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December 29, 2006

The Deliciousness of 2006

Ah, this brings me back.

Last year about this time, I was cruising around LTH Forum when I happened upon the thread where everybody was posting their favorite ten dishes of 2005. I jumped in, but in the process of trying to come up with my favorite tastes of the previous 365 days, I grew frusrated with the knowledge that I was forgetting things... a lot of things. I decided to start journaling restaurants and recipes, and figured that as long as I was at it, I might as well make a blog of it. Thus, Skillet Doux was born.

Of course, the whole blogging thing has not only helped me to remember all of the tasty things I had this past year, but it's also had the most excellent side effect of pushing me to get out and try more. As a result, while last year's list included a few filler items, I had a really difficult time paring this year's list down to ten. There are dishes I had that were sometimes more inventive, interesting, refined or perfectly executed than these, but these were the ten that were the religious culinary experiences... those moments when a dish is so engrossing and such a sensory overload that you get completely lost in the food for a few moments. In 2006, these are the dishes that stayed with me, and that I'm sure they'll continue to do so for years to come.

And so, my ten favorite dishes of 2006, the order courtesy of random.org. As usual, clicking on the photos will bring up larger images:

Dominic Armato
Lobster with Potato, Gooseberries and Lavender
Schwa - Chicago

It's just chance that this one came up first, I swear. I also swore I wouldn't do any kind of rankings. But this was my favorite dish of the year, hands-down, no question. Despite plowing through hordes of high-end cuisine for the Summer of Fine Dining, I only encountered one dish in 2006 that was giggleworthy. Michael Carlson's lobster dish made me absolutely giddy. As I said in the first Schwa post, "the dish contained chunks of butter-poached lobster, sitting on a potato puree and accompanied by slices of roasted fingerling potatoes, some Swiss chard, gooseberries and a lavender foam. The combination was the kind of bold, pure, intense flavor that creates a total sensory overload. I think I left my body for a minute or two. A dish this intoxicating is a rare, rare treat." Carlson's quail egg ravioli may be the dish that causes most to swoon, and with good reason. But as fantastic as the ravioli was, it was this lobster dish that I'll never forget.
Dominic Armato
BISON - gruyère, pumpernickel, ramps
Alinea - Chicago

Alinea was a fantastic experience that I hope to duplicate sometime soon. Achatz' dishes engage the brain without working at the gut's expense. Whether the bison or squab would be the one to make the top ten was a tough decision, but I finally settled on the bison. Not only was it a religious culinary experience, but it was one of the shining examples of unorthodox technique creating compelling new dishes. The bison was first treated three ways... smoked, poached, then grilled... and then combined with a spicy raisin sauce. It was accompanied by gently cooked leeks, and a number of dehydrated ingredients including gruyère cheese, tiny flakes of pumpernickel bread and a powdered caraway salt. Not only was the flavor phenomenal, but the integration of the dehydrated and powdered ingredients created a wonderfully unexpected textural angle. Fantastic dish.
Dominic Armato
NY Strip Steak
Snake River Farms - Boise, Idaho

While I'm still irritated that it goes by the "American Kobe" moniker, since it only barely resembles the genuine item from Japan, this was the year that American Kobe won me over as a pretty decent alternative. It still isn't close to being the same, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just different. And it's really delicious. It has some hints of the ridiculous richness that you get with genuine Kobe, but it also has a full-on beefy American Angus tail. Snake River Farms isn't a restaurant, but rather one purveyor of American Kobe for which I can vouch. Twice this year, I seared some up and topped it with just a little soy, honey, miso and garlic. One time it was pretty excellent. The other time, it was positively divine. It definitely isn't Kobe, but it's still one of the best things I tasted this year.
Dominic Armato
Plaa Sôm
Spoon Thai - Chicago

I almost feel guilty putting this one up here, since it isn't actually available. A few months back, I had the great fortune of being invited to a Thai feast by the inimitable Erik M. of silapaahaan.com. Erik, being good friends with the folks who run Spoon Thai, arranged a special menu that included some dishes that aren't ordinarily on the menu. This one was my favorite, not just for its awesomeness, but also for the fact that it was prepared in a manner that was wonderfully novel to me, no matter how traditional it may be in reality. Sticky rice is fermented in the cavity of the fish before it's deep-fried, imparting it with a wonderful mellow sourness that completely permeates the flesh. It was an eye-opening year for me when it comes to traditional Thai, and this dish was one of the highlights.
Dominic Armato
Soft Shell Crab Po' Boy with Tomato-Fennel
Relish and Fennel Frond Mayo
Dom's Kitchen - Chicago

With soft shell crab season slipping away, I decided to throw something together one night that turned out surprisingly well. Every once in a while, it's nice to have a reminder that a few simple ingredients can absolutely floor you if they're treated just right. I'm still not quite sure how this sandwich came out as well as it did, and I'm almost afraid to try it again for fear that I happened to catch lightning in a bottle that night and I'll just be disappointed, but man, was it good. It was all about freshness, I had some stellar ingredients to work with, I tried not to do too much with them, and everything just happened to come together perfectly. This is something I'll definitely be revisiting when we do our stint in Baltimore.
Dominic Armato
Roast Chicken, Wing, Middle Section
Dom's Kitchen - Chicago

