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December 30, 2009

The Deliciousness of 2009

Honorable Mention - Mustard Leaf Agnolotti with Lamb from Sportello Dominic Armato

I keep telling myself these years can't get any crazier. In 2009? New business, new daughter, monthly trips to California and two cross-country moves. Y'know. The usual.

Even more shocking is the fact that despite all of this insanity, 2009 turned out to be a banner year for incredible foodstuffs. I don't know that it was the most diverse. I didn't have the time to pound the pavement and get into nearly as many hidden little joints as I would have liked, and as evidenced by the complete dearth of recipes around here lately, I haven't been experimenting much in the kitchen (though I've been cooking more... go figure). But while their sources may be less interesting than years past, they're some damn fine dishes and their spots on the list are not to be denied.

Cutting this year's list down to ten was brutal. Unlike one or two previous years where there was a clean break after six or seven, this year I could have made this a top 20 or maybe even top 25 without breaking a sweat. I mean, places that didn't make an appearance include Bouchon and Avec, for cryin' out loud. And that's no reflection on them. They were both among my favorite meals of the year. But the peakiest peaks were to be found elsewhere. As usual, the only way I finally settled on 2009's ten was to stop thinking about it and just go with my gut... which dishes did I enjoy the most, which are the most memorable to me, and which will I be pining for in the future?

Though I'm rounding up the year and skipping town (tomorrow, in fact!), there's actually a bit of a Boston backlog I intend to work through over the next month or so, but none of them made this year's deliciousness. As usual, clicking on the images brings up a larger image, while the name of the dish links to the post that mentioned it. And so, without further ado, in completely random order supplied by random.org, the deliciousness of 2009:

Dominic Armato

Pork Belly Tortellini
Craigie on Main - Boston

Hold on there a moment... not for the reason you think. Yes, yes, despite the prevailing universal love for all things pork, I'm not shy about my adoration of its fattiest of cuts. And not just when it's cured and smoked. If anything, pork belly tends to make me happiest when it's braised or steamed to an almost liquid consistency, and -- well, point is, I swoon for pig paunch. But at Craigie on Main, I almost completely forgot that the filling was pork. Rather, I was entranced by the summer squash. And that's why it's on this list. Zucchini blossoms, sure, they're sexy and interesting and you can fry them up stuffed or unstuffed. But a summer squash jus? Could anything sound more bland and uninteresting? Truth is, the dish just burst with summer squash flavor. It was fresh and vibrant and it may be the first time -- with the possible exception of some marinated Italian antipasti -- that I've been completely captivated by summer squash. Well done, Tony Maws. You made me overlook the pork belly on the plate in front of me.

Dominic Armato

Tuna Tartare
L2O - Chicago

I had almost given up on tuna that wasn't absolutely riddled with fat or grilled between two slices of bread with melted cheese. I think you're required to turn in your food nerd credentials if you don't love toro, and I have a soft spot for a good crispy, greasy tuna melt. But the lean stuff that's grilled into tasteless steaks, sliced into tasteless pink slabs over seasoned rice, or finely chopped into a tasteless paste that's slathered in goo? Bo. Ring. Which is why I heaved a little sigh when Laurent Gras presented me (no, not personally) with a tuna tartare with soy, dashi and olive oil, and then promptly sucked that breath right back in after my first taste. Yes, that's frozen shaved Hawaiian ice-style toro on top, but the wow was underneath, in simply minced tuna with about the least imaginative accompanying flavors one could name. And yet, something about the quality of the fish and the unconventional technique applied just made it pop, and I hung on every bite. The reasons we eat this critter raw all came rushing back to me at once. I try not to pick two dishes from the same restaurant for the year's deliciousness unless they're both really worthy, and believe me, it was hard to choose this over the butter-poached peekytoe with foie emulsion. But while foie's always there for me, this dish rekindled a romance I thought I'd long left behind. I can't stay mad at you, tuna.

Dominic Armato

Lobster Roll
Kelly's Roast Beef - Boston

I ate a lot of lobster this month. A LOT. And on the day after a two-week stretch where I consumed a lobster roll for lunch almost every single day? I had my cholesterol tested. I still haven't called for the results. I'm a little afraid. So if lobster is as damaging to one's blood work as we're led to believe, the point is that while it's impossible to do a survey of this regional specialty that is both comprehensive and doctor-approved, I ate an awful lot of lobster rolls. And Kelly's was my favorite by such a wide margin it's kind of silly. Sweet and tender meat, whole enormous claws draped over the top, knuckles and diced tail beneath, the perfect amount of mayo, a roll that wasn't the least bit bready or gummy and was toasted to a perfect exterior crisp while staying light and fluffy inside, basted with a touch of butter -- I'm contractually obligated to remain open to the possibility that you can improve upon this, but I don't see how. I suppose you could eat it on the beach while gazing at the ocean. Oh, right. You can do that at Kelly's. And I did. And those seagulls were sooooooooooo jealous.

