The sacrifices I make for you people. In 2018 I traveled extensively in search of amazing chefs and the outstanding food they serve, despite what it is undoubtedly doing to my cholesterol and waistline. As the year comes to a close, I ponder the weight I’ve gained, the Instagram followers I’ve lost, and the dishes that actually made it worth it for me to log that extra mile on my morning run. Across the country I enjoyed Korean fine dining, the reemergence of classic French cuisine, and a nostalgic look back at Midcentury fare. I also had the opportunity to see the future of American cooking by dining at the restaurants of some of the best young chefs in the U.S. today. It was exciting year of feasting, and these are the 19 best dishes I had along the way.
Crab Three Ways, Addison, San Diego
At this year’s Robb Report Culinary Masters, there were plenty of culinary fireworks on display. From Dominique Crenn’s buckwheat tart with trout roe and crème fraiche to Gavin Kaysen’s chicken ballotine. But my favorite dish came from the chef at the Addison, William Bradley. He served crab three ways featuring a crab chip, a generous chunk of king crab leg, a crab salad with coconut and curry on top, and then accompanied by a passion fruit sauce.
100-Day-Aged Tomahawk, APL Restaurant, Los Angeles
I’ve devoted plenty of actual ink (print is not dead!) to Adam Perry Lang’s new Hollywood restaurant and for good reason. The Zenmaster of meat has turned his focus away from barbecue and toward the nuances of sourcing and aging beef. And when you eat his tomahawk steak with more than 100 days of age, other beef can almost taste bland in comparison. Lang achieves a depth of flavor to his steak without being overly funky. There’s also something viscerally satisfying about gnawing on that giant bone in the middle of a respectable establishment.
Halibut with Foie Gras, Butternut Squash, and Doenjang, Atomix, New York
The husband-wife duo behind Atoboy—Junghyun and Ellia Park—opened their personal take on Korean fine dining earlier this year. Inside an old townhouse in Nomad, there’s a basement with a U-shaped counter where 16 patrons dine on a progression of delicate and refined dishes. One of my favorites was the steamed round of halibut served with cured foie gras, a butternut squash dashi, and a brown butter made with a fermented soybean paste called doenjang.
Hawaiian Rolls, Bellemore, Chicago
I named Jimmy Papadopolous one of America’s Best Young Chefs and Bellemore the country’s Best New Restaurant, so I obviously like a lot of what I ate here. While many people would think Jimmy’s perfect little oyster pie served with caviar and apples would be my top choice, I went far more normie than that. I really really loved his Hawaiian rolls inspired by growing up in the Midwest and eating them at Thanksgiving. As he was preparing to open the restaurant, and actually eating a Hawaiian roll, he told his staff his plan to incorporate a homemade version in the menu, “We’re going to do it with a house made cultured butter, but we’re going to take the cream from upstate Wisconsin, and steep it with country ham scraps, so that the cream cultures and tastes of salty, smoky ham,” Papadopolous says. “They’re the most basic-tasting sweet delicious roll, but the magic is that butter. The fact that we culture our own cream in house, and we take the steps to making our own butter and churning it—it’s those little things that you hope resonate with people.” It did.
Chicken Milanese, Cosa Buona, Los Angeles
I can be a sandwich obsessive. Years ago, when a reputable publication put out a round-up of the best 100 sandwiches in New York, a friend and I tried to eat our way through the entire list. This year my favorite entry in the genre of meat between bread was Zach Pollack’s outstanding chicken Milanese sandwich from his nostalgia-tinged Cosa Buona on LA’s Eastside. It’s a place where he’s doing a perfect Caesar, the ideal fried mozzarella sticks, and one hell of a fried chicken sandwich that’s covered in a peperoncini slaw to create a salty, slightly sweet sandwich.
