Sign up for the Opinionated About Dining™
mailing list to receive news and update alerts:


My 25 Favorite Dishes of 2014

I thought long and hard about making a list of the 25 best dishes I was served in 2014. And when I realized that it was too difficult a task, I decided to switch to my favorite dishes so I wouldn’t have the burden of actually defending their superiority. Still, it wasn’t an easy list to come up with, but somehow I manage to slog my way through it. Listed in alphabetical order by dish:

1. Aged Duck, Duck Liver Jus, Porcini, Garlic Scapes & Duck Boudin Blanc – Castagna, Portland, Oregon

Justin Woodward calls the blob in the middle of the plate, “duck liver jus," but the description just doesn’t do it justice. A better description would be the first neo-classical saucing of the post naturalist era. When that style of saucing becomes the standard at haute cuisine restaurants, remember where you read about it first.

2. “Back to the Future" Paris 1970/Roast Lamb Shank – Diverxo, Madrid, Spain

Easily the most entertaining dining experience I had this year. From the wonderful modern décor, the humorous, color-coordinated jump suits worn by the staff, to the delicious ingredient based Asian-influenced cooking, David Munoz has created a dining experience that is unlike any other you have experienced. This particular dish comes with a series of diversions such as cordoning off your table behind curtains and playing French dance music from 1970 on a boom box. But, you can’t eat props, and what makes the dish tick is Munoz’s clever and delicious reworking of a lamb shank carved tableside. Note: Another modern version of jus. I am telling you it’s a trend.

3. Black Cod Poached with Cherry Tomatoes & Lovage Oil – Willows Inn, Lummi Island, Washington

So simple yet so magical. Forget the cod, which was sublime all by itself. I could drink gallons of the tomato-tinged, seafood infused broth, which was as hyper-pure as the most perfectly made dashi.

4. Black Truffle Mochi – Quique Dacosta Restaurant, Denia, Spain

While there were a number of dishes that Quique Dacosta served on our recent visit that could qualify for this list, his black truffle mochi was so good that next time I see him, I am going to suggest that he open a stand featuring savory mochi in the basement of Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo.

5. Brown butter basted Halibut with a Thai salsa verde, white soy dashi, farro, hakurei turnips, and micro radish cress, Tao Yuan, Brunswick, Maine

Tara Stadler deserves a bigger stage: Few people will ever make it all the way up to Brunswick, Maine to sample her delicious Chinese food. If you do go, make sure it is during halibut season as the level of technique and finesse in this dish is worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe.

6. Carabineros, Gamba, Verbena, Algaes, Lime – Pure C, Cadzand, Netherlands

These were so good that it would be shame to describe them merely as shrimp. I am also convinced they would have been amazing no matter how you served them. The yin yang of the raw/cooked, along with did the citrusy/green thing, made it doubly special..

7. Chutoro, lightly grilled with Olive Oil, Lemon & Salt – Etxebarri, Axpe-Marzana, Spain

The genius of Victor Arguinzoniz was on full display with this preparation of medium fatty tuna that was lightly grilled over wood, doused with a bit of olive oil, and showered with some lemon and coarse salt. Calling it succulent is an understatement.

8. Clam Chowder, Smoked Marrow Bone, Spring Onion & Jalapeño – Ox Portland, Oregon

An amazing version of New England-style clam chowder on the West Coast? Unlikely but true. What makes it stand out is that the broth has been thickened with bone marrow rather than flour, resulting in an amazingly silky texture.

9. Coccotte of Fonduta, Egg and White Truffle, Antica Corona Realle “Da Renzo", Cervere, Italy

During the drive to Da Renzo from Torino for lunch, my friend Bob Noto kept saying, “the cocotte, the coccote, the coccote." But is wasn’t until our table was surrounded by four servers who were dutifully whipping a lightly cooked egg into a steaming fonduta. Then the restaurant’s owners completely coated the top of the concoction with shaved white truffle. Sort of like eating a truffled quiche batter.
Possibly the richest dish of all time.

10. Fried Lobster Tail with Matsutake Mushrooms in a fragrant Marine Broth – Regis et Jacques Marcon, St. Bonnet-les-Froids, France

Lobster and mushrooms? How Japanese. Which is probably why the lobster tail had an extremely light coating of tempura batter. A dish whose deliciousness caught us by surprise.

11. Mackerel burnt under flame, Tapioca cooked in chicken stock, Chocolate, Wasabi, Satay – AM par Alexander Mazzia, Marseille, France

One of the best discoveries of 2015 (thanks to my friend Stephanie Biteau of Cookcooning). This dish was an excellent representation of chef Alexander Mazzia’s cuisine: Modern European cooking (Mazzia spent time in Berasetegui’s kitchen) combined with both Asian and Latin American elements. A chef to watch – I will surprised if Michelin does not anoint him with a star this spring.

