Two months ago I was at the New York Wine & Food festival. I happened to be walking by the main stage – where star chefs had been giving cooking demos all weekend – when the next chef was announced. When Guy Fieri hit the stage, the 200 or so people in the audience roared. They leapt to their feet. They fist pumped to the southern Rock that was blasting from the PA. And I stood there, my mouth agape, wondering when (if ever) will our veneration of chefs ever slow down.
Not that this reverence for food and the people who make it is necessarily a bad thing. But you have to admit, did anyone see this coming two decades ago? (You’re lying if you say yes.) As someone who, um, eats food and also makes a living writing about it, I’m obviously elated with the phenomenon. And there’s nothing more I like than hearing about where chefs eat when they’re not in the kitchen. And so I recently got out my virtual Rolodex and asked some chefs where in the world they had their favorite eating experiences of 2012.
JAMIE BISSONNETTE –
Chef at Toro and Coppa, Boston
- Anniversary Dinner at Clio in Boston. Celebrating with friends and family, and the meal was epic. Former Clio chefs came back to cook alongside Ken Oringer – Sam Gelman, Dave Varley, Alex Stupak, and more. So fun.
- Del Posto, New York City. We ate here on a Friday night before we had to cook a late night event. The tasting menu was seriously amazing. Orechiette with lamb, carrots and harissa, and white truffles, and mind blowing desserts. Brooks, the pastry chef, came to the table to smash Italian cookies into dust all over the table.
- Street food: Vietnam. While travelling in Southeast Asia, I didn’t expect the hospitality I received in Vietnam. While wandering the side streets in Ha Long Bay, I asked a man what he was eating. He guided me to his home, and his son, or brother, was making fried shrimp cakes. He gave me some in a plastic sandwich bag. No charge, complete language barrier, only communicating through pointing and smiling. We could all take a page out of this dude’s book. It was so welcoming.
- Mission Chinese, San Francisco: I got an order “to go” while I was filming in SF. The food has unbelievably bold flavors, and the use of local ingredients, witty verbiage and no pretension just really sets it off. I’m embarrassed I haven’t hit the NYC location.
- Bar Tartine, San Francisco: Everything is on point about this place. The decor, the quality of ingredients, the refined simplicity – it’s amazing how the craft of bread baking finds its way into the savory food, and even the fermentation of some of the specialty drinks. The country loaf alone is the Wagyu beef of sourdough.
- The Optimist, Atlanta: The Optimist is a great example of how everything needs to fit in a restaurant. The dining room looks like a well polished, well produced cover page from Southern Living magazine. The seafood-focused menu is simple and exemplifies how the Atlanta dining scene likes to eat. The name, coming from the owners dads boat or something like that… Is perfect.
- Nam Wah Tea Parlor, New York City: Hidden in NYC Chinatown, Nam Wah is just the perfect place for dim sum. Besides the delicious food, there’s just an amazing old world feel and sense of discovery about the place.
- Recette, New York City: Recette offers amazingly refined food in a small, bistro setting in the Meatpacking District. The tasting menu makes for a perfect date.
- Baia Benjamin, Italy. It is a gem of a restaurant on the beach on the border of France and Italy. The place is magical. You sit on the beach, watching fisherman bring in the daily catch as you dine on perfectly cooked and conceived dishes. The wine list is extensive and complements the experience in every way.
- L’Ami Louis, Paris. The roasted chicken and foie gras terrine are second to none. It’s a tiny joint and nearly impossible to get a reservation but it is worth it just to dine there.
- Bouley Restaurant, New York City. The new incarnation of Bouley on Duane Street is spot-on. David Bouley is back – the restaurant is stunningly beautiful, the food and service are tip-top and it is a great experience from start to finish.
