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2011 was the most amazing restaurant-eating year of my life. I say that not to brag, but marveling at how fortunate I was to eat at some the country's best restaurants. During 2011, in 16 cities across nine states, I ate at almost 200 places, some with tablecolths, others with salsa bars. Many were pilgrimages, either for their chefs, history, or the press about them. And I was lucky to eat at most with my girlfriend Angela. So before embracing 2012's eating adventures, here's a look at the most memorable meals that left the biggest impressions.
This adventure's scope was due to personal travel, but also to covering festivals in Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, and Barbados. These events, headlined by some of America's well-regarded chefs, were chances to experience cities' food scenes and enabled me to squeeze in visits to spots with storied histories and others new to the scene.
There are so many great restaurants in America with exciting chefs doing interesting things, so many places that have been satisfying customers for years, decades even. Still, at the start of 2011, there were five restaurants that I wanted to eat at more than at any other: Per Se, Le Bernardin, Alinea, The French Laundry, and Masa. We ate at three of those, and in an embarrassment of birthday riches, two in one day. There are others, like Clio, O Ya, minibar, Pizzeria Bianco, and ubuntu, that I've hoped to visit, but those five were important in terms of understanding the bar against which so many other restaurants are set.
Meals at Per Se and Alinea were as outstanding as expected. But there were restaurants not as hyped where we ate dishes that were just as memorable. Some, like O Ya and Meadowood, were in the same price range. Others, like Sushi Zo, aren't conventionally mentioned in the same breath.
Top 10 meals of the year:
- Alinea (Chicago)
- Per Se (New York City)
- Meadowood (Napa Valley, Calif.)
- O Ya (Boston)
- Franklin (Austin, Texas)
- ubuntu (Napa Valley, Calif.)
- Sushi Zo (Los Angeles)
- Momofuku Ssäm Bar (New York City)
- PPQ Dungeness Island (San Francisco)
- Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix)
But other memorable meals were nowhere near the prices of many of the restaurants above. Ricky's Fish Tacos in L.A., and Wolfy's in Chicago cost about $10. One of the most memorable dishes of 2011 cost $.59 at Round Rock Donuts. And these were more memorable than individual dishes or tasting menus at places like Benu, Brushstroke, RN74, and Uchi, some of America's most well-regarded restaurants.
As for individual dishes, the top 10 best things I ate all year were:
- Boudin blanc at Bouchon (Yountville, Calif.)
- Oysters and Pearls at Per Se (New York City)
- English Pea at Alinea (Chicago)
- Brisket at Franklin (Austin, Texas)
- Flautas from Chico's Tacos (El Paso by way of New York City)
- Fish Tacos at Ricky's (Los Angeles)
- Peruvian-style Kindai Bluefin Toro Tataki at O Ya (Boston)
- Porchetta at "Meat in the Middle" event at Lukshon (Los Angeles)
- Orange Rind, Green Tomato, and Melon Float at ubuntu (Napa Valley, Calif.)
- Jalapeño Sausage at Kreuz (Lockhart, Texas)
But you can't omit the the top five things you drank, so:
- Ginger Cocktail at The Aviary (Chicago)
- Imperial Cane Sugar Dr Pepper (Dublin, Texas)
- The Narwhal at Commonwealth (San Francisco)
- Michelada at Taqueria Los Coyotes (San Francisco)
- A 2007 flight of vintage Brut Cuvée, Brut Rosé, and Vermeil Demi-Sec with American Sturgeon caviar at Domaine Carneros (Napa Valley, Calif.)
Best burger, best pizza, best taco, best doughnut? The guiding principles, outside haute cuisine, that are behind seeking out the best foods across the country? Tricky. For burgers: Holeman & Finch, Father's Office, Chris Madrid's. For pizza: Una Pizza Napoletana, Pizzeria Bianco, and Flour + Water. Tacos: Ricky's and La Taqueria. And doughnuts: Round Rock.
What else did I learn about the American dining scene? That you can find Green Goddess dressing at Per Se and FnB, that finger limes are becoming big, and that strip malls can serve some of the best sushi in the country. But I'm getting ahead of myself. From Boston and Connecticut to Chicago and Phoenix, and from Los Angeles and up Highway 1 to San Francisco up through Napa Valley, the 96 dishes in the accompanying slideshow noted more than anything else, how much more there is to learn about eating great food across America.
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