It's time for a list, right? End of the year type thing? Wrap-up? Is that what they call it?
Every now and again I'll put together a year-end wrap-up thing, generally focusing on the most notable dishes that I ate (rather than the "best" restaurants). When I started reviewing Amex statements and photos for this year's list, I quickly determined that we enjoyed a greater number of memorable meals outside of New Jersey than we did inside. And this list reflects that fact. So if you're not interested in ever leaving NJ, you should probably close your browser's tab now.
For those still reading, I present to you, my completely self-indulgent list of the Best Dishes of 2013: The not-necessarily-NJ edition.
Let's start with a cocktail, shall we?
North End Grill
This goofily-named gin-based cocktail always pleases, especially in the summer. And it's no slouch in the winter, either. Gin, cucumber, cilantro, lime, green chili peppers. Served on the rocks. I can't remember a time I didn't kick off a meal at North End Grill without one. While you're there, be sure to eat. Order fish. Chef Cardoz has a way with our finned friends.
There are people claiming that pork belly has run its course. I'm not one of them. How does a part of the hog run its course? Poppycock. However, the belly backlash has some validity when you're dealing with chefs who are using unexceptional bacon in dishes. Unexceptional anything has no place in a dish, much less unexceptional bacon.
The Pork Belly at Fatty Crab, I'm happy to say, is exceptional. I described this dish as "chunks of moist, luscious, slightly sweet pork belly, with a bunch of herbs, some fried shallots, and other stuff which I cannot remember." That's some next-level food writing right there, you must admit.
Tongue and Tripe
We here at the t:e organization are very frequent fliers of Chengdu 23. The reason? It's fantastic. Authentic Sichuan cooking, quick service, and pretty damned cheap. The Tongue and Tripe dish may be a little different each time you order it, but it's consistently magical and never lets me down. I'm at the point where I order it as soon as I sit down.
Pan-roasted Day Boat Octopus
Asbury Park, NJ
Many will tell you about the great Neapolitan-style pizza at Porta. And for good reason. The pizza is freakin' good (and coming to Newark and Jersey City very soon). But the real star here is the octopus. If they don't bring this dish north, I'll just cry. And protest. And boycott. And taunt them.
Blue Smoke does many things well, including deviled eggs. To my mind, they are exactly what deviled eggs are supposed to be. None of this nonsense with adding anchovies and this and that and the other thing. Just straight-forward deviled egg here. They used to serve the eggs with a wee bit of lightly dressed greens, maybe with a piece of shallot in there, and that little pile of acid was a great foil for the eggs. But I didn't see it the last time. Those bastards.
Campelli's Chicken Stew with Barlotti Beans and Soft Boiled Egg
Dobb's Ferry, NY
Our visits to The Cookery have always been beyond satisfying. We really like what they're doing and how they're doing it. Sometimes I don't even know what it is that they are doing. That was the case with this bowl of food. I described it as "a chicken stew of some sort." My goodness, when will someone start paying me for this level of writing? It's just a matter of time, no? This dish got better with time. That is to say, 6 months later, I was still thinking about it, and the idea was more and more pleasing to me. I need to get back there for another bowl.
Pasta with Morels
l'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
It probably made little sense to get off of the red eye and go directly to what would be the most expensive meal of a trip to France, but that's what we did. We were hungry, bleary-eyed, and the hotel room wasn't ready. l'Atelier de Joël Robuchon was staring us in the face. "Eff it," we thought. "Let's see if they have a spot." They did. One of the (many) dishes was spaghetti with morels. How do you put perfection into words? I certainly have no idea. Also, how do you design a restaurant so that guests can't get in the door? That's right. Someone has to open the door for you from the inside.
Hands down, the single best oyster experience of my life. Recommended by an often curmudgeonly reader, who immediately became more tolerable after this meal.
Duck Foie Gras
La Bonne Excuse
What they call foie gras, I call pâté. But by all means call it what you want. While much foie gras was ordered during this trip to France, I recall the version at La Bonne Excuse the most fondly. Perhaps because it was the first of the trip. This was a nice restaurant overall. We very much enjoyed our meal here.
Everything was flippin' spot on at this little Italian-influenced place in Paris. This skin-wrapped long-time-cooked pork was no exception. A great little restaurant, well worth your consideration. The cheese and bread alone! Wow, wow, just wow.
