I’ve always been baffled when I hear someone say eating is overrated. After all, these types of people, the thick-necked fratboys of the food world who mindlessly consume things only to feed the pain of hunger, are completely ignoring one of their senses. For most of us, though, eating is more than just sustenance. It’s what propels us out the door and onto airplanes and down alleyways in dodgy parts of towns our parents would have warned us about. It’s what makes us risk a night of being planted on the toilet seat or blowing our paycheck for a four-star dinner at an acclaimed restaurant.
And so I decided, with the year coming to a close, to break out my rolodex and ask some great eaters one simple question: where were your best meals of the year?
After the jump, where they ate: authors, eaters, and food and travel writers tell their favorite eating experiences of 2010.
Three wildly different moments from 2010 stand out: moments of complete and utter eating bliss, when the world shrinks to the size of your table and what’s on it and how deliriously happy you are to be making your way through it and how sad you are, already, in the course of it, that it will come to an end. In chronological order:
–I remember a lunch of fried octopus fillets at Casa Aleixo, a rustic and charming restaurant in the beautiful city of Porto
. The Portuguese love–and do so, so right by–octopus, and this was a treatment of it I’d never had: essentially thin octopus cutlets, if you will, prepared by these elderly, stout women in white in a nearby open kitchen of abundant Old World charm.
–I remember a special lunch that the Danish chef Rene Redzepi
prepared at the downtown restaurant Momofuku Ko, and I remember in particular this one gorgeous, perfect, amazing langoustine tail served on a little boulder: a great bit of theater to accompany a few perfect bites of one of the sea’s great delicacies.
–And I remember, in a totally different vein, the pimento cheese toasts at Cookshop
, one of the many comfort-food snacks on that Chelsea restaurant’s menu. There’s not enough pimento cheese in this life. Not nearly enough. A friend and I split an order of these toasts, then got another, then debated a good long while before passing on a third. I regret the decision still.
• Gary Shteyngart
Author of the novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and, most recently, A Super Sad True Love Story; one of The New Yorker‘s 20 best fiction writers under 40; contributing editor at Travel + Leisure.
I ate the most awesome thing in Vancouver at a restaurant called Vij’s. It was called a Punjabi Heart Attack, it came on a spoon and it involved mostly ghee, the clarified butter. More than that I can’t recall.
• Susan Orlean
– Fresh cider donuts at a farm stand in the Hudson Valley. The donut was warm and sweet, the air was bright and cold, and I could have eaten a dozen. I don’t know how I managed to stop.
– An Ethiopian feast at Awash
, on the Upper West Side. My first experience with Ethiopian food, and I loved the earthy warmth of it, and couldn’t get enough of the “injera” — the spongy, grainy Ethiopian bread.
– Eating maple-syrup snow in Mt. Tremblant, Quebec. Hot maple syrup is poured on snow (clean, one hopes) and then is quickly rolled up on a stick and, just as quickly, devoured. It’s not quite ice cream and it’s not quite candy, and it’s definitely worth standing in a winter storm to enjoy.
• Tim Cahill
Author of several books, including Lost in My Own Backyard and Hold the Enlightenment
–I was a visiting professor at San Jose State University last winter/spring semester. I drove to that job in San Jose from my home in Montana. The drive started in January, in the midst of a nasty ground blizzard with temperatures near zero. I arrived in San Jose two days later. The house I’d rented–sight unseen–had an orange tree in the backyard. We don’t see a lot of those in Montana and the first thing I did was pick one of my rented oranges. It may have been the best orange I’ve ever eaten. I think circumstances had something to do with the taste.
–Similarly, while we in Montana are blessed with rivers full of big dumb trout, seafood is not at its best here 700 miles from the nearest ocean. While in the San Jose, I ate all the fresh seafood I could. My favorite was petrale sole, which is simply not available in Montana. I sauteed it in butter and lemon or ate it lighted crusted in panko crumbs. The lemons were, of course, fresh and courtesy of neighbor with a tree in his yard.
–Back In Montana, the boys who hunt have discovered that elk shanks can be very successfully and tastily braised. We’re eating elk osso buco out here.
