I procrastinate. This annoying habit of mine, combined with a rigorous work schedule, often leads me to finish things by the time they're largely irrelevant. Say for example, my three year backlog on editing photos. Or the fact that it took me fourteen months to start this blog from the time the domain was purchased. Yes, Distanthire.com is finally up and running, just in time for me to return to Los Angeles as a local hire (more on that soon).
So it's not at all surprising that I find myself writing this post about my Top 10 Meals of 2013 in May of 2014. And truth be told, I wouldn't even have bothered with one at this point, if not for how good my meals were last year. 2013 was by far the best eating year of my life. We ate at multiple 3 Michelin starred restaurants in Spain, New York and California, not to mention 4 of the top 10 restaurants in the World according to Restaurant Magazine (for whatever that's worth).
Narrowing our memorable experiences down to just ten was supremely challenging. Several restaurants who might have topped my list in a prior year missed the cut this time. There were the two superlative meals we had at Jungsik, the first of which was on my list until the final week of 2013. The always dependable birthday lunch at Per Se. A special dinner at Eleven Madison Park (it was our friend Adam's going away service). And then there were the collaborative chef dinners and pop-up meals - like the Grant Achatz Push Project at Empellon Cocina, or the Wolvesmouth NYC dinner party that I hope to repeat on Thornton's home turf.
Yes, this was a great year for eating.
For Labor Day weekend, Dorothy and I visited Boston. It was the first time I'd been since childhood and I was curious to check out the food scene. So imagine my surprise when research revealed that the most critically acclaimed restaurant in Boston is a sushi joint.
We splurged on the Grand Omakase menu, otherwise known as O Ya's greatest hits. Round after round of Tim Cushman's signature dishes came our way that night, 19 courses in all. And nearly every one hit the spot, from the Fried Kumamoto Oyster, to the Grilled Chanterelle & Shitake Mushrooms. Is it authentic Japanese? Who cares. It's delicious.
I first read about the annual Twelve Days of Christmas hosted by the Restaurant at Meadowood on Ulterior Epicure's blog. Knowing that we'd be traveling out west to visit Dorothy's family for the holidays, I contacted Bonjwing to ask which of the last few nights he'd recommend. His advice was to make closing night - if not for the food, then for the wine.
Well, he was absolutely right. The vintner that night was Harlan Estate, and their wine was easily the best we've ever had. But Christopher Kostow's food was no slouch either. In particular, his Eel dish blew me away, the smokiness bringing back fond memories at Etxebarri. We can't wait to visit the Restaurant at Meadowood on a normal night (and stay at their gorgeous resort again).
Juan Mari Arzak is a legend. Though Arzak was originally opened in 1897 by his grandparents, Juan is on the one who put San Sebastian and Spanish cooking on the map. Considered one of the great masters of New Basque cuisine, he's passed this legacy onto his daughter Elena, who now shares the kitchen with him.
Our meal wasn't perfect. The service felt indifferent, cold even. Bringing out my camera briefly turned the night into the Spanish Inquisition (sorry, couldn't resist), which was confusing given the volume of photos I'd seen before (and since) on the internet. But the food itself was creative, avant-garde, and delicious. The foie gras course was one of my favorite dishes of the year, ditto for the monkfish. Judging from our experience, I'd say the restaurant is in safe hands with Elena.
Entering Aska, I was skeptical. Located in Kinfolk Studios in Williamsburg, a gallery and performance space shared with other artizans, Aska didn't have the usual polish that accompanies a Michelin starred meal. I was also a bit nervous about the food. We'd never tried "New Nordic" restaurant before, and while I relish the opportunity to try new things, my wife was squeamish at the very mention of pig's blood. And it was her birthday. Had I made a mistake?
Then the first bites came, and my fear dissipated. Tastes and flavors I'd never experienced in combination, one after the other. By the time I had tried the monkfish liver, I was sold. It didn't even matter that by the latter stages of our meal, the outer space had been transformed to a club with a DJ playing. We were hooked. Oh and the Pig's Blood croquette? My wife loved it.
The traditional fine dining scene in New York City is incredible. You want luxury ingredients, no problem. You want white-tablecloth service, they have it in spades. Progressive cooking, on the other hand, is a bit harder to come by. Chefs and restauranteurs leave that to their West Coast brethren.
