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December 31, 2010

The Deliciousness of 2010

Tuna with Red Onion, Gaeta Olives, Lemon & Arugula Panino from Pane Bianco Dominic Armato

Hey, whaddya know! A little stability in 2010!

Feels weird to stay in one place for a year. What feels twice as weird is that all signs point to this continuing to be the case for years to come. We're card-carrying Phoenicians now (really... don't leave those cards at home), and while I didn't get as quick a start as I would have liked, I'm really enjoying settling and digging into a single city for the first time in a while.

What struck me most while compiling this year's list is how many of these dishes were made by folks who've subsequently become friends. There definitely exists a certain communal feel to the Phoenix food scene, both those who create it and those who enjoy it. People are coalescing, finding each other, talking about food, and I hope that community continues to develop because I think it has a lot of potential.

As usual, culling this list down to ten is an exercise in futility. I feel like I might as well throw darts. Plus, I experience a little pang of self-loathing every time I succumb to the whole "top ten" phenomenon. So this year I added a long list of honorable mentions at the end. I'm only picturing ten because to give all of them the full treatment would be ridiculous, but most of the dishes that stood out for me this year are mentioned below. As in previous years, these aren't "the best," or the most creative, or the most sophisticated, or the most refined, or the most anything other than the ones that I remember most vividly when recalling the year. These are the dishes that, for one reason or another, stuck with me. Clicking on the images brings up a larger image, while the name of the dish links to the post that mentioned it (or the restaurant). And so, without further ado, in completely random order supplied by random.org, the deliciousness of 2010:

Dominic Armato

Tuna with Egg and Smoked Olives
Crudo - Phoenix

Can somebody explain how a tuna tartare made the deliciousness list two years running? I thought I was done with tuna tartare seven years ago. Truth is, I tasted a horde of dishes at Crudo this year, and there are a dozen crudi I could have put in its place, but this one was just a little special to me somehow. Very coarsely diced and swimming in a pool of olive oil, the tuna is topped with chopped hard boiled egg and smoked olives. It's such a funny combination that seems so natural when you taste it. It isn't like Japanese sashimi that's completely fish-forward, but neither is the fish lost. And while smoking everything under the sun is one of the growing restaurant trends, it's really a beautiful choice here that isn't the last bit superfluous. Of all the delicious crudi I had at Crudo this year -- and there were many -- this one stands out.

Dominic Armato

Tadich Grill - San Francisco

It's tough not to be seduced by the atmosphere at Tadich Grill. It's old, old, old school, and if you removed the POS terminals and dressed the clientele in period clothing, you could film The Untouchables there. Or whatever the San Francisco equivalent would be. But even if the cioppino had been served to me in a coffee mug while standing on a street corner, it wouldn't have come close to missing the list. This was one of 2010's no doubters, an intense, saucy tomato stew overflowing with clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, scallops and multiple varieties of fish, all succulent and tender. It isn't completely clean and fresh. It's almost a little dirty-tasting (in a good way), laced with dried herbs and wine and the unabashed essence of the sea. And it's served with garlicky Texas toast, of all things. Some classic dishes seem dated when served today. But some are timeless, and this is among them.

Dominic Armato

Nobuo at Teeter House - Phoenix

Between the sashimi plate and his chawanmushi duo, Nobuo nearly forced me to break my tradition of not listing two dishes from the same restaurant. Picking one of the two was simply torturous, but I finally settled on the sashimi course from his omakase for its sheer visceral impact. It's like an entire career's worth of signature creative East-West sashimi all presented at once, a stunning array of all manner of fish presented in all kinds of ways, ranging from delicious to surprising to fabulous. The uni and kumamoto oyster with tomato water and wasabi oil was a favorite, as well as the octopus atop creamy fresh mozzarella and tomato with aioli and pink peppercorn. I recommend clicking through to the original post, because this image just doesn't do it justice. Getting any one of these items would have been a winning dish. Getting nine of them at once was almost overwhelming.

