Our Favorite Dishes of 2014Maggie Borden, Alison Tozzi Liu, Anna Mowry, and Elena North-Kelly
December 17, 2014
At three meals a day, you’ll rack up 1,095 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in a year (and if you’re anything like us, that might be just the bare minimum). With such a surfeit of sips and snacks, culling our list was almost like picking a favorite child, but we somehow managed to narrow the field to an elite group. So here’s our collection of 2014 standouts, from north to south, coast to coast, and, of course, from our home base at the Beard House.
Pork Chicharrones with Figs, Pearl Onions, and Pomegranate Molasses
Tar & Roses, Santa Monica, CA
At Andrew Kirschner’s Tar & Roses, diners gather over ingredient-driven, locally sourced, and ember-roasted fare from the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. Crispy on the outside, rich and juicy on the inside, the chicharrones are the perfect porcine specimen. “The inspiration for this dish came to me after taking the cooks out for tacos one day,” Kirschner recalls. He chose ripe, succulent Black Mission figs to complement the pork, brought in pickled onions for texture and acidity, and drizzled on a sweet-and-tart pomegranate molasses. These days Kirschner is serving his chicharrones with fresh persimmons that have just reached their peak. Proceed with caution: these are seriously addictive.
—Elena North-Kelly, Senior Editor
Sweet Cheeks Biscuit Sandwiches
The stakes for the humble biscuit have risen of late, as the Southern staple has become nearly ubiquitous. (See: the 24-hour emporium Empire Biscuit in New York City.) You have to be pretty confident to put forth a real contender, and Tiffani Faison showed nary a nervous tic when serving these maple-smoked pork belly sandwiches during the reception of our Boston leg of Taste America. (Nor did she stagger when eager guests forced her to call a timeout and replenish her pork.) I can relate to the diners’ impulsivity—that buttery biscuit, speckled with salt and pepper, plus the fatty, smoky-sweet pork had me sacrificing precious stomach space before dinner. During that pork lull, I eyed the teeming pile of uncut biscuits and felt myself channeling my grandmother, wondering just how many I could stuff into my purse for the train ride back to New York.
—Maggie Borden, Assistant Editor
Duck and Foie Gras Ragoût with Duck Egg and Plum Jus
Our 2014 Taste America tour yielded a flurry of great eats, but one canapé from our Chicago stop still haunts my taste buds. Created by JBF Award winner Dave Beran of the acclaimed Next, the dish was elegant, cerebral, playful, and over-the-top indulgent. “We wanted to focus on utilizing the whole bird,” explains Beran. “Our sauce incorporated the bodies and innards, rillettes of leg meat, and scrambled duck eggs with foie gras and plums, all tucked inside the eggshell.” Presented like glittering gemstones on a custom-designed piece that warmed the canapés and held them upright, these beauties drew a crowd large enough to fill Wrigley Field.
Kelp-Cured Halibut with Bull Kelp, Nectarines, Noyaux, and Sea Beans
This understated dish from the ambitious, Mission-based Local’s Corner belies an "incredibly time-consuming" amount of labor, according to chef Tim Malloy. To make the noyaux element, the restaurant team hoards apricot stones, then begins to crack them open to obtain the almond-sized kernels (noyaux in French). Hours (perhaps days? weeks?) later, 1 1/2 cups of kernels are gently toasted, then steeped in grapeseed oil. “After that, you make your basic aïoli using that oil instead of olive or vegetable oil,” instructs Malloy. I never thought that making an emulsion would require blunt instruments, but you just might find me hammering open pits from 20-plus pounds of apricots in my driveway next summer.
—Anna Mowry, Senior Editor
In our era of endless Instagramming, certain dishes can become as well known as the chefs that create them, and John Fraser’s beets were all over the Internet as soon as the restaurant opened back in February. Thankfully, they more than live up to the hype, serving as an ambassador for the vegetable-focused, rotisserie-heavy ethos of the restaurant. “The beets were inspired by the first crop I got to work with from our farm, Locusts-on-Hudson,” Fraser explains, “One day we accidentally left a batch on the rotisseries too long and discovered that by overly charring them on the outside, the dish had an added layer of dimension.“ Served on a pool of horseradish cream with cucumber–bulgur salad, dill oil, and pickled cucumbers, the beets have a smoky, slightly bitter outer coating that gives way to a vividly purple, almost jam-like interior. Keep the ‘grams coming: Fraser nabbed a large enough harvest to serve these stunners well into 2015.