• Pauline Frommer
In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to do. No, actually, I knew at the time that it was a stupid thing to do. And when you drag along your 7-year-old daughter, stupid actions become grossly irresponsible.
And yet climbing Volcano Pacaya in Guatemala (which entailed trekking first up a steep dirt path for an hour and then over jagged, brutally sharp outcroppings of new rock for another hour) is something I have trouble regretting. I got to watch my little Trixie (her nickname) conquering, with single-minded determination, what was likely the greatest physical challenge she’d ever encountered. It was a really grueling hike, and yet she didn’t complain once. In fact, the 20-something backpackers who were with us couldn’t keep up with this middle-aged mom and her mountain-goat of a child. And then, when we got to the top, we made use of the long sticks we’d been carrying to roast marshmallows over the lava. It was the equivalent of a champagne toast to my first grader, and, without a doubt, my top eating experience of 2010.
That all being said, I really can’t recommend this experience to others at this time. A month after we made our trek, almost to the day, Pacaya erupted, killing at least four people, badly injuring 70 others and damaging hundreds of homes. Its apparently still quite active.
As I said at the start, taking Trixie up there wasn’t smart. But we were lucky. And we experienced an adventure together that we’ll both remember for the rest of our lives.
• Dan Saltzstein
Assistant Editor, New York Times
Travel section; twitterer
–The Glenview, Isle of Skye
In reporting a column on seafood on Scotland’s Isle of Skye
, I was lucky enough to eat at some terrific places, including the much beloved Three Chimneys (it didn’t disappoint), but it was this cozy spot that really grabbed me, with a combination of stunningly fresh seafood and produce — all from on or near the island — and friendly service.
–Corson Building, Seattle
This spot has rightfully earned a following out west. I loved
the simple but satisfying dishes that the kitchen puts out, and you can’t beat the surroundings: a garden (complete with chicken coop) surrounds the farmhouse-style building, all nestled in a charmingly industrial neighborhood.
–M. Wells, Long Island City, N.Y.
As a long-time Queens resident, I was thrilled when this diner-with-a-twist
opened earlier this year. Doesn’t hurt that it’s a 5-10 minute trip on the 7 train from my office, too. The food–available for now only from 10am-4pm–is a combination of kicked-up diner classics (say, an egg and hash dish that features both mussels and pulled pork; it works) and even kookier stuff. I try to avoid words like “addictive” and “orgasmic” when referring to food, but the appetizer of marrow and escargot comes pretty close to filling definitions of both words.
My most memorable and certainly most surprising eating experience in 2010:
The Townhouse, in tiny Chilhowie Virginia, which serves cutting edge cuisine in the middle of nowhere (hours from the nearest major metropolis). The constantly changing menu, featuring many ingredients foraged from the woods near the restaurant, is the work of a young couple, John and Karen Shields, who decamped from Chicago (he worked for Grant Achatz at Alinea). Their new restaurant struggles but for very good reason John was chosen as one of Food & Wine
‘s best new chefs last year. I wrote a piece about the place
• Mary Morris
–The tuna festival in Zahara de las Atunes on the Atlantic Coast of Spain. We roamed from restaurant to restaurant, sampling tuna tapas and voting for our favorites. By midnight we were following an old fisherman’s wife as she danced in the streets.
–Wandering around outside the medina in Tangier, Morocco, I found a restaurant named Hamadi. I tasted their lamb tangine with prunes and their chicken couscous and thought I’d walked right back into my grandmother’s kitchen. And she was from Ukraine. But now I think I am descended from Berbers (which may in fact be true)
–And right here in Brooklyn El Jalapeno
–closest thing to real Mexican I’ve had since Mexico. Tiny place, wonderful kitchen and I love the portabello fajitas. The owner dresses like a cowboy, not sure why.
