After a year of incredible meals at restaurants, it’s always hard to narrow down a list of my Top 10 dishes.
But I managed to — picking the ones that were so memorable that I still lust after them and would hike a mile in a blizzard just to have them again.
Here, in no particular order, are my top eats of 2011:
1. Butterscotch Custard at Michael Mina in San Francisco. You might find this fabulous custard only offered at lunch-time at Mina’s flagship restaurant. I’d call to make sure it’s on the menu first. Then, if I were you, I’d race there to enjoy one of the best desserts ever. Lunch is a chic, civilized experience here. And this custard only makes it more memorable. It’s got an intense burnt caramel flavor. But the piece de resistance is the float of real Macallan scotch over the top. Oh, yeah.
2. Octopus at the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. It’s not easy to get octopus right. It can be chewy as pencil erasers if care is not taken. At the restaurant at Farmhouse Inn, they have it down pat. The most tender octopus I’ve ever had — and believe me, I’ve had a lot of octopus at a lot of places. This version has the texture of scallops. The octopus is grilled, then finished with a chorizo vinaigrette for a touch of heat.
3. Halibut with a Crust of Uni at Aziza in San Francisco. Who would even think to dream this up? Only Chef Mourad Lahlou, who does Moroccan cuisine like no one else — with flair and imagination. Sea urchin is mixed with panko and shavings of halibut to form a paste that coats the top of the fish fillet. It’s then broiled until it gets as crackling crisp as perfect chicken skin. Take a bite and you’d swear it was almost a Parmigiano crisp crowning this fish. But it’s not. It’s something all together magical and mesmerizing.
4. Fresh Pasta at Ubuntu in Napa. I still consider it a minor miracle that I somehow managed to get my husband, aka Meat Boy, to venture to this vegetarian restaurant in the heart of Wine Country. But if you’re going to go vegetarian for a night, there’s no better place than Ubuntu. It has convinced even avowed carnivores that a veg-centric meal can be a thing of beauty with far bolder flavors than you’d ever expect. Each evening, there’s a fresh pasta dish. “Garden-Infused Fiore” was it the night I was there, tender tubes of noodles tossed with braised and fried artichokes, as well as caramelized grapefruit for a bright, breezy note. What meat? Who cares.
5. Housemade Charcuterie at the Village Pub in Woodside. I could make a meal of this alone, as this plush restaurant makes all its own charcuterie and accompaniments in-house. Order the sampler platter to try a little of everything. It may include such wonders as creamy duck liver mousse, mortadella with horseradish creme fraiche, country pate with port-soaked cherries, and ciccioli (compressed lard and pork) with sweet-tangy cumberland sauce heady with ginger and currants. Dig in with a nice glass of wine and be one happy camper.
6. Uku with Lemongrass Rice at Mama’s Fish House on Maui. OK, OK, I know this place is not in the Bay Area and would require a very special trip to get to. But it’s worth it. Maui can be quite touristy, but it’s worth fighting the hoards to snag a table at this 39-year-old landmark restaurant that takes its fish very seriously. Where else do you find not only the fresh catch of the day listed on the menu, but the name of the fisherman who caught it and where. Uku is a silky white-fleshed fish that was given a Mediterranean treatment with capers, lemon and white wine. The fish is so incredible in Hawaii that I could live on it every day, especially if it’s prepared like this.
7. Cachapa at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen in San Francisco (and other Northern California locations). Picture a large, soft, griddled corn pancake folded over a filling of tender, shredded beef, black beans, sweet plaintains and Monterey Jack. What’s not to like? Nothing, as it’s the most popular item at this fast-casual Venezuelan eatery. It’s sweet, corn-y and utterly satisfying. Best yet, it’s only $8.99.
8. Lobster Gnocchi at Quince in San Francisco. There’s a reason that this restaurant is so hard to get into and such a favorite of any visiting celebrity. The food is exquisite, especially the pastas. Case in point — this gnocchi. First, it’s a substantial serving. Two, it’s loaded with tender Maine lobster. Three, the gnocchi are as pillowy as they come. And fourth, the sauce explodes with the flavor of shellfish. It’s a dish you start eating and never want it to end.
9. Duck Aged on the Bone at AQ in San Francisco. Here’s a restaurant that takes seasonality so seriously that it even changes its decor with the seasons. That also means that this spectacular dish of duck might not be on the menu very often. When it is, order it — pronto. The duck is aged in the walk-in fridge for 8 to 10 days, which concentrates its flavor. Then, it’s roasted. The result is duck with a texture like no other. It’s like eating a beef steak, with a still tender, rare, and juicy interior. The skin is crisp with no bothersome fat lurking underneath, either. It’s served with a plethora of beet preparations — each one adding interest and even greater appeal. If I had my way, this duck would be on the menu 12 months a year, no matter the season.
10. “Honolulu Hangover” Cake at Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco. Chef James Ormsby has made such a name for himself in San Francisco while heading various restaurants over the years that it may come as a shock to some that he’s also a very fine pastry chef. It’s evidenced clearly in his consulting work at Bluestem Brasserie, where he designed the dessert menu. Don’t miss his “Honolulu Hangover,” a towering wedge of moist chocolate rum cake slathered with gooey marshmallow meringue that’s torched until golden. Huge shards of toasted coconut gild the top. It’s not cloying. It’s just fun and downright divine. It would make the world’s most perfect birthday cake, too.
More: My Top 10 Eats of 2010