Where they ate: chefs’ and food/travel writers’ best meals of 2011, part II

I ate well this year. Maybe better than any other year. I spent a week in Hoi An, Vietnam eating cau lau–an obscure noodle dish that technically can only be made in the small coastal town. I ate my way through Barcelona, dining at restaurants whose chefs had a connection to the recently closed elBulli. I ate all kinds of offal at Incanto in San Francisco. I finally got to eat Ethiopian cuisine in Ethiopia. I had a four-hour meal at Degustation in Prague, where chef Oldrich Sehajdak is re-inventing Czech cuisine. And, here in New York, I was fortunate enough to eat at places like Le Bernardin, the Breslin, Riverpark, GastroArte, and Gramercy Tavern, among many other meals.

But I’m not the only one who spent the year digesting delicious grub. Part II of the annual “where they ate” round-up picks up where the first installment left off.• Homaro Cantu
Executive Chef, moto & iNG and host of Future Food (Chicago, IL)

EL Ideas in Chicago is an amazing BYOB tasting menu concept that is run entirely by Chef Philip Foss and Chef Andrew Brochu, who are true culinary perfectionists.

Del Posto in New York, Mario Batali’s fine dining flagship restaurant. was one of my best dining experiences of 2011; taleggio filled pasta with white truffles; ‘Nuff said.

Burt Katz is the “godfather of Chicago deep dish.” It’s an art in a pizza and it’s always perfect.

• Julia Cosgrove
Editor-in-Chief, AFAR magazine

After a friend’s wedding in Turkey this summer, I spent six days roaming around Istanbul. One afternoon, I dragged my travel companions–a German, a Turk, and two New Yorkers–to Ciya Sofrasy in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the Bosporus. Everyone was cranky and hungry by the time we found it, but I knew the second we walked in, the trek was worth it. The chef, Musa Daðdeviren, comes from eastern Turkey, and his dishes reflect the diverse traditions of the region. We shared many small plates we picked from the counters at the front: fresh salads flavored with seeds and unusual herbs, stewed beans, perfectly tender eggplant, Turkish meatballs, and hot pide bread. For dessert, we tried candied pumpkin, which had a taffy-like texture like nothing I’ve ever tasted. I could eat there everyday.
In Cairo for the premier AFAR Experiences event, our group ate dinner at Abou El Sid, a traditional Egyptian restaurant in Zamalek. I sat down at a table filled with Egyptians, and our three-hour-long feast commenced. We ate platters of lentils, babaghanoug, tahini, foul (a fava bean dish), and lamb kofte. And those were just the mezes! Then came molokheya (a bright green soup made with molokheya leaves), stuffed pigeon, and koshari, my favorite combination of rice, lentils, and fried onions. My new Egyptian friends chided me into trying the dessert-om aly, a sticky and sweet casserole of phyllo dough, milk, and nuts.
To send off a friend moving to New York, a group of four of us tried everything on the menu at Plum, Daniel Patterson’s new restaurant in Oakland, California. Vegetables and grains have never tasted better or more surprising, and I’m still thinking about the rich dashi broth with yuba and mushrooms, as well as a dessert that is best described as a deconstructed Mint It’s It. The interior is earthy and woodsy, and the location, up the street from the classic Paramount Theater and a few blocks from Gold Teeth Master, is quintessential Oakland.

• Joe Diaz
Co-founder of AFAR magazine

Park Avenue Winter (New York City): A brilliant concept and one in which the restaurant is stripped down to its barebones during a 48-hour period and rebuilt to prepare for the coming season. Four times a year, Chef Kevin Lasko and team transform every detail of Park Avenue to reflect the season. It makes me feel like I’m in synch with the rhythms of the particular time of year, which is rare in our world where we’ve come to expect any food at any time, and during any time of year.

Sotto Mare Gigi’s Oysteria
(San Francisco): Walking into Gigi’s you’re whisked away to the North Beach of the 1970’s. Sit at the bar and strike up a conversation with waitresses who are busy rushing around but will always give it to you straight. If you’re lucky, you might even spot Gigi who in his 70’s still has the party animal inside him. The seafood is basic but fresh and the feel leaves you loving the San Francisco of old.

Dinner at the Pyramids: This is one of the most memorable meals of my life. On October 28, 2011 we had our final dinner of AFAR Experiences Cairo at the Pyramids at Giza. Our group of approximately 40 people sat underneath tents overlooking the Pyramids and dining on some of the most delicious foods catered by the Four Seasons Nile Plaza. It’s not everyday that you get to you get to eat with your closest friends looking out at the Pyramids and listening to one of Egypt’s most famous rock bands. Everything came together perfectly that evening and it’s one I’ll never forget.

