Which restaurant dishes would I gladly enjoy again and again because they were deliriously delicious and magically memorable?
Oh, so many.
When putting together this list, though, I left off any foie gras dishes (since restaurants are banned from selling them in California now) and any dishes that I deliberately chose not to photograph in order to just enjoy the moment (Le Bernardin in New York).
Here, in no particular order, are the 10 dishes of 2012 that were my most favorite:
1) New Brunsweek Steelhead Trout Cured with Maple Sugar and Sea Salt at Musee D’Art Contemporain de Montreal. When is a starter absolute perfection? When it heralds the beginning of a meal with thrills, surprise and purpose. That’s what this dish is: An elegant small bite of silky fish, caviar and a playful, sea-sponge-like dill cake that can’t help but make you sit back in your chair with an audible sigh of satisfaction after just one bite. The fact that it was created by a young, self-taught chef whose grandfather was a famous artist, makes it all the more appropriate in this unique museum setting.
2) Nettle Cavatelli at A16 in San Francisco. First, it’s the color — a luminous, pale green. Second, it’s the texture — wonderfully chewy. Made with stinging nettles, which have a flavor not unlike the love child of cucumber and spinach, these pasta shells are tossed with house-made chicken sausage. It’s the type of pasta that only a chef could dream up. And thankfully, Chef Christopher Thompson did.
3) Oysters Cooked In Their Shells On Smoldering Redwood Branches and Pine Cones at Coi in San Francisco. It may be a little unfair to include this one, since it’s doubtful you’ll be able to taste it unless you hop a plane to Sweden or San Francisco chefs start riffing their own version. That’s because it’s a signature creation by Swedish sensation, Chef Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken Magasinet, a much-heralded restaurant located in a remote 24,000-acre hunting lodge in rural Sweden. I was fortunate enough to try this dish when he visited San Francisco to cook with Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi. It is one of the most evocative dishes you’ll ever experience. The woodsy aroma that fills the dining room transports you to the great outdoors, to somewhere brisk, mysterious and yet comforting all at the same time. The cooking technique leaves the oysters plump and tasting intensely of their natural liquor. It’s an enchantress of a dish.
4) Coconut Sushi at Bushido Izakaya in Mountain View. In this age of depleted fish populations, this may be the ultimate in sustainable sushi. That’s because it’s not fish at all. This nigiri sushi may look like and have a texture akin to cuttlefish, but it’s actually coconut. Not only is it clever, it’s absolutely delicious, too.
5) 24-Layer Lasagna at SPQR in San Francisco. This is definitely not your grandma’s rustic lasagna dripping with red sauce and gooey cheese. No, this is the very refined rendition by Chef Matthew Accarrino. Probably the prettiest lasagna you’ll ever enjoy, it sports perfect, neat layers of rabbit, hen of the woods mushrooms and arugula pesto. Savory and dense yet tender, it will make you look at lasagna in a whole new light.
6) Vegetarian Buns with Shiitakes, Cucumbers and Crushed Peanuts at Spice Kit in Palo Alto. Oh sure, the pork belly ones get all the love. But this vegetarian version with meaty mushrooms, crisp cucumbers and a spritely sauce will make you sit up and take notice. So much so that you might not even miss the pork belly. Really.
7) Soft Garlic Pretzels at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco. Noshes like these are why I can never give up carbs. But then, what’s not to love about warm pretzel nubbins brushed with garlic butter alongside a ramekin of Vermont cheddar Mornay to dunk into? I still keep hoping Absinthe will start a food truck to deliver these babies all over the Bay Area. That’s how incredible they are.
8 ) Cremini, Spinach and Lardo Pizza at Redd Wood in Yountville. OK, I’m a sucker for lardo, too, which you don’t see nearly as often as you should. Here, it adds the crowning touch to a thin, blistered crust full of developed flavor. Ribbons of the cured pork fat practically melt into the pizza from the residual heat of the crust, then coat your mouth entirely when you eat a slice. Porky nirvana.
9) “California State Bird with Provisions” at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. Now that Bon Appetit magazine has named it “America’s Best New Restaurant” of 2012, it’s nearly impossible to get into. But if you mange to snag a seat, a must-order is the name-sake bird. Dishes come out on carts and trays like at a dim sum house. But some items actually have to be ordered, including this quail that’s soaked in buttermilk, then battered and fried. It arrives atop a pile of sweet-and-sour onions and gets garnished with shavings of parmesan. Think fried chicken — but way better because it’s got a higher crust to meat ratio, allowing you to indulge in all those crispy bits you know you want.
10) Xialongbao at Din Tai Fung in Arcadia. Hands down, the best xialongbao you’ll ever eat. The soup dumplings here are ethereal with wrappers so delicate you have to be careful picking them up lest you puncture them with your chopsticks. Inside, there’s flavorful broth to slurp up and a juicy pork meatball to bite into with pure pleasure. My wish for 2013? That Din Tai Fung opens a branch in the Bay Area.
More: My Top Eats of 2011
And: My Top Eats of 2010