My Top 10 Eats of 2016
Despite wrestling with a shortage of cooks, skyrocketing rents, rising business costs, and ever increasing competition, restaurants in the Bay Area and elsewhere did themselves proud this year, turning out food that was delightful, delicious, and unforgettable.
What dishes do I still dream about long after taking the last bite?
Here are my Top 10 eats of the year, in no particular order, of which I’d gladly have seconds, even thirds, if I could.
1. Cabbage at the Senia Pop-Up in San Francisco. OK, this wasn’t even a real restaurant yet. It was only a pop-up held in November at a Mission District home-cum-event space for Senia, one of Honolulu’s most anticipated restaurants, which finally just opened its doors a few weeks ago. When the restaurant is owned by co-chefs Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush, who both worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, you know you’re in for something special. Leave it to them to catapult the humble cabbage into one of the most sensational vegetable dishes ever. They made it actually taste meaty, thanks to a heavy char, as well as snowy meringue powder made of kombu cooked in soy sauce. Even avowed carnivores at my table pledged they’d go vegetarian for a dish like this. Can’t wait to see what else the chefs have cooked up now that the restaurant is in full swing.
2. Panettone From Roy. Yes, I’ve heard the skepticism. I’ve seen the incredulous expressions. And witnessed the initial disbelief. Even from my husband. That’s the reaction when you tell someone this panettone costs $50 — more than any other panettone you’ve ever set eyes upon. But all it takes is one taste to make you a believer. Even my husband is now. Roy Shvartzapel, a pastry chef who as worked at El Bulli in Spain, Pierre Herme in France, and Bouchon Bakery in Beverly Hills, is obsessed with this Italian sweet bread. He’s made it his life’s mission to make the very best version possible. And he has. Regal in height, it’s rich beyond imagination with butter and eggs yet somehow light as a feather, and it’s loaded with Guittard dark chocolate. Go ahead and splurge. It’s worth it. And so are you.
3. Rosemary Roasted Chicken Sandwich at Meat & Bread in Vancouver. I’m not even that big on sandwiches. But after hearing about the lines that formed daily for sandwiches at this Gastown cafe, I had to experience it for myself when I was up in British Columbia. The menu is concise — just four sandwiches daily, plus one soup, one salad, and one dessert. I chose the rosemary roasted chicken with kale, caponata and ricotta spread ($9.50 Canadian). I picked it up with my hands and took a bite, only to see the meat carver guy smile at me as I did. He saw the swoon coming before I even did. But this sandwich will make you fall hard. It’s just a perfect combination of juicy bird with punchy herbs, creamy spread and a touch of piquant — all snuggled inside bread that’s crusty yet giving. In short, it is sandwich perfection.
4. Uni Fried Rice at Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino. The Wagyu may get all the attention here. But don’t bypass the fried rice ($25). Yes, the humble standby in the home-cook’s arsenal gets a decidedly glam makeover here. It’s loaded with bacon, shiitakes, and shishito peppers before being crowned with lobes of uni. This is not your Chinese grandmother’s fried rice. This is the stuff of fried rice dreams.
5. Escargots at Cassia in Santa Monica. There’s no plucking out each snail from its shell here. Nope, this is a lusty bowl of brothy escargot enveloped in lemongrass, garlic, butter, olive oil, and a load of fresh herbs. It’s like nothing you’ve ever had before. Kind of like clams Vongole-style but done with Southeast Asian verve. Scoop up every last drop with charred naan-like flatbread still warm from the oven.
6. North Atlantic Fluke at Coi in San Francisco. When Chef-Owner Daniel Patterson decided to step away from the helm of his flagship restaurant, he chose a worthy successor in Chef Matthew Kirkley, who took over in January. Kirkley, who specializes in seafood creates some of the most stunningly beautiful food around. He takes slivers of fluke, gently rolls them up and places them just so in between balls of compressed white etrog (an Israeli citrus with deep perfume and tang) capped with Israeli osetra caviar. The result is striking minimalist art on the plate. And the taste? Equally dreamy, with the clean, delicate taste of the fish accentuated by the fragrant citrus and luxuriousness of the caviar.
7. Radishes at Two Birds One Stone in St. Helena. There are so many bold and beautiful dishes to love at this California yakitori-style restaurant by chefs and bros in arms, Doug Keane and Sang Yoon. But one that really surprised me was a plate of radishes. I eat radishes all the time, so for me to be so startlingly seduced by them really means something. This is a take on the traditional French pairing of radishes with butter and sea salt. Only these radishes are compressed with dashi, leaving them still crunchy but injected with a load of umami. They are laid out on top of a thick smear of goat’s milk butter whipped with nori. Drag a radish through it, and take a bite. It’s creamy and milky sweet yet tangy, briny and intensely savory, too. It’s the best $6 you’ll ever spend.
8. Lamb Hummus at Oren’s Hummus (various locations in the Bay Area). Hands down, this place makes the best hummus around — thick, rich, and smooth beyond imagination. If that wasn’t stellar enough, you can also order it mounded with braised lamb shoulder ($12.50). The tender lamb is redolent of North African flavors and pomegranate. It’s finished with fresh mint. Take a warm puffy pita and scoop up to your heart’s and stomach’s delight.
9. P&L Smoked Guava Chicken at Pig & The Lady in Honolulu. You never know what will emerge from Chef Andrew Le’s imagination. You just know it will be uncanny and unparalleled. This is his version of Hainan chicken ($19) — reinvented. The original Singaporean classic is poached chicken served with dipping sauces and rice that’s been cooked with the chicken broth and chicken fat. Le goes way beyond that by adding big slivers of garlic to the rice. He smokes the chicken and glazes it with guava jam, so that it’s moist, smoky and ever so tropical. There’s a green-onion ginger sauce to go along with it all. But it’s the spicy sambal sauce that captures the real attention. It’s made with raspberries, of all things. Imagine the kick of sriracha mixed with zingy bright berries. It will blow your mind.
10. Portuguese Custard Tart at Adega in San Jose. The hub of Silicon Valley was all aflutter this fall when this unassuming restaurant in the working-class neighborhood of Alum Rock garnered San Jose’s first ever Michelin star. It’s only the second Portuguese restaurant in the country to nab that honor. This family-owned restaurant takes traditional dishes (cooked by their grandmothers) to new heights with skill and finesse while retaining its soul. There’s much to like here. I don’t know if Portuguese custard tarts are served here regularly, but this was the last sweet bite to the restaurant’s first wine dinner earlier this year. With a shattering crisp crust, and an eggy, smooth custard filling with a caramelized top, it made my eyes roll back in my head. How fantastic were these? My dining companions were so full from the rest of the dinner, they left their’s on the table. I was sorely tempted to pocket them for myself — if only I could be assured no one would see me.
More: My Top 10 of 2015
And: My Top 10 of 2014