Another year gone by, another flurry of meals and plates licked clean. As all food lovers can attest, it’s not easy to single out a mere handful of dishes to top our year-end list of favorites, especially after a year that brought us plenty of promising chefs, gutsy cooking, and delicious food. With that in mind, here’s a look back at what we loved in 2011. Our tummies are already growling for next year.
Polenta with Marinara (Modernist Cuisine)
When we saw Nathan Myhrvold speak at ICE, we also got to sample dishes from his team’s kitchen laboratory. Our favorite: a bowl of homey grits that had been cooked at hyperspeed in a pressure cooker. But the most memorable part of this dish was its intense marinara sauce, familiar in flavor but made with an unexpected ingredient: strawberries. It’s easy to dazzle with technology, but some of the greatest revelations come from simply thinking outside the flavor box.
Salt Cod Fried Rice (Mission Chinese Food, San Francisco)
Fried rice is popping up on menus all over the place. This delicate and supremely satisfying version, speckled with cilantro, Chinese sausage, escolar confit, and lemongrass, is the one all others need to live up to.
White Curry Tripe with Galangal and Crunchy Garlic (James Beard Awards, NYC)
It takes cojones to serve tripe at a black tie event, and the fearless Ken Oringer and his Boston-based team did it with aplomb. Assisted by the talented Jamie Bissonnette and Douglas Rodrigues, he deftly tamed the viscera into a bite that was complex and flavorful, with an addictive tongue-tingling heat from the curry.
Pork Cheek with Compressed Peas and Preserved Peaches (Victory 44, Minneapolis)
When you’re sitting in an out-of-the-way bar in a working-class neighborhood in Minneapolis, ordering off a chalkboard of tersely worded items (zucchini salad, fried mozzarella) that cost ten bucks or less, you usually don’t expect sophistication to arrive at your table. But arrive it did, and every one of Eric Harcey’s dishes that we tried could have made this list. His buttery and tender pork cheeks, paired with intricately flavored accompaniments and elegantly presented, edged out the rest.
Veal Sweetbread Tortellini (Mike Isabella, James Beard House, NYC)
When the Top Chef All-Stars runner-up and Graffiato owner cooked an Italian dinner at the Beard House in August, he wowed us with a menu that skipped up and down the boot. Our favorite dish of the night was his inspired tribute to Emilia-Romagna, featuring delicate veal sweetbread tortellini, pickled baby vegetables, sorrel, and croutons in a pool of country ham-infused broth.
Lamb with Jerusalem Artichokes alla Judea (Torrisi Italian Specialties, NYC)
Nostalgic and delicious, with flavors redolent of the Lower East Side, Rome, a Jewish mom’s kitchen, and a fine French restaurant all at once. (Otherwise, Manischewitz-glazed and matzo-coated lamp chops, served with fried Jerusalem artichokes.) Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone even made a video about their inspiration for this dish.
Po’ Boy Sliders (GT Fish & Oyster, Chicago)
Giuseppe Tentori tested our self-control with these po’ boys for the small-plates era. Layered with fried Willapa Bay Pacific oysters, chopped peanuts, sesame aïoli, and a pungent kimchi, these sliders can be ordered individually, which made it impossible for us to resist summoning more of them from the kitchen throughout our meal.
Custard Tart (St. John Hotel, London)
Fergus Henderson is known for his nose-to-tail cooking, but dessert, not pork, was the most memorable dish we ate at his new outpost in downtown London. We savored this custard's firm-but-creamy texture, and the combination of its delicate vanilla flavor against the nuttiness of the surrounding darkly baked, butter-rich crust was sublime.
Stinkburger (Umami Burger, Los Angeles)
Discussions about great burgers tend to labor over the usual fundamentals: the blend of meat and fat in the patty; whether to include or ditch the cheese; the superiority of ketchup, mustard, or mayonnaise. When we visited the forward-thinking Umami Burger this year, we were happy to throw the old burger book out the window. We’ll never forget this mini-chain’s funk-loaded Stinkburger, blanketed in garlic confit, Taleggio, raw onions, and anchovy tempura.
Lamb Skirt Steak (wd-50, NYC)
All of the innovative food at this molecular gastronomy–focused restaurant is bound to entice, but this dish was a notch above the rest. The tender and rosy meat arrived with a delicious pistachio–polenta cake, sweet-and-savory endive marmalade, and a hint of apricot. It wasn't the most whimsical plate to leave the kitchen that evening, but no matter: it was gorgeous to look at and beautifully balanced—a perfect marriage of delicate and rich flavors.
Tell us: what was your favorite restaurant dish from 2011? (See our favorites from 2010 and 2009.)