Dominic Armato

Calotte de Bœuf Grillée
The French Laundry - Napa Valley

As technically brilliant as Thomas Keller and his minions are, it's when the man's wit shows through in his food that he's at his best. Such was the case with his Calotte de Bœuf Grillée which, to be clear, was steak with carrots and peas. Based purely on flavor and technique, I could have taken almost any dish we had that evening and put it on this list. But this is the one that sticks with me because it takes somebody with the skill, courage and sense of humor of somebody like Thomas Keller to not only make steak with carrots and peas his final savory course, but to somehow make it arguably the most delicious dish of the evening. He knows there's power in those classic, comforting combinations, but he knows how to make them special, even if it takes less than you'd think. There's tarragon jus, yes, and a couple of nuggets of transmogrified béarnaise, but still... it's basically steak with carrots and peas. And it was one of the best dishes I had all year.

Dominic Armato

Zucchini with Mint and Chiles
FnB - Phoenix

Like Crudo, I knew a dish from FnB would be on this list, and the only question was which. What makes this such a tricky call is that I had so many of Charleen Badman's fabulous vegetables that choosing a standout is an exercise in futility. The obvious choice would be the now famous braised leeks with breadcrumbs, mozzarella and egg. But as spectacular as that dish is, it wasn't even my favorite on the night I had it. That honor went to the spicy grilled broccoli, which I almost put here for that very reason. But as much as I'm embarrassed to lay my snacky sensibilities so bare, the dish that I find I can't get out of my head is her fried zucchini with mint and chiles. She takes paper-thin rounds of sliced zucchini, fries them up hot and crisp, and hits them with fresh mint and a sweet chile sauce. It's another of her vegetable dishes that does just enough that she isn't serving the proverbial figs on a plate, but still doesn't lose the natural beauty of the produce around which it's based. This one isn't her most sophisticated dish. It appeals to your basest snacky instincts. But it's so, so good, and it want it right now.

Dominic Armato

Escolar en Adobo Oaxaqueño
Pujol - Mexico City

I had forgotten how much I love escolar. Seriously, it's been years since I've had a piece of this wonderful fish. And I can't imagine a better reintroduction than the escolar I had at Pujol in Mexico City, remarkable for the restrained accompaniments as well as the absolute perfection of the fish. Escolar is a fish that's almost meaty, dense and moist and very full-flavored for a white fish. And this piece of fish was so beautiful, so pristine, so perfectly prepared that the choice to apply the slightly sweet and spicy adobo, herb puree, earthy huitlacoche and flakes of squash blossom as sparingly as possible was the right one. "Juicy" is not often a word I'd use to describe fish, but this one wept like a ripe peach. One of the best fish dishes I've had in years. Literally.

Dominic Armato

English Pea
Alinea - Chicago

Returning to Alinea after four years was a fascinating experience, not just because Alinea is inherently fascinating, but also because it allowed me to see how Achatz took tricks and techniques that he'd just developed on our first pass, and applied them in more complex and sophisticated ways to create the dinner had on the second pass. Nowhere was this more obvious than with our first dish, simply titled English Pea. But there was nothing simple about it. There were aerated pea foams, crunchy freeze-dried peas, powdered Iberico ham, spherified melon, sherry vinegar pearls... natural flavor pairings that were converted into a surprising and delightful symphony of textures. This was, in fact, one of the greatest joys of this visit to Alinea: that just as much care was given to texture as to flavor. And no dish exemplified it better than the English Pea.

Dominic Armato

Gordita Papas con Chorizo
Street Cart - Mexico City

I came mere minutes away from making a second trip to Mexico City without sampling any street food, but after other plans were foiled, thankfully I decided to "settle" for whatever was within a few blocks of the hotel. Because the little run-of-the-mill temporary food carts and stands in the neighborhood turned out to be everything I'd hoped for. Of everything I sampled before dashing for the plane, this gordita was my favorite. It was made by a family operating a small cart that offered nothing but, and it completely blew me away. Fresh, hot griddled masa, crisp and a little greasy on the outside, soft and steamy within, filled with soft potatoes and piquant chorizo, hit with a touch of cheese and salsa... it was the kind of simple perfection that could only come from a family that's probably been making the same thing for decades. I'd heard that Mexico City is one of the places where you could spend a month eating on the street and not miss out on a thing. I'm now a true believer, and I look forward to really digging in the next time I'm there.

