Poached rock oysters with Avruga caviar. (Bloomberg/Kate Krader)
Did anyone eat anything besides fried chicken sandwiches and fake meat this year?
The dishes that dominated the headlines in 2019 were the ones that, invariably, led to a fast-food counter. But no matter what the gourmands in the Popeye’s sandwich corner think, there was a lot else going on in the culinary world: next-level Japanese hand rolls, a Sicilian slice from cooks who have been obsessed since childhood, oysters from “oysteropolis” in England.
This year, my job as food editor took me around the U.S. from Chicago to Omaha to Brooklyn, N.Y., as well as to Mexico, Europe, and the UK. These were the 19 dishes that proved impossible for me to stop thinking about. Put them on your bucket list now.
Anchovies | Table, Paris
Before he started preparing Michelin-starred food at Table, Bruno Verjus was a blogger. He’s also an excellent ingredient sourcer. These fatty, firm anchovies from the Loire are available only a few months a year. Verjus lightly cures them, then adds a splash of bright green fig leaf oil, along with chile-infused vinegar. They taste like they swam out of the sea, took a bath in a garden, and then arrived, dramatically arranged, on your plate.
Grilled citrus-marinated chicken with hot sauce | Crown Shy, New York
The chicken at the Financial District’s new Crown Shy first captured my attention because the attached claw hung off the plate. (Chef James Kent will remove it for squeamish customers.) Equally compelling is the flavor that comes from marinating the bird in a mix that includes a lot of citrus and habanero-packed, house-made hot sauce, which infuses and tenderizes the meat. A dollop of the exhilarating, fruity hot sauce is served with the grilled bird, as is a salad that features sliced raw chiles for those who want to pile on additional heat.
Cheeseburger | Red Hook Tavern, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Billy Durney, who lures smoked meat fanatics to Red Hook’s Hometown BBQ, highlights a different protein dish at his new spot. He and chef Allison Plumer have created New York’s most obsessed-over dish: a simple, impeccable cheeseburger. It’s made with a half-pound of beef—50% of which is funky, dry-aged N.Y. strip. A layer of white onion slices protects the bottom half of the sturdy, twice-baked bun from absorbing all the juices from its griddled patty. On top, a slice of American cheese melts over the side, doing its job perfectly.
Pescado a la talla | Contramar, Mexico City
Chef and activist Gabriela Camara’s red and green fish, a nod to the Mexican flag, is her signature. I’d admired it on social media for years. Still, I was unprepared for how delightful the dish is. Half the red snapper is slathered with a bright parsley-garlic sauce, the other half with a multi-chile salsa that has a slow burn. As the fish cooks, the sauces form a crusty glaze. It also comes with bowls of beans, limes, house hot sauce, and tortillas. It’s the kind of dish you can linger over as you watch everyone from politicians to power shoppers walk into the restaurant.
Poularde de bresse en vessie | Epicure, Paris
On the other end of the spectrum from a fried chicken sandwich is poularde en vessie, or chicken braised in a bladder. At the grand, three-Michelin-starred dining room at le Bristol hotel, chef Eric Frechon recreates the forgotten classic. Part of the fun of this dish is the presentation: The bird arrives at the table in what looks like a balloon, and then is carved and plated in under a minute. There’s also the Bresse chicken itself, the gold standard of poultry. Silky and sumptuous with a gamey bite, the breast is embellished with a creamy sauce enriched with yellow wine, crayfish, and chanterelles.
Cinnamon cayenne pinwheels | Farine +Four, Omaha
Ellie Pegler baked at such notable New York spots as Aquavit before taking her skills home to Omaha to open a destination bakery. She uses clever flourishes to jump off classics such as the cinnamon roll. Her version is made with flaky, laminated croissant dough that’s sprinkled with a cayenne-cinnamon sugar blend, then finished with a swash of nutty, brown-butter frosting to cool it down.
Scallops with butter pudding | Café Cancale, Chicago
The most important thing about this starter is the butter pudding in the title, loosely based on a recipe from the side of a cornstarch box. It’s an airy mousse that’s a masterpiece of texture: The dish is irresistible, even if—like myself—you’re not a fan of scallops. Chef AJ Walker sprinkles fennel pollen on top, which adds a hit of anise to the sweetness of the pudding and the seafood.
Sicilian slice | F&F Pizzeria, Brooklyn, N.Y.
This remarkable slice was engineered by a team of experts: Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronova, who started the Frankie’s empire; their pizzaiolo Tyler Black; Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco; and Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery. There’s only a handful of options. Front of center are the thick, eye-grabbing Sicilian squares. The focaccia-styled, chewy crust has been generously brushed with olive oil, ensuring amazing crunchiness and char in the oven. It’s also coated with a layer of concentrated tomato sauce and enough cheese to provide a salty, melty contrast. The Franks source exceptional products from Southern Italy; I recommend adding a drizzle of their olive oil to the Sicilian slice, even if it doesn’t need it.
Tomato & egg hand-pulled noodles | Shang Artisan Noodle, Las Vegas
Off the Strip, this minimal storefront features the kind of noodles that people obsessively watch videos about—cooks whipping around yards-long lengths of dough like an Olympic sport until they evolve into masses of noodles, ready for a quick splash in hot water. Shang has a concise list of dishes that showcase its irregularly thick, chewy strands, but the bowl that stands out is the one with stir-fried tomatoes, adding a tangy sauce that coats the chewy noodles, and scrambled eggs that add a further dimension to the comfort-food staple.
