Friday, January 3, 2014

Best Dishes of 2013

Not to miss out on the end-of-year listacles, a look back at my most memorable dishes from this year.  Note these are all restaurant creations.  If I had to include some of the wonderful home cooked meals I’ve been served and cooked myself, it would be a much longer list as the year was also full of great home cooking.  In no particular order….

17 dishes at Hotel the Village: On my second visit to Sri Lanka I continued to be impressed with the vast array of cooking techniques and flavor combinations that could be presented in a single meal.  However, nowhere have I seen more diverse, complex, vegetable-driven preparations than at Hotel The Village restaurant in Girithali, Sri Lanka.  We were awestruck by the bounty when we weren’t busy eating from the 15 different bowls of curried vegetables, dal, pork, lake fish, and sambal presented with two different kinds of rice. With juice, this feast came to barely USD$10 per person.

Cacio e Pepe at Lupa:  Mario Batali’s Lupa is no secret, and for anyone who has eaten there, neither is the Cacio e Pepe.  While it may have taken me a while to get on board with this program, I made up for it plenty going back four times this year.  When you find a dish that is “the best”, it is hard to keep away when the craving strikes for the perfect cheese and black pepper slicked pasta.

Rabbit in Salt Bowl with Courgettes at Duck Soup: Since stumbling upon this restaurant suggestion on a London food blog a few summers back, this has quickly become a go-to restaurant for John and me.  The small plates change constantly and we have been consistently impressed with their range. This Labor Day weekend it was a braised rabbit dish with baby courgettes served in a Himalayan salt bowl that captured my taste buds’ memory and insured that as long as Duck Soup is open, we will keep coming back.

Ddukbokki at Hanjan:  I love Korean, in no small way because I’m obsessed with pickled food and kimchi is perhaps the pinnacle of pickling technique.  Hanjan, a modern Korean newcomer to the Flatiron district makes kimchi all right, and it is a must every time I eat there.  Along with the kimchi, the Pork Fat “Ddukbokki” is now on my “must order” list.  Chewy rice cakes and briny sliced fish cakes mingle in a slick of spicy pork fat.  There is nothing quite like it.

Lamb Neck at Calliope:  I should be embarrassed how often I eat lunch at Calliope.  I can’t help it.  Eric Korsh and Ginevra Iverson might be making classic (and updated classic) French food better than the French in this Francophile city.  But if you go once, go for dinner, as that is where their food truly shines.  There is always a game bird on the menu, and it is always delicious.  Some nights I have been enchanted by specials such as a deconstructed cassoulet made with confit veal breast.  But make sure someone at your table orders the hot and sour braised lamb neck, served off the bone with pillow-light mascarpone agnolotti.  That is the stuff dreams are made of.  

Ceviche at El Camello Jr.: When two singing taxi drivers tell you that this is their go-to place for fish whenever they shuttle tourists the hour and a half drive from the Cancun airport to Tulum, you know the food has got to be good.  El Camello Jr. is owned by fisherman and attached to a seafood market.  The fish is so fresh you can watch the cooks cleaning the catch from an open window.  The “chico” fish ceviche was so not-small and so delicious that could have been a meal for two on its own, with a side of excellent chips and a cerveza, of course.

Adobada at Los Tacos No. 1: Los Tacos No. 1 changed my life.  This is not hyperbole.  As a native Californian, homesickness to me tastes like tacos.  I mean real tacos.  Not the fancy versions popping up all over New York from star chefs trying to reinvent the wheel.  I mean real, honest, homemade tortilla, fresh salsa, meat-on-a-spit tacos.  Then three entrepreneurs schooled in Tijuana-style tacos brought Los Tacos No. 1 to Chelsea Market, practically at my doorstep.  Now when I get the craving, a taste of home (washed down with an ice cold Jamaica) is only a hop, skip, and jump away.

Tri-color Pappardelle with Matsutake Mushrooms at Piora: I despise the word “fusion”, but even then, I have been hard pressed to come up with a word to summarize the style at West Village newcomer Piora.  So I won’t.  It is enough to know the food is wonderful without trying to hard (even if the service does try a bit too hard on occasion).  A special one night last fall of tri-color homemade pappardelle with Matsutake mushrooms, a varietal prized in Japan, seemed a classic mash-up of Asian and Italian sensibilities.  Whatever you want to call the cuisine at Piora, all you need to know is that it is delicious.

Green Curry ramen at Bassanova: Who can chose a best ramen in New York City?  We are spoiled for choice.  And though everyone seems to have a personal favorite for the classic variety (mine is Hide-Chan’s spicy ramen) we are just now seeing the innovation that has been happening in Japan migrate to our shores.  A great early example is the fabled Green Curry Ramen from Bassanova, originally of Japan and now in New York’s Chinatown.  Push the weirdly placed mesclun greens to the side and dip your chopsticks into the beautiful, oversized bowl to fish out springy noodles bathing in a rich, fragrant green curry.  It will make you wonder why no one on this side of the Pacific had thought of that already.

Afternoon Snack at Hasaki: The name “Afternoon Snack” was clearly designed to make one laugh.  This is “snack” fit for a giant, or perhaps an Olympic sprinter.  But for us mere mortals who get hungry at lunch time, this spread is a sampler of just about everything wonderful this authentic East Village Japanese restaurant serves: green salad, red miso soup, tempura vegetables and shrimp, grilled miso salmon, two seaweed salads, and the chef’s sushi and roll selection of the day.  At $18, it might just be the best value “snack” in New York City.

Wishing you food adventures and happy eating in 2014!

Note:  In my capacity as a wine salesperson I do business with Piora, Hanjan, and Calliope.  However, I paid for all food mentioned here and would have happily eaten at any of these restaurants regardless of my business relationship.

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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