Of all my 39 years, 2015 was certainly the most unusual - a long strange trip that was equal measure roller coaster ride and bumper car pile up. To fully explain this year would take a blog post in itself, so instead I will sum it up with two words - Lincoln, Riley. Those are the names of our twins, a son and a daughter, born to us prematurely in mid October. As first time parents, my wife's pregnancy was a total game changer, affecting every aspect of our lives - from what we ate and drank to how we worked, slept and of course traveled.
The exception to this rule came in January, two months before Dorothy became pregnant. That was when we finally ventured over to Japan, long on our bucket list, thanks to food blogger Onokinegrindz securing a Noma reservation for us. Sadly, we could only spend a week in this incredible country due to work, as television pilot season had already begun in earnest. But the trip was truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Four of my top meals of 2015 came on this abbreviated journey, and I could have easily chosen two more. I can't wait to return to Japan one day when we have more time to fully explore the food and culture.
The frequency of our dining out slowed once Dorothy became pregnant. She had morning sickness throughout the first trimester, then completely lost her appetite in the third. And the meals we consumed during our twin's six week stint in the NICU were largely determined by the restaurant's proximity to the hospital. Still, when reviewing our year for this blog write-up, I'm amazed by all we did accomplish.
This is largely due to the urging of friends who were already parents. Live your life now, they said. Once you have children, things will change. So we did. We flew to SF in May, took a work trip to NYC in July, met up with friends in Palm Springs one weekend in August and spent the next on Lummi Island. This sense of adventure didn't stop once the babies were born. Three weeks after our twins came home, we were in a car heading up the coast to visit family in San Jose and have dinner in Napa Valley, a decision I concede was most likely driven by sleep deprivation.
Because of this, narrowing down our experiences to just 10 meals was again, a challenging task. In Tokyo, we had the greatest sushi meal of our lives at Sushi Yoshitake (sadly no photos to show for it). In Kyoto, we never knew we could how good tofu could be until we ate at Shoraian. In NYC, we enjoyed our meals at Cosme and Momofuku Ko 2.0. In San Francisco, we had a Moroccan feast at Mourad, then ventured over to Oakland to finally dine at Commis. Up the coast in Seattle, we had a wonderful precursor to Lummi dinner at Sitka & Spruce. Surprisingly, we even had a good meal in Palm Springs at The Edge Steakhouse, enjoying surf and turf with our former UWS clique. And back at home in Los Angeles, four times we braved traffic to dine at Taco Maria in Costa Mesa, where Carlos Salgado is doing brilliant things with Mexican food. (Our final meal there nearly claimed a spot on this list…and perhaps this year I really should have included it as a 10b).
Ultimately, the only way I knew how to quantify these experiences is by the memories they left behind. So, without further ado, I bring you my Top 10 Meals from 2015:
We first met Atsushi Tanaka two summers ago in Paris, when dining at his newly opened Restaurant A.T. Truth be told, we had heard nothing about the food - we were only there to see a friend of ours who was working in his kitchen. But I was quickly drawn to his cooking. Each dish was beautifully presented, with a subtle combination of flavors that was unique and unfamiliar. By the time Atsushi came out of the kitchen and asked to take a selfie with us, he had won us over.
Since that meal, Atsushi's reputation has grown, culminating with Forbes Magazine listing Restaurant AT as one of the 12 Coolest Places on Earth to eat in 2015. Chef Pierre Gagnaire, who Atsushi used to work for, calls AT the "Picasso of the kitchen", and it's easy to understand why when you see his colorful dishes. Atsushi is also a wine connoisseur, and is extremely knowledgeable about natural wines (skin contact!), which I myself have become obsessed with. So when I heard he was chosen for this year's 12 Days of Christmas lineup at the Restaurant at Meadowood, we jumped at the chance to see him again. Even if that meant a 7 hour drive to Napa with newborn twins in the back.
