The 15 Best Dishes of 2014
Picking my favorite dishes of 2014 was about as hard as trying to figure out to order at Mai Lee. I've written over 70 posts. If you assume that at each restaurant I tried at least 3 dishes--and more often than not, more--I had over 210 different dishes this year. I originally tried to keep it to my top 10, but that is just goddamn impossible. After debating with myself for countless hours, I decided that my top 15 dishes would be acceptable. Even so, a LOT of amazing dishes have been left off this list (which is in no particular order).
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Hen of the Woods mushroom at Niche [/symple_box]
I never thought that a vegetarian dish, let alone a mushroom, would end up as one of my top dishes of the year, but it turns out when you roast something in chorizo spiced butter, the unthinkable happens. The mushroom is placed atop a roasted corn puree and surrounded by raw fennel and peaches that have been marinated in water, vinegar, salt and sugar. You think you can imagine the taste, but you can't. The Hen of the Woods mushroom is crispy along its edges with an almost foie gras like texture as you cut into it. The flavor is all at once woody, spicy and sinfully buttery. Eaten with the corn, it tastes like something you might find at a fine restaurant in Mexico.
No dish surprised me more this year. I had no interest in eating it and after just a couple bites I knew it was the single best mushroom dish I'd ever had. Chef Nate Hereford: master of mushrooms.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Salume Beddu Pizza at Pastaria [/symple_box]
Pizza is, without question, the greatest food ever invented. My life revolves around it.
Leaving Pizzeria Mozza behind when I moved back to St. Louis was like experiencing a bad breakup. I pined for that pizza. Then, one glorious morning, my BFF Shayn took me to this newish place called Pastaria. The clouds parted and Pizzeria Mozza began to dissipate from my memory. Every pizza I've had at Pastaria has been good, but the Salume Beddu pie is king. The crust is ideal: its got a great airy texture, its charred just the right amount and it can withstand the toppings without falling apart. The sauce lets the sweet tomato flavor sing. Fior de Latte cheese is dabbled around. Paper thin slices of garlic are layered on. Then comes the magic: crispy chunks of Salume Beddu's nduja sausage and a drizzle of local honey.
The combination is incomparable. It's a little sweet, a lot spicy, and definitely worthy of being a "top dish".
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] The Egg at Niche [/symple_box]
A staple at Niche for good reason. A hollowed out egg shell is filled with maple citrus custard, then sautéed shiitake mushrooms, before finally being topped with dashi 'caviar'. One of the most addictive and creative dishes I've had. The custard is bright and a little tart, which works well with the woodsy, smokey mushrooms. The dashi caviar bursts with umami goodness. If I could start every morning with this, the aforementioned mushroom and Dia's Cheese Bread, I would be a much happier person.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Crispy Pig Tails at The Libertine [/symple_box]
Upon my return from Asia, the first meal I went to with my family was at The Libertine. I was hesitant. I had bad memories from Chez Leon and was afraid Libertine would be more of the same. I grumpily read the menu and was intrigued by a few items, namely the Togarashi Tuna (R.I.P., I miss you), when the waiter came by and recommended that we try the Crispy Pig Tails. Pig tail? Meh. That's not really my thing. He wouldn't relent, explaining that they were not just fried pig tails on a plate, so I gave in and experienced a one-bite insight of Josh Galliano's genius. Crunchy! Porky! Spicy! I asked an expert about the dish:
They’re cooked “Buffalo Style”, served with whipped Gorgonzola and brown butter polenta. The accompaniments are just gilding the lily. The pork is the real star here. You may be surprised at the size of the portion–it’s petite–but it’s for your own health and well-being. Think of it like a spring roll, except you’re only allowed to make it using pork. The outside is this super crunchy, chicharron like layer of what I think is fried pig skin with an extremely flavorful sausage-esque interior. If that doesn’t sound good to you, you shut your mouth and get off of my site. -Me
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Pork, Habanero, Lychee Salad at Rose's Luxury [/symple_box]
One of the oddest combinations of ingredients I've ever had in a single dish turned out to be one of the most memorable. The term salad is used loosely here, as this looks more like a disgusting ice cream sundae after you mix it up. Main ingredients included: pork sausage, lychees, habaneros, coconut milk, red onion, basil, cilantro, mint and peanuts. Pretty weird. I still don't know how to make this sound good. It's almost like Thai food and Mexican food had a really ugly child, but that child had a fantastic personality. Their menu changes often and getting in requires a heavy dose of patience, but this is still available, so check it out next time you're in D.C.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Khao Soi at Fork & Stix [/symple_box]
Chances are you're an American, which means you probably work for an American company, which means you probably have 2 weeks of vacation a year (of which more than half will be used on your sick children), which means you will probably not find yourself in Northern Thailand anytime soon. Womp womp. Fortunately Fork & Stix is serving up the most authentic Chiang Mai style Thai food in St. Louis, and this curry noodle soup will absolutely knock your socks off. Allow me to quote me again:
If you wuss out and have your significant other get this because you’re scared and would prefer to go the safe route of green curry, you’re going to have the worst case of order envy ever. And, considering how good it is, I don’t think you’re going to find them so willing to share with you.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Fried Chicken at The Libertine [/symple_box]
I went for years without eating fried chicken. I'd had too many soggy skinned, oily birds. I lost the taste for it. Then I tried The Libertine's fried chicken, a true labor of love. It takes them three days--three days!--to get the chicken just right. It's brined in a sweet tea and Cajun seasoning mix for a day, then a spicy buttermilk soak for another day. Once it's out of the fryer, it's some of the crunchiest, spiciest skin I've ever had on a piece of chicken. After you tear through that skin like hungry dog, you're greeted by the most flavorful, most tender meat. You must try it, and once you do, good luck on not wanting to go every. Single. Month.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Smoked Brisketat Sidney Street Cafe [/symple_box]
When I first started this post, Sidney Street's "Rabbit and Waffles" dish was what I wrote about. But then...