Chef at Torrisi Italian Specialties, Parm, the Lobster Club, and Carbone, New York City
- We were asked in February to go to Melbourne Australia for their food and wine festival. On our last night of a wonderful trip David Chang arranged a dinner for us at a restaurant called Attica. The chef is Ben Shewry. As Rich [Torrisi] and I walked in we realized we weren’t the only ones with the idea of dining there that night. I had never in my life seen a who’s who of chefs and food personalities in one small dining room at one time. At my table with us was, Massimo Bottura [of La Francescana], his right hand man, and David [Chang]. Across from us was Andrea Petrini. Next to him was Corey Lee [of Benu}. In the private dining room was Rene Redzepi [of Noma] with his entourage – just to name a few. I began feeling bad for this poor kid who must have been absolutely shitting himself in the kitchen!! But as we sat down and started to eat, we quickly realized he couldn’t have been more ready. Course after course his style began to reveal itself. An extremely elegant, full-flavored, perfectly executed love story to the food and ingredients of his country. Not a single thing was served in vein. It all had a place and a reason. A canape of a single fried local mussel, as simple as could be, was so delicious Massimo stood up walked right into the kitchen and fired another round for our table. The main course was seared wallaby sitting on a puddle of whipped blood sausage. Stunning! This meal stayed with me all year.
Chef at The Optimist and Oyster Bar, Atlanta
- Minetta Tavern, New York City: As simple as this may be, the Cote de Boeuf at Minetta Tavern is pretty badass. Not only is it a big slab of bone-in ribeye, but the roasted bone marrow and natural jus are so delicious I sopped them up uncontrollably!
- Hen of the Wood, Waterbury, Vermont: I went here with a couple of chef buddies and we ordered every single thing on the menu. It was all fantastic. One of my favorites sounds so simple but it was executed perfectly – new potatoes with crème fraîche.
- Tertulia, New York City: The meal I had here sticks in mind because the flavors of everything we ate were so fresh. One of the best dishes we had was the lamb breast and the Brussels sprouts were phenomenal, too.
Executive chef at The Meatball Shop, New York City
- Masa, New York City: This sushi restaurant offers a one-of-a-kind special experience that can’t be found anywhere else. Chef Masa Takayama is a master and it’s a rare treat to have the master’s hand preparing your food for you.
- State Bird Provisions, San Francisco: Such a cool place! State Bird has figured out how to integrate the kitchen and the dining room with their Western Dim Sum-style restaurant and every bite was inventive and delicious, without being intimidating.
- Alinea @ Eleven Madison Park, New York City – I never had so much fun spending $1000… Part because I was there with my mother and she has wanted to eat at Alinea forever, and part because everything was just so interactive and fun plus tasty and perfectly prepared.
- Conch Shack: Bahamas My most memorable meal was at the Conch Shack while on vacation with my wife in the Bahamas. The conch salad was incredibly hot and took me and my wife Emilie each a 6 pack of beer to get through it.
Chef at Governor, Brooklyn
- My dining experiences in 2012 went to a new level. Having spent much of my time traveling in western countries in my free time, this year introduced me to more authentic parts of countries considered “discovered” like Mexico and a whole new continent, Australia, as well as a lesson in appreciating what is directly in front of me. Opening Gran Electrica with chef Sam Richman was a challenging experience because of my learning curve with Mexican cuisine. His level of knowledge of Mexican food is far beyond the pedestrian level and deeply rooted in historical research paired with an excellent palate. Traveling with him through Mexico City last January led to the discovery of some truly phenomenal dishes. I could easily compile a top-three list of dishes that he reinterpreted for his menu, but will stick with one that we discovered together at a restaurant in Mexico City that specializes in Guadalajaran cuisine: “Aquachiles Rojos,” fresh shrimp marinated in a puree of red chiles, garlic and onions, and finished with a touch of soy, served on a tostada that tasted of fresh griddled corn. The kicker to this dish is the history lesson. Many Chinese immigrants came to Mexico in the early part of the 20th century, and their ingredients have made their way affirmatively in the cuisine.
- The kumara sweet potato dish at Ben Shewry’s Attica outside Melbourne blew me away. The whole experience is incredibly refreshing for the fine dining scene. The ‘gooday’ attitude in Oz will have you loving it straight off the airplane, but everyone in this genre of cooking needs to experience the finesse of friendliness and hospitality executed here. Ben and his team are humping it in a cramped space and the payoff is huge! Having grown up in the South I’ve seen my fair share of sweet potato dishes, but this was next level – not unsurprisingly, coming from Shewry. The dish is composed of a tranche of sweet potato roasted in salt paired with a raw egg yolk, almond and garlic crumble, and finished with a Pyengana cheddar sauce. I don’t really have words to describe it further; it’s just one of those “submit” dishes that blow your mind. These types of dishes challenge you to be better at your craft. It has lingered with me for almost 9 months now.
