The best meals of the year aren't necessarily about foie gras and truffles, or indulgent tasting menus, or even the technically best cooking of 2011. They're those dinners that surprised and delighted, that wove food and wine and friendship together in a meal that stands crisp and clear in memory.
Some of them are unrepeatable, like the subtle Indian feast a friend cooked or the dinner for more than 100 outside at one long table in front of a historic chateau in France. Or the wild crayfish that a Rioja producer pulled out of a pond next to his winery and cooked up for lunch. The number 10 doesn't begin to cover the best meals I've had this year. After making lists and then other lists, here's my attempt to recount the year's most memorable, in no particular order.
Roast chicken dinner at Farmshop. Sunday nights at Farmshop are devoted to fried chicken, pretty much the same recipe as was served at Ad Hoc when chef-owner Jeffrey Cerciello was Thomas Keller's right-hand man. It's the best. But the bird I'm nominating as one of the 10 best meals is Cerciello's organic roasted chicken. As the centerpiece of one late-summer night's prix fixe menu, it was served family-style on a handcrafted black platter. Golden and crisp, the flesh dense yet moist, each bite was better than the last. It came with roasted heirloom eggplant and an emerald salsa verde studded with pistachio. As a first course, he served rustic chickpea hummus garnished with whole fried garbanzos. Dessert was a round of dreamy lemon custard with crumbly pistachio shortbread. And since Farmshop had just added a la carte options, we ordered a billowy meringue filled with lemon crème fraîche with dark fuchsia huckleberries spooned over the top. We drank a terrific Gamay and sat at the communal table, serving ourselves, lost in talking and eating. It was one of the most relaxed — and delicious — meals I had in a restaurant all year.
Burgers at Short Order. A Saturday night in November, only days after the late Amy Pressman's Short Order finally opened and it was a 45-minute wait (for a burger!). After leaving a cellphone number, we headed over to Barnes & Noble at the Grove as fake snow fell. The phone summoned us back to two seats at the counter inside, where we watched the mixologists at work. Short Order is a grown-up burger joint with serious cocktails, a great soundtrack and a fresh, modern look. The burger to get is Nancy's Backyard Burger (that would be Mozza's Nancy Silverton, who was involved in the project with her old friend). The two of them tested and tested and tested the buns, the beef, the sauces and the fixings, and the result is just about perfect. The shiny brown bun holds its own against the juicy, coarsely ground beef patty loaded up with bacon, Comté cheese, avocado, tomato, onion, iceberg lettuce and spicy mayo. Some of the burgers feature grass-fed beef. There's a pork and a turkey burger too. Short Order spuds, small potatoes smashed just enough to crack them open before they're deep-fried, are like crack potatoes, to dip or not in a sticky delicious aioli. Dessert could be a coffee malt shake or, for just a couple of bucks, a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. Killer.
Asador Etxebarri, Spanish Basque country. After a friend's magical birthday party in Bordeaux in late June, three of us continued on a 10-day road trip through Spain that started in the Spanish Basque country. I'd reserved months before for lunch at Asador Etxebarri, an hour and a half drive away through the grassy green hills. In the big airy upstairs room of the asador, or grill restaurant, we had a spectacular tasting menu, mostly seafood, that unfurled over several hours. The order of dishes was perfectly orchestrated as it moved from sublime homemade goat butter and bread to impeccable oysters, percebes (goose barnacles), regal gambas in the shell to octopus, cuttlefish and more, ending with a giant, perfectly grilled beef chop. This is not about char, more about perfuming each ingredient ever so lightly with smoke. We understood everything when we had a look in the kitchen later. Chef-owner Victor Arguinzoniz makes his own ingenious grills that go up and down, fires them with his own charcoal made from local woods, so he has a whole palette of charcoals, mostly oak, at his disposal. If I could have just one dish right now, it would be those gorgeous gambas from Palamos. I'll never think about grilling the same way again.
Takeout brisket from Bludso's BBQ in Compton. Craving barbecue one summer night, I persuaded a friend to pick up some brisket from Bludso's in Compton while I made extra sides at home. While the men were collecting the 'cue, a friend and I whipped up a spunky coleslaw with ribbons of radicchio, and a creamy red potato salad to go with the stewed collards with ham hock. I hauled out some homemade dill pickles, set out some hot mustard (Philippe's) and chilled the Beaujolais. When the hunters and gatherers got back, we unpacked the spread onto platters and had a blowout barbecue feast. Kevin Bludso has the touch: His moist brisket has a nice char, caramelized at the edges and marbled with fat. The massive beef ribs are pretty much masterpieces, slathered in a vinegary, slightly sweet barbecue sauce. The hot is not for wimps. Dessert? Key lime pie I made that morning.
Tapas and paella at Jaleo in Vegas. Earlier this year, Spanish chef José Andrés brought Jaleo, his D.C. tapas and paella restaurant, to Las Vegas' Cosmopolitan hotel. And it's wildly fun, with an exuberant decor, great cocktails and, right in the middle of the dining room, a chef cooking paellas in broad pans over a wood fire. In May, as the stock sizzled around the rice, he added lobsters, a pinch of saffron, rabbit or pork riblets, depending on the paella. The rice is moist and fluffy, slightly smoky, suffused with the taste of the stock and whatever else goes into the pan. Perfect to share after a round of cocktails, tapas and embutidos (cured meats). I could have eaten plate after plate of the marvelous jamón ibérico de bellota, made from acorn-eating pigs. And I loved the pa amb tomàquet, toast rubbed with tomato and topped with a plump salt-cured anchovy. Andrés' restaurants (including the Bazaar in Beverly Hills) are always beguiling and spirited. At Jaleo, he served croquetas in a paper cone sticking out of a (new) hiking shoe! Silly, and yet the food is seriously delicious. Don't forget to order dessert, especially the crema catalana, an ethereal custard with the faintest hint of lemon.
