Where They Ate: Food Writers’ Favorite Eating Experiences Of 2012

I get annoyed with myself when I eat a bad meal – especially at a restaurant. And even more so when I’m traveling. Such a waste of time and money and calories, I think. Yes, these are first-world problems but frustrating nonetheless.

Rather than meditate on the meals we’d prefer to forget, let’s remember the ones we want to stick with us; the ones we wish wouldn’t end; the one’s we’d travel halfway around the globe to savor again.

This is the third year in a row I’ve asked chefs and food writers to compile their favorite meals of the previous year. (Read 2011 part 1 and part II and 2010 part I and part II.) I had such an overwhelming response this year, I broke the post into two. First chefs and now food writers.

Here are some of my favorite food writers’ most memorable meals of 2012 (in alphabetical order).

In 2012 I had the first of many doughnuts from Dough in Bed-Stuy. Dough makes yeast doughnuts – crisp, pillowy wonders that cool from their fryer bath for mere minutes before you hold them in your hands. They’re dusted with cinnamon and sugar, or dipped in delectably tart glazes made with crushed berries, hibiscus flowers, blood oranges or lemon and poppy seeds. I’m still amazed that this much happiness costs just two dollars and change.

Although I’ve been enjoying the artisanal food truck boom in my hometown of New York, the finest lunch I’ve had from a kitchen on wheels was in Orange County, CA. at Taco Maria. The menu takes a sophisticated spin on tacos and burritos, making it possible to enjoy a three-course meal in a parking lot. Everything we had was amazing, from the arrachera taco with tender hanger steak, caramelized onions, applewood bacon and a charred shishito pepper; to the jardineros burrito with roasted pumpkin, black beans and cotija; down to the salad, agua fresca and the heavenly flan.

I haven’t yet braved the wait for dinner at Mission Chinese Food on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but the lunch service is relatively speedy whenever I’m craving a midday flavor bomb. The thrice-cooked bacon with rice cakes, tofu skin and bitter melon will leave you in quite a state – numb lips, sweaty brow and a poorly-timed food coma coming on fast. I should add that it’s totally worth it.

Senior Editor at Saveur magazine

My most memorable meal this year was the bacchanal that extended from New Year’s Eve until New Year’s day, 2011/12. I was with my friends Dan and Tom in London, and we had made plans to see in the New Year at a rental cottage in Dorset with their friends, a couple named Issy and Toby. We met them at a train station outside of the city, and when Issy, with her mouth full of some snack from Marks & Spencers, said “Y’want some?” through a bolus of chocolate, I knew we would be good friends.

It turns out Issy had grand designs for New Year’s dinner, which also happened to be the eve of Dan’s birthday. She was going to make Julia Child’s boeuf bourgignon, and start off with a prawn cocktail. A prawn cocktail in British English, it turns out, are shrimp cloaked in French salad dressing served over lettuce, not a steakhouse style shrimp cocktail at all. As they say in England, it was lovely. I offered to make a trifle for dessert, one that had recently appeared on the cover of Saveur, because it was made with syllabub and seemed British. We went shopping for provisions at Waitrose, one of the greatest supermarkets on Earth, and Issy again won me over by digging into a packet of smoked sausages before we got to the register, asking, between chews, “Y’want some?”

For my trifle, I bought British things that I had never bought before: Lyle’s Golden Syrup for the ginger sponge layers, ready-made Waitrose brand custard (which was really more like a crème anglaise and thus the wrong consistency for a trifle – oops), and everything else that I needed for the other baking I had planned, including “wholemeal flour” (British for whole wheat) for the jammy dodgers (British for jam thumbprints) that I would make the next day for Dan.

When we got back to the cottage after going to four liquor stores in search of sherry for the syllabub, Issy, whose mission it seemed was to ensure that our mouths were never empty for more than ten minutes at a time, toasted some crumpets in the oven and topped them with loads of butter and aged cheddar cheese. I will never forget how that crumpet seeped butter onto the paper towel she gave it to me on. It was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, and I still long for another. Nothing holds, and releases, butter quite like a crumpet.

