When Top Chef Season 12 winner Mei Lin isn’t planning pop-up dinners with fellow chef friends, hanging out with Oprah, or testing recipes for her forthcoming restaurant, she’s globe-trotting in pursuit of her next great meal. When she returns, she reports back on the highlights of her travels to let you know about the food you should not miss.
It was a long year of travel for me, spanning multiple countries and continents, on top of hopping around America. Anyone who follows me on Instagram (especially those who watch my Instagram stories) knows that I had the pleasure of eating at some exceptional restaurants in 2017. I dined at the places everyone was buzzing about—from The Pool in New York to Noma’s residency in Tulum—but I also hit up the classics, eating outstanding executions of traditional dishes like roast goose in Hong Kong and an oxtail and brisket soup in South Korea. So as I look back on a year of great food, I’ve ranked the 10 best dishes I ate in 2017.
#10. ‘The Apple’ Brown-Butter Mousse, Confit Apple, Armagnac Sabayon
Le Bernardin, New York, N.Y.
You’d think that if I were to write about Le Bernardin, it would focus on some fish by Eric Ripert. But no—I’m skipping straight to dessert. This stunner is created by Thomas Raquel, the executive pastry chef at the restaurant. There are a lot of foods out there that are “too pretty to eat,” and this is one of them. I just wanted to put this in my bag and take it home. The shell is made with a cocoa-butter apple glaze. The interior is a brown-butter mousse with apple confit in the center. It’s pretty much a fancy version of apple pie.
Located in the heart of Seoul in the Myeongdong neighborhood, Hadongkwan has been serving its gomtang to patrons for more than 70 years. Gomtang is a soup made with oxtail bones and brisket and is served with rice. You’ll normally encounter gomtang at breakfast, accompanied with condiments like Korean coarse salt, black pepper, spring onions, and kimchi. This dish is so comforting and satisfying—I could definitely eat this every day.
#8. Roast Goose
Yat Lok, Hong Kong
Goose is a really lean bird, making it tough to cook right—especially sui mei style, where meats are roasted. But when it’s done right, it’s outstanding. The first travel diary I wrote for Robb Report was for a trip to Hong Kong, and this gem from Yat Lok was on my list. The dish has clearly stuck with me ever since because I’m writing about it again as one of my favorite things I’ve eaten this year. At Yat Lok, their level of care is high, and their technique is on point. You get goose that’s well-seasoned and tender, and it just hits the spot. And with a bill that’s under $20, it’s well worth the trip!
#7. Foie Gras Monaka with Persimmon and Pickles
I’ve never had so much fun eating at a restaurant as I did when I went to Den in Tokyo. This was the first dish we had when we sat down—monaka with foie gras, persimmon, and pickles. This dish changes throughout the seasons. Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa did a play on monaka, which is a Japanese sweet made of azuki bean or chestnut-jam filling sandwiched between two thin crisp wafers made from mochi. Chef Hasegawa is so innovative and playful that you can’t help but smile when receiving dishes at his restaurant.
#6. Charred Octopus, Ginger-Lime Aioli
The Chop Chop Club, Shanghai
You’re probably wondering why this is one of the best things I ate this year. It’s an octopus tentacle with a dollop of aioli and a grilled lemon wedge on the plate. Pretty simple, right? But it’s the best octopus I’ve ever had in my entire life! That tentacle is so tender while still being charred to perfection, and the ginger-lime aioli was the perfect accompaniment. These flavor combinations worked so well together, it literally almost made me cry.
#5. Charred Avocado Tartare, Escamoles, Herb Chips
Quintonil, Mexico City
I was so glad that I got a reservation to Quintonil when I visited Mexico City. The restaurant, led by Enrique Olvera protégé Jorge Vallejo, is one of the places making Mexico City one of the world’s best dining destinations. This dish of charred avocado, escamoles, and herb chips was one of my favorite from the menu. Escamoles are ant eggs that are harvested from the roots of the agave plant used to make tequila and mezcal. A Mexican delicacy that’s been around since the age of Aztecs, they’re the caviar of the desert, if you will. The escamoles are so nutty in flavor, and it just works with the avocado and the freshness of the herbs. It’s a must-try in Mexico City.
#4. Bánh Cuốn
Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyen, Hanoi
Bánh cuốn is a rice sheet that wraps around a filling of ground pork, shrimp, wood-ear mushrooms, and fried shallots. It’s extremely thin and delicate, served with Nước chấm (a dipping sauce made with fish sauce, sugar, and rice vinegar or lemon juice). It is made by steaming a rice batter on a muslin cloth stretched over a pot of boiling water. All over Vietnam, you’ll find people eating this dish for breakfast. The version I had at Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyen was one of the best I’ve ever tried. It was so good that I ordered two!
#3. Salbut with Dried Tomato and Chapulines
Noma, Tulum, Mexico
One of the hottest tables this year was at a pop-up restaurant in a coastal resort town. As René Redzepi put his Noma in Copenhagen on hiatus for a year, he took up residency in Tulum, located about 80 miles south of Cancun along the beautiful coast of the Yucatán. I was fortunate to score reservations to Noma Mexico in April and went with some great friends. It turned out to be one of my favorite trips this year. Noma created a menu drawing inspiration from the traditions and ingredients of the area. One of my favorite bites of the night was salbut—a puffed corn tortilla common in the Yucatán—with dried tomato and chapulines (aka grasshoppers). This dish was so beautifully composed, and the textures of the dish were so amazing. It was such a stunner, and I can’t wait to see what Noma 2.0 dishes out next year!
#2. Slightly Warmed Caviar with Seaweed and Spinach
Saison, San Francisco
I’ll admit—this was a pretty difficult list to write, with a lot of contenders vying for this second spot. But it’s hard to pass on what Joshua Skenes is doing up at Saison in San Francisco. My jaw dropped when I saw the amount of caviar being dropped onto my plate. I was in heaven. But this wasn’t the typical approach to caviar, where some blinis, crème fraiche, and roe are given to me and I’m happy to eat it. He’s done something more inventive. The dish starts with Saison private-batch sturgeon caviar from Regalis that has been cured for three months. The kitchen then wraps it in kelp and warms it over the lively grill in the beautiful kitchen. So delicious.
#1. Dungeness Crab and Foie Gras With Scrambled Kani Miso
This past year, the husband-and-wife duo behind Smyth—chefs John and Karen Urie Shields—earned a second Michelin star. They certainly deserved it. When I dined there this year, the place wowed me, and what really stood out was the Dungeness crab and foie gras dish. I can seldom say that I can still dream the taste of a dish, but with this one I can. It was both simple and complex at the same time. The Dungeness crab was so sweet—especially with the addition of kani miso (which are crab brains)—and the poached foie gras was so delicate it just completed the dish. It takes my top spot as the best thing I ate this year. I can’t wait to revisit Smyth!