold) and food (fantastic).  Even after a mind-blowing meal the night before at 16 filled with every high end food imaginable- truffles, caviar, Waygu beef- it was the shrimp at The Bristol that left the biggest impression of the trip.  Packed with deep flavor from the fatty head and the prawns came dripping in luscious herbed anchovy butter.  I licked my fingers.

Spaghittusu cun Allu Ollu e Bottariga.  La Ciccia, San Francisco. 
The meal that started it all- my obsession with Sardinian food that is.  Trying to break out of our Cali-Italian dining rut in San Francisco, I booked a table at this specifically Sardinian restaurant in Noe Valley for my boyfriend’s birthday.  The restaurant and the cuisine excel in creating complex flavors with simple ingredients.  Spaghetti with spicy oil and bottarga, or mullet roe, topped with golden breadcrumbs tattooed my tastebuds with the memory of truly excellent regional Italian cuisine.
On my Sardinian obsession: All Roads Lead to Sardinia

Duck Tongue Tacos. China Poblano, Las Vegas.
I’ll admit I was highly skeptical of this Chinese-Meets-Mexican concept at the new Cosmopolitan Hotel.  I should not have doubted Jose Andres.  His team deftly managed hand made dumplings in one corner while turning out hand pressed tortillas in another.  Sometimes the two cuisines met in the middle as with the bold flavors of the duck tongue tacos.
For the story on my meal at China Poblano, click here: From China to Mexico By Way of Las Vegas

Egg Hopper with Sambal. Night Market Stall in Kataragama, Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka had already been wowing me for days with mouth numbing curries, melting dal, fresh fish, and endless preparations of vegetables.  But I was after a taste of the legendary egg hopper, a bowl shaped pancake made of fermented batter filled with a scrambled egg and spicy sambal chili paste.  At a festival in Kataragama, a woman with a huge smile dished up her specialty and wrapped it in newspaper for us to eat on the drive home.  Easily one of the simplest and most memorable bites and meals of my year.
On Hoppers and Curry Rice: To Create Trust First Eat the Fire

Oryx, Springbok, KuduNamibia.
It is too hard to choose just one of these bites.  Therefore this is a tie between all the wild game we ate in Namibia.  At Joe’s in Windhoek.  Oase Guesthouse in Kamanjab.  Erich’s in Swakopmund.  And Sossusvlei Lodge in Sesriem.
More on wild meat in Namibia: The Pride of Namibia

Polenta with bacon lardon, Bagnes cheese, and tomato sauce.  Croix de Coeur, Verbier, Switzerland.
No one told me about how good the food can be in Switzerland- the wine, the chanterelles, and Oh My, the cheese.  Also, I’m not sure I really grasped just how organized the trail system is in the Alps with convenient rest stops for food and drink seemingly every few miles.  At the end of a 9-mile trail run we celebrated with mediocre pasta and an over-the-top delicious plate of polenta.  It came out sizzling in a cast iron pan, topped with a chunky marina sauce, melted cheese from the valley below and thick slices of bacon lardon.  It may have been August but that is a wintry comfort food I would eat any time of year. 

Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles. (Pictured above)  Xi’an Famous Foods, New York, New York.
I have fond memories of a solo trip to China many years ago, particularly of the food I ate in the Northern city of Xi’an where the spices of the East meet the hearty hand cut wheat noodles of China.  Xi’an Famous Foods does justice to the city for which it is named.  A sinus clearing, steaming bowl of spicy cumin lamb noodles brought back a flood of memories with every slurp.

Mie Goreng with LambBorobudur, Indonesia.
We escaped our plush hotel one night and its unadventurous tourist food for real local experience.  Sitting cross-legged on plastic mats, the hotel’s restaurant manager had brought us to his personal favorite restaurant in town normally patronized only by locals.  He ordered for us- plates of satay and mie goreng were washed down with warm beer from the convenience store next door.  The spice from the mie goreng- thin rice noodles stir fried with lamb- was so potent that we coughed and our eyes watered even from several meters away from the wok at the street side stall.  Our eyes watered still, this time with happiness, as we asked our guide to order seconds. More on Indonesian street food eating: Eating the Street and the Street Bites Back

Salsa. El Banco, Puerto Vallarta.
It is hard to choose a favorite part of this spectacular retreat on the Mexican coast far away from the crowds of Puerta Vallarta.  If I had to choose one thing, it might be the salsa whipped up daily by the villa’s chef.  We managed to overcome my lack of Spanish and her lack of English when she taught me how to make this salsa of blackened chilies simply by watching her work.  I now can have a little taste of Mexico whenever I get the urge.
Find the recipe for Olinka's Salsa Here: For Heat Loving Gringos

Herbs, Flowers, Foraged Greens, Curds and Whey. Forage, Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Forage” was certainly a buzzword of 2011 in the world of food, but this restaurant was enough ahead of the trend to actually name this small, sleek establishment after one of the methods through which these young chef/owners procure their food.  A simple salad of herbs and flowers from their backyard greenhouse and foraged greens from a nearby park was topped with milky whey and salty curds.  It sounded strange, looked beautiful, and tasted hauntingly of the land from which the dish came.
For a detailed account of my meal at Forage, click here: And the Winner Is...

Lasagna. Bianca, New York, New York.
Not new for me, the lasagna at Bianca was special precisely because it is an old familiar friend.  Our first night moving into our new apartment in New York after living in California for over five years, it was to Bianca we went to celebrate with paper thin sheets of pasta layered with béchamel and meat sauce- possibly the best lasagna anywhere in the world.

Stay tuned for the best of my year in cooking.  

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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