What were my most favorite bites of 2013, the ones I still remember to this day and can’t wait to enjoy all over again?
Take a look. Here are my Top 10 dishes of the year, in no particular order:
1) Wood Oven Whole Chicken ($29) at Fog City in San Francisco. It’s hard to look past the attention-grabbing, fried-to-order ripply crullers and silky frozen custard to something as mundane as chicken. But at this reborn landmark, chicken is the stuff of dreams. It’s a whole chicken that’s spatchcocked and cooked in a speedy 14 minutes, thanks to Chef Bruce Hill’s patented stainless steel presses that flatten it so it cooks more evenly in the wood oven. It’s presented snuggled inside a cast-iron pan with charred corn cobs and creamy fingerling potatoes. It’s the ultimate one-pan meal with a bird so juicy you can’t help but lick your fingers. Truly the best chicken I’ve had in a long time.
2) Roasted Squab ($18) at 1601 Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco. Unforgiving squab can go so very wrong so quickly in the wrong hands. But at this captivating Sri Lankan restaurant in a still very transitional part of San Francisco right near a major freeway on-ramp, Chef-Owner Brian Fernando knows how to treat this game bird right. His classical training from San Jose’s Le Papillon shows in this dish, centered around moist, tender, slightly gamy squab cooked with aromatic star anise and plump blackberries and served over forbidden rice. It’s squab as it should be — treated with care and respect.
3) Calotte de Boeuf at Enotria Restaurant and Wine Bar in Sacramento by way of the Stable Cafe in San Francisco. When it’s a struggle to lure the Bay Area’s food press up to the state’s capitol, what do you do? Why, you bring the restaurant to them. That’s exactly what Enotria did when it brought most of its staff, plus its own plateware and stemware to show off its skills at a media dinner held at the Stable Cafe. Rarely do I get this excited over beef as I did with this dish on the multi-course menu. Executive Chef Pajo Bruich took two pieces of grass-fed rib-eye cap, fused them together with “meat glue” and served it with a dab of black garlic puree. Like a fine wine, the beef had a finish that just went on and on. It was robust, minerally, and unforgettable.
4) Avocado Corn Dogs ($7) at Palo Alto Grill in downtown Palo Alto. Imagine tiny little corn dogs that hold no hot dogs at all, but instead creamy centers of avocado. Chef Ryan Shelton’s playful riff on the carnival staple is creative and addictive. The batter, itself, is perfection — golden, light and suffused with corn flavor. Dip into chipotle mustard sauce and watch the smile erupt.
5) Kouign-Amann ($4) at B. Patisserie in San Francisco. If I could eat only one pastry for the rest of my life, it just might be this one. And given my sweet tooth, that’s saying something. Ever since Pastry Chef Belinda Leong opened her charming patisserie, much has been written about her take on the classic treat from Brittany. Indeed, poems could be dedicated to this pastry that’s like a croissant folded in upon itself with plenty of caramelized sugar throughout its gossamer layers. It’s a love song in your mouth. (And it’s pronounced queen ah-mahn.)
6) Shrimp and Razor Clam Paella ($40) at Coqueta in San Francisco. From start to finish, this waterfront establishment by celeb Chef Michael Chiarello is one rockin’, raucous, satisfying time. He may have cut his teeth on Italian food that’s part and parcel of his heritage, but with Coqueta he shows he knows how to deliver the Spanish goods, too. Paella is made to order, as it should be, so it takes a pain-staking 40 minutes to get to your table. But you are richly rewarded with a heap of tender shrimp and razor clams to pluck out of their shells, all arranged over a mound of seafood stock-infused rice that does indeed possess that coveted crispy layer on the bottom.
7) Turkish Bread at Troya in San Francisco. Yes, bread costs extra at this Turkish-Mediterranean restaurant. But pony up the $3.50 for it and you’ll never regret it. Better yet, order it with the house-made hummus or other spread. The puffy, football-shaped rolls are hand-made daily. They are as tender and chewy as focaccia. You’ll wish you could eat them every single day.
8) Pickled, Seared Beef Tongue at Namu Gaji in San Francisco. If you’re skittish of beef tongue, this version will turn you. If you’re a fan already, this rendition will no doubt be one you’ve never experienced before. Chef-Owner Dennis Lee got the notion to pickle beef tongue overnight in a traditional Japanese brine, then slow braise it still in the brine, before pickling it with soy. For serving, it’s cubed and grilled over low heat until it gets all crisp on the outside. The result is the most tender beef tongue ever — loaded with a big beefy and surprisingly piquant taste.
9) Chicken Foot Bun at Parallel 37 in San Francisco. Pork belly buns are so 2007. But a chicken foot bun? And one in which that appendage is devoid of bone and cartilage but still retains its unmistakable shape? Genius. Leave it to former Charlie Trotter’s executive chef, Michael Rotondo, to dare to dream it up. It takes a team of two chefs to create this two-bite morsel of fluffy steamed bun cradling a surgically perfected crisp chicken foot. Order it and be astounded.
10) Sardine Chips ($7) at Rich Table in San Francisco. It’s the only item on the menu that has never been taken off. How popular are they? Chef Evan Rich turns out 600 of these crisp potato slices daily that each have a whole sardine carefully threaded through them. They’re served in a bowl with a puddle of horseradish cream at the bottom. It takes the meaning of chips and dip to a whole ‘nother level.
More: Top 10 Eats of 2012
And: Top 10 Eats of 2011
And: Top 10 of 2010
And: Top 10 of 2009