This was far from your average red-sauce joint’s pile of shrimp and squid: Canora disassembled the dish as though presenting a spread of nautical charcuterie, with thinly sliced rounds of octopus, a tangle of calamari, a prawn, and a scallop rounding out the plate. The deconstructed layout let us savor each component’s individual bite and flavor, but the true finesse of the dish was revealed by how seamlessly everything melded together. Canora demurs to the night’s kitchen dynamic: “This may come off as a little New Age-y, but I really believe that part of why that dish came out so well was due to the love and respect in that kitchen.”
Pork and Chicken Heart Pâté
FnB, Scottsdale, AZ
Featuring chicken from local farmer Dave "The Egg Man" Jordan, who sends chef Charleen Badman and her team his beautiful birds complete from combs to feet, this dish puts to work what remains after the restaurant's many roast chickens are served. The meats and preparations may change throughout the year, but your pâté will always be served on a platter with slices of local Noble bread and neat piles of local pickled vegetables.
—Alison Tozzi Liu, Editorial Director
Beef Tartare with Celery, Benne, Smoked Goat’s Curd, and Pancakes
Two Boroughs Larder, Charleston, SC
What’s better than a classic beef tartare? A thoroughly cheffy, out-of-left-field beef tartare. When I emailed chef Josh Keller about this dish, I got a reflective, in-depth response—mostly about celery. "It went from being a tartare to a dish about celery,” he says. “I wanted not only to highlight our in-house celery vinegar that we were so proud of, but also to show the versatility of that vegetable: the dish included celery juice, raw celery, pickled celery, celery seed, and celery leaves. I suppose we took a whole animal butchery approach to a head of celery.” All of that, along with the charming stack of blini-like pancakes and a quenelle of cold-smoked curd, sealed this tartare as one of my most memorable dishes of 2014.
Chilled Wagyu Beef Tongue with Pickled Vegetables
Served as a first course at our Taste America event in Dallas, Patrick O'Connell's flavor-packed chilled beef tongue, served with beautiful pickled baby vegetables, reminded us why food lovers have made pilgrimages to the Inn at Little Washington for decades. Inspired by his mother's decidedly less exotic dish of smoked tongue with horseradish sauce that he enjoyed growing up, the dish is made even more decadent by the use of Wagyu. "It's like New York Jewish delicatessen tongue sandwich distilled to its essence," says O'Connell. Look for it back on the menu in the warmer months.
Spaghetti with Clams, ‘Nduja, Sugo, and Parsley
Bar Primi, NYC
Riffing on spaghetti alle vongole, Andrew Carmellini and Sal Lamboglia have crafted the ultimate comfort food for the pasta-obsessed. “We wanted to add pork to really complement the brininess of the clams,” explains Lamboglia. “We tried bacon, spicy soppressata, and some other meats, but the 'nduja was what really worked the best.” The spicy, chile pepper–flecked sausage makes the white wine–scented littleneck clams shine, while the housemade clam stock adds extra depth. To create the perfect balance of flavor and texture, Lamboglia adds a generous finish of parsley and toasted bread crumbs to each plate before it leaves the kitchen. Rustic yet elegant, fiery yet comforting, this pasta is heaven twirled around your fork.
