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December 31, 2011

The Deliciousness of 2011

Shrimp and Sea Bass Mushimono @ ShinBay Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: Though I loved their food long before getting to know them, the folks at Posh, FnB and Andreoli are all friends. And Mrs. Skillet Doux makes a mean birthday cake.  

It's year end list time!

Every time I join in this tradition I loathe myself a little bit, but y'know, I tell myself it's only natural and there's nothing wrong with taking a look back at what the year has brought.

In terms of food, I can't complain too much about 2011. Despite an increasing tendency to get a little surly when it comes to my culinary frustrations, I had some fabulous food here in Phoenix, and even managed to squeeze in a jaunt to Vegas and a month back home in Chicago. Places that I love continue to impress. New favorites have emerged. And I worked to fill as many gaping holes in my dining experience as I could.

So let's call it a good year tempered with a little bit of frustration. This was year two in a new home, after the honeymoon is over but before I've made my peace with the flaws. I wish new openings didn't seem to walk such a narrow path. I wish we were seeing more in the way of killer traditional foods and fewer contorted and misguided attempts to shoehorn in ooh and aah. I wish I saw more focus on food and less on scene/style/marketing. But when I see interest in the opening of Peruvian restaurants, when friends come back from Tacos Atoyac talking about how it's packed, and when places like ShinBay open to acclaim (if, at times, a little confusion), I'm reminded of how much good stuff is going on here, and I become more and more excited for what's to come.

But this particular exercise is about looking back, and when I look back I see a list filled with so much great stuff I can barely trim it down. This is now the seventh time I've done this, and the list seems to grow every year. Perhaps it's laziness and an unwillingness to make the hard decisions. But the more and more I write, the less and less I find myself interested in making a hard cut, as though number ten was more meaningful than number eleven, as if the memories of these bites can all be quantified. I can't list them all. That's what I've been doing all year. But when I think back, these are the dishes that one way or another defined my year in food. So without further ado, in completely random order supplied by random.org, here's The Deliciousness of 2011:

Dominic Armato

Nigiri Sushi
ShinBay - Phoenix

Where have you been hiding this guy, Phoenix? I mean, I know Shinji Kurita had a legendary reputation as a fellow who could turn out some stellar food, but are you telling me that the guy who makes this was somehow forced into hibernation for five years? I don't care about the location, I don't care about the lack of marketing savvy, I don't care about the reservation and service quirks, and I don't care about the damn sign. What I care about is that our omakase there was capped with what may be the most stunning array of nigiri sushi I've ever sampled, and there were still at least two other dishes I could have put on this list. This nigiri -- a remarkable mix of fish both mainstream and obscure -- put the lie to the oft repeated notion that you can't get good seafood in the desert. Every piece was so impossibly fresh, so perfectly precise, so carefully crafted to draw out the character of the fish that I'm still a little baffled that this place isn't an instant smash hit. Yes, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah (or insanity) to open a place like this in hard times (even if fine dining appears to be the only segment of the market that's growing right now). But we spend this much at Kai, we spend almost this much at Binkley's, and some of the same folks who laud those places beat up on ShinBay. This nigiri alone, to say nothing of the rest of the menu, is worthy of that kind of attention and praise those restaurants command. When we talk about Phoenix' flagship fine dining restaurants, ShinBay belongs in the conversation. Here's hoping that happens in 2012.

Dominic Armato

Pork Belly Pastrami
Citizen Public House - Phoenix

Wit without flavor is a frustrating thing. But when a delicious dish also happens to be witty, the combination can be absolutely delightful, which is the case with Citizen Public House's Pork Belly Pastrami. I don't wish to overplay the concept. Tender pork belly is crusted in blackened pastrami spices and served with a mustardy brussels sprout "sauerkraut" and chewy rye spatezle. It's a pastrami sandwich... get it? This much is cute. But what matters is that it's a knockout dish, luscious and bold and balanced and more than a little decadent. Every time I worry that pork belly has become overplayed, a dish like this comes along to remind me that no matter how many menus it's crammed into, that can't be held against the times it's done right. That's this dish all over. I figure if I'm having a hard time finding a pastrami sandwich that makes me happy, a creative upscale repackaging thereof is the next best thing.

Dominic Armato

Jibarito de Bistec
Papa's Cache Sabroso - Chicago

Some great foods get that way with an impressive amount of finesse. Others display a certain wit and charm. And some are just freaking good. Such is the case with the jibarito, one of Chicago's more unique contributions to the culinary scene. This fall, I righted a wrong by finally getting to Papa's Cache Sabroso, a Puerto Rican joint not five minutes from where I lived for five years, to stop in for the Puerto Rican-Chicagoan creation I'd heard so much about but had never tasted. And it's probably a good thing that I hadn't, because this thing would be dangerously irresistible if it were too accessible. It's seasoned and grilled steak, melty cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and garlicky mayonnaise, all of which is typical enough, except that the fillings are then stuffed between two flattened and fried plantains in lieu of bread, adding a crisp and nutty decadence to a sandwich that would already be pushing the limits. This is one of those foods where you sit there, stuffing your face, licking your fingers and moaning, until it's all gone and you start to strongly consider ordering another. The jibarito is a fairly recent creation, and though widespread in Chicago it hasn't gotten much play elsewhere. That needs to change.

