Photo Modified: Flickr/Arnold Gatilao
In American restaurant culture, some establishments are known for serving an excellent example of a certain dish like pizza or ramen; some specialize in a specific cuisine, such as Mexican or Italian; and some just consistently deliver such a special culinary experience that they deserve to be counted among the country’s very best no matter what they serve.
Finally, there is a very small, elite group of restaurants whose chefs and menus change the way we think about dining out and show us flavors and experiences we had never thought possible, significantly influencing their customers and colleagues across the nation and perhaps even around the world. Beginning this year, The Daily Meal will honor one such establishment annually, and acknowledge two runners-up. Nobu would most likely have been the winner when it opened 20 years ago in 1994, if we'd been doing this then, thanks to chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s innovative fusion and superb execution; modernist magician José Andrés’ Bazaar in L.A. would likely have taken the prize in 2008, and French seafood mecca Le Bernardin might well have won after its enlivening renovation in 2011.
Of course, it isn’t just about who churns out the most impressive food and demonstrates the highest level of skill in the kitchen; we address that in naming our Chef of the Year, and the holder of that title isn't necessarily the man or woman behind our chosen restaurant — just as, at the Academy Awards, the Best Film is not necessarily the work of the Best Director. As The Daily Meal’s editorial director, Colman Andrews, so aptly stated, “We are talking about more than just good or innovative food here. This is about restaurants that mean something, either through demonstrable influence on other places or maybe just because they have gone their own way so firmly that they are inspiring even to those who don't imitate or riff off them.” Every year, there is one establishment that best embodies this trailblazing and trendsetting spirit, forever altering the perception of dining out in America, and we went looking for 2014’s star.
To find it, we compiled a list of ten restaurants from around the country that we thought best fit this description, looking at reports from our own site and other respected food sites and publications, finding our nominees in large metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles, but also in smaller cities and towns like Providence, Kansas City, and Robbinsdale, Minnesota. It didn’t matter whether the restaurant had 30 seats or 300; the sole criterion used while making the list was that the establishment had changed the way we thought about dining in American restaurants. We sent our list of nominees around to select members of The Daily Meal Council and other gastronomic authorities, including writers, journalists, bloggers, and restaurateurs who did not have an establishment in the running for the title. We asked them to either pick one we had nominated or write in one that we missed but they believed deserved the accolade. We also polled our knowledgeable Daily Meal staff and our passionate City Editors from around America. In the end, there was one clear winner along with two restaurants we thought deserved honorable mentions; read on for details on the Restaurant of the Year for 2014.
Honorable Mention: Annisa, New York City
Chef and owner Anita Lo opened Annisa on New York’s Lower East Side in 2000, and promptly blew the lid off the box that was gastronomic fusion, which had been mostly limited to two-cuisine combinations in this country, like Japanese-French or Chinese-Cuban. Instead, Lo seamlessly marries signature flavors from four or five cuisines on a single plate, making the job of defining her culinary style a delightful conundrum and solidifying her spot in the canon of the most influential chefs of the new millennium. Lo is resilient, too, as she reopened the restaurant in April 2010, just nine months after it was devastated by a fire.
She continues to innovate almost a decade and a half after opening her restaurant, with dishes like roasted beet salad with cashew purée, cocoa nibs, and Selim pepper, and seared foie gras with soup dumplings and jicama. The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells reviewed Anissa in February 2014 and gave the restaurant three stars — one more than his predecessor Sam Sifton bestowed upon the eatery in 2000. Wells explained his decision to upgrade the paper’s ranking of the restaurant by writing, “What is remarkable about her food, though, is not exactly the absence of borders, but the ease with which she crosses them… time has simply made it more clear how singular Annisa is.”
Honorable Mention: Trois Mec, Los Angeles
French chef Ludo Lefebvre teamed up with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal and Son of a Gun to open Trois Mec in Los Angeles in April of 2013, and its 24 seats immediately became the hottest tickets in town — and when we say ticket, we mean a real ticket. The restaurant’s unconventional reservation system, inspired by the one developed by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas for Alinea and popularized by their restaurant Next in Chicago, isn’t what got it this honorable mention, however; it’s chef Lefebvre’s incredibly inventive cuisine.
Almost immediately upon opening, his potato pulp — a nod to the year he spent under the tutelage of Joël Robuchon and the veteran chef’s potato purée — was hailed as a culinary revelation around the industry and the Internet. The dish comprised still-crunchy Weiser Family Farms potatoes passed through a ricer onto brown butter, onion soubise, Salers cheese from Auvergne, and bonito flakes. Then Lefebvre's grilled baby corn with black garlic was named the Best Restaurant Dish of 2013 by Food & Wine. The restaurant received many other special honors in its natal year, including being named Best New Restaurant by both LA Weekly and Los Angeles Magazine, and was included on Esquire’s Best New Restaurants list and Zagat’s roster of the Top 10 Hottest Restaurants in the World. For years, Lefebvre was the roaming talented chef without a brick-and-mortar establishment, whose pop-up restaurants around L.A. were the only places you could enjoy his inventive taste tantalizing fare. Now, with the more regular stage that is Trois Mec, the chef has clearly demonstrated just how gastronomically horizon-expanding his signature approach to fine dining truly is.