Braised Lamb Croquette
Panzano, Denver (served at the James Beard House)
Elise Wiggins sought to showcase the best of her home state during the Denver Women Chefs Rules Beard House dinner earlier this year, and who could imagine Colorado cuisine without lamb? The dish was all about balance: the rustic comfort of braised lamb shank tucked within in a refined tuile, the crunchy package collapsing around the tender slow-cooked meat. Wiggins credits a local producer: “The lamb that I love to use is from Triple M Bar Ranch. The farmers and lamb ranchers work together so there’s no food waste. When all the best melons are picked, they bring in the lambs to eat up whatever is left over. Just like the old saying, you are what you eat, and that diet makes these lambs the most delicious in the world.” The croquette was paired with sweet pea–fennel purée, red vein sorrel, and a cinnamon–cherry foie gras truffle, which, in a petite and decadent bite, captured a nostalgic longing for PB&Js. Wiggins assures that this dish wasn’t just a winner at the Beard House—it’s currently on the menu at Panzano, where it’s a “huge seller.”
Palmier Ice Cream with Calvados Caramel
Monsieur Benjamin, San Francisco
If given the chance to create your own Ben & Jerry's flavor, what would it be? That’s what chef Jason Berthold asked himself when creating this dish for his dessert menu at Monsieur Benjamin, opened this year by JBF Award winner Corey Lee. The result is a Frenchified version of cookies and cream: the ice cream starts with a vanilla bean base, which Berthold pumps up with brown butter, one of his favorite ingredients because of how it enhances a roasted or toasted flavor. Meanwhile, the palmiers are shaped, rolled, and baked as usual, but are also dehydrated, which protects them from getting soggy in the ice cream. Berthold also adds a boozy and slightly bitter Calvados caramel, inspired by the restaurant's cocktail list, which heavily features the apple brandy as well as other French spirits. The elements are assembled in layers and frozen so that each ingredient is swirled into each scoop. It seems we're not the only ones who can't stop thinking about this dessert—one of the restaurant's customers painted an oil portrait of the dish (see above). Needless to say, it’s not going off the menu anytime soon.
Strawberry Granité, Frozen Licorice, Vanilla–Sake Lees Ice Cream, Black Olive
Upon arrival this dish looked like a lesson in Modern Dessert Plating, but excavating and tasting all of the elements together was pure fun. Cracking through sheets of dehydrated strawberry juice revealed black licorice snow and orange oil crumbs, both dusted over an olive caramel, and on and on. I also love how this dish speaks to the collaborative spirit that’s happening among chefs in smaller cities: executive chef Jim Christiansen is behind the entire Heyday menu, though Diane Yang (who recently decamped from her ten-year stint at La Belle Vie for an executive pastry chef position at Gavin Kaysen’s forthcoming Spoon and Stable) helped to develop its pastry program. Moto-I, a noodle shop and sake brewery a few blocks down Lyndale Avenue, contributed sakekasu, a creamy byproduct of sake-making, for the ice cream. (The image above shows a rhubarb-based iteration that appeared earlier in the year.)
Key Lime Pie with Toasted Kaffir Lime Meringue
Fishing with Dynamite, Manhattan Beach, CA
A perfect bite of key lime pie can be one of life’s greatest pleasures—and coming from a staunchly savory-leaning eater, this is no easy admission. Perhaps the most quintessential version can be found at chef David LeFevre’s Fishing with Dynamite in the laid-back beach town of Manhattan Beach, California. “I used to have my grandmother's key lime pie in Florida as a kid and I’ve had that flavor lingering in my head for 30 years,” recalls LeFevre. His rendition includes a buttery graham-cracker crust, tart key lime custard, and silky meringue infused with kaffir lime. With caramelized soft peaks, the meringue had the nutty, charred flavor of roasted marshmallows—a subtle nod to his nostalgia, perhaps.
The London Plane, Seattle
At the multipurpose London Plane in Seattle’s Occidental Plaza, you can linger over plates from Matt Dillon’s elegant, ingredient-anchored menu or pop in on your way home from work and grab fresh flowers, imported olive oil, and housemade condiments like rose petal dukkah. But your time is best spent at the pastry counter, where, if you’re lucky, you’ll find this miracle of flour, sugar, and butter, flecked with whole cardamom seeds and finished with Maldon sea salt. Admire its gorgeous, caramelized exterior, its layers tightly gathered like yet-to-bloom peony, then enjoy with a cappuccino.
Editor's note: Local's Corner closed for business at the end of November.