I know, I know, this level of specificity is totally absurd. But back at the beginning of the year, I made a roast chicken for the first time. Also absurd. But in any case, I did it in a cast iron pan, with the wings tucked under the bird, flat against the bottom. The result was a wing that essentially fried in chicken fat in the oven for about 45 minutes. I'm already a little partial to chicken wings, and I inadvertently distilled it down to its purest form... salty, impossibly crisp, still moist in the middle, and possessed of an incredibly intense chicken flavor. It was nothing but chicken, salt, pepper and a bit of fresh thyme, and it was still one of the most delicious things I had all year. Now I just need to figure out how to replicate the wings without having to cook the whole bird.
Dominic Armato
Italian Beef Sandwich with Fries
Chickie's - Chicago

I've already waxed poetic about Chickie's Italian beef on a number of occasions. I've always been an admirer of the Chicago institution that is the Italian beef sandwich, and this was the year I did my best to explore the city's scene in the form of the Beef-Off. While I had some great sandwiches, Chickie's was the one that completely took me away. Its beauty is in its subtle complexity, with all elements serving to accentuate the beef without calling too much attention to themselves. Though Italian beef sandwiches are notoriously inconsistent, when they're on, they're an underrated culinary gem. The second beef I had at Chickie's this year was, by a longshot, the best Italian beef sandwich I've ever tasted. And the fries are pretty damn good, too.
Eduardo Seidenberger
Aburi Toro
Sushizanmai - Tokyo, Japan

I've been to Japan a number of times and demolished more than my fair share of raw fish. But on my trip this past April, I hit a new high. Searching online for all-night sushi bars, I came across Sushizanmai, which has a number of locations around Tokyo. The one I hit was just a couple of blocks from Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world. Raw fish doesn't get much better than this, and while everything was phenomenal, there was one item I tried that absolutely blew me away. I saw the chef preparing it for another customer, and asked him to make some for me as well. Aburi toro is, like any other toro, the extremely fatty cut of tuna taken from the belly of the fish. But in the case of aburi toro, it's then topped with a light dusting of some mystery powder that is both salty and sweet, quickly seared with a blowtorch, and topped with a bit of chive. It. Was. Amazing. The quick sear under incredible heat leaves the inner rawness while cooking the outer surface. But most importantly, it melts and draws out some of the fat, leaving the surface of the fish glistening with pure toro richness. I've never had it anywhere else, so for all I know this is incredibly common in Japan. But I can't imagine it getting any better than what I had. Food just doesn't get any better than that. Tragically, I didn't get a photo of this one, but Eduardo Seidenberger came to the rescue, graciously sending me his photo of aburi toro for me to post... and from the same restaurant, no less!
Dominic Armato
Bufalina Pizza
Spacca Napoli - Chicago

Sadly, I have no photo of the Bufalina, so a picture of the funghi pizza will have to suffice. Spacca Napoli opened in Chicago this year, and it made me swoon right from the start. Here is an establishment that has absolutely nailed a beautiful art form, that of the Neapolitan pizza. Since my first visit in June, I've managed to plow through most of the regular menu, as well as a number of specials. Every single one has been fantastic, but if I had to pick a favorite, I think it'd be the beautiful simplicity of their Bufalina. It's so uncomplicated, so unpretentious, and so perfect. And while the fior di latte mozzarella that's used on most of the pizzas is wonderful, there's something magical about buffalo milk cheese that keeps bringing me back to the Bufalina. Despite our reputation as the home of deep dish, Spacca Napoli serves up my favorite pizza in the city.
Dominic Armato
Calvados-Infused Duck Sausage with
Apple Mustard, White Truffle Cheese
and Foie Gras "Butter"
Hot Doug's - Chicago

So that we don't end the year's top ten on a bitter note, I'm going to gloss over the fact that this is now an illicit foodstuff in my fair city. 2006 also marked my first visit to Hot Doug's, the Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium. The man elevates sausage to an art form, both ably covering the basics while simultaneously busting out wacky combinations of unusual sausages and even more unusual toppings in an unending quest for encased meaty bliss. Since my first visit, I've achieved encased meaty bliss on a number of occasions, but my favorite was probably the sausage you see here. The title says high brow, but this is an absolutely brilliant dressing-down of some über-classy ingredients. I've had duck, truffles, foie gras and calvados together many times before, but this might actually be my favorite. What's more, while I'm frequently irritated by those who thumb their noses at authority, I have nothing but the warm fuzzies for Doug who occasionally brings this gem (or some derivation thereof) back, despite the citation he proudly displays on his counter. Though it was a wonderfully tasty year for me, 2006 was also a dark and foreboding one for the Chicago food scene thanks to the city council. Fight the power, Doug, and may 2007 take the restaurant scene out of the city's legislative crosshairs.

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I had that same lobster dish at Schwa (I think we were there a week or two apart), and it's actually the dish that convinced me that I just don't like lobster. It was a perfectly executed dish, with the lobster oozing that rich buttery taste, perfect fingerlings, lavendar in the air. And yet, I loved everything in the dish except the lobster.

I don't get it. Same problem with shrimps, too, for what it's worth. The texture just doesn't float my boat, I guess.

My standout dish at Schwa was the sweetbreads. I was being bought, and I loved every bite of it.

In that case, Ed, anytime you go back, drop me a line and I'll happily swing by and pick up yours :-)

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