The most memorable meal I had this past year was also the least expected. I was traveling down the Lewis and Clark Highway, along the river that separates Washington from Oregon, when I saw a crudely drawn sign saying “SMOKED FISH.” I forced my friend to make a U turn and we drove into what was essentially a makeshift trailer park where some fishermen were camped next to the water. One guy, a Native American of few words, emerged from his car, and after showing me his homemade wooden smoker, he sold me his last bag of smoked salmon (or at least he said it was the last bag– he clearly sensed that I was excited enough to pay heroin prices for it). It was incredible– just thinking of those chewy, briny little nuggets of fish, and the way they lingered in my mouth long after I ate them, makes me want to build a smoker in my backyard. Months later while I was driving through Nova Scotia I encountered a guy selling smoked salmon out of the trunk of his car– it still kills me that I didn’t have enough cash on me to get some smoked cod as well. The guy definitely didn’t take credit cards.
–I am not often at home and when I am I try to sit on the couch or in the backyard, unmoving, immobile, stationary…but my Dad came into town and I wanted to get out and about for one night at least. He and my wife and I went to Piccolo
, a restaurant I am convinced is the best new restaurant to open in the Midwest in years. The brainchild of owner/chef Doug Flicker, this small 16 seat café offers extremely food forward cookery, modern in style but firmly rooted in traditional flavors. It’s rootsy elemental cooking. Flicker cooks with wisdom, his food is off the beaten path, humble indeed, but out of this world. My favorite dish is a signature of sorts, he takes brown eggs, scrambles them delicately, turns a dollop or so out into a lowslung hammock of a bowl, pairs them with slow cooked pigs trotters that have been braised, pickled, and then pulled, the meat and gelatinous nubbins pan-crisped at the last minute before being snuggled up against the egg. Finished with truffle butter and seriously good Parmesan, this dish is a small notion of what food is like in the afterlife.
–Farther afield I spent a few weeks in Chengdu China and on a night that I shall remember forever I had a chance to dine both in the kitchen and at a table in Chef Yu Bo’s restaurant Yu’s Family Kitchen. Don’t let the name or the price point fool you, this is one of the world’s best restaurants and Yu is an insane technician with the soul of an artist. I ate roughly 40 courses, some were simply a small forkful, others a bit larger, nothing too precious or too generous. In a town where the star chefs are all seemingly trying to impress the new money (both local and from out of ton) with dishes like Kung Pao Foie Gras, Yu is championing a modern vision of traditional flavors and ingredients. From the private dining rooms to the 16 course cold vegetable tapestry laid out in geometric precision upon sitting, to the roasted duck, brined and cured like a country ham served with small steamed buns for sandwich making, to the rarest of the rare hand-collected vegetable roots that Yu’s army of foragers find for him all over the province, served in small bundles, pickled and plated so delicately that they taunted me…I nibbled, despite wanting to down the whole pile at once. Four soups alone that night boggled my mind, including what to me was easily the best chicken soup I have ever eaten and as a Jewish kid from NYC you know I am familiar with that territory. I asked Yu what his top dish is and he told me that currently it was his shrimp, twice cooked with fermented chile bean paste and fish flavor, a petite single bite serving of the Sichuanese stalwart that inspired it. Yu’s version comes in a small bowl, a single upturned shrimp, bathed in a vibrant, rusty crimson sauce. The dish typically comes spiked with fresh peas in most cases but Yu Bo freeze dries and fries his peas, creating a crackling contrast that underscores his insanely deep salty/spicy/fishy/ chile glaze. This is a restaurant worth flying to from anywhere in the world, and at roughly 50 bucks a person for over 40 courses it might be the single best fine dining value on the planet.
On the largest passenger ship on the planet, traditionally the bastion of the banal buffet, we sat down on the first night in Chops, an alternative restaurant. Expecting passable “cuisine,” I was stunned when the former waiter and confirmed foodie next to me said, simply,”This is the best steak I’ve ever had.” I concurred and I’m pretty sure we didn’t talk again until the plates were empty.
While wandering the back streets of Seville, looking for a barber (yes, really), we stumbled into a typical tapas bar that, based on the cool reception, was primarily a locals joint. The waiter endured our stupid questions in crappy Spanish until finally I asked: “What dish is this place known for?” He eyed me cautiously (expecting another annoying tourist who needed details in English) and rambled off something in Spanish — twice. I didn’t understand, but said, “Whatever it is, if you say I’ll like it, I’ll take it.” He immediately warmed to us, and quickly brought a plate of tender pan-seared pork with lightly fried potatoes. By far, it turned out to be the best plate during a 7-day stay in Spain. I still keep a picture of the meal on my iPhone.