• Andrew Evans
National Geographic Traveler’s Digital Nomad

A standout favorite for me was Alta Bistro in Whistler, British Columbia. Not even a year old, Alta is the runaway stepchild of some of Whistler’s finer-dining establishments–all that commitment to marvelous local cuisine minus any ski resort stuffiness. Food and drink are created equal here; the drinks menu is a tribute to the historic art of a well-mixed cocktail and the food menu is consistently fun and fresh.

O Thym
was my best meal in a week of eating my way through Montreal. By far the most culinary of Canada’s cities, Montreal kept revealing new surprises and O Thym did it best. I loved the atmosphere, the single oversized chalkboard with the entire menu scrawled out in French, the commitment to French standards in the kitchen, and plucky presentation that would make make Martha Stewart take up bowling instead.

I sniffed out SUNdeVICH just five blocks from my apartment in Washington, DC. Hidden in a back alleyway of Shaw, the one-room cafe is a global sandwich dream: your favorite flavor memories from the road brought to life on bakery-fresh bread. “The Athens” is loaded with tender grilled lamb and fresh Greek tzatziki, the “Berlin” has authentisch bratwurst and sinus-cleansing mustard. No doubt, this is food for the well-traveled and my best home discovery.

• Richie Farina
Sous Chef moto Restaurant and Bravo’s “Top Chef” Season 9 Contestant (Chicago, IL)

Not only is Del Posto one of the prettiest restaurants I have ever dined in, the pork ravioli with a whole white truffle on top was ridiculous.

The Bristol in Chicago is an amazing industry hang out spot, especially on Sunday nights. The pasta is amazing and the meat salad is one of my favorites. Really simple plates.

Coppa in Boston is one of the best places to get charcuterie in Boston, but the calamari pizza is awesome.

• Maria Fontoura
Senior Editor, Men’s Journal

I had one truly standout eating experience in the last year, and while this is perhaps old news in New York, it was at Takashi on Hudson St. in the West Village. The food is yakiniku, a sort of Korean barbecue (in this case by way of Japan) focused on offal. It was a totally transportive experience, just the most fun I’ve had at a restaurant in a long time. The waitress steered us toward the beef tartare, I thought at first because she suspected we couldn’t handle the real down-and-dirty stuff. But I realized after tasting it that I was wrong. It has such richness and depth of flavor and the texture is so unusual, because the meat is sliced in–this will sound disgusting but trust me, is delicious–these wonderfully marbled ropes. And there’s a dish that’s basically a little raw cube of steak, topped with uni, served on a shiso leaf, that is maybe the most perfect bite of food (sorry, Chiquita bananas). My favorite items to grill were the tongue and the sweetbreads. They have some delicious Japanese beers. And for the record we also got some kind of salad, which was very refreshing. In fact, I think I’m going there right now.

• George Mendes
Executive Chef, Aldea (New York City)

The best places I ate at this year were the following:

Townhouse. In Chilhowie VA. Chef John shields is doing fantastic work. Creative, delicious, spot on technique. And he’s foraging in his local hills and mountains

The French Laundry. Yep. After all these years I finally made out there. Just experiencing Chef Keller’s signature dishes at the original restaurant (other than Per Se) was mind blowing. One of my best meals of all time.

• David Muñoz
Executive Chef, DiverXo (Madrid)

Restaurant Aponiente (Cádiz, Spain):
It is absolutely a unique experience and one of the most personal paths we can find nowadays in Spanish cuisine.

Tippling Club (Singapore):
Because of its high creativity and the best “fine dining” in Singapore.

Soto (New York):
Because of its tact and kindness, simplicity, personality and creativity. Absolutely brilliant.

• Paco Roncero
Executive chef, La Terraza del Casino (Madrid), Gastrofestival participant

My favorite culinary experiences in 2011 include a gala dinner for the Elton John Foundation in London. It was very special for all the team preparing the event, and the reason of the dinner (against HIV). I also went to Venue in Hong Kong promoting Spanish Cuisine. We were very proud representing Spain and promoting Spanish cuisine.

• Sarah Rose
Author of For All the Tea in China

In Hawaii, on my first jetlagged morning, I had Vinha D’Alhos and pork fried rice at the Koa Pancake House in Kaneohe on Windward Oahu. Hawaii is the world capital of amazing pork. And it is authentic fusion, from every Pacific culture and colonial time period–Vinha D’Alhos is Portuguese-spiced pork (“The Meat of Wine and Garlic”) dating to the arrival of sugar cane workers in the 19th century. The restaurant is paneled in koa wood– gorgeous, rare and outrageously expensive; imagine a greasy spoon paneled in gold. Best breakfast in America that will kill you dead.