Dominic Armato

Sweet Potato & Sausage Soup
Dick & Jenny's - New Orleans

For such a short trip with so much work to do, it's amazing that I ate as well as I did in New Orleans. Well, maybe not that amazing. It IS one heck of an eating town. But still, three entries in this year's deliciousness is no small feat, and I waffle over whether this is my favorite. It was like the city -- sweet and spicy, dense and a little dirty, and incredibly brash. There was nothing subtle about it. And yet, the fact that sausage was cooked into the stock and then removed, leaving its smoky sweetness behind, was juuuuust enough restraint to keep it from going over the top. I suppose it could be said that my favorite dishes are those I both enjoy and admire, and this was no exception. I admired that little twist of technique. And I really, really enjoyed the flavors it produced.

Dominic Armato

Butter Poached Lobster with Salsify
Noca - Phoenix

Okay, maybe some are more towards the enjoyment end of the spectrum. Not that I didn't admire the dual use of salsify and the fact that the lobster tail was almost flirting with a hint of a raw-ish quality, but the reason this dish is here is because it was just so freaking good. Sweet lobster, a buttery puree, sweet caramelized salsify, a deep onion jus and aromatic hits of truffle and vanilla to round it out -- intoxicating is the word, and I got a little drunk for a couple of minutes there. Sometimes it's nice to stop thinking about your food and simply get lost in it, and three bites into this dish, that's exactly what I did. I am very, very much looking forward to having Noca in my backyard starting tomorrow.

Dominic Armato

Oyster Po' Boy
Domilise's - New Orleans

*phew*, a dive. That was a close one. And quite a dive it was. A wall-mounted, hand-painted, weather-beaten plywood sign is all that identifies Domilise's to the world, and the interior is as worn and craggy as the sign. And yet Dot Domilise and her daughter assemble their po' boys so carefully and with such precision, you'd think they were working the line at an upscale joint somewhere. A really good sandwich is a special thing, and this was one of the best I've had in a long time. The oysters were perfect, crisp and hot but plump and juicy inside, and that quintessential po' boy bread that could be mistaken for a lightweight variation on its European cousins, somehow shines when treated in this manner. Ketchup on beautiful fried oysters? I had a hard time coming to terms with that one. But I put myself in their hands and was blown away. Anytime I see the words "po' boy", I think of this sandwich... and I try to think of reasons to get back to New Orleans.

Dominic Armato

Grilled Nectarines
Laiola - San Francisco

When Laiola served me fried padrón peppers, I kind of had to laugh and think of David Chang. It wasn't figs on a plate, but it was close. And yet, while I see where Chang's coming from, there's a light side to that kind of intense ingredient focus. Laiola gets it, and in no dish was it more evident than the grilled nectarine. With a touch of char, a sherry and tarragon vinaigrette, honey for added sweetness and a fist-sized lump of light, tart house-made goat cheese, this was all about just bringing vibrant flavors to the plate, and complementing that spectacular nectarine in the best way possible. It wasn't a dessert, but it had that kind of "now, I'm done" vibe. Except that it was so good, and was indicative of a kitchen that was so confident, it made me want to hand our server the menu and say, "We'll take one of each." Maybe next time.

Dominic Armato

Chile en Nogada
Izote - Mexico City

Man, my timing couldn't have been any better. I barely even touched down in Mexico City, but those 32 hours happened to nip the narrow window when Chiles en Nogada are made for Mexican Independence Day. What's more, it just happened to be a dish about which I've always been curious, and it turned out to be a house specialty of Izote, where we ate for our one dinner in the city. I still hate the fact that I didn't get to walk the markets sampling street food, but as consolation prizes go, I'm having a hard time complaining. A lightly cooked poblano chile stuffed with a heavily spiced meat piccadillo, slathered in a sweet walnut sauce that was almost like frosting and buried in pomegranate seeds and parsley and served cold -- I had no frame of reference for this. It was so vibrant and unique and, as a little bonus, so thumbing its nose at those who think Mexican food is flat baked corn product, meat or beans and some vegetables. This is a really, really special dish, and the cultural context only made it that much sweeter.

Dominic Armato

Clam Pizza
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitana - New Haven

If you think I'm wading into the whole pizza superiority thing, you're crazy. Forget that it's against my personal credo to name a pizza champion of the world. I just don't have that kind of time to defend myself. But I will say this: In 2009, at least, Pepe's clam pizza was the best I tasted, and it's a doozy of a pie. A massive coal oven turns out a thin and beautifully crisp and blackened crust, the toppings are minimal without being skimpy, and there's something just awesome about the clam, garlic and crisp bread combination. It never ceases to amaze me how when it comes to pizza, the same three or four ingredients can run the gamut from utter garbage to culinary nirvana, all based on a little technique. And in this case, all culinary nirvana took was 85 years of making nothing but pizza. I knew one of the two we tasted would make the list, and after some waffling I finally gave the nod to the funky regional variant. Dropping in just once and then moving west is a total tease. Even now, I sit here at midnight wondering if I can cram in two hours there and two hours back on our last day on the East Coast. But I suppose I'll just have to wipe my tears with Pizzeria Bianco's margherita.