The guidebook had outlined the bar’s history as a hotbed of espionage during WW II and the Cold War — supposedly, Ian Fleming learned much of what he knew of spies in the dark corners of Dean’s. When my wife, Ann, and I finally found the place, we plowed through the door – and found ourselves facing a room full of Moroccan men, most in traditional garb. I asked the bartender if Ann would be welcome, and he jumped up, shook my hand as if we were old friends and herded us to the only empty table. Within seconds, beers appeared (unsolicited but greatly appreciated) and, a few seconds later, a generous bowl of what turned out to be a freakishly delicious seafood paella. After taking a few notes and soaking up the atmosphere — I’d never heard Arabic in the dialect of Drunk before — we paid the bill for the beers (the paella was on the house) and headed toward the door. In the corner, across from the bar top, was a kitchen about size of the toilet stall, in which the cook was making more paella. I expressed my thanks by grasping at my heart, and took his picture. It’s still in my iPhone.
Geka’s in Elmira, N.Y., replaces the meat with heart and soul. Once a month, the vegetarian/vegan restaurant offers free food to those in need of a hot and healthy feast. At the kitchen window, a caring arm handed out plates of homemade lasagna, vegetable curry, and salad topped with a lemony tofu dressing. As a thank you, I ordered an additional meal (rice and beans, steamed broccoli, crusty bread), happy to give back with my stomach and my wallet.
• John T. Edge
This past summer, I spent a week on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a kind of Land of the Lost for heritage livestock, heirloom vegetables, and merroir-specific oysters and crabs. Exmore Diner
, an honest to God stainless steel clunker, served my favorite meal of the trip: fried drum ribs, fried swelling toads, and fresh collards. You want to talk local foods? The Eastern Shore in general, and the Exmore Diner in particular, had all the credentials and none of the pretense.
During a recent road trip through northern Italy, my dad and I hit the Speckfest in Santa Maddalena. This German speaking town in the foothills of the Dolomites celebrates their speck production every fall with a big party on a plain above the town. Eating mountain-air cured pork on a large lawn surrounded by grazing cattle was unforgettable.
Chef Massimo Bottora is perhaps Italy’s most beloved and is famous for his artful interpretations of Emilian cuisine. I visited his restaurant in Modena for the first time a couple of weeks ago and the meal was nothing short of spectacular. The 36-month aged pancetta, foie gras popsicle (foie filled with 40-year-old balsamic vinegar, then rolled in toasted hazelnuts), tortellini alla panna and lasagna were off the charts amazing. But the most inspired dish was a slick soup made from pig’s head, smoked morels stuffed with cotechino, crispy pancetta, ciccioli (compressed pork fat nuggets), fregola (a sort of grated pasta), coriander and Matera chilis. I’ve never dreamed anything like it could exist.
In August I ate at Zushi Puzzle on the recommendation of friends who live nearby. Through some finagling, they scored me a seat at the bar, next to the sushi chef, Roger. I asked for omakase, gave Roger free reign, and he went to work preparing an epic feast that included monkfish liver, uni with organic tofu, live scallops, soy marinated grilled tuna cheeks, and dozens of pieces of sushi and sashimi made from fish sliced and filleted to order.
Here are my top three eating experiences in 2010:
–Kyoto, Japan: The amazing Misoguigawa
–French cuisine prepared by France-trained Japanese chef Teruo Inoue and served Japanese kaiseki style, in a converted former geisha house on the banks of the Pontocho river in Kyoto. One of the best and most memorable dining experiences of my life.
–San Francisco: Gary Danko
–my first time at this legendary place and every course was extraordinary in presentation, taste, texture – the kind of creatively conceived, masterfully modulated, savorily sensual, entirely fulfilling meal that makes you remember why eating out matters.