While Issy napped in the afternoon, I made the components of the trifle. When she awoke, she put Julia Child on YouTube and made the boeuf bourgignon according to her instructions. Like Julia, she made fast and boisterous work of the dish.

Then we ate. As I write this, as good as the food was, I realize it was the activity around the meal that was really the best part. The next morning, we ate fresh scones that I had made the dough for the night before, and nibbled jammy dodgers in honor of Dan while watching Mildred Pierce and Sherlock on BBC. If I ever felt like I was living in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” or “Four Weddings and Funeral,” those two days were it. Only these people were real, and during that brief period, I had made a wonderful new friend. What’s more, I was relieved that, for once, someone thought more about food than I did. With Issy around, I knew I’d always be fed.

Editor at Eater NY

My single best meal of 2012 was at Legend in Chelsea with about 13 other people last February. We consumed maybe 35 plates that evening, plus about five rounds of Tsing Tao. The food just did not stop coming out. Eggplant with garlic was a huge favorite, and the comforting “fish soup” was the star of the show. Outstanding. With a big tip, dinner cost us $40 each.

My second best meal of 2012 was at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria just last month. Chef Justin Smillie knows how to create totally original dishes out of classic Italian ingredients and techniques, and his menu has a lot of variety. Make sure to try the panna cotta with aged balsamic.

Contributing Editor, Food Republic

2012 was a big travel year, so I fell off on following the NYC opening scene at bit. Though, Seersucker in Brooklyn is always doing exciting things with seafood. I went there a lot.

In January, I was in Melbourne and blown away with the degustation lunch at Vue de Monde (wagyu beef, rose petal, anchovy dust, booyah) and the cumin cauliflower at Huxtable in Fitzroy. Down the road in Sydney, Momofuku Seiōbo felt nothing like a David Chang restaurant. The fried egg, presented as egg custard, was one cool trick.

In London, the Young Turks plied us with blood orange Negronis and dry-aged beef rib tartare dotted with oyster aioli. Pop-ups aren’t supposed to be this polished. On a similar tip, the nice guys at Catbird Seat in Nashville plied us with Fernet and cooked their asses off. Think deconstructed cheese plate. Deconstructed hot chicken.

I got to spend a couple hours at Noma in Copenhagen and had a couple of bites of staff meal. Simple vegetable pasta and chocolate-covered frozen bananas. René and Nils run one of the friendliest, warmest kitchens around.

I just finished writing a guidebook for Korean restaurants in New York City, which took me all over the place (60 in total). The best, hands down, was Myung San in the Auburndale section of Queens. I found a great cheonggukjang jjigae – a fermented bean curd soup that makes the restaurant smell like a cat shelter. It’s wonderful.

Assistant Editor, New York Times travel section

Recette, NYC – This cozy spot in the West Village was a terrific surprise. I expected a nice meal and got a pretty flawless tasting menu of great character from chef Jesse Schenker. It was late summer, so no surprise that the highlight was a very summery corn soup with crab-stuffed squash tempura.

Mission Chinese Food, NYC – Surprise! Just kidding. Everyone loves this place, and rightly so. Yes, the wait is ridiculous and yes, they pack diners in like sardines, but Danny Bowien isn’t screwing around. The best of many good dishes was the brisket with sesame-flavored Chinese broccoli. The funny thing is that I had forgotten we had ordered the brisket and the dish arrives as a big pile of Chinese broccoli. So I looked up at my dining companion and said something like “this is great Chinese broccoli.” “Look under it,” he said. Glistening pieces of brisket were revealed – best brisket, in fact, I think I’ve ever had. (Sorry, Mom.)

The Grove, Toronto – A really fun hyper-Anglophile spot that opened this year. Our meal was, as they say across the pond, awesomesauce. Our favorite dishes were probably the parsley root (!) soup with snails and bacon, and a lovely plate of celeriac dumplings, hen of the wood mushrooms, garnished with truffle, duck egg and watercress.

