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January 03, 2008

The Deliciousness of 2007

What better way to emerge from winter blogging hibernation than to revisit the deliciousness of 2007?

What with the brand new little fella and our mid-year relocation, 2007 made for an interesting year all around, and grub hunting was no exception. Meals out had already become scarce before the move. But with nobody in Baltimore to watch our offspring, the second half of the year was limited to lunch spots that didn't mind lively young'uns and the occasional meal with some Charm City Chowhounds while my ladylove played babysitter. I'm getting better at eating well with child, but it's an adjustment to say the least.

So while I can't say that 2007 brought me the same astounding level of deliciousness as 2006, there were still some formidable contenders for the final cut. I'm sad to report that none of this year's ten elicited giggles, but much like fine port, one would only encounter such dishes in a vintage year. 2007 was not a vintage year for Skillet Doux, but it was a fine one all the same and here are its ten highlights, the order courtesy of random.org. As always, this is a very subjective and personal list. Perhaps these were astounding feats of culinary prowess, perhaps they were simple preparations that hit me at just the right time. But these are the ten dishes that, at year's end, still stick with me.

Clicking on the photos will bring up larger images, while the dish titles link to the applicable post.

Dominic Armato
Xiao Long Bao
Ye Shanghai - Hong Kong

This past year, I went on a bit of a Xiao Long Bao tasting binge. It wasn't nearly as comprehensive as some I've read about (heck, there are those who have tasted XLB at more establishments in one day than I did in all of 2007), but we'll call it the rediscovery of an old favorite. Frequently referred to as "soup dumplings", Xiao Long Bao are yet another line item in the list of evidence demonstrating that when it comes to highly evolved culinary technique, the Chinese are right there with the French. Aspic is folded into exceptionally thin bun dough and then steamed, turning the filling into a gush of liquid hot pork. Achatz, Adria and Dufresne may achieve a similar effect with sodium alginate, but the Chinese have been doing it for a century with a pig and a pot. Ye Shanghai's offering wasn't the picture of technical perfection I've seen elsewhere, but it was pretty damn close and unquestionably the best tasting XLB I've had. Please don't ever leave me alone in a room with a great number of these. My survival would not be guaranteed.
Dominic Armato
Minced Fish Salad
Pho 777 - Chicago

I spent the first half of 2007 eating an awful lot of Vietnamese, albeit mostly at one place. Interesting, however, that my most memorable Vietnamese dish this past year came from a spot I hit just once for a special meal. While many are familiar with Bò 7 Món, the traditional seven courses of beef meal, Pho 777 offers the less widely known Cá 7 Món, which operates under the same basic principle, just less beefy and more fishy. The first dish of this piscine extravaganza was a minced fish salad that snuck up on me. I love Vietnamese salads, with their balance of tart, salty and sweet, but this particular variant struck me with how restrained, subtle and perfectly balanced it was. The delicate fish called for a less aggressive approach, so while this salad spoke the same lyrics as its more explosive brethren, it sung them sweetly rather than belting them out. I've scoffed before at recipes that measure large volumes of seasonings down to the quarter teaspoon, but this salad was so perfectly balanced that a dash of anything would have thrown it off. Since I only visited once, I can't say whether this was the work of a deft hand or a lucky one, but the year in deliciousness doesn't discriminate against accidental awesomeness, so I consider the point moot.
Dominic Armato
Gaspé Nova Lox
Russ & Daughters - New York

An autumn trip to New York gave me an opportunity to calibrate my deli meter a bit, and Russ & Daughters was the designated spot for approaching it from the fishy angle. I tried five different selections and everything was so outstanding it feels wrong to designate a favorite, but I loved the perfect mellowness of their signature Gaspé Nova Lox. I've never in my life had a piece of cured fish so fresh and clean tasting, and when combined with a bagel and cream cheese it was like consuming smooth, creamy salmon butter. My trip to R&D was an eye-opener when it came to the possibilities of fish and salt, and this was the highlight.
Dominic Armato
Smoked Mullet
Ted Peters - St. Petersburg

Of the three fish preparations that made my top ten this year, however, this was probably my favorite. My server cautioned me that the flavor was "very intense," and that I might prefer a different fish. Thankfully I had the good sense to ignore her warning. Mullet isn't the cleanest tasting fish, which I think makes it only more appropriate for Ted Peters' intense smoke flavor. On the opposite end of the spectrum from R&D's subtle Gaspé Nova, Ted Peters' smoked mullet had the look and flavor of something that survived a four alarm blaze at the woodchip factory. They use it to make a dynamite smoked fish spread, but I liked it best as you see here, fresh from the smoker with just a squirt of lemon. Slap it on a blue melamine plate, sit me outdoors next to a four lane highway, crack a bottle of beer for me and I'm a happy camper.
Dominic Armato
Jumbo Lump Crabcake
Faidley's - Baltimore

Okay, I'm cheating a little bit here. I actually sampled Faidley's crabcake for the first time in 2006. But for reasons I don't remember, I somehow managed to leave it off last year's list. Perhaps I didn't want to jump the gun, knowing we'd be moving to Baltimore in six months. But now that I've lived in Charm City for six months and have started to sample around a bit, there's no keeping this softball-sized lump of crustacean love off the list. The moment I first tasted this crabcake was the moment I suddenly understood why Baltimore natives have to hide a smirk anytime they try a crabcake outside of their fair city. It's not about the cake, it's about the crab, and what restaurants the world 'round have done to this fabulous foodstuff is nothing short of criminal. I'm officially done with dark brown breaded saltine hockey pucks with a few token strands of crabmeat. Faidley's cakes are light and moist with enormous chunks of crab and just enough filler to keep them together and lightly season them. One of my resolutions for 2008 is to sample as many of the city's other offerings as possible, but I have a hard time believing they're going to get much better than this.
Dominic Armato
Sichuan Noodles with
Crispy Soybeans