–Cusco, Peru: Inkaterra La Casona
–I loved this gracious colonial-house-converted-into-a-hotel from the moment I saw that its doorway bore no sign; it looked like a private house and I had to knock on the door to be let into the lobby – but what really sold me on the place was the weary night when I slumped into a chair in the elegant restaurant and asked the waiter if the chef could just prepare me a really hearty Peruvian-style soup. It wasn’t on the menu, but he kindly concocted the soup of my dreams – robust, full of fresh-from-the-market vegetables – a homemade bowl of heaven, replete with warm, thick, crusty peasant bread, from a place that truly felt like my Peruvian home.
Going here reminded me of what it’s like to be a timid first-time traveler, worried about doing something foolish, like drinking the finger bowl liquid, or that the best parts of the experience will be denied you because you don’t know how to ask for them, or that you’ll get stuck with all kinds of hidden costs. In the name of full disclosure, I should also say that my husband and I were just coming off of a ridiculous, explosive fight, spawned by his insistence on driving to Spa Castle (I always take the subway), then refusing to pull over for directions when we got lost. Embodying a tired punchline sucks but there’s comfort in knowing that anyone who’s traveled with a romantic partner should relate. Did I mention that it was his birthday? And that I’m the one with the mania for pursuing unfamiliar dishes served in out of the way locations? He would’ve been content with a nice meal in our neighborhood.
I’m still not sure he preferred grilling strips of pork belly on a convex grill set into our table over say, Steak Frites at Bar Tabac, but it was delicious, and filling. The novelty of the food and our surroundings provided ample conversational fodder to speed the recovery from the many harsh words unleashed earlier in the day. Our waitress, who spoke Spanish and Korean but very little English, snipped homemade kimchi into bite-size pieces with scissors and showed us how to cook and eat the meat. A big TV in the corner broadcast an Asian newsmagazine-type program concerning, if what I gleaned is accurate, a therapist’s attempt to teach the parents of an autistic child how to not resort to violence when everybody was approaching the ends of their tethers. I remember consuming a lot of chili-marinated bean sprouts, while various family members occupied the table across from us, doing homework and dealing with giant mounds of raw produce. (We’d arrived in that nether hour between lunch and dinner) There were only four items on the menu, not counting bibimbap which could be added to any order for $1.99. Actually, there was no menu, just a sign listing the four items. Were I to go back, and I’d like to, I would endeavor to bring another couple, preferably of jolly disposition and expansive palate. We could order BBQ pork and beef intestines in addition to the Sam Gyup Sal, and maybe even laugh about how I virtually ruined Greg’s birthday by taking him to Spa Castle.
• Jim Benning
Bratwurst and sauerkraut in Berlin
It wasn’t that the food itself was extraordinary–it was at an otherwise forgettable diner–but I was happy to have just arrived in Germany, and I was famished, and I’d ducked into this place from the cold. The bratwurst and sauerkraut were earthy and tart and sweet, served up from a busy kitchen, by a woman who was juggling a dozen orders from locals on lunch break. It was just an ordinary meal. And yet it warmed me up, hit the spot and reminded me in the most elemental of ways that I wasn’t in California anymore.
• Andrew McCarthy
Actor; director; travel writer; winner of the 2010 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Travel Writer of the Year.
Earlier this year I made a batch of popcorn. It was tight and firm, lightly buttered and perfectly salted. It ruined me. I’ve made at least two dozen batches since, but none have approached the texture or flavor of that bowl. I’m afraid I’ll never pop corn again.
• Jessie Sholl
My best meal of the last year was in fact a week of feasting in Tokyo. I’d recently been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an incurable and potentially debilitating autoimmune disease; unwilling to accept my diagnosis, I tried everything to reduce the inflammation in my joints. Since fish oil is a natural anti-inflammatory and miso is nutrient-packed, in Tokyo I gorged myself on sushi and miso soup-with the occasional irresistible steaming bowl of ramen. By the end of the trip all of my joints felt better and my knuckles were visibly less swollen. I’ve continued to get better and I can’t help but credit the week of meals in Tokyo with getting my recovery started.
Read the sequel: “Where They Ate in 2010, Part II: The Ensnackening.”