12. Nakijin-Agoo-Buta Pork Cutlet from Okinawa Prefecture – Butugumi, Tokyo, Japan

Sometimes a picture is worth a 1,000 bites. This pork cutlet, with its glistening pork fat, tells you all that you need to know about this dish. White I spent most of my time in Tokyo eating high-end meals, this was about as exceptional as a casual meal gets.

13. Nigiri of Otoro – Sukibyashi Jiro Roppongi, Tokyo, Japan

I had so many different servings of exceptional quality tuna this year, it is hard to believe that there could possibly be one single piece that stood out above the rest. Yet here I am writing these words about a cut that was so exceptional, that the saying melt in your mouth just doesn’t do it justice. More like instantly disintegrate which leaving an exceptional long, fatty tuna finish.

14. Oosterschelde Lobster warmed in Beurre Montee sauce – In de Wulf, Dranouter, Belgium

What made this dish so interesting, besides the fact that it is a perfect example of how new culinary techniques can be used to improve traditional dishes, is that it is a departure from the hyper-natural style of cooking that has conquered many European kitchens. I predict that this is the next trend in cooking: A style of saucing based on classical cuisine, but executed in a way that frees the sauces of the imperfections that are inherent in classical French technique.

15. Roasted Marrow Bone with Peas and Bleak Roe – Ekstedt, Stockholm, Sweden

Nikolas Ekstedt deserves a round of applause for his clever of use of rustic cooking techniques (there is no electricity in his kitchen and he cooks everything over a wood fire) with scientific culinary theory. I mean how else could someone roast a marrow bone in way that is oh so gentle, resulting in a slightly smoky taste that does not overwhelm the peas or bleak roe. Elegant and lovely.

16. Salt & Pepper Mantis Shrimp – Hing Kee, Hong Kong, China

Mantis shrimp where have you been all of my life? You are succulent, unctuous, juicy, tender and as sweet as a cube of sugar. Add subtle salt and pepper batter and gentle frying and you have something that was so good I thought my head was going to explode. And a huge thank you to my pal Margaret Lam for turning me on to this place.

17. Sea Bass with Black Truffles, Zucchini, Cucumber, Basil & Coriander, Le Petit Nice, Marseille, France

The true test of a great dish is whether it has outlasted the era of cooking it derives from. Here we have a classic of the post-nouvelle cuisine era, that tastes as vibrant today as it did a dozen years ago What’s the secret? The minimalism built into the dish has already removed the excesses of the era, which allows the ingredients to shine.

18. Seared Tuna Cheek – Sushi Kaneseka, Tokyo, Japan

With three different dishes tuna preparations on this list, I think it is fair to say that 2014 was the year of the tuna. This preparation was so simple – simply marinate a tuna cheek in soy sauce and then sear it – it is surprising that I have yet to come across it in another Japanese restaurant.

19. Slow-Cooked Wagyu Beef Shoulder with Wasabi & Rice – Den, Tokyo, Japan

While most of the kaiseki chefs in Tokyo are ultra-serious, Zaiyu Hasagawa’s restaurant combines the dedication to ingredients that kaiseki restaurants are known for, along with a whimsical perspective found in many Western kitchens. Easily the best rice dish I ate on my travels to Japan.

20. Smoked Bonito – Harutaka, Tokyo, Japan

Unlike the way American sushi chefs serve bonito (which is the same as every other cut of fish), chefs in Tokyo typically serve pristine cuts of the fish, either smoked or lightly marinated., as sashimi. This version at Harutaka, which was the first example I experienced in Tokyo, and it set the standard for how bonito should be served.

21. Smoked Duck Breast, Udon Salad, Fava Beans & Roasted Fermented Carrots, dressed with Vegan X.O. Sauce – Hugo’s, Portland, Maine

What happens when you give Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley a pasta extruder? They make thickly cut, exceptional tasting wide noodles. Cook them al dente. Then add a series if ingredients that turn it into what might be the best American pasta dish ever made.

22. Squash Tamale with Spicy Pippian Verde – Taco Maria, Costa Mesa, California

As spicy as it is delicious: Carlos Selgado has created the prototype dish that contemporary Mexican chefs should be using as their springboard.

23. Squid & Corn – Birch, Providence, R.I.

Ben Sukle has a magical way with vegetables. In fact, he does such a good job with them that I dare say there are moments when his use of them approaches chefs like Dan Barber and Alain Passard. Sukle has a way of serving vegetables that turns the meat or fish in the dish into the vegetable’s sidekick. Delicious and intellectual at the same time.

24. Surf Clams, Almonds & Leeks – Atera, New York, NY

If I could only convince my friend Matt Lightner to alter the balance of his menu to include less dishes based on foraging, and more of the progressive, ingredient intensive cooking which he built his reputation on, I would eat at Atera once a month.

25. Wagyu Beef raised in Kyoto -- Shima, Tokyo, Japan

Oshima Manabu serves beef from a family farm in Kobe. While not as fatty as the beef served in other Tokyo steakhouses, it is fatty enough for me, and unlike some of the other beef restaurants in Tokyo, you can actually eat an entire steak without feeling as if you have fallen into a tub of goose fat.