- My home table. I’m not selling out here for some points with my wife, but she makes my absolute favorite, last meal, meal. As chefs, we are slaves to our work, so much so that we forget to sit down and enjoy a home-cooked meal. This is one of my top three experiences of 2012, whether it happened in February or just last week. It’s just simply cocotte roasted root vegetables and greens over a savory crepe with melted cheddar and a squeeze of lemon juice. I don’t know if it’s the confit garlic that gets me, or the luxury of having her cook for me. It’s always changing shape and is constantly in motion, whether she’s making buckwheat crepes or adding veggies that are more in season here or there. It’s homeopathic and the best meal for emotional and physical rejuvenation. I believe environment influences taste so much, so eating even the most simple meal with someone you love will always be the most rewarding type of dining.
Chef at Commerce, New York City
- I love the twice-cooked pork at Grand Sichuan, on 7th Ave South close to Commerce. I crave this dish often. It is the essence of good Sichuan cooking. The finished dish is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a synergy of pork belly, black beans and fiery Sichuan peppers. Good stuff. At $7 it is a bargain for lunch.
- I frequently find myself thinking about the Ragu Antica at Osteria Morini. Michael White’s pastas are amazing and this dish exemplifies rustic Italian cooking. This version fettuccini Bolognese comes from the soul. I love it.
- Any doughnut from Dough in Bed-Stuy is worth the trek to Brooklyn. These doughnuts are addicting. I discovered them at Smorgasburg and can’t stop. One flavor is better than the next.
- My most recent obsession is the crushed egg with potato and Iberico ham or tosta huevo roto y jamon Iberico at Tertulia. Seamus Mullen has captured the spirit of Spanish tradition in this dish. The tapas-like toast makes you want to order another and have some draft cider, a house specialty.
MELISSA MULLER DAKA
Chef at Eolo, New York City
- Delfina, San Francisco: During a two-day trip to the San Francisco Bay area, my mother and I toured some of the town’s most highly regarded food establishments. On top of my list to try was Delfina, in the Mission district. We saved it for last. It was a chilly autumn Tuesday, and I figured that a table would not be hard to come by. Clearly, I was mistaken. Delfina was a neighborhood favorite and we waited over an hour-and-a-half to be seated. Meanwhile, I observed the simple restaurant decor through a display window from the sidewalk as I wondered if the experience would be worth the wait. The rectangular dining room had a small bar on the right side, tables lined up in a straight line on the left and an open kitchen. The menu at Delfina changes daily, and in line with the other Italian-inspired restaurants I had visited in the area, the offerings included seasonal vegetables such as sunchokes, artichokes and chicory.When the food arrived, it was plated in a rustic style: spiced almonds, brussels sprouts with balsamic and fried garlic chips, bitter puntarelle with an anchovy dressing, a stinging nettle risotto with mushrooms, braised short ribs with creamy polenta and grilled hangar steak with crispy fries. The ingredients were of the utmost freshness and quality, as they were in the other Bay area restaurants we had visited. At Delfina, however, the flavors were combined with such skill that each bite was sublime. A sweet ending came in the form of a luscious vanilla panna cotta served with diced pear and pomegranate. The food was simple, but so carefully prepared and seasoned to perfection. We departed both convinced that the meal was indeed worth the long wait and eager to journey to San Francisco again in a different season, to sample another array of Delfina’s creations.
- Duzan, Queens: It is an understatement to say that owning a restaurant is a full-time job. The job allows for sparse fee time for dining out and often the only restaurants I eat in are those that are open later than my own place. Every week or so, my husband and I venture out to Astoria, Queens, after Eolo closes, to enjoy a shwarma feast at Duzan. Their food is without a doubt, the best I have tasted outside of the Middle East and only a half-an-hour drive from our home in Chelsea. At Duzan, juicy chicken is shaved from layers of meat on a standing rotisserie grill. I normally prefer my shwarma on a platter with rice and salad, while my husband enjoys the meat stuffed inside a fluffy pocket of homemade pita bread. Either way, the creamy sesame seed tahina and dried mango sauce compliment the warm spices used to flavor the chicken. When eating this dish, I first mix the lettuce, raw onions, citrusy sumac and pickled red cabbage with the chicken and rice. The plate turns into a melange of color that is not only delicious to devour, but beautiful to look at. Another part of the enjoyment comes from the unique toasty aromas of the spices and the meat grilling that flow through the dining room. A meal at Duzan is a true feast for the senses.
