Where they ate: chefs’ and food writers’ best meals of 2011, part I

For an increasingly large sector of humanity, eating has become more than just stabbing at something with a fork, putting it in our mouths and masticating. Chefs are perceived as rockstars, the food blog-o-sphere is inhaling Miracle Grow, and eating has been given a kind of reverence usually reserved for sex and spirituality. If there’s anything that sums up where we’re at as an eating species right now, it’s this: we’re rhapsodizing about Danish cuisine.

Not that this is a bad development. After all, a couple decades ago, in the United States you had to go to a specialty shop to get olive oil. Not surprisingly, when I did the first annual “Where they ate” in 2010 (here and here), it went viral. We want to know where food writers and chefs are eating and then we want to eat there too. Or at least eat vicariously through them.

So, without further ado, after the jump and in alphabetical order: where the ate: chefs’ and food writers’ best meals of 2011, part I.

• Alexander Basek
Travel and food writer, co-founder of Fortnighter

Zahav in Philadelphia. Michael Solomonov continues to absolutely kill it, and was justly lauded this year for his efforts. His Israeli restaurant in Society Hill is so enjoyable from the moment you walk in (and they fire the pita bread for your table as you do, often with Chef Solomonov in front of the oven doing it himself) to the house-ground spices to the insane lamb shoulder cooked for three days with pomegranate and chickpeas, it totally upended my opinion of Middle Eastern food. Also it’s probably the only place I’ll order Jordanian wine.

Van Horn sandwich shop. Had lunch with my girlfriend and established that the BLT and fish sandwiches are two of the best things you could possibly order in the city, all the more so by hunkering down on a cold, blustery day. Van Horn is ever so quietly turning out some of the best Southern items in the city where you’d least expect it.

• Michael Ferraro
Executive Chef, Delicatessen & MacBar (New York City)

This year, one of the most memorable meals I had was at Tapas24 in Barcelona from Chef/ Owner Carles Abellan. With a mission to eat my way through Barcelona, we sat at the bar and started the meal with local beer from the tap. We told the servers behind the bar that we were open to anything and to serve us whatever the chef recommends, which turned out to be all the right choices. At Tapas24 we experienced simplicity done to perfection with every little plate. Just to name a few of the dishes we had were baby octopus that were so sweet they barely needed anything but a drizzle of fine Spanish olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of squid ink and coarse sea salt. Another simple but amazing dish that we had were these little tiny fried local fish that again were simply perfect all alone, but we enjoyed them a top of crisp bread with tomato puree and olive oil. The dishes continued for about 2 hours, one just as amazing as the last, as did the local beer and Rioja.

As you walk in the door of Salumeria Roscioli in Rome the smell of perfectly cured meats takes you over. The front is an amazing bakery/delicatessen/wine bar and the back is the restaurant. While reviewing the menu we enjoyed a perfect negroni and snacked on a sampling of Italian breads that came from the Roscioli bakery that has been operative since 1824. Our first course consisted of an array of antipasti, house made burrata with slow roasted cherry tomatoes and baby artichoke, a selection of house cured meats followed by the pasta courses. This is where I experienced some of the best octopus I’ve ever tasted. In typical Italian fashion the table did not turn very much around us or we never felt rushed, everyone truly enjoyed their meal and the company they were with just a did.

• Gabriella Gershenson

Senior Editor, Saveur magazine

When I was reporting this month’s Saveur article on bûche de Noël, I tried the latest Atelier de Joël Robuchon restaurant in Paris, called Etoile, which refers to its location on the Champs Elysées, one of the streets that spin off the axis of the Arc De Triomphe like a star. I’ve heard otherworldly things about Robuchon in Paris for years, and I was eager to experience it for myself. When I arrived with my mother, who was traveling with me, we were seated at the end of a long bar. The restaurant is well known for fusing bar seating and haute cuisine, so the experience feels swift and contemporary, rather than the needlessly drawn out ceremony that fine dining can be.

Then, the magic began. We were waited on by a parade of 4 or 5 young French men, each good looking in his way, each eager to please. One fellow talked to us about our visit so far, another about what’s especially good on the menu. They’d take their time making recommendations, engaging in polite chitchat, presenting-with the utmost seriousness-one beautiful glass of wine after another, rotating in and out of their duties like gears in a clock. One of my secret pleasures of dining is the flirtation that comes with it; the opportunities for eye contact, the giving and receiving, the artificial relationship that comes as a result of somebody’s job being to serve you. I fell in love with every single one of them.