The Restaurant at Meadowood graciously put us at the Chef's Counter, where we had front row seats to the action. I loved seeing the evolution of Atsushi's "Camouflage" dish, and was wowed by both of his desserts (using Japanese hinoki wood in an ice cream?!). We also really enjoyed Christopher Kostow's dishes for the night - I preferred the Coal-Seared Foie Gras, while Dorothy slurped down the Our Corn and White Truffle. And of course the wine pairings, always a standout feature of the 12 Days of Christmas experience, were impeccable, drawing off of AT's love of natural/biodynamic wines.
But for me, the highlight was seeing Atsushi Tanaka again and getting to spend time with him in Napa. You won't meet a nicer chef, and we are honored to call him a friend.
Chef collaboration dinners can be a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's a great opportunity to try a renowned chef's cooking without visiting the city/country where they work. On the other hand, all too often the meal itself is a disappointment. The chef may be unfamiliar with the produce of the particular region, plus he/she is working in a foreign kitchen with a new staff, and that inevitably leads to nights in the weeds and poorly executed dishes.
But somehow, someway, Contra seems to always get the formula right. Not only do they consistently land chefs from some of the best kitchens across the globe (Septime, Maaemo, Restaurant A.T, etc), but they also pick like minded individuals to collaborate with, so that nights don't go off the rails. Add in a slew of natural wines and Fab's bread and you're guaranteed a night of fun.
When December's Contra x In De Wulf dinner was announced, I knew I had to attend. I've been wanting to go to In De Wulf for years. But the restaurant is located in Belgium, and as newly christened parents, visiting anywhere outside the country has become a non starter. Not to mention the fact that Chef Kobe Desramaults had just announced he would be closing In De Wulf in 2016, so this was potentially my last chance to taste his cooking. And I'd get the added bonus of gathering with my friends Elise and Jose of Spanish Hipster to celebrate the eventful year we've had.
So, I traveled in for Saturday night only, a whirlwind 24 hour trip to NYC with the sole purpose of eating a meal. Pretty crazy, even by my standards. But let me tell you something. It was worth it.
This has been a great year for Chef David Kinch. After a devastating fire closed Manresa for six months in 2014, the chef has returned stronger than ever. The restaurant reopened to universal praise, Kinch announced plans to open a casual New Orleans inspired spot in 2016 and starred in Season Four of PBS's Mind of a Chef. Oh and speaking of stars, Manresa was finally awarded 3 Michelin stars this year. His hot streak even rubbed off on his chef de cuisine, Jessica Large, who received the prestigious Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation.
Manresa has been on our list for years. I even bought the Manresa cookbook in 2013, despite have never tried his food. So it was high time to pay the restaurant a visit, especially since Los Gatos is only 15 minutes outside San Jose, where my wife's family lives.
Everything about our meal was precise and thoughtful. From the matching opener and closer petit fours (Red Pepper-Black Olive, Strawberry-Chocolate), there seemed to be a narrative thread connecting each dish. The show stopper of the night was an Abalone Porridge dish I count among my favorite bites of the year. And of course we loved "Into The Garden", his stunning homage to Le Gargouillou by Michel Bras.
The Michelin Guide has made many head scratching decisions over the years. But upgrading Manresa to 3 stars is not one of them.
I've never been a fan of tempura, perhaps because my first experience with it came at Yoshinoya, a fast food chain across the street from my USC apartment. So I was a bit hesitant to schedule a tempura meal during our brief trip to Japan.
Luckily, someone talked me into Mikawa Zezankyo, a Michelin starred tempura restaurant in the heart of Tokyo. The Chef, Tetsuya Saotome, has been called a living treasure - to tempura what Jiro is to sushi. Renowned Chicago chef Rick Bayless called it one of the most impressive and intimate meals of his life.
By the second course, I was a tempura convert. As was the case with our tonkatsu meal the previous night, this fried food did not feel fried at all. Yes, it was crispy, but delicate and no trace of oiliness. And then there was the highlight - Fugu Shirako, aka blowfish sperm sac, the (deadly?) but revered Japanese delicacy. It was our first time trying Fugu Shirako....it would not be our last.