An exception to this rule is Atera. Of course the chef, Matthew Lightner, hails from the West Coast, having cut his chops at Castagna in Portland Oregon. He also worked at Mugaritz and Noma, two of the touchstones of progressive cooking, and his time there clearly rubbed off on him. And so yes, there are foraged items on the menu. But beyond the lichen and moss there is brilliant stuff going on - such as his signature razor clam dish, which stacks almonds, garlic and razor clams into a little tower on your plate. The ingredients look identical, you don't know where the almonds end and the razor clams begin, until you eat them.
But what's truly great about Atera is that in the midst of all this heady stuff, the restaurant is FUN. You sit around counter tops, watching chefs with tweezers plate your food while bobbing your head to a playlist of 80's jams (a fellow diner was in the mood for ballads and asked for November Rain, which they promptly played). The servers bound around with manic energy, explaining dishes with a twinkle in their eye that lets you know they're having a blast too. It's infectious.
Midway through our meal Dorothy turned to me and said "I want to eat here for my birthday". Next year, Bella. Next year.
We dined at El Celler De Can Roca two weeks after it was crowned the number one restaurant in the world and the excitement in the room was still palatable. While it wasn't our favorite meal of 2013, we too were soon swept up in the Roca brother magic.
From the avant-garde cooking of Joan Roca, the head chef, the exquisite wine pairings from sommelier Josep, to the imaginative desserts from youngest brother Jodi, this talented trio has taken a family restaurant and turned it into a world class destination.
Saison was the most expensive meal we ate this year. In fact, I'll take it a step further. Saison is the most expensive meal we've ever eaten. (And we've eaten at some pretty remarkable places). As a chef/restauranteur, that's ballsy. Especially given that Joshua Skenes is a (relative) newcomer.
So now that I got that disclosure out of the way, let me also say this - he backs it up. Saison is the best restaurant we've eaten at in the United States. And it's not even close. The cod course I ate that night was my favorite dish of the year. (Ulterior Epicure listed it as his number four). The white truffle course was easily in my top five. It was a brilliant, brilliant meal, one that I hope to repeat again soon once we've returned to the West Coast.
A meal at Asador Etxebarri is something of a foodie holy grail. Victor Aruginzoniz, a former forest ranger, is considered the world's ultimate grill master. And the Basque restaurant is notoriously difficult to find, located in a "town" comprised of a few buildings in the middle of nowhere.
So, was the hype justified? Despite being lost twice (each way an hour and a half), dealing with snobbish guests and the mixed lighting from hell, the answer to that question is a resounding YES. If nothing else, for the best steak of your life (see pic above).
Every dish, from the opening mushroom crackers, to the ice cream for dessert, is infused with an intense smokiness. Not only was it one of our top three meals of 2013, but we're eating at Etxebarri again in two weeks.
Only this time…we're not driving.
Dorothy and I never got to visit El Bulli before it closed. So we were particularly excited to eat at 41 Degrees in Barcelona, a cocktail bar owned by Ferran and Albert Adrià that neighbors Tickets, their hit tapas joint. Albert takes you on a gastronomical journey around the world through forty-one different tapas, including a few El Bulli classics.
What more can I add that hasn't already been said more eloquently by others? A delicious, sensory experience, and our second favorite meal of 2013.
We couldn't decide if we wanted to go to Mugaritz. The reviews were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, people universally raved about the location and service. On the other, many complained about the food, some going as far as to call it inedible. Even some people who sung Mugaritz's praises called it an amazing experience despite only liking a few dishes. I couldn't reconcile that idea in my head. How could a restaurant be an experience of a lifetime if it didn't even taste good?
Actually, Andoni Aduriz, Mugaritz's chef commissioned a study of this. And found that taste was of 13th importance to customers dining at his restaurant. It sounds preposterous. Until you experience for yourself. Which is exactly what happened to me when I dined there.
Mugaritz was the best meal I ate last year. And I probably only liked half their dishes.
Simply put, the philosophy of Chef Aduriz permeates everything, from the space and location, to the talented people who work there, and (of course) the food. An encounter with nature is what the menu promises…and delivers. This is not a meal, it's a thought provoking experience, one that lingers with you.
I can't wait to eat there again. Luckily, I don't have to wait long. We go in two weeks.