Dominic Armato

Foie with Sunflower & Huckleberry
Binkley's - Phoenix

Every once in a while, a pairing comes along that seems as though it's more likely the product of chemical alteration than chefly creativity. Foie and huckleberries seem straightforward enough, but I can't recall if I've ever seen sunflower seeds on a plate, much less like this. And yet it worked... brilliantly, even. Accompanied by whole huckleberries, a huckleberry sauce and a smear of nutty sunflower seed puree, the foie had a dark, heavily seared crust that bordered on charred. Add the nuttiness of the sunflower, and while it referenced traditional foie treatments, this presentation possessed an unusual and surprising complexity that I found really striking. The dish was a fantastic balance of pleasurable and cerebral, and it's among the best foie dishes I can remember.

Dominic Armato

A Walk In the Forest
Next - Chicago

The dish's official appellation is "Autumn," but its name among the staff seems somehow more appropriate. The high concept dinner theater of Next's Childhood menu was packed end to end with nostalgia and whimsy, but this dish temporarily set aside the memories of comfort foods and preprocessed treats, and tried to embody something a little less... straightforward. The best way I can think to describe this combination of manipulated vegetation and smoldering aromatics is the way I did when I wrote about it the first time:

"...it made me feel like a deer that had found a really fabulous bush to munch on. It was as though on this walk in the woods, I'd scooped up a handful of the forest floor -- leaves and berries and twigs and soil and mushrooms -- and popped it in my mouth, only to discover with delight that it was intensely pleasurable. The textures, aromas and flavors somehow managed to capture the forest, or at least how I imagine it, but in a way that was palatable to humans rather than wildlife, making it possible to experience the woods through the one sensory path that's not usually an option."

To call it unique would be a gross understatement. To call it exciting would be no less so.

Dominic Armato

Tom Yam Beef Ball & Tender Soup
Aroy Thai - Chicago

So much did I love this meal that if I weren't so determined to spread the love around I could have easily put three dishes from it here. I'm sure the fact that I was dying for a fabulous Thai meal had more than a little to do with it. But all the same, of all the dishes I enjoyed at Aroy Thai -- and they wre legion -- this was the one that stopped me dead in my tracks from bite one. As bowls were passed around and the table of more than a dozen slowly grew silent, all that was heard around the table was slurping and one voice from the other end that said, "I have never had tom yum soup before today." A little dramatic, yes. And at least as tongue-in-cheek. But still, this was an eye opener that made so many other tom yum soups seem like a waste of time. If this is a soup that normally goes to eleven, Aroy's version is at least a seventeen, taking all of the hot, sour, sweet and salty elements and sending them through the culinary equivalent of a bullhorn while still maintaining perfect balance. It was complete and total mouth-exploding flavor, and if I could have gotten away with hoarding the entire tureen for myself, I would have.

Dominic Armato

48 Hour Beef Belly
Sage - Las Vegas

If Vegas is all about taking things over the top and then going even further, short of gilding it with gold leaf and stuffing it with white truffles, I can't think of a better culinary metaphor than the 48 Hour Beef Belly, found at Shawn McClain's Sage at the Aria casino. I don't think it's even normal for them to plate a full serving. Though it was offered only on the signature tasting menu, they graciously honored my ladylove's request to make an entree out of it, the happy epilogue of which was that she left half of it to me. Think pork belly meets beef short ribs, smoked for 24 hours, braised for another 24, glazed with a thick, intense reduction and plated with pickled ramps and red peppers to lighten things up just a touch. And morels. Because of the smoke it played a little like BBQ, except with ten times the fat and a meat reduction in place of the sauce. It was a total no-holds-barred dish, and I can't think of a better city for it to call home.

Dominic Armato

Sonny Boy
Pizzeria Bianco - Phoenix

Well, it's about time. It took me a year and a half, but I finally got to Pizzeria Bianco. And then I got there again. And again. I think one more time. Maybe even once more. When it's off, I can see how some might be disappointed. Even the weakest pizza I've had there was excellent, but that's still a letdown when the buildup is "OMG it's the best pizza in the world!!!!1!!1111!1!!" But when it's on, I've had none better, and my favorite pizza in the lineup is the Sonny Boy, essentially a margherita minus the basil plus olives and salami. That the salami is Creminelli sopressata is already a good start. That it's set atop bread with beautiful chew and character is the key. That it quickly cooks under intense heat, rending and then kind of frying in its own fat, making it light and almost crisp is what takes it over the top. I really, really dig this pizza.

Dominic Armato

Shio Ramen
Santouka Ramen - Chicago

I realize ramen is the food nerd obsession du jour, and I don't care. This bowl belongs up here. It's not much to look at. When it comes to their signature shio ramen, Santouka serves the toppings on the side, which immediately sets the tone. The accompaniments may be fabulous, but this is about the broth and the noodles. And oh dear, are they wonderful, the noodles dense but lively, the broth a thick and almost creamy tonkotsu with seafood accents, rich with fat, warm and comforting. That the premium pork option is a tender and luscious cut of cheek doesn't hurt either. For all the time I've spent in Japan, I've had almost no ramen there. This was a reminder that when I'm