Another year, another list. Who doesn't love a list?
I was very fortunate to have eaten some amazing food this year. Some dishes were indeed in NJ. Some were pretty close to NJ. Some were not very close to NJ. The one thing they all have in common is that made my eyes light up with joy for one reason or another.
Dishes can get my attention and fill me with glee for many reasons. They can be simple but executed flawlessly. They can be intricate affairs that leave me wondering what the hell is going on. And they can be something that I've simply never experienced. If there's one thing I love, it's eating something completely new to me.
Here are some of the bet dishes that I ate in 2016. And please, no arguing, these are the correct answers. They were all exceptional dishes.
Squid Ink Pasta with Guanciale and Squid
Jockey Hollow : Morristown, NJ
I really can't get enough of this squid ink pasta, guanciale, and calamari dish at Jockey Hollow in Morristown, NJ. It is, without a doubt, one of the best pastas dishes, and best dishes, I've ever had. A symphony of flavors and textures and perfectly executed. The whole dang restaurant is great.
Kale Caesar Salad
Craft House : Suffern, NY (closed, unfortunately)
You wouldn't know it from looking at me, but I love salads. I know kale is "so over" and the idea of using kale in a Caesar Salad isn't exactly ground-breaking stuff. But the salad we enjoyed at the bar one afternoon at the quite good and now closed Craft House was exceptional. Grana Padano, panko, lemon and anchovy vinaigrette. Tender yet sturdy kale, a good amount of seasoning, and great texture over all. It was, indeed, a perfect salad.
Taiwanese Gourmet : Elmhurst, Queens, NY
As I wrote at the time:
The stank hit the table before the dish did. That funky, rotting smell wafted and delighted. The flavor is much more subtle than the smell, which I suppose is a good thing. These little nuggets of putrid (in a good way) lightly fried tofu are dressed with an acidic and spicy chili sauce, and a bit of pickled vegetables on the side. Lots of flavors and textures here. This dish is a real pleasure and eye-opener.
Sweet, sour, mildly spicy, heavily funky.
H2Ocean : Cedar Knolls, NJ
Too many restaurants screw up crabcakes. Too much stuff. Not enough stuff. Overcooked. Dry. The list goes on. The crab cake at H2Ocean, to my mind, is a perfect crab cake. A great crust, moist, and bursting with flavor. Some textural and color contrast, and acid, provided by the bed of beet slaw.
Burger and Fries
Kahuna Burger Bar and Grill : Rincon, PR
This little bar steps from the north coast of Rincon, Puerto Rico, is a gem. Live music, fun vibe, great servers. And one hellavu model burger. They did overcook mine from the m/r ordered, but when I was done eating it, I realized how good it was. Juicy, big, right on. And twice-cooked fries? At a little bar near the water? They don't have to serve great fries and a great burger. But they do. I babbled about it here.
La Azotea : Sevilla, Spain
As I wrote back then:
The pork that we have to suffer through here in the US pales in comparison to the pork you'll find in Spain. Or Italy. Or Portugal. Or most places on the planet I'd think. While our pork is bland and insipid, their pork actually tastes like the flesh came from an animal. A beast of an animal. These ribs had more pork flavor than you'd think was possible. And it was a real pleasure getting some vegetables on a plate. Spain loves their potatoes, but doesn't seem too concerned with vegetables. La Azotea gets it right. And the pickled peppers. Man this was good.
Seafood Black Rice
La Cruz Blanca : Jerez, Spain
Seafood and black rice. One of the iconic dishes of Spain. Done right at La Cruz Blanca. We were warned the dish would take 20 minutes to make. Waiting for this dish is no task. Bursting with fresh flavors of the sea, and cuttlefish, topped with shrimp and some sort of garlic cream IIRC. And in the background of the picture, a special of the day: artichokes, pork belly, foie gras sauce. Damnit this is a fine restaurant.
Clams in marinara
Albores Bar and Restaurante : Jerez, Spain
Another classic Spanish dish. We enjoyed a version of clams in marina in Barcelona two years prior, but apparently it didn't make the impression that this one did at Albores in Jerez. Perhaps because Jerez is fucking awesome, and southern Spain is absolutely gorgeous and magical.
We've been making this dish at home pretty regularly, using this recipe. A reasonably good version, sans the blue skies and warm weather and palm trees of Jerez.
Hearth & Tap : Montvale, NJ
It's all in the details, folks. The ubiquitous grilled octopus is one of my favorite foods. Often found at Greek restaurants with a vinaigrette dressing, and now making its way onto all sorts of restaurant's menus. At Hearth & Tap they're serving the chunks of charred octopus on a thin bed of hummus, with delicious olives, microgreens, a grilled half lemon, chili oil, and grilled shishito peppers. I'm digging the cultural ambiguity. If they could just sort out that not-quite-good burger, this place would be a real super-duper, instead of just super.