Every August I return to the Midwest to eat tomatoes. I’ll have a tomato sandwich for breakfast and lunch (toasted white bread, mayo, Big Boys or Better Boys, salt). Suppers are straight from the garden: potatoes, green beans, beets, sweet corn, and likely another tomato sandwich. August is the best eating month. Hurricane Irene destroyed my CSA’s crop, so that weekend was the last real farm meal I got.

A boyfriend took me to Daniel, Daniel Boulud’s namesake palace in New York. That might have been one of the greatest nights of my life–but we broke up.

In Norway I had 10 different kinds of fish for breakfast while sailing the Hurtigruten through the fjords: four kinds of herring–wine, mustard, tomato and curried; two kinds of mackerel–peppered and tomato. There were sardines too, and sweet anchovies for topping soft-boiled eggs (who knew it was such a flavor marriage?). I tried some unrecognizable fish pate that looked exactly like a can of cat food but tasted much better, I assume. (If cats are eating this well I should rethink my grocery habits.) And there was all the smoked salmon I could eat. It was almost as good as a bris.

• Dan Saltzstein
Assistant Editor, New York Times Travel section

Sadly for me, I barely made it out of the country this year (thanks, Canada!), but that doesn’t mean my year lacked for great meals. Here in my home base of New York City, I had outstanding food at Eleven Madison Park (best dish: a simple roasted eggplant, speckled with bulger wheat and bright, intensely flavorful fresh herbs); Blue Hill at Stone Barns, just north of the city in Pocantico Hills (best dish: farm-fresh egg “carbonara” with thinly sliced squash in place of pasta, and bacon); and Momofuku Ssam Bar, which never fails to please (best dish: an umami-fest of chanterelles with pickled quail egg, marrow and juniper).

• Jiri Stift
Executive Editor at Essensia, Prague, Czech Republic

This year I had the pleasure to spend three weeks in Thailand and it was one big dining experience. I found excellent food in top hotel restaurants like Thai restaurant Le Grand Lanna in Mandarin Oriental Chiang Mai as well as great value for money street restaurants serving traditional Thai and Indian cuisine.

The best dining experience this year I would any way vote lunch in Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. I simply loved the restaurant for its original concept and absolutely superb quality of food.

• Gabriel Stulman
Owner of Fedora, Joseph Leonard, and Jeffrey’s Grocery in New York City

Joe Beef in Montreal: I went here with my wife over our wedding anniversary. Joe Beef is constantly one of my favorite restaurants. We sat at the corner table and had the awesome service of wine and the incredible storytelling and companionship of Dave. A few things stand out from the meal–but most memorably was their take on chicken nuggets: instead they made eel nuggets complete with all the classic dipping sauces of a spicy mustard, bbq sauce, etc but all homemade in the little paper, thimble sized ramekins. The other part of the meal that was ethereal was when they served us a warmed-up round of Epoisses cheese for dessert with caramelized shallots – it was emotional.

At Casa Rufo in Bilbao with friend and partner at Fedora Brian Bartels and my friend and chef at Fedora Mehdi we had the most simple and perfect meal. Casa Rufo is a market/restaurant concept that has been around for 60 years and is still run by the husband and wife team who inherited it from their parents. The menu is simple: croquettes and sardines and jamon for appetizers and an incredible 30-day dry-aged rib eye for three served with homemade French fries and a side salad. The meat was out of sight, perfectly marbled, heavily salted, and expertly cooked on the grill. The kitchen is run by one person 5 days a week. The setting is brilliant and the company the best.

For Jeffrey’s Grocery one-year anniversary my wife and I took out the entire management team for a 15 course tasting menu at Manzo restaurant in Eataly helmed by chef Mike Toscano. Mike’s food makes me smile. He is one of the more talented chefs of Italian food in the city in my opinion. The menu had everything: offal, multiple pastas, fish, meat, foie, cheese course, and on and on and on. A supreme dining experience with the team.

• Greg Sullivan
Co-founder of AFAR magazine

Indigo–a restaurant near the Gateway of India in Mumbai. I had some delicious snapper on their open air rooftop next to the frangipani trees. A real highlight last winter.

The Farm at Cape Kidnappers
in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Incredible views of the rolling hills and the Pacific, wonderful local foods and wines.

Cantina Siciliana
in Trapani, Sicily. Chef Pino Maggiore treated us to traditional Trapanese (?) meal of cuscusu (couscous), sardines and swordfish.

Park Tavern
. I just had another great meal at the new place in my ‘hood – North Beach San Francisco. They had me right off the start with the deviled eggs with jalapeño and I never looked back.