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January 03, 2006

The Deliciousness of 2005

The folks over at LTHForum have been posting their year-end lists of deliciousness, and I thought I'd chime in. Needless to say, it's an awful lot of fun to go back and relive the ten tastiest moments of the previous year. I'm sure there are a number of notable omissions, but here they are anyway, in completely random order:

Goat Tacos
Supermercado Morelia
7334 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL

Authentic everyday Mexican definitely isn't my strong suit, but this was phenomenal. On the weekends, back at the meat counter at Supermercado Morelia, they sell meat -- huge piles of cooked meat for the purpose of filling tacos, to be precise. You can go in, buy the prepared meat in bulk with tortillas and accompaniments, take it home and feast. Though there are a few different types of meat and preparations to choose from, the goat is the one that floored me. It's lightly seasoned, moist, tender... simple and perfect. They have a table set up so that you can assemble a taco and decide which manner of sauteed beast you're going to leave with, and of course I was only too happy to oblige. When that goat meat was married to a steaming tortilla and some pickled onions and peppers, I was totally blown away.

Skirt Steak with Chimichurri
1616 N. Damen
Chicago, IL

I've always considered Feast to be one of those spots that's always solid, if unexeceptional. However, a couple of months back I was pleasantly caught offguard. Jern and I had one of those, "ah, what the heck, let's fall into some neighborhood joint for dinner" nights. We'd recently been introduced to Feast brunch by one of Jern's coworkers, and thought enough of it to try out their dinner menu. Though it's exceptionally rare that I'll order a steak, I was drawn in by their Skirt Steak with Chimichurri (or whatever it's named on the menu), and was just thrilled. It's a tender, beautifully seasoned steak with a heavily vinegared sauce that cuts through and complements the meat's richness. I don't know if it was truly exceptional, or if it just hit me in the right spot at the right time, but it was definitely one of my favorite dishes of the year and it came out of nowhere.

Stir-Fried Chicken with
Chiles & Sichuan Peppercorns

Sichuan Garden
Pacific Place, Hong Kong

I've been regularly traveling to Hong Kong and southern China for years now, and I love the fact that despite 40+ trips, I still manage to have something every time that blows me away. This one's a fairly common dish as they come, but Sichuan Garden's version is absolutely fantastic, and it's only boostered by the fact that sichuan peppercorns are one of my favorite pet ingredients these days. Sichuan peppercorns are wonderful little fellows. They're not nearly as peppery as they are citrusy, but their claim to fame is the unusual, sour numbing effect that they bring to your mouth. The sensation definitely falls under the category of things that can't really be described and simply have to be tasted. Though I've enjoyed Ma Po Dofu with brutal levels of sichuan peppercorns (thanks, Iron Chef Chen!), in this case they numb you just enough without blowing you out, and the balance between the chiles, sourness and the shaoshing is right on. It's what every spicy stir-fried chicken dish in the States aspires to be.

Moi with Fennel Confit and Nicoise Vinaigrette
100 Ka'upulehu Drive
Ka'upulehu-Kona, Hawaii

I think it's safe to say that across the board, Pahui'a, the flagship restaurant at the Four Seasons Hualalai on the Big Island, has the most incredible fish I've ever tasted. We did the grand tour of upscale Big Island restaurants in April, and Pahui'a was so clearly on another plane that when my future wife and I return for our honeymoon in March, we're pretty much planning on eating there six nights in a row. But as stunning as their entire menu is, their locally farmed moi (royal threadfin) was a lifelong highlight for me. It doesn't get cute, but rather takes basic flavors of the Mediterranean and works them into an incredible level of intensity, all perfectly balanced. And though it simultaneously encapsulates multiple bold flavors, it doesn't for a moment overpower the delicate fish. Best dish of 2005 for me, hands down, and quite possibly the best fish dish I've ever had. Religious culinary experiences are getting harder and harder to come by for me these days, but this was one of the most enlightening ever.

Seared Tuna Tataki with Pinot Noir Reduction and Roast Beet Puree
Sea Saw
7133 E. Stetson Dr.
Scottsdale, AZ

Sea Saw is something of a Japanese Tapas restaurant with a heavy skew towards sashimi. Nobu Fukuda's (the other Nobu) dishes don't always hit the bullseye, but even when they don't, they're interesting and admirable near misses. The Tuna Tataki, however, isn't one of those misses. The name of the dish says it all, and it was a completely unexpected combination that was the standout fave.

Assorted Pakoras
Kirsten & Atul's Kitchen
I've always lamented the fact that my knowledge of Indian is supremely limited. So for one of the best birthday presents I've ever received, a couple of friends treated me to an intro to Indian cooking evening, complete with general orientation and hands-on prep of some of their family's traditional dishes. I'd had pakoras before, but never homemade, and never seconds out of the oil. And it's also a universal truism that everything tastes better when you had a hand in preparing it, especially with dear friends.

Some dive in Montreal
Poutine, for those not in the know, is comprised of thick-cut french fries topped with cheese curds and incredibly salty beef gravy. In short, it most definitely was NOT what I'd term a culinary experience. However, it was a new experience, it was a bachelor party weekend, I was significantly drunk, and... well... let's just say it was both really, really bad and really, really good.

Oxtail Ravioli with Tuscan Liver Sauce
My Kitchen
Well, I had to throw one of my own in here. It was an adaptation of a Batali recipe, and one of the few occasions when I've created something in my own kitchen that I think could not only stand up but actually thrive in a Tuscan trattoria. 2005 saw 25 pastas for Movie & Pasta Night, and this one was far and away my favorite. Hooray for liver!

Dominic Armato
Chilled Red & Yellow Tomato Soups
The Hualalai Grille by Alan Wong
100 Ka'upulehu Drive
Ka'upulehu-Kona, Hawaii

Before our trip to Hawaii, I'd heard it rumored that Big Island tomatoes are some of the best in the world. This dish was the proof. Wong threw in some nice creative touches, including little dollops of tomato sorbet, but generally speaking, he let the tomatoes speak for themselves. As it turned out, they had plenty to say. We were so taken by them, in fact, that I did my own take on the dish for 's wedding shower, with happy results.

Fox & Obel
2005 is the year I discovered guanciale. Or more accurately, the year I cooked with it a good thirty times and came to adore it. We've even affectionately nicknamed it "face bacon", as it's meat from the pig's jowls rather than the belly. Obviously, it's attainable from any number of sources, but whatever variety Fox & Obel buys is chock full of fatty porcine bliss. As I've been repeating all year ad nauseam, it's like pancetta, but with a more porky, rich, sweet flavor. Goal for 2006: curing my own.

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