The food we ordered was exquisite-a potato salad with black truffle slivers, tender leaves of arugula, and shavings of cool foie gras torchon; bite-sized pieces of glistening jamon iberico; beads of caviar trapped in lobster gelée, lavished with cauliflower cream; a melting lobe of seared foie gras with sweet bits of sautéed apple; tender chops of Italian milk-fed lamb; a carnivorous puck of zesty steak tartare with hot salted French fries. I often hear about people’s amazing meals, where each bite goes straight to your soul. This was one of those meals. And combined with the wine and the attention, it was a pure aphrodisiac.

This was all wonderful, except I was sitting next to my mother, so it was also embarrassing. Each visit from a charming server or sommelier, each sip of stunning wine, each bite of gorgeous food, brought me closer to the edge. I can’t speak for my mom, who was reeling from her own gastronomic epiphanies, but I felt like a sausage whose casing was about to burst (phallic imagery for a woman, but that’s how I felt). Eventually I just averted my eyes, shifting in my seat so I wouldn’t be facing my mother while I was navigating my sensual overload. In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing we didn’t have time to stay for dessert.

• Jonathan Gold
Restaurant Critic, LA Weekly

I have this thing: I don’t eat eggs. They fill me with terror, etc., although I cook them for my family almost every day. But I was in Noma, a restaurant on the Copenhagen waterfront that is considered the best restaurant in the world at the moment. And the center of a meal there, the moment the rest of this extraordinary procession of Nordic foodstuffs is anticipating, is a wild duck egg, gathered that morning, fried right in front of you on a hot iron skillet with hay oil, goat butter and a handful of wild garlic leaves also gathered just before service. And I failed it–the best fried egg in the world is still a fried egg. Shame? Regret? Surprise at the deep, slightly marine taste of the bright yolk? Something.

• Sara Jenkins

Chef/owner of restaurants Porchetta and Porsena (New York City)

I can’t tell you where this is but just that it was the sort of old fashioned Roman restaurant that I thought didn’t exist anymore. In a slightly out-of-center yet still historic area this was a large restaurant where surprise of all surprises we actually were the only non-Italians in the room, a concept I thought was impossible. The large rustic tables and decor were matched by a classic menu of Roman food, a cuisine which more often reflects the working-class tastes of Rome’s majority rather than the elevated tastes of the decidedly non-working clergy. To begin with exquisite mozzarella served with prosciutto as it was not tomato season, cacio e peppe, rigatoni w/ pajata (lamb or veal esophagus w/ undigested mothers milk) an exquisite parmigiana di gobbi (cardoons) and then the mother of all Roman dishes which I have never been able to unlock the key to, abbachio with potatoes roasted in the lamb fat dripping but with a uniquely soft texture, every cell of the cooked potato reeking of lamb fat. To end strawberries with lemon and sugar which weren’t in season either but were still delicious!

Porchetta sandwich at a butchers in Bevagna, Umbria. As the owner of Porchetta I feel it is my duty to eat as much porchetta as I can when visiting Italy just so I can make sure I remember what its supposed to be. In recent years however I am sad to say that the environment usually blows away the product. Like everything else the truck stands I loved as a child seem to have become industrialized shadows of their former selves. The bread is dry and tasteless the porchetta even more so. But stumble into the dark butcher shop in Bevagna where the ceiling is covered with house-made hams, guanciale, pancetta and lonzo and in the back behind the case is a glorious porchetta. The skin is crisp and crackly, the tender moist meat perfumed with all the aromatics that it was stuffed with, sliced thick with ample pieces of crisp skin its placed into bread from stone ground wheat fired in a wood fired oven. This is where the inspiration comes from, this is what it used to be and this is still something for me to strive to reach.

New England’s classic fried clams used to be good everywhere but its more of a search these days. At this fry shack on the tidal inlet of the Bagaduce river in Brooksville, Maine the clams are perfect, salty briny and encased in the perfect amount of crispy shell. I can never decide whether to go for a combo of fried seafood, (haddock, scallops, clams) or just straight up clams. You sit down at a picnic table and take in the scenery, the beautiful water, blue skies, pine forests all around and for a minute you think you could just about stay forever

• Paul Liebrandt

Executive Chef, Corton (New York City)

For me the best dinning experience over the past year would have to be restaurant Pujol in Mexico City. The chef, Enrique Olvera, is a friend of mine. The meld of classic and non-classic Mexican cuisine is simply beautiful: green mole sauce with smoked bass and charred onion petal is one example.

Second would be Agape Substance in Paris, My old sous chef David Toutain is a genius and the style of the cuisine is so pure and simple.