Dominic Armato

Fried Rabbit Livers
Cochon - New Orleans

Sometimes I'm surprised by the reasons I end up liking a dish. See pork belly tortellini, above. Here was another instance of the tiniest little detail just opening up a dish and turning something that otherwise would have been really good into something special. If you take these same delicate livers, put them on the same croutons, douse them with the same sweet and spicy pepper jelly and add the same pickled fennel for accent, you have a really good dish. But it was buried under what looked like garnish. There were huge leaves of parsley and mint obscuring the star of the show, as if somebody just couldn't be bothered to mince the garnish and lazily tore off a handful of stuff to throw on top. But this was by design, I tell you. You got a mouthful of fresh, green herb with every bite -- mostly unassuming parsley, no less -- and it served to brighten the dish and keep it light in a way I'm not sure anything else could have. Once again, a dish that was not only delicious -- and it WAS delicious -- but which I admired.

And so ends one of the zanier years in memory. It was a year when I had a hard time getting my footing, but sometimes being a little off-balance opens you up to experiences you might not have otherwise had. That said, it's exciting to be starting a new year in a new city, one where I know I'll be spending some serious time, where I can learn the people and the specialties and the food nerd gossip and dig in and pound the pavement and really learn all there is to know about one place. Call it a hunch, but I suspect the deliciousness of 2010 is going to look very different. Check back in a year and we'll see.

Happy New Year, everybody!

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Thanks for the awesome as always recap. Now I have a list of goals for 2010! It was beyond a pleasure having you in Boston, you will be sorely missed.... Safe journey to you and your family and the best for the new year!

Happy New Year. This blog makes me crave rabbit livers while lazily staring out the window on a sunny last day of the decade in Honolulu. That's a beautiful thing, IMO. Good luck with the move; safe travels.

I've eaten at about half of these establishments, but the pick that put a smile on my face was Domilise's oyster po' boy. What a terrific sandwich, and what a great place. Dot and crew are treasures. Happy New Year, Dom!

Happy New Year Dom. Good luck on the move. Hopefully, I will be where I can try a few of these places in 2010.

Great read, Dom! Thanks, and happy new year to you and your family.

I've got one full day in New Orleans coming up at the end of the month. So I need one awesome lunch place and one awesome romantic/fine dining experience for dinner. Can't go to the places I've been in the past because, uh, that was with my ex-husband. (D'oh!) I went to Maison de Ville in that lifetime and loved everything about it. So that's the kind of place I'm looking for for dinner (intimate, not touristy, amazing food, amazing wine). Any suggestions? Looks like Domilise's should claim the lunch spot...?

Paula... Domilise's, definitely a don't miss.

For dinner, harder to say. I got to so little, I'm hesitant to recommend anything.

Doesn't Kelly's count as a dive too?

Oh, and just got back from the in-laws in Connecticut. Eating the leftover clam pizza for lunch today. ;)

Thanks, Dom. Took one look at that Oyster Po Boy and went to the kitchen to make oyster po boys. Yum!!

Got Authentic Mexican for Christmas, and Mr. Z demanded that I start at the beginning and cook it all. A blog? Z and Rick doesn't have the ring to it - but most important, there just aren't going to be any fish heads for me - so even with every encouragement, I'm keeping it safe - love the recipes Bayless gives that I already do! It's very interesting to me that what we learn at home that seems random, and what we do by instinct, are not at all random or isolated acts. Bourdain - Mexico City proved that out last night, too. Long dormant childhood sensory and full-bodied memories awakened! Too bad it's work today....

Okay, that does it - I need to make it up to New Haven for clam pizza. Sounds SO GOOD.

Paula, I had a fabulous meal in New Orleans at August, one of John Besh's restaurants. It's fine dining, for sure, but also definitely has a New Orleans flair - unlike (for example) the fine dining places in Vegas where you feel like you could be anywhere in the world. I imagine the menu in January would be pretty different from the one I saw in July, but the quality was so high and so consistent over the course of the meal that I'm sure it would still be great!

I've had a broken laptop since the end of Top Chef :-(. I really like your end of year update (too bad you weren't in Boston longer (for the food, which is a heckuva lot better than when I lived there in the early'90s), but I'd rather be in AZ in Feb. ... Why, oh why, did I turn down AZ St.? Let's not go there.)

Hope your move goes well.

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