Brouillade, Frenchette, New York
On their own, soft scrambled eggs and escargots covered in butter and parsley are so very French. But together? Not so much. But that’s not how I felt when I dug some rich, creamy eggs studded with a row of snails. It felt so classic, so right. That’s the essence of Frenchette in New York, helmed by the seasoned duo of Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson. Their deep understanding of the classics and mastery of technique allows them to play with French conventions and create delicious results. And why wouldn’t you want to eat a dish that Hanson describes as such: “There’s an emulsion that’s happening where there’s about as much butter and cream as the eggs can hold to create a fluffiness and creaminess.”
Peanut Ritz Crackers with Foie Gras, Gem, New York
This is truth in advertising when it comes to the what you get with this outstanding little appetizer at 20-year-old wunderkind Flynn McGarry’s Lower East Side restaurant. Between two house made Ritz crackers is a disc of foie gras terrine that’s topped with jelly that provides a fruity acidity that balances out the richness of the liver.
Forest Chicken, Geranium, Copenhagen
One of the year’s truly transcendent dining experiences was at Rasmus Kofoed’s Michelin three-star Geranium. Kofoed and GM Søren Ledet have created a remarkable restaurant that just happens to be tucked inside the stadium where the national soccer team and FC Copenhagen play (you can see the field from the prep kitchen). The service is outstanding without being stuffy, and the same can be said of the food. It’s surprising, delicious, and sits slightly outside of the prevailing trends in Copenhangen, where many restaurants take their cues from Noma. Kofoed, who won an unprecedented bronze, silver, and gold at the culinary Olympics Bocuse d’Or, combines a streak of naturalism with a style that is more modern European than New Nordic. His forest chicken with pickled blackcurrant leaves, juniper, and aromatic herbs was pitch-perfect capper to the lunch’s 12 savory courses.
The Seagram Crab Cake, The Grill, New York
Another one of our Best New Restaurant winners, the Grill brought swagger back to the tired former Four Seasons space in the landmark Seagram Building. A lot of the press was focused on the prime rib carts rolling around, and rightly so. But for me, the best dish at Mario Carbone’s midcentury stunner was a competition between the Seagram crab cake and the pasta a la presse where delicate noodles are bathed in a jus made from duck bones pressed tableside and. When dining at The Grill, honestly, both should be ordered. But the crab cake seasoned with old bay topped with thinly sliced golden potatoes and served with a mustard sauce took the prize.
Oysters, Henrietta Red, Nashville
I’m touting the oysters I ate in a landlocked state? Yes, because Julia Sullivan—a Per Se and Blue Hill alum—knows how to source great product. At Henrietta Red she offers as many as 16 varietals sourced from around the United States, from the Atlantic to the Gulf to the Pacific. Beside each name is a place of provenance and a trio of evocative descriptors to help guide diners’ decisions. The choices span the flavor spectrum ranging from briny Night Tides to creamy Murder Points to sweet Saucey Lady Shells.
Quenelle de Brochet, Le Coucou, New York
Daniel Rose isn’t making your father’s French food—he’s making your grandfather’s. He’s taken the anachronistic French fare filled with butter and cream and breathed new life into it the last few years at Le Coucou. A perfect encapsulation of his embrace of the classics is his quenelle de brochet, a labor-intensive dumpling made by deboning a fish, mixing it with egg and cream, then poaching it before topping it with the lobster-filled sauce Americaine. It’s a dish that simultaneously light and frothy as well as decadent and creamy.
Pork Collar, Michael’s, Santa Monica
We’re going to miss the talented young chef Miles Thompson at the icon of California farm-to-table dining Michael’s. He’s left the restaurant in pursuit of a new project, but while at the restaurant that’s older than him he created some truly memorable dishes, like his pork collar with rosewater jaew, radish kimchi, and flowering cilantro. It’s a dish I went back for multiple times. One time, I even brought along a particularly exacting food critic, my mother (the daughter of an acclaimed chef, who herself has moonlighted as a caterer for decades). Miles, if you’re reading, Barb wants the recipe.
