Happy New Year to everyone!
As we slide into 2010, I present my Top 10 restaurant experiences of 2009 (click on photos to enlarge):
1. Most Memorable, I-Wish-I-Could-Have-One-More-Bite Dish: Local King figs at Spur.
For my City Arts Dish-Off gig, I’m lucky to have local chefs creating fantastic, off-menu dishes inspired by songs. The figs that Dana Tough and Brian McCracken served up were simply sumptuous. As I wrote for the magazine:
The Kings are the last of the season (we compete with birds, which get to them quickly), and feature the nuttiness of arugula and speck (porky goodness that alternates between tantalizingly sweet and salty, as well as soft and brittle), the tang of chevre, and the sparkly pop of champagne vinegar.
2. Best Trendsetter: Marination Mobile.
Yeah, they recently won Good Morning America Weekend’s national Best Food Cart Challenge. What I love, though, is that they’re part of the street-food sensation that’s sweeping through Seattle. Even more, they (along with another restaurant – see #10 below) have inspired me to prepare Korean food at home. I’m making my own kimchi these days, and can cook up a pretty mean kimchi quesadilla – though it can’t quite compete with Marination’s. Must be that nunya – as in “none (of) ya business” – sauce that I have to perfect next!
Pedro Ximénez (PX) is a white grape that produces a sweet vinegar. At Olivar, Philippe Thomelin served PX-braised pork ribs for a Dish-Off challenge that were truly finger-licking good. Meanwhile, for a different Dish-Off, Jose Maria Larrosa at Taberna prepared chicken wing bombón – drummettes marinated in garlic and parsley, accompanied by a raisiny and molasses-like Pedro Ximénez reduction that was a perfect counterpoint to the salt and garlic in these cute bites.
4. Most Are-You-Kidding-Me Dish: Ethan Stowell‘s Shigoku oysters topped with uni, radish and cucumber.
I was lucky enough to attend a dinner prepared by all of last year’s Beard nominees for Best Chef Northwest. When Stowell put down a plate of six oysters, I thought it was to share with my tablemates. But then everyone got the same plate! Back then, I wrote: “Some new to uni loved the combination, whereas some uni lovers, like me, actually considered taking the generous layer of sea urchin off of each oyster to enjoy the two components separately.” I’ve been thinking about this dish all year, and as much as I liked it then, I think I’m growing even more fond of it over time.
5. Best Pig-Out Experience: Cochon 555.
I was thrilled to attend as a judge, sampling the fare of local chefs doing brain-to-butt (truly!) preparation of pigs weighing about 75 pounds each. Highlights included John Sundstrom’s (Lark) terrific terrine (including head, trotters, and shank brined for two days) with black truffle and star anise flavoring, Tamara Murphy’s (Brasa) porky chili verde, and Jason Wilson’s (Crush) smoked bacon macaroon with bacon powder. But my favorite dish of the day was Matt Dillon’s (Corson Building and Sitka & Spruce) stinging nettle soup, with pork broth poured over raw kidneys and hearts. Here’s what I wrote afterward: “The nettles were earthy and delicious in the deep, almost double stock (as Dillon described it), and I simply loved the bright, intense taste of the organ meats.” I was so excited about the soup that I forgot to take a photo of it, despite sneaking out of the judging room to get a second bowl during a break.
6. Most Bizarre Dish of the Year: Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez‘s Rocky Mountain oyster sorbet.
The April Dish-Off was based on a song by The New Duncan Imperials called “Gizzards, Scrapple and Tripe” – and I knew it would be a blast. After Cafe Juanita’s Holly Smith served up apple and gizzard tarte tatin (with candied duck gizzards, gizzard crema, and salted caramel gelato) that was absolutely delicious, I wasn’t sure anyone would ever top that…especially for the dessert course. I should have known after Jiménez de Jiménez served elk tongue, lamb hearts, pork snout and fried brains that his dessert would be out over-the-top. He paired the ballsy sorbet with chocolate sorbet, adding specks of sweet skin from pig’s feet—scraped of gelatin and dried to a crackle. That capped a couple of offally incredible meals.
7. Top Food Destination Outside of Seattle: Portland (click to see the full four-day report).
From Pok Pok to Tanuki to Nostrana to Broder (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg), I completely fell in love with the Portland food scene, and can’t wait to return.
8. Top Meal Outside of Seattle: Naoe. (Click to see photos and videos.)
My blog post was titled “Bento and sushi blow me away at Naoe,” and I’m still savoring memories of multi-hour meal at this exquisite, 17-seat restaurant just north of Miami. The food is incredibly refined, and the sushi spectacular. It’s better than any Japanese food I’ve had in Seattle.
9. Most Divine Dessert Experience of the Year: Black truffle rice pudding at Lark.
This was a close call, as eating at Better Than Sex in Key West and a birthday dessert binge at Canlis are right up there. But John Sundstrum’s rice pudding was a real “wow” dish. The unmistakable smell of truffle announced its imminent arrival. The pudding was creamy yet light, sweet yet subtle, and incredibly fresh. And the Calasparra rice had the right bite, with earthy truffles slices serving up sophistication to this show-stopping finale. (Sorry, but camera failure meant a lost photo opportunity.)
10. Favorite Seattle Restaurant (That Continues to Impress): Joule.
If you’ve been a regular reader, you know my affection for Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi’s Wallingford eatery. It’s the first place that comes to mind when people ask for a restaurant recommendation, or when I want to impress out-of-town guests. Here’s what I recently wrote about Joule for City Arts’ January issue, which features “resolutions” for readers – suggestions of artists they should get to know in 2010:
Ask most food writers for their favorite restaurant, and they’ll say it depends on cuisine, price, etc.
I’ve written up over two hundred restaurants in the Seattle area, and eaten at dozens more. Ask me the same question, and without hesitation, my answer is Joule.
Chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi have earned lots of accolades lately for their cross-cultural cuisine, including a win in Sound magazine’s “East Meets West” Dish-Off in July 2008, and then a finish in the top three restaurants of the year. Their menu is a mix of interesting sections like crisped, sparked and pickled; the dishes a mix of unlikely flavor combinations that are bold and inventive. Whether sitting solo at the counter (where I love to watch the chefs practice their art) and enjoying the superb spicy beef soup with a warm baguette and nori butter, or bringing out-of-town friends for a more formal meal in the spare but elegant dining room, Joule has become my go-to restaurant for great food at a reasonable price.
In 2010, look for the return of the Winter Supper Series, which lets Yang and Chirchi go off-menu to create some one-time wonders. When I asked for a sneak peek, they told me to think of soul-replenishing matzoh ball soup for the “Brooklyn Diner” supper, their version of moon cakes for “Chinese New Year,” and creamy clam chowder and maple syrup glazed pork chops for “Maine Story.”
Those family-style dinners are quite popular; but expect Joule to be busier than ever. Back in October, I learned that Yang and Chirchi were flying to New York City to compete on Iron Chef America; at press time, I learned that the episode will broadcast on January 17, and that they will take on Jose Garces in his very first battle since he became an Iron Chef. Further down the line in 2010, look for a chance to try something new from the Joule chefs in a new venue that, they say, “really reflects our adventurous fuse of flavors.”