I didn't expect to order something like smoked brisket at Sidney Street. I've never seen anything BBQ related on their menu before so I figured it must be something special. Oh boy, was it. Before it even got to my table I could smell the incredible smokey aroma, which makes sense considering it was smoked for over 20 hours. The first bite was like a meaty, buttery bite of heaven. Mind meltingly good. It came artfully plated with celeriac puree, roasted Brussels sprouts, pistachio and sour cherry gremolata, and a coffee and veal reduction. I assume these were all good because I cleared my plate, but I don’t even remember what they tasted like. Meat > veggies.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Smoked Fish Dip at Farmhaus [/symple_box]
I've had a lot of good food at Farmhaus, yet, somehow, some way, my favorite dish ever at Farmhaus was the smoked fish dip. The plate came out with an ice cream scoop worth of this pinkish, orangeish dip, two lavash crackers jammed into it and some crostini on the side. I wasn't expecting much. As we all dug in, it became apparent this was not the common smoked fish dip you find elsewhere. The balance was absolutely faultless. In my opinion, it was the use of smoked Grouper collars that made the taste a lot more subtle than your normal smoked fish dip with trout. It was smokey, sweet and also a tiny bit spicy. It was also the only dish this year we liked so much that we almost considered ordering a second portion in lieu of dessert. Now that it's off the menu, I wish we had.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Ras el Hanout Ribs at Salume Beddu [/symple_box]
Two days before I consumed these, chef Mark Sanfilippo had already rubbed the ribs with North African spice mixed called Ras el Hanout. Once those two days were up, he coated them in garlic and olive oil, then roasted them for three hours. When they were done roasting, he let them chill another day before finishing them on high heat with a balsamic-fig reduction. The end result was so delicious, so tender, so flavorful, it made me weep for all the non-pork eaters of the world. He and his team understand pork like no one else I've ever met. Praise the lard!
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Sweet Corn Bruschetta at Taste [/symple_box]
The sweet corn bruschetta was topped with peaches, bacon, shiitake mushrooms, cilantro, chilies, corn (obviously) and the most orgasmic ricotta spread ever made. They take roasted corn, puree it, then use that to cream their house-made ricotta. I don't understand how it was so good. It puzzled me the way the 'salad' from Rose's Luxury did. If I put the same ingredients on a piece of toast, it would not taste anything like Taste's. Chef Matthew Daughaday is some kind of wizard and his food sorcery is much appreciated by me.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Whole Lamb Shoulder at Kapnos - Washington, DC [/symple_box]
When I was seated directly across from the wall of roasting meat at Kapnos, my fate was sealed. I would be eating that roasted meat. Our table chose to go with the whole lamb shoulder instead of the pork shoulder since it's less common and it was out of this world good. The succulent pulled meat was served over quinoa with harissa and straight out of the oven flatbread. This was probably the manliest thing I ate the entire year; six of us sat around this huge pile of meat and just ate handfuls of lamb. Next time you are in DC, you need to grab a few friends and order this. Alternately, you can just get it yourself and take home the leftovers to make all sorts of delicious sandwiches.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Reuben Wishes He Was This Cool at Cowboy Ciao - Scottsdale, AZ [/symple_box]
Cowboy Ciao in Scottsdale, Arizona has been a long time favorite of my family's for good reason. Their playful and innovative takes on classics are always delicious, and this Reuben was a good example. They took short ribs and did a 3-day brine, then rubbed them with ginger, brown sugar and paprika before mesquite-smoking them. Once tender and delicious, they were topped with a cabbage & shallot compote, chipotle Russian dressing and served on a grilled marble rye.
I was cameraless for this dish and the next, unfortunately, so you'll just have to use your imagination.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Grilled Octopus at Virtu - Scottsdale, AZ [/symple_box]
When octopus is done right-really right-it is one of my absolute favorite things to eat. Having never eaten at Virtu before, I didn't know what to expect from their kitchen; because of that, I didn't get the octopus starter. Lucky for me (and the rest of the table), my mom did. Who'd have thought a restaurant in the middle of the desert would be banging out one of the best octopus dishes I've ever had? The little charred tentacles were smoked, leaving them with a crunchy outside and a buttery soft inside. Throw on a little calabrese chile butter and you've got yourself a stunning dish.
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Not-a-Pumpkin Spice Latte at Dinner Lab: Anomar [/symple_box]
I am not a big dessert eater. I'd rather spend my calories on an appetizer or side than eat sweets...but there are exceptions. Chef Danny Espinoza's dessert was one of those special desserts. He made a sweet potato puree and topped it with a thin layer of coffee ganache and a rosemary meringue. The balance was perfect. I don't know what he did to make this so incredible. I don't even know what else to say about it. I am just waiting for the day where Danny opens his own restaurant and I can have this once again!
Indecisive bonus dish!
[symple_box color="white" fade_in="false" float="center" text_align="center" width=""] Ice Cream Sandwich at Dinner Lab: Signal Fire [/symple_box]
There were only two desserts that really stood out to me this year, and they both came from Dinner Lab events. The first is Danny's, above, and the other is Chris Bailey's Thai style ice cream sandwich. Black sesame ice cream sandwiched between butter brioche toast, topped with candied cilantro and coconut jam. It took me across the world with a bite, reminding me of days trying to beat the Singaporean heat with a freshly cut ice cream sandwich out in the street. I demolished this and would have eaten more if given the chance.