Chef at Landmarc and Ditch Plains, New York City
- I recently went to Rome and checked out Roma Sparita, an amazing restaurant in Trastevere. It’s a beautiful place, located in the corner of a piazza, next to a church. I ordered the tagliolini cacio e pepe. It was the perfect balance of cheese, cracked pepper and butter. And the best part it comes in a baked Parmesan bowl! Pair that with a glass of red wine and I could die happy! It’s what a true Roman evening feels like.
- Another great dining experience from this year was at Caffe Storico, the restaurant in the New York Historical Society. It’s absolutely beautiful inside. The walls are lined with hundreds of antique plates, golden yellow banquettes, and beaming chandeliers. But the decorations became a backdrop to the food itself. The rabbit porchetta really stole the show. It was creative and absolutely delicious. The flavors were so unique and I can’t wait to go back and order it again.
- I was in a friend’s wedding in Little Rock this fall, but before the wedding, we took a pit stop in Memphis to visit Rendezvous. Their ribs were life altering! Perfectly seasoned and so tender, alongside some local beer, they were like nothing I’ve ever had before. This place has been a southern institution since 1948 and you can feel the history this place has when you’re there – it’s just incredible.
- I love the food scene in New Orleans. It’s thriving with fantastic high-end and mom-and-pop places, where the food is equally good. But one of my most memorable meals there was at Cochon. The fried oyster and bacon sandwich is Cajun food at its best. I went home and immediately ordered Donald Link’s cookbook Real Cajun. I had to have this sandwich again and it’s something I love to try and recreate when I’m craving it and cant get down there.
Executive chef at Metropole, Cincinnati
- Casa Mono, New York City: I went to Casa Mono in January and loved the simple food and the bold, clean flavors.
- Camino, Oakland: I visited Camino in Oakland this past August, and the menu is the epitome of simple food being prepared exactly as it should be. Chef Russell Moore has an extremely refined palette and puts time and passion into each dish that he prepares.
Chef at Beauty & Essex and The Stanton Social, New York City.
- Tar & Roses, Los Angeles: Every time I go to L.A. now, my first stop for dinner is always Tar & Roses. The entire menu is fantastic and since it features many small dishes, each meal always inspires my own cooking. Two of my favorite dishes are the chicken uyster (or sometimes chicken heart) skewers with tamarind and the hamachi collar with a pickled vegetable slaw.
- Bohemian, New York City: This hidden restaurant, located behind a kobe beef butcher on Bond Street, has become my go-to restaurant in New York. It’s Japanese, but aside from a daily sashimi platter, it’s more in the style of izakaya. I can’t get enough of their Steak Tartare, served with bleu cheese toasts, and their fried satsuma sweet potatoes are out of this world.
- Jaleo Vegas, Las Vegas: I’ve always been a fan of Jose Andres and his newest location of Jaleo in The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas never disappoints. Aside from the awesome tapas, The ‘Iberico Secreto’ is just out of this world. From the shoulder this eats like a skirt steak but tastes like a mash-up of dry aged ribeye and sweet, smoky bacon.
Chef at L’Apicio, dell’anima, L’Artusi, and Anfora, New York City
- Colicchio & Sons, New York City: We have been going there for thanksgiving the past three years and each year it gets better. Turkey with all the trimmings is everything you want it to be and we are always blown away by the pasta mid course.
- Uchi, Austin, TX: We went to this sushi spot this past spring and it was one of the best meals we had all year. We put ourselves in the hands of the kitchen and ate like kings.
- Le Philosophe, New York City: A fantastic French bistro on Bond St. between Lafayette and Bowery. We had a fantastic meal with unpretentious but attentive service. I can’t stress enough how good the food is. It’s how all French bistro food should be but is sadly not.