Condensed goat milk tart | Meroma, Mexico City
Set on a quiet, plant-filled street in Roma, Meroma acts as the neighborhood version of the bar in Cheers, a convivial neighborhood spot where a local might drop in with a new mezcal for everyone to sample. (At least, that’s what happened while I was there.) Mercedes Bernal and Rodney Cusic serve modern Mexican dishes straight through to dessert. Their knockout tart is like the ultimate version of dulce de leche: a delicately crusted round filled with cateja made from condensed goats milk and sweetened with honey. The oozy custard filling, as soft as caramel, is hidden by whipped cream and dusted with soothing chamomile pollen. It went great with that mezcal.
Steak sandwich | Pastis, New York
Downtown Manhattan’s reincarnated Pastis has a section of steak frites on the menu, but the best meat in the house is the steak sandwich, a holdover from the original location. The steak in question is a pile of sliced griddled hangar that delivers a great, beefy chew. Plus, there’s the unstoppable combination of sautéed onions, Gruyère, and mustard-y frisee (ostensibly to cut the richness), all packed into a toasted roll. It’s a next-level Philly cheesesteak but with the crispy, skinny Pastis fries. To go even farther over the top, add a side of béarnaise sauce.
Salmon temaki | Nami Nori, New York
In an energetic, white-walled space, Taka Sakaeda and Jihan Lee craft temaki, or Japanese hand rolls, so that they’re U-shaped, like a hardshell taco. They’re more visually fun than a closed roll; the chefs, who both worked at Masa, say the open shape also helps keep the ingredients evenly distributed. One of their inspirations is to pile salt- and sugar-cured Atlantic salmon, onion cream, tomatoes, and chives on top of the warm rice inside the crisp nori shell to create an uncanny riff on the New York bagel that inspired it.
Japanese milk bread with truffles | Kumiko, Chicago
Milk bread, the ubiquitous fluffy Japanese loaf, gets to live its best in this fanciful dessert. The brainchild of chefs Noah Sandoval and Mariya Russell, the thick, toasted bread slice is topped with a scoop or two of fermented honey ice cream and shavings of the truffles of the season. The result is creamy and funky, with the crackle of the bread’s caramelized sugar crust slowly melting with the ice cream.
Scarlet prawns with yuzu kosho | Flor, London
“It’s not revolutionary to say, but the best part of prawns are the heads,” says James Lowe. In an effort to get guests to eat them, the chef sources striking red prawns from the Atlantic, and then serves those heads separately from the tails. The glistening bodies are presented raw, with a sauce made from the roasted shells, and then splashed with piquant, yet floral, yuzu kosho, a Japanese chile sauce. Still, the heads are the stars. Lowe quickly grills them, leaving a bit of the body’s meat attached to retain the creamy, briny juices—but also to tempt diners who might leave the heads untouched.
Seared wagyu | Yoshitomo, Omaha
It’s patently ridiculous to think a sushi place in landlocked Omaha would be home to a fireworks dish. Chef Dave Utterback is a disciple of elite Japanese sushi spots and imports a lot of his fish from Asia. Still, because he’s in Nebraska, Utterback found it hard not to add beef to his 17-course omakase. He rubs local wagyu with koji, a Japanese rice starter that has the effect of hacking the dry-aging process, then sears it quickly and finishes the supple beef with sea urchin butter to add a lingering bite.
Stracciatella | Rezdora, New York
The creamy center of burrata cheese, stracciatella shows up a thousand different ways on menus now, but never like this. Chef Stefano Secchi, a veteran of the world’s best restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, lays a blanket of sautéed king trumpet mushrooms under the soft cheese; on top is a sprinkling of porcini powder that adds a powerful, woodsy element. It’s even better with the house bread: griddled, oil-doused fett’unnata. “Dipping the fett’unta in the stracciatella is 100% the best move, and we actually make ‘stracci snacks’ later in service for the whole crew,” says Secchi.
Poached rock oysters | The Sportsman, Whitstable, England
Whistable, in Kent, on England’s southeast coast, has such good-quality, juicy bivalves, it has earned the nickname “oysteropolis.” The best place to eat them is at the Sportsman, a pub-turned-world-class restaurant near the ocean. Chef and owner Stephen Harris offers them in multiple guises, but the most attention-getting are the ones that are poached and doused with a luxurious, tangy butter he makes in-house. He adds diced pickled cucumber and a pungent avruga caviar that looks like lush fish roe but is actually from local herring.
Butter and za’atar bagel | K’Far, Philadelphia
As a New Yorker, I pledge allegiance to my city’s classic bagel. But Jerusalem bagels—long, lean ovals with less doughy filling than their Big Apple counterparts—have been gaining traction. Camille Cogswell’s phenomenal examples at the new bakery K’Far are a formidable 10 inches long with a surfeit of crusty, seed-crusted surface area. Though there’s a variety of fillings, the simplest one is the best: Za’atar spiced butter that soaks into the toasty dough.
Mapo tofu | Momotaro, Chicago
Mapo tofu is a dish most cooks leave alone. Gene Kato saw opportunity and tweaked the Sichuan classic. His stew-like dish cuts out a lot of oil and features a sauce made with 30-plus components, including XO sauce, to accent the overall umami-ness. Chunks of notably tender tofu, Chinese roasted pork, and chili sesame oil are also present. It’s served in a cast-iron skillet with a lid that, when removed, unleashes aroma.
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