Cinta Senese Pork Chop
La Loggio Del Chianti : Radda in Chianti, Italy
The biggest draw of travel for me is having the opportunity to eat meat that actually tastes like meat. Rather than the bland, watery, boring meat we are being fed in the US. I'm repeating myself, I know.
In Tuscany, you will find Cinta Senese pigs. The only still-existing breed of swine indigenous to Tuscany. The rest are extinct. These hogs are raised in a semi-wild environment, noshing on acorns in the woods and whatever else they want to eat in the fields and pastures. This diet and lifestyle is well represented in the flavor of this meat. The fat surrounding the chop was crisp on the outside from the open fire on which it was cooked, and moist and exploding with flavor on the inside. This was like no other pork chop that I've ever had. A lovely family-run restaurant with a ball-busting host, with house-made Limoncello, ta boot.
L'Osteria di Giovanni : Florence, Italy
This dish was as special on this night. I didn't know what to expect, and figured it would be some pieces of lobster in a white wine sauce over pasta. Just as you'd find in countless "Italian" restaurants in the states. Thankfully I couldn't have been more wrong.
The entire beast was served over the pasta, in a sauce that was the essence of the animal. Deep, rich, lobster flavor. This dish was wonderful. Additional thoughts on this restaurant here.
l'Ortone Trattoria : Florence, Italy
I thoroughly enjoyed a lampredotto sandwich at Da Nerbone, the small stall in Mercato Centrale, a week earlier. Lampredotto, of course, is the fourth, final, and perhaps least popular stomach of a cow. It's also very Florentine. I figured I'd had my fill of the stuff after that sandwich at Da Nerbone. Thankfully fate stepped in.
We were sat at the outside tables of l'Ortone Trattoria, which we had simply stumbled upon, trying to figure out where to have lunch while enjoying some wine or Campari or something. Probably sat there, researching, for 45 minutes. I finally suggusted that we should just consider eating right where we were. The menu wasn't doing a whole lot for my companions, but I ensured them it would all be good. I, as usual, was right.
This lampredotto pasta was a special, IIRC. And it was magical. Chopped lampredotto, in a sauce that I believe is called "zimino," which consisted of chopped vegetables and broth and herbs. This was the best application of tripe that I had all trip. This pasta was simply outstanding, and like nothing I've ever eaten.
Trippa alla Fiorentina
Trattoria 4 Leoni : Florence, Italy
We landed at Trattoria 4 Leoni sort of by accident. I has hoping to get into a restaurant right across the piazza which specializes in tripe. But it was small, and packed. So we sat our butts down at Trattoria 4 Leoni.
This is a dish that I continue to think about, months later. As I wrote a while back,
"The tripe pretends it's pasta, but pasta that tastes like meat. It's like having a pasta with meat sauce but without having pasta or meat. It's pretty incredible stuff."
a.kitchen : Philadelphia, PA
This burger is messy, and glorious. Everything about it is perfect. The rest of the food and the cocktails at a.kitchen and a.bar is outstanding. I love everything about these places. They are two of my favorite restaurants in Philly, and I ramble on about them here.
Old Spanish beef
Enoteca Marcucci : Pietrastanta, Italy
My plan was to order bistecca alla fiorentina, figuring Marcucci would get it right. I hadn't had a version during this trip that lived up to my memory of the first time I had the dish, some 12 years ago. I was about to pull the trigger, when the waiter mentioned that they had a special that night. I wasn't picking up every word of Italian, but he did manage to speak the necessary words in perfect english: "Old Spanish beef. Really old." "Is it aged," I asked. "Yes, a very long time."
He had me at old.
Apparently, eating really old cows/steer is a thing, which comes out of Spain. These animals can be upwards to 17 years old. They eat grass, as you'd hope they would. They are dry-aged, for a really long time. They are then cooked over fire, and served rare. While my guests didn't enjoy this slab of beef, I sure did. It was like nothing I'd ever eaten. A somewhat tough, very flavorful piece of flesh. This was a meal that will not soon be forgotten.
Wine Kitchen: Frederick, MD
What a fine, fine restaurant. The service is excellent, the cocktails are excellent, the fact that they have a selection of Japanese whisky is excellent. It's all excellent. And the most excellent of all is that burger. This one really made an impression on me. The fries, also, excellent.
Annnnnnnnnd, that's a wrap.