Pork with leeks/green onions (porc au poireau)
Deux Fois de Piment
Just looking at this picture gets my blood pumping. And I don't need to tell you what that means. My goodness, everything at this restaurant was just fabulous.
Linguini al Nero di Seppia e Calamari
Zero Otto Nove
Meanwhile, back in that little food city call "New York," is a pasta dish with squid ink at Zero Otto Nove. Different. Simple. Perfect.
Top of the Hub
Was it really that great, you ask? No, I answer. Then why would you include it in this list, you ask. Because f*ck you I'm a tourist is why, I answer. And, I like going to the tops of buildings. Eaten with prosecco, if that makes eating at such a place seem a bit more sophisticated.
If you google "what was the hottest week in Boston's history," the result set will probably include the week of July 4th, 2013, when the t:e organization sweat its way through town. But the important thing is this Mapo Tofu, at New Shanghai restaurant. A maddeningly horrible wine list, and woefully under-powered air conditioner, but some very good, authentic, Sichuan and Shanghainese food. Just what we needed.
Meanwhile, back in that little food city they call "Easton, PA," is Maxim's 22. Maxim's 22 is everything a French bistro in Easton should be, and then some. This duck confit was memorable. Looking forward to getting back here.
The EM Burger. Grass-fed, bacon/onion jam, homemade bun. Executed perfectly. This is one fine burger, at a very fine restaurant.
Octopus (with green beans, potatoes, and salsa verde)
The first dish during a recent trip to Chicago, and one of the most memorable. We liked everything about the Purple Pig, other than how crowded it was.
La Bomba Rice
La Sirena Clandestina
That's not a photo of the rice dish. I didn't have time to take a photo of this dish. Per the menu: roasted sweet corn, summer squash, serrano peppers, Manchego. I didn't want to stop eating it. Even the squash. It was like no other dish that I can recall.
Steak and eggs and hash
This is what "brunch" should be. Everything we had at Sable was pretty damned good. More than pretty damned good. Really damned good. The cocktail list is immense. We put the suspender-wearing-tattoo-having bartender through the paces, and he managed to make a wide variety of cocktails very well. This place is better than you could hope.
Green Papaya Salad with Crab
Something tells me that Chef Portscher approaches his restaurant the way he'd approach throwing a dinner party: he's serving stuff he likes. Why else would several dishes inspired by southeast Asia find their way onto his menu? I'll tell you this much: I sure as shit didn't expect to see green papaya salad on the menu when we rolled in a few months ago. No complaints here. I love the devil-may-care attitude. Bravo!
These tentacles be tender.
Salt and Pepper Prawns w/ Pea Tendrils
Hermosa Beach, CA
Black Flag used to rehearse in this space. How cool is that?
Not much "authentic" in this salt and pepper dish, but the pea tendrils put it over the top. Crispy shrimp, executed well, pea tendrils, washed down with an exceptional spicy margarita make Abigaile worth a visit. And the rest of their food and drink seal the deal. This place is exactly what I want in my town.
Hamachi with ponzu
Fishing with Dynamite
Manhattan Beach, CA
I described this dish as a "pitch-perfect dish of artfully-plated and pristine fish." And wouldn't ya know it, I was right. If I want a place like Abagaile in my town, I also want two restaurants like Fishing with Dynamite.
soondubu jjigae (Korean soft tofu stew)
Organic Tofu House
Silky, spicy, hot, comforting. And I swear it fixes hangovers. What more do you want?
The Kosher Nosh
Glen Rock, NJ
I don't care what you say, The Kosher Nosh in Glen Rock has very good pastrami. However, I'm a bit more sure that they have excellent fried chicken. That's right, fried chicken. Served room temp. Crispy, salty, moist. Everything fried chicken should be. Other than hot. Edit: make sure you ask for chicken that is room temp, and not in the refrigerated case. Once it is refrigerated it deteriorates.
Would would have thought a Thai/Japanese/French place in a strip mall parking lot would be any good whatsoever? I sure didn't. And I was wrong. These lamb chops were a joy.
There it is, folks. Do make an effort to get to some of these places. As always, if you don't like these restaurants or dishes, keep it to yourself, because I really don't care.