If 2013 was a great year for eating, 2014 was an embarrassment of riches. Over the course of twelve months, we were able to sample many of the world's finest chefs, adding up to some of the rewarding meals of our lives. Suffice it to say this was our best year for dining yet.
This declaration does comes with a small caveat. For the most part, our culinary adventures came in the first half of the calendar. This is when we were living in NYC and includes a blow-out trip to Europe in June. That three week stretch was easily the year's apex, with many of our top meals overlapping. The frequency and caliber of our dining slowed down once we returned to Los Angeles. This is no dig at the food scene in LA, we were simply dealing with numerous life changes, including the move itself and new jobs/careers to settle into.
Which is not to say our adventures stopped altogether. We still managed to fit in return visits to NYC in September and October, a birthday weekend getaway up the coast to Carmel in November, and a few special meals in the City of Angels sprinkled throughout.
Still, taken as a whole, the list of restaurants we visited in 2014 is undeniably impressive. In the course of 52 weeks, we dined at 24 Michelin starred eateries, including 4 three stars and 6 two stars. Another benchmark would be the always controversial "50 Best Restaurants in the World" list, announced annually by Restaurant Magazine. This year alone, we ate at 4 of the top 10, 8 of the top 50, and 14 of the top 100. (Including prior years, we've now eaten at 28 of the current top 100…not that I'm keeping score or anything).
With a list as exhaustive of this, narrowing down our experiences to 10 meals was, again, supremely challenging. In fact, I would wager to say the honorable mentions this year were nearly as impressive as those who made the final cut. In Iceland, we had a wonderful introduction to New Nordic cuisine at Dill Restaurant. In Copenhagen, we enjoyed Relae's minimalist approach and were wowed by Geranium's technical prowess. No trip to Paris is complete without a bistro, so we ate at two and loved them both: Septime and Bones. We were also fortunate to have lunch at a brand new spot that should be on everyone's radar after Forbes called it one of the 12 Coolest Places to Eat in 2015 - Restaurant AT. In NYC, I enjoyed a repeat visit to Luksus, we had a lovely farewell to Manhattan at Eleven Madison Park, and shared delicious meals with friends at both Contra and Casa Mono. And back in Los Angeles, we had two superlative special occasion dinners - at Trois Mec for our anniversary and Providence for my birthday (the latter very nearly claiming a spot on this list…I was this close to calling it 10b).
So, on the eve of our first culinary adventure in 2015 (to Japan, long on my bucket list), I bring you our top meals from 2014:
I have a confession. I wear skinny jeans. I listen to indie rock, or at least I did back when indie rock was worth a damn. I love any movie made by an Anderson (that would be PT or Wes). I included a Chemex on my Christmas wish list. I guess what I'm saying is that while I'm not a hipster, I do have hipster tendencies. So it's no surprise that I loved my meal at The Clove Club, at Shoreditch Town Hall in London, England.
In a trendy section of town? Check. Run by a former pop-up chef? Check. Cool venue space with a historic feel? Check. I loved everything from the open kitchen layout to the font on the menus. But you know what was better then the vibe that appealed to the hipster in me? The food. Starting with their infamous buttermilk fried chicken with pine salt and continuing all the way through to the desserts (the Amalfi lemonade with sarawak pepper ice cream was amazing), everything was on point. This was not only our final meal in London, it was the final meal of our three week adventure across Europe, and Chef McHale made sure it was a memorable one.
The fact that Kadeau landed at number nine is actually a testament to how good the meal was. Because the odds were incredibly stacked against it. How so? Well…
I made the unfortunate decision to schedule dinner at this Michelin starred Copenhagen restaurant on the same day as our lunch at Noma. That's right, just 3 hours after finishing our 27 snack/course meal, we sat down to eat another tasting menu. Not only did they have to compete with a bucket list experience fresh on our minds, we were sitting in their restaurant with full stomachs.
9 snacks, 6 courses, and 3 mignardises later, we finished our 2nd favorite meal in Copenhagen. The turbot was fantastic, as were the squid and onion dishes. But the highlight was the friendly service, which kept us going even as we descended into a food coma. Our server was extremely generous, turning up course after course with a new wine he had paired for us. When we told this to a Geranium server two days later, she said, "those Kadeau boys are crazy, they just want to get you drunk!"
Guess which restaurant we'll be back to?
When our meal at Atera began, captain Matthew Abbick informed us the format had changed slightly since our last visit. They were now mixing the snack bites throughout the meal rather than serving them all at the beginning. The menu was almost entirely different too, our favorite dishes replaced by brand new creations. Oh, and they had now added tea service to their experience, which ended up being one of the many highlights of the night.
My point is this - Atera had evolved. And that's what the best chefs and restaurants do, they continue to move forward and experiment and try new things. To stagnate is to die.
Watching the evolution of Atera is a beautiful thing. And after two visits (plus a trip to their sexy lounge to try an even sexier burger), I'm ready to declare that Atera is our favorite restaurant in NYC.
On Dorothy's birthday weekend, we took a trip up the coast of California to Carmel, staying at the charming Relais & Châteaux inn L'Aurberge Carmel. There, on the ground floor is a tiny restaurant called Aubergine. The chef, a former professional figure skater named Justin Cogley, was recently named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine. We were eager to see what the fuss was about.