At the end of the meal, Tetsuya Saotome showed us that he is not just a master of tempura, but also of calligraphy, drawing us pictures of ebb on our menus. Then he followed us outside to wish us goodbye and stood watching until we disappeared from sight. It was a Japanese custom other chefs would replicate on our trip. But you never forget your first.
Our wedding anniversary happened to fall on Father's Day this year. Which was fitting given the news we had shared that day with our friends and family that Dorothy was pregnant with twins. So it was only natural a gourmand such as myself would want to celebrate our love and good fortune with a blow out dinner. And when it comes to a special occasion, no expense spared type of meal in Los Angeles, there really is just one choice...
Chef Michael Cimarusti is widely revered for his mastery of seafood. The thing I love about Cimarusti though is he doesn't just cook the fish. Instead, he combines his knowledge and appreciation for seafood with an advocacy for sustainable fishing practices. And this year, he took this passion step further, launching a program called Dock to Dish in Southern California, a restaurant-supported fishery that allows local fishermen to sell directly to local chefs. It's all about doing his part to protect our oceans.
But back to our meal. This was our fourth visit to Providence and in many ways our best experience yet. The food was on point from start to finish, including a show stopping Santa Barbara Spot Prawns course. Our server wheeled a cart out in front of our table, plucked the prawns from a salted mound, tapped off all the salt until they were clean, cut them precisely in half and plated them for us. The smell was intoxicating. The dish was terrific.
If I had one complaint of the night, it was that in my zest to celebrate I got a little carried away and ordered the Australian winter truffle pasta supplement IN ADDITION to the Chef's longest tasting menu. Unsurprisingly, we could barely finish our meal, let alone move afterwards. You live, you learn.
The first course was called "Shiamaiebi with flavors of Nagano forest". I had already seen this shrimp sashimi dish on social media, so when the Noma server said the ebi was still fresh, I knew that was code for still alive. I also knew that "flavors of forest" meant ants. You want to see my wife squirm? Give her food that does the same. My table waited a full ten minutes for her to work up the courage to try the shrimp. When it moved, she screamed and accidentally dropped it in her lap. And yes, of course I got it on video.
The shiamaiebi wasn't the best dish we had at Noma Japan. But it did set the tone for the afternoon.
My favorite dish was probably the Scallop Fudge. They dried the scallop for two days and mixed it with beech notes and kelp. I could have had a meal just of this, it was that delicious. I also loved the Hokkori Pumpkin, thought the Garlic Flower was a fun trick (like candy for grownups) and the Sake Ice Cream with Rice Cracker was one of my favorite desserts of the year and yet still was somehow upstaged by the Sweet Potato dish that followed.
After the incredible meal we had the previous year in Copenhagen, our expectations for Noma Japan were sky high. And perhaps unfairly so. After all, in all intents and purposes this was a pop-up, staged in a luxury hotel, with a foreign chef riffing on a cuisine that has taken a collective culture hundreds of years to master. But if the meal itself did not match the heights of later meals in Tokyo or Kyoto, it was still an incredible experience. More importantly, it finally brought us to Japan.
For our final night in Tokyo, we wanted to eat somewhere special. After a few reservation missteps, we settled on RyuGin. Currently ranked #29 in the World by Restaurant Magazine, RyuGin is a 3 Michelin starred modern kaiseki restaurant in Roppongi.
Kaiseki is the Japanese version of a tasting menu, albeit one heavily steeped in tradition. The formal procession of courses is rooted in ancient Buddhist ritual, and is as much a feast for the eyes as it is the palate. Chef Seiji Yamamoto Yamamoto seeks to push the boundaries of Japanese cuisine through his dishes, but always from a base of understanding, respecting the subtle changes of season, local ingredients and precise techniques honed over centuries.