Dominic Armato

Gamberoni Reali alla Brace
Andreoli - Phoenix

Though I don't mean to suggest that this particular nugget of wisdom is in any way a unique insight on my part (far from it), I've often said that great Italian food is all about getting great ingredients and then getting the hell out of their way. Of course, this applies to many of the world's cuisines, but with Italian, I think, moreso than most. So it stands to reason that in the year I found the Italian restaurant I've been seeking for a decade, my favorite dish I had there was little more than some stunningly beautiful shrimp basted with olive oil, salt and a touch of lemon and slapped on the grill. They were massive, lightly charred, seasoned by their own brine, and 60% head, which made for some amazing slurping once the tails had been devoured. I'm told they'd been in the waters around Greece not two days before reaching my table. I can't fathom what they'd be like to have closer to their origin. But I'll take them any way I can get them.

Dominic Armato

Brûléed Foie with Figs and Mochi
Posh - Phoenix

Given the number of times I've been to Posh -- easily 30 at this point -- it's more than a little amusing that I've never actually been there for dinner service. Thankfully, a late night staple is Josh Hebert's brûléed foie, which, in keeping with the restaurant's improvisational theme, I've never seen served the same way twice. At its heart is a foie torchon, more a matter of pressed morsels of foie than the smooth pate-like consistency more often seen, which gives it an unusually satisfying texture. Then sugared and torched like crème brûlée, the result is textured, creamy, rich foie in what amounts to a crisp, caramelized candy shell. After the first time, whenever I ordered this, it was for dessert. Hebert is by no means alone in offering this preparation, but his is done uncommonly well. I first sampled it back in April, and immediately knew that it would be on this list, though subsequent tastings raised the question of which version it would be. While one of the iterations involving a crystalline web of spun sugar was tempting, I couldn't get past this particular prep, with a mix of fresh and brûléed figs, and chewy fig mochi ice cream. The combination of textures, the contrast of temperatures, the perfect pairing of foie and fig... yup, this one was my fave. Now if he'd just get over the whole improvisational thing and make it this way again.

Of course, the year's favorites weren't limited to these ten... some others that spring to mind but didn't quite make the cut, in similarly random fashion:

Chilled Sweet Onion SoupThe Girl and The GoatChicago
Tuna Panino with Lemon and ArugulaPane BiancoPhoenix
Sweet and Spicy BurgerThe GrindPhoenix
Aji de GallinaContigo PeruPhoenix
Bo KhoPho ThanhPhoenix
Chawanmushi DuoNobuo at Teeter HousePhoenix
Grilled Octopus with Fresh Citrus and ChilesCarnevinoLas Vegas
Water Boiled Fish FilletsSzechwan PalacePhoenix
Agedashi TofuRakuLas Vegas
"Cuban" SandwichBouchon BakeryNapa Valley
Birria TatemadaBirrieria ZaragozaChicago
Grilled Spicy BroccoliFnBPhoenix
Octopus GnocchiCrudoPhoenix
Turkey Meatballs with Avocado FriesFoodie Fight IIPhoenix

I have to say, a good year for food. Of course, I didn't get our half as much as I'd like. And I didn't pound the pavement looking for undiscovered gems a quarter as much as I'd like. But we're settling into this desert berg, and I hope to step it up in 2011.

Thanks for reading, everybody, good eating, and happy new year!

2005   |  2006   |   2007   |   2008   |   2009   |   2010   |   2011


The Chawanmushi Duo at Nobuo is still in my dreams. Cheers to an even better 2011!

What a great way to start the new year! Fantastic read, Dom! Thanks :-)

All those dishes look awesome, but I'm with you: elevating simplicity is the essence of great food. Or finding a mouth-watering gordita from a food truck. I'm in Oakland and between here and SF, have our share of Mexican food trucks, but man, that gordita blows the socks off anything I've sampled.

Next time you hit the Bay Area, do hit Oakland and Berkeley. Just as good as SF at half the price.

Happy New Year to you and yours. :)

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