• Greg Morabito

Features Editor, Eater New York

My most memorable meal of 2011 was at Romera, the wacky and absurdly expensive Manhattan restaurant from Spanish neurosurgeon-turned-chef Dr. Miguel Sanchez Romera. I went with a group of fellow food writers, all of us ready to tear the place apart based on what we’d heard about the “flavored water” pairings and cryptic “menu cards.”

The windowless, clinically white dining room was mostly empty that night, and the stereo was playing what sounded like the Twin Peaks soundtrack, if the hi-fi had been submerged in Vaseline.

But once the food arrived, it was impossible to be snarky. Of the eleven courses we sampled that night, eight of them were fantastic, and the rest were wonderfully odd. Most remarkable was a plate of 49 tiny, precise squares of powdered herbs and spices (we counted), topped with fresh micro-greens, and then a light bouillon, poured tableside. As we dragged our spoons through the sludge, the dish turned into a vibrant vegetable stew. I’ve never had anything like it, and I don’t think I’ll have anything like it again.

• Eric Ripert
Executive Chef/Co-owner, Le Berndardin (New York City)
In Cambodia I tried a great roadside dish—it was a sticky rice in bamboo. Every day I went visiting the temples of Ankor Wat with my driver and guide and we would take a break in the afternoon and get this dish at a roadside stand. The rice is cooked in coconut milk inside a piece of roasted bamboo. It then continues to cook over charcoal or wood at the roadside stands. It is the ultimate snack. I just loved it. Sweet, sticky, smoky and delicious. I literally had to get some everyday.

Whenever I go to New Orleans I am compelled to get beignets from Café du Monde. I always make sure to get them when they are just out of the oil and very fresh. And then I get amused by the exorbitant amount of powdered sugar they put on them. I eat them walking in the street and usually make the mistake of doing so when I’m wearing a dark colored shirt and end up covered in sugar.

Last June I went back to the legendary restaurant La Tour d’Argent where I had my first job in 1982. I had the pike quenelles which were perfect and amazing. It was so nostalgic for me, I was so happy to be in that timeless and beautiful restaurant and having a dish that tasted even better than what I remembered when I made it as a cook so many years ago.

• Ben Roche

Pastry Chef, moto, Chicago, IL

The best dining experience of 2011 was definitely elBulli. It was a five-hour meal, 40 something courses, the most amazing location, beautiful dining rooms, more cozy and warm than extravagant or fancy. That restaurant changed “restaurants” and their chefs, Chef Ferran and Chef Albert Adria, are arguably the most influential chefs I have ever come across. The restaurant is unfortunately now no longer open.

• Alyssa Shelasky
Editor of New York magazine’s Grub Street, food blogger and author of forthcoming book Apron Anxiety

Making my last deadline for the book was brutal. I went days without sleep, food intake was little to none, and my levels of stress and self-doubt were actually scaring me. But eventually, I had to hit SEND. And four seconds after I did, I threw a blazer over my pajamas and walked down the block to Almondine, where the baker was just taking the almond croissants out of the oven. I didn’t even know I liked almond croissants (I always go for chocolate-involved pastries), but I had to have one. I ordered a café au lait, and took my croissant and coffee around the corner to the beachfront in Dumbo. Like a strung-out zombie, I inhaled every last crumb, staring into the water, slowly coming back to life, and NOTHING has tasted better.

My first day at Grub Street really freaked me out. I hadn’t had an “office job” in years and felt really overwhelmed by the pace, the system, the scene…When I finally escaped for the day, I started walking home from Tribeca towards Brooklyn. Starving and shell-shocked, I picked up my first banh mi–because I felt like I had to eat things like that now that I was officially a “food blogger.” It was a corned beef banh mi (which is kind of cheating, but whatever) at Mangez Avec Moi on W. Broadway and I ate it while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, taking in the fresh air, and literally moaning over what I was tasting. That banh mi was the best sandwich of my life, and the beginning of a new career and perspective on food.

After a particularly draining week, my sister and I decided to get dressed up and go to a fancy restaurant. She’s a very simple eater (Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese has been her favorite since childhood), so we’ve never really gone “all out” for a meal. We booked a table at Corton, and wore pretty dresses and dabs of perfume, and when we got there, we were immediately transported into this fantasyland of champagne, foie gras, truffles, and all these ingredients and flavors that she’s never experienced, and I’m not that accustomed to. We both felt so radiant and the food was so beautiful. I kept looking at us, all grown-up, swirling our wine, tasting exceptional things, as close as ever…it was truly one of the best nights of my life.