While the reviews for RyuGin have been decidedly mixed as of late, this meal was an absolute highlight of our trip. Afterwards, the chef said goodbye to us and through a translator, told us to return his restaurant because "I'm quite confident in my abilities".
It shows, chef. It shows.
During my research of Kyoto restaurants, I had come across Ulterior Epicure's review of Ifuki, which he described as the best meal of his short trip to Japan. I booked a reservation immediately. Three weeks before our trip, Bonjwing listed his favorite meals of 2014, and Ifuki was number one. Our excitement grew...
Bonjwing's praise was warranted. Ifuki may only be a one Michelin starred restaurant, but the incredible cooking we ate that night matched the three star meals of our Tokyo stay. Like many of the best restaurants in Kyoto, chef Norio Yamamato serves a kaiseki meal. The difference is much of his food is grilled on an open flame. I'm a sucker for smoky, and his use of smoke reminded me of some of my all-time favorite meals - from Etxebarri in Spain to Saison in San Francisco.
No one spoke English (which made ordering sake a tricky experience), but the service was otherwise friendly. And the meal itself? Unforgettable.
The last time we visited Saison was in December 2013, the night before before our 12 Days of Christmas festivities at The Restaurant in Meadowood. I was blown away by the experience, ranking it as one of my favorite meals of the year. The Black Cod, the Koshihkari Rice with White Truffles and the Duck Liver Toffee are three dishes I had that night I still actively fantasize about.
Our meal this year was somehow better. It was more vegetable focused, which is not something I'd usually get excited about, but here a dish of "Pickles" left me shouting. The service, certainly attentive but perhaps indifferent our first visit, was flawless this go around. And the infamous "Sea Urchin, Liquid Toast" dish? May be the bite of a lifetime.
Saison is a restaurant at the top of its game. Many believe it's also the top restaurant in the United States. Count me among that number.
The plan was to take our "babymoon" in September. I would whisk Dorothy off to her childhood home of Oahu, where we could sit on the beach and enjoy our last few moments of solitude together. Then came the news from her doctor - no flying after 24 weeks. Babymoon became staycation.
Luckily, we had already scheduled a weekend getaway to the Pacific Northwest earlier in the summer. And conveniently the flight to Seattle was happening at 23.6 weeks. Our trip to Lummi Island would have to suffice. And it did.
Lummi Island, population 964, is a two hour drive from Seattle, accessible only by ferry. It's only 9 square miles, half of which is a nature preserve. The views are gorgeous, especially during the idyllic summer months. We rented a cabin next door to Loganita Farm, where the Willows Inn restaurant sources its vegetables. Across the road was a private beach. It was perfect.
And then we had dinner.
Chef Blaine Wetzel, the 29 year old wonderkid who previously worked at Noma, has transformed this once struggling bed and breakfast into one of the most celebrated restaurants in the country. In fact, in 2011, the New York Times declared Willows Inn on Lummi Island "One of the 10 Restaurants (in the world) Worth a Plane Ride." Wetzel himself was named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs of 2012, and won the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2014.
Working at Noma definitely shaped Wetzel's ultra-locavore approach for the Willows Inn. But he has been able to incorporate René Redzepi's philosophy while taking things one step further. Virtually everything served at the restaurant comes from the island itself or the surrounding waters, is grown bio-dynamic, harvested or foraged, and the menu changes along with the seasons. His cooking is deceivingly simple - he lets the ingredients do the talking.
We began our evening on the patio, with a succession of delicious small bites paired with a local cider. Then we were moved to our dining room table, conveniently located next to a window overlooking the water. While we ate, the sun painted colors over the neighboring islands. And as it continued its glorious descent towards the horizon, we noticed diners leaving their tables to take in the sunset from the patio. Our server encouraged us to do the same. So we did.
When we finally returned to our seat, it was time for the last savory course, followed by dessert. By then we were already hooked. "Lets come back next year and bring the twins," Dorothy said.
Lincoln and Riley. Get ready.