Executive chef at Maison Premiere, Brooklyn
- La Grenouille (NYC): I often feel like everything has been dumbed down in restaurants nowadays. That’s why I love La Grenouille. They have rack of lamb, not neck, or belly. They have Dover sole, not porgy. They have Champagne: Brut or Rose, not prosecco. They have flower arrangements the size of large trees. Everyone speaks French to me. They pour Leroy by the glass. They put down your main course and ask about soufflés. I order a soufflé every time someone asks me, and unfortunately people rarely ask me. I’ve been back three times since, and receive the warmest welcome from Charles, Guillaume, and Brian every time – maybe because I am 30 years younger than every other diner, but I feel at home there.
- Per Se Salon, New York City: Per Se is probably an obvious choice on these lists. I like the salon, it feels very relaxing, and the table in front of the window, which has one of the best views on NYC, is always free. The food is always nice, the service too, but I was so happy about my experience with the sommelier on this particular visit. I asked about a Comte Armand Pommard Grands Epenots 1990. It was $750. He didn’t recommend it, said it was drinking like a much older wine. Instead, he offered a 1993 Clos Vougeot from Jean Jacques Confuron. It was $360. How often does that happen? I was very impressed.
- The American Hotel, Sag Harbor, NY: I’m used to eating in NYC. Occasionally Paris, London and San Francisco. I’m used to those prices. I found myself at a table in Long Island, with no idea what to expect. They had pigeon on the menu. I always order pigeon. My friend also always orders pigeon, so when the waiter came back to inform us that they had only 1 left, but could offer us grouse in place, we were thrilled. Who has grouse anymore? We drank extraordinarily well at prices that could only exist outside of big dining towns. A 1983 Vega Silicia Unico for $300, Bonneau de Martray Corton 1999 for $80 and on and on. And you can eat and drink until you pass out, all the way upstairs.
Chef at Proof on Main, Louisville
- Holeman and Finch Public House, Atlanta: Probably one of the best meals I’ve had all year was at Holeman and Finch Public House in Atlanta Georgia. I just loved the genuine feel and unobtrusive hospitality of the place. And let’s not forget the food! I must have shared at least 18 courses with a friend! Each course as delicious as the next and some of my favorite combinations (shrimp salad roll with bacon, Veal brains with black butter, whole roasted fish). Chef Linton Hopkins and team really hit all points of a superb dining experience.
- The Freezer, Old Homosassa, FL: I had heard about this place after asking some locals where the secret spot was. I was guaranteed an epic meal of the freshest seafood in a more than relaxed, backwoods vibe. There was one catch, finding the place. It’s as if my GPS was in on the secrecy as it took me a few attempts to find the old fish-packing house converted into tiki bar/ restaurant. When I finally did find this central Florida gem I knew I had found something quite special! The dining room consists of an old industrial walk in freezer with one wall taken out and a wrap-around patio/ tiki bar put in its place. It sits on the inlets of the gulf of Mexico and you can literally watch your dinner being hauled in. Uber relaxed and more than casual, I ended up visiting the freezer so much during my stay that the owners sent me off with a 5-pound bag of stone crab claws and an invitation to come back as soon as possible. My go-to meals there were: peel and eat shrimp (by the 1.25 or the 2.5 pound!), smoked local mullet dip (served with your own sleeve of saltines and some hot sauce), crawfish and of course Stone crab claws the size of my fist!).
Chef at Marea, Nicoletta, Ai Fiori, and Osteria Morini, New York City
- Roadside stand outside of Nice making poulet roti sandwiches, next to a bread bakery. The sandwich man gets the bread from the bakery. His stand has a rotating spit with roasted chickens turning on it. He dunks the bread into the chicken jus/fat that is collected under the roasting chickens. He also roasts potatoes under the roasting chickens so they are basting in the fat but crisping in the heat. The sandwich is dunked bread, smashed chicken fat roasted potatoes and chopped chicken.
- Le Louis XV, Monte Carlo: For the 25th anniversary of the restaurant, I had artichoke toast, puree of artichoke, roasted bone marrow, sea salt, crispy artichokes; octopus carpaccio, periwinkles, lemon, fennel brunoise, rucola; and roasted monkfish cheeks, porcini, bordolaise, bone marrow toast.
- In New York City I enjoyed the ribeye for two at Perla, the shellfish tower at the NoMad, the ribeye at Red Farm, chips with queso fundido con chorizo and guacamole at El Toro Blanco.
[Photo by David Farley]