For Dorothy's birthday dinner, Chef Cogley pulled out all the stops, beginning with an opening salvo of oysters, dungeness crab, and kanpachi with mounds of caviar piled on top. There was a fantastic abalone dish (fresh from neighboring Monterey Bay) and then the highlight - Hokkaido Wagyu, the most tender, tasty beef I can remember. We hope to return for his annual Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine dinner in 2015. Until then, we can reminisce on this great meal.
Our first meal in England was also our best. Located 25 minutes out of central London, Hedone has experienced a meteoric rise in the dining scene, ranked among the world's best in three short years. What makes this incredible is that the chef/owner, Mikael Jonsson, is a completely self-taught cook.
Rupert and Marita, two dear friends who live in England, accompanied us to this meal. Rupert is also a chef, and he didn't buy this self-taught cook story -t he food was too bloody good. So, we asked him. Or I should say, Rupert asked, fully expecting Mikael to say he had trained under an established chef beforehand.
Nope. Completely self-taught. And he opened the restaurant on his own too, with no experienced chefs working under him. Rupert was stunned…and mercilessly teased by us for the rest of the night.
Fascinating backstory aside, Hedone was a brilliant meal from start to finish. And the fact that we got experience it with old friends (one celebrating a birthday no less), was icing on the proverbial cake.
In Paris, we hit a wall. All the meals from Copenhagen had caught up with us, and after a disappointing dinner at L'Arpege (I've heard it can be very hit or miss - we unfortunately experienced the latter), it felt like we were spinning our wheels a little bit. Rushing from one meal to the next, not taking the time to enjoy one of the world's most romantic cities.
Luckily, everything changed our final day. We took a stroll along the River Seine on our way to the hottest new restaurant in Paris - David Toutain, which opened last December. Once there, we chose the nine course lunch, then leisurely dined while a rainstorm descended upon the Seventh Arrondissement. It was a fantastic way to stay dry. And, more importantly, the food was incredible. David Toutain, who worked for Alain Passard, has a cerebral approach to cooking I really connected with. It ended up being one of our favorite meals on the trip, and for Paris prices, a veritable bargain. Highly recommended.
An hour into our meal at Mugaritz, my wife tells me, "this is my favorite restaurant in the world". As she's saying this, their maître d brings us a dish called Firm Pod razors and aromatic oil. Dorothy loves razor clams. Excited, she touches the razor clam with her fork...and it moves. Confused, Dorothy asks "is it still cooking?" "No," Jose replies, "it's still alive".
This is what I love about Mugaritz. Just when you think you've got the restaurant figured out, it throws you a wrinkle.
Truth be told, we were a bit concerned about coming back. Yes, it was our favorite meal last year. But much of that had to do with the location, the service, the emotions evoked during the experience. Would the restaurant be a let down, now that the element of surprise was gone?
Well, Mugaritz threw us another wrinkle - taste. The dishes Aduriz and his team came up with this year were fantastic…even those squirming razor clams.
For our second day in San Sebastián, aka the place I want to retire, we paid a return visit to Etxebarri. As before, the food was superb. But this time, other elements aligned in our favor to make this lunch seem more memorable. It was warm and sunny, allowing us to eat out on the terrace overlooking the countryside. No rude Australians interrupted our meal - instead, we dined with fellow food enthusiast Reid, aka Onokinegrindz. Victor Arguinzoniz, the world's ultimate grill master, met us afterwards and gave us a tour of his kitchen, followed by complementary gin & tonics.
And most importantly, we didn't get lost…in either direction.
It was the perfect meal on a beautiful afternoon in Basque Country, one of our favorite places on Earth. And so, for the second straight year, Etxebarri comes in at number three on my list.
Azurmendi sits in the hills twenty minutes outside of Bilbao, its modern glass building standing out like a beacon in the night. In addition to this spectacular hilltop setting, this fully sustainable property also features an indoor garden, a computer controlled greenhouse and is powered by photo-voltaic cells.
But it's not just the most environmentally friendly restaurant in Spain - it's also the best. So if you haven't heard of Azurmendi before, remember the name. Because in a few years it will be the number one restaurant in the world. Or at least that's what I boldly (read: drunkenly) predicted halfway through our inaugural meal.
The chef, Eneko Atxa, has no need for such boastfulness. In a profession filled with egos, Chef Atxa is an astonishingly humble man (his exact words - "whatever you don't like, tell me and I will make you something else"). Instead, he lets his cooking do the talking. And do these dishes talk. His inventive courses, colorfully presented and bursting with flavor, take you on wild, three plus hour journey through Basque cuisine, beginning with a walk through an edible greenhouse, a picnic in the garden and ending with a flurry of dry ice desserts and petit fours magic.
Noma. The most influential restaurant of this decade. Rated number one in the world four of the past five years according to Restaurant Magazine. I could continue to rattle off the accolades, or I could just point you to their Wikipedia page. Since El Bulli closed, this place has been sitting at the top of our bucket list.
On June 3rd, 2014, we finally went. I won't bore you with another play by play - you can read my thoughts in this post. But suffice it to say that Noma exceeded our expectations in every way.
The restaurant has certainly had its fair share of detractors. Some are tired of the hype and continuous press coverage. Others argue against the food itself, and the New Nordic movement that forms the basis of their cuisine. I don't pretend to have the world's most advanced palate, and have no formal cooking background. So I'll leave the critiquing to the critics.
But for us, personally? It's not just about the balance and acidity, or the originality of the chefs. It's about having a good time. We spend a great deal of money on these restaurants, we want to enjoy ourselves. It's about the experience.
And in 2014, our best experience came at Noma.