Seafood at Hungry Cat in Santa Monica Canyon. On a rainy late spring night, four of us went to the new Hungry Cat in Santa Monica Canyon and ordered the extravagant seafood platter, a three-tiered affair piled with oysters, clams on the half shell, steamed mussels, chilled shrimp and more items from the raw bar. At the very top, like the star on the Christmas tree, were a lipstick red lobster and some Dungeness crab. Crisp briny oysters slid down the throat, the clams got a dab of cocktail sauce or a squeeze of lemon (I couldn't decide which was best). We drank minerally white wines, divvied up those firm white shrimp, wreaked havoc on the crab and lobster. And laughed a lot. I could have easily stopped there, but we're greedy and ordered up sweet and salty cured arctic char on house-baked nan and soft-shelled crabs on jasmine rice in a stinging Singapore chile sauce with 17 ingredients. This was such a luxurious feast and seafood of this quality is so rare at the beach that we count ourselves very lucky to have this new spot a stone's throw from Pacific Coast Highway.
Rustic Italian at Cotogna in San Francisco. I'm such a fan of Michael Tusk's Quince in San Francisco that I couldn't wait to eat at Cotogna, his new Italian place next door. Arriving early, we stopped into Quince's elegant bar for a quirky martini made with camomile-infused gin, Dolin vermouth and bergamot tincture. Over at the much more casual Cotogna (think trattoria as opposed to ristorante), we started with a glorious pizza alla puttanesca made with good salt-cured anchovies, olives, capers, tomato and crowned with barely cooked squid. Warm ricotta, bubbled and browned on top, came with salt-roasted onions and baby artichoke. Sardine lover that I am, I dug into grilled sardines on tondini beans with celery and lemon. Next? Rabbit cooked in duck fat. And then pasta. Tender postage stamp-sized agnolotti al plin stuffed with meat and greens. Then rigatoni in a rustic sauce of pork sausage, tomato and nettles. And from the wood-fired spit, succulent pork loin with fennel and red peppers. One of the best Italian meals I've had in a long time.
Rivera in downtown Los Angeles. A couple of blocks from L.A. Live and its chain restaurants is Rivera, the distinguished Latin restaurant from French-trained, New Mexico-raised John Sedlar. I love sliding onto a seat at the bar or at the massive square communal table and ordering this and that from an eccentric and exciting menu that includes dishes from Mexico, Spain and Latin America. Sedlar is that rare chef whose cooking is incisive and sensual. His wild mushroom carpaccio, tortillas florales, kurobuta pork chop napped in black molé and puerco pibil (pork shoulder braised in banana leaf) all figured into a terrific fall meal. Rivera is always changing as Sedlar redefines the menu. The possibilities are almost endless, and each visit can be entirely different depending on which menu (or room) you choose. Lately, he's added dishes from St. Estèphe, his late, great modern New Mexico restaurant. Playa, his more casual L.A. restaurant, may be more lively, but for the best of Sedlar's cooking, for me, it's Rivera.
M.B. Post in Manhattan Beach. One of the most surprising openings of the year. Who knew that former Water Grill chef David LeFevre had this kind of gutsy global cooking in him? Breaking out of fine dining, he's having exuberant fun turning out vibrant small plates from the Mediterranean and Asia. Every night he adds handwritten specials to a menu that is already prodigiously ample. He's got house-baked breads — crumbly biscuits, shiny pretzels and grilled nan — salt-roasted beets in a beet green pesto dotted with pistachios, or "blistering" green beans with Thai basil, hot peppers and crispy pork bits. In late spring, I loved the couscous with feta, lavender and pomegranate and the grilled nectarines with whipped ricotta. And his sword squid grilled over white oak and presented on a bed of fat white beans. And his caramelized Vietnamese pork jowl with a green papaya and lime salad. Remember the film "Around the World in 80 Days"? This is the culinary equivalent, and the fact that it's in Manhattan Beach makes it all the sweeter. The only downside? The noise.
Soulful Turkish cuisine at Oleana in Boston. A rainy fall night at Oleana in Cambridge, and a table outside on a covered porch turned out to be one of the most memorable meals of the year. I'd been wanting to eat here for years, ever since I'd fallen in love with chef-owner Ana Sortun's cookbook "Spice." Her Turkish food beguiled me with its direct earthy flavors. She's made the cuisine very much her own with dishes like warm buttered hummus with basturma and tomato and her fabulous Sultan's Delight, tender tamarind-glazed beef and smoky eggplant purée dotted with pine nuts, the flavors magical together. The rain fell. We nibbled and talked, reveling in trout spanakopita, wild salmon wrapped in grape leaves with verjus butter and olives, and her flattened lemon chicken with za'tar and cheese pancakes. Turkish cuisine is too little known in this country, and I wanted one more hit. I got it the next day at Sofra, Sortun's Middle Eastern bakery and cafe, with a breakfast of Moroccan doughnuts and morning buns in an orange flower glaze.