Da Ping Huo - Hong Kong

This entry is partly an expression of my love and partly a call for help. What the heck is it? The title isn't official. It's my best guess. The couple that runs the stylish little underground restaurant Da Ping Huo in Hong Kong is long on hospitality but short on menu descriptions. There were a few dishes from this meal that could've easily made my top ten for the year, so I'm giving the nod to the one that, if tied for the most delicious, was definitely the most novel. This dish was as much a textural experience as it was a flavor experience. Thin, sticky noodles in a Sichuan sauce with finely minced crisp vegetables and assorted crispies may give you a bit of a sense, but doesn't begin to convey it. Eliminate all of the flavor, and it would still be a joy just to chew. I don't even know if I've correctly identified the ingredients. But I do know that this was definitely one of my favorites of the year.
Dominic Armato
Sesame and Ginger Gelato
I Scream - Hong Kong

Somehow, I find it funny that the best chef I encountered in 2007 was a gelataio. I'm now officially a Paolo Predonzan fan, based on the concoctions he serves at I Scream, a small gelato stand in the GREAT Food Market at Pacific Place. I've had my fair share of gelato while visiting Italy, and do NOT let his lack of proximity to the mother country color your opinion of his product. The gelato at I Scream is as good as I've ever tasted. It's the kind I wish I had on hand when trying to explain what's so special about gelato when it's made by somebody who knows what he's doing. And Predonzan REALLY knows what he's doing. I haven't seen the man's kitchen, so I suppose I can't say this with any kind of authority, but he's not just slapping different flavors into the same base. Each flavor is meticulously crafted -- intensity, sweetness, texture -- and then perfectly executed. What's more, I love that Predonzan nails the classics, gives innovative twists to others, and also has adopted the flavors of his new home with great care and passion. In particular, his sesame and ginger gelati floored me. On my last trip to Hong Kong, I ate dessert here every night except for once, when I rushed back from a restaurant only to miss closing time by five minutes. That good.
Dominic Armato
Drunken Shrimp
Zen - Hong Kong

It's always nice to have something done right that you've butchered yourself. Shrimp are at their best when they were kicking moments before you consume them. I don't care how quickly or carefully they were flash frozen, the chasm between live and frozen shrimp is impossibly deep and wide. Depending on where you get them (and where the person preparing them falls on the animal rights spectrum), drunken shrimp can mean a lot of things. At Zen in Hong Kong, it meant that live shrimp were tossed into a bowl of shaoxing, allowed to "marinate" for 10-15 minutes, then steamed and served whole. I'm sure there are hundreds of places in Hong Kong that do this just as well, but Zen is where I happened to have them. Steamed live shrimp, tender and incredibly sweet, is delicious enough, but add to that a little fermented rice counterpoint and this is one of my favorite fresh seafood preparations. Incidentally, 2007 was also the year that I finally became an enthusiastic head sucker. It's the best part. By far. Especially with a dish like this.
Dominic Armato
Chicken and Dumplings
Dr. John Ralston's Kitchen

Right place, right time. Which is not to take anything away from Dr. John Ralston's fantastic homemade Chicken and Dumplings. I was at home with the flu, and my ladylove came home bearing the ultimate textbook remedy, courtesy of one of her coworkers. Dr. Ralston's version cut no corners, using fresh vegetables, tender dumplings and homemade chicken stock. It was the ultimate reminder of why comfort food is called comfort food. In a year that put chicken back on my radar, this was the best preparation I had, and it came at precisely the right time. A good doc knows when to prescribe the meds -- and when to bust out the chicken soup.
Dominic Armato
Egg Toast, Caviar and Dill
Jean Georges - New York

2007 also brought me back to an old favorite, and reminded me once again of why I love Jean-Georges so much. He'll throw oddly effective pairings at you all night, then bowl you over with something so simple yet executed so perfectly that you have to wonder if you're missing something. As far as I can tell, this dish was composed entirely of egg yolks, brioche, dill, caviar and salt. But it was my favorite of the night. For starters, this is now the third or fourth time I've had sous vide egg yolks (apparently it's the fine dining pet ingredient du jour), but this was the only use that made sense. The mouthful of silken semi-cooked yolk acted as a mellow foil to the caviar, but kept the dish rich and luscious. Eggs, caviar, dill and bread are as far from an innovative combination as you can get. But though it was the most subtle, this was the most effective use of a trendy new technique I've encountered by a longshot.

So there it is, the class of 2007. Coming up in 2008, long overdue recipes, lots of crabcakes, more home cookin' (a matter of necessity), and maybe I'll actually get around to the Pasta Primers one of these days!

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Nice representation from my hometown on your 2007 list! Absolutely no complaints about the soup dumplings at Ye Shanghai - I stop by every other trip I make back there - but if you venture to Taipei anytime soon, PLEASE try Din Tai Fung (http://www.dintaifung.com.tw/ch/index.asp)! They've expanded internationally - including one in Hong Kong - and I cannot vouch for the standard at the branches, but the xiaolongbao at the original is something I have not forgotten. And I last went to Taipei over 5 years ago.

Not that I expect to get to Taipei anytime soon, but if I do, I absolutely intend to get to the original. I did get to the Hong Kong branch, but I know that no matter how careful you are, it's tough to maintain quality from that distance.

I'm sure there'd be more from Hong Kong -- good god, that's an incredible food town -- but that pesky work always seems to gets in the way :-)

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