Author of “Apron Anxiety: My Messy Affairs in and out of the Kitchen

I had the pleasure of eating and drinking my way through Burgundy this fall. The most memorable meal – of many – was at the 3-Michelin starred Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu. The chef who took over for the late Loiseau, Patrick Bertron, swept me away. The meal was lavish, yet light, and the Burgundian cheese plate – staring Époisses, of course – is something I will truly never forget. Absolute enchantment.

I was in Rome alone. My food writer friend suggested I try a chic roman wine bar called Ai Tre Scalini in Monti because I was staying in a 70-euro room/coffin across the street. A little drowsy and disoriented, I planted myself at the bar around 5 p.m. with a Negroni. Needless to say, I stayed there for ten hours. I made friends, fell in love, inhaled the carbonara and later, the polpette in sugo, drank a lot of red wine and cold Italian beer … I never wanted that night to end.

When I’m nervous, I cannot eat. So the days leading up to my book launch were anything but satiating. However, the day after the launch, I felt like I could breath again. And I was ferociously STARVING. My friends picked me up in a car (a treat in itself!) and we all went to SriPraPhai for a meal, which turned into an outrageous, over-the-top feast. I let it all go, and completely enjoyed myself. Ahhh!

The Yellow Table

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat one more bite, the pork trotter arrived. Wrapped in bacon, and glistening with a Bourbon maple glaze, the roasted pig’s foot – in all its cloven glory – was ceremoniously presented to us on a white platter. Filled with an earthy foie gras and prune stuffing, the dish could have easily fed eight. There were three of us at the table. The trotter was course number five of the evening, and had been preceded by a host of pork-inspired delicacies: crispy fried pig ears with chili and lime, coffee-and-tobacco rubbed pork belly (served with tender boudin noir and apple beignets), cornmeal-pumpkin waffles topped with mole-smothered pulled pork, a corned pig tongue terrine, thinly sliced pastrami-spiced pork loin, and a surprisingly delicious blood and rye bread pudding. Moderation, as you might gather, was not on the menu.

It was October, and I had traveled to Nantucket for American Seasons‘ annual Hogtoberfest. Though I wouldn’t call myself a glutton, this two-day celebration of pork, beer, and sustainable farming – culminating in a six-course Whole Hog dinner – sounded like a great way to spend a weekend. The brainchild of Chef Michael LaScola of American Seasons, and Chef Matt Jennings of Farmstead in Providence, R.I., Hogtoberfest began four years ago as a boisterous pig-themed feast at LaScola’s restaurant. The festival grew, as the duo added butchering demos and charcuterie-and-beer tastings, and it has given them a platform to share their passion for whole-animal butchering and nose-to-tail eating.

The day before the dinner, I watched LaScola and Jennings break down a 240-pound Nantucket-raised pig using a saw and a boning knife. They explained multiple ways to use nearly every single part of the animal, with the exception of the eyeballs and a few tiny glands in the leg. As they pointed out, farmers don’t raise pork loins, they raise whole animals. Though pig’s brains (or tongues, ears, or feet that matter) had never been on my list of must-try items, LaScola’s and Jenning’s enthusiasm was contagious – I was determined to try everything they put in front of me.

Which brings me back to the roasted trotter. Having met the pig the day before, I felt it would be a disservice to the animal not to at least give this beautiful dish a try. The flesh, far more tender than I could have imagined, had a pinkish hue and a smoky flavor. The glazed bacon and tangy fruit stuffing pushed it into the transcendent category, and I found myself cutting another slice. With the room wrapped in a hazy glow (part candles, part wine), the final course was served: a slice of carrot cake with caramel ice cream and a ginger beer reduction. But one bite told me this wasn’t any ordinary carrot cake. The cake, so moist it was nearly the consistency of fudge, had a salty kick, with frosting that instantly dissolved on my tongue. I later found out it was made with rendered guanciale (pig jowls) and covered with lardo frosting. Amazing.

Though this was not a meal for the faint of heart (or appetite), it was one that will live on in my memory – both for the fantastically creative food, but also for the chance to see two chefs’ common visions come together in edible form.

[Photo taken in Puerto Vallarta by David Farley]