Duck Ssam, Momofuku Vegas, Las Vegas
I’ve long been a sucker for Momofuku. After my wife and I ran the New York City Marathon, the place we wanted to celebrate was Ssam Bar in the East Village. So when I was in Vegas last, I had to check out what chef Shaun King was doing there. They’re not just turning out the Momofuku hits, but working a lot of large format dishes perfect for big parties out for a night revelry in Sin City. One of those is whole duck, aged two weeks, dipped in hot water to slowly render the fat, then rubbed with salt, maltose and soy sauce, cooked in a rotisserie, and then carved tableside. It comes with housemade kimchi, hoisin, ginger pancakes, and duck fat rice.
Yakimono, n/naka, Los Angeles
Another contender for meal of the year was the modern kaiseki served by Niki Nakayama. It’s really is hard to single out one dish from the dinner, but I especially loved the portion of the meal referred to as ‘Yakimono” where grilling is the featured technique. On this iteration of her menu, Nakayama served foie gras with duck, glazed purple cabbage, purple cabbage glass, and a mustard seed sauce.
Shawarma of Celeriac and Truffle, Noma, Copenhagen
This year I took the journey across the Atlantic to experience Noma 2.0. Now situated on the outskirts of the city, the restaurant celebrates three distinct seasons and changes their menu accordingly. The first part of the year is devoted to seafood, the middle is vegetables, and the third is to game. I happened to arrive during the months René Redzepi and team served their vegetarian menu. The finale of the savory courses featured a smiling young chef presenting us with what looked like a giant shawarma turning on a vertical spit in a shop. But this rich, meaty, delicious course had no meat at all. “We sliced celeriac super thin, and between the layers is a truffle puree, and a celeriac puree,” says Mette Søberg, the head of Noma’s test kitchen. “To build one, which is 40 to 50 portions, it takes one person three hours and that’s even after you have all the components ready. It’s very labor intensive.”
Whole Hog BBQ Sandwich, Rodney Scott BBQ, Charleston
Another crown jewel in my sandwich sojourns was James Beard Award-winning Rodney Scott’s pulled pork. Attached to the back of the restaurant is a smokehouse where Scott takes up to 24 hours to cook his whole hogs. This old school preparation is looks simple, but controlling the heat to different parts of the pig is an art that Scott has mastered. The sandwich came with a tangy vinegar and pepper sauce with some citrus that played perfectly with the pork.
Pork with Dark and Stormy Glaze, Roister, Chicago
Roister is what happens when you take the care and attention that the people behind Alinea put into their Michelin three-star restaurant, and direct it toward more elemental cooking. Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas’s Roister is focused on cooking in the hearth and creating craveable foods. Until recently the kitchen was led by Andrew Brochu, who turned out ideal versions of fried chicken, cheese rillettes, and their outstanding pork butt glazed with a dark and stormy sauce and served atop a bed red peas, then sprinkled with fried pecans.
Crispy Salmon Skin, Sea Creatures, Seattle
Under the name Sea Creatures, Renee Erickson’s burgeoning Seattle empire now includes Walrus and the Carpenter, the Whale Wins, Bateau, and more. At this year’s Aspen Food and Wine she served some delicious bites at an afternoon party, highlighted by her crispy salmon skin topped with crème fraiche, salmon roe, and chives. Erickson has the ability to take what seems so simple and straightforward and make them so delicious.
Pigtail Curry Bun, Somni, Beverly Hills
Inside José Andrés’ Bazaar in Beverly Hills is an intimate 10-seat, wood-ensconced space where chef Aitor Zabala breezes through a suprising and delightful tasting menu. Both Zabala and Andrés are disciples of el Bulli, deploying techniques that allow them to play with their food, like a little pizza that doesn’t have an actual crust, but a merengue made with tomato water that’s topped with cheese. The most delicious bite of the night was this golden-brown bun, that was almost like a light doughnut hole stuffed with braised pigtail. Upon completing it I thought to myself that I wish they’d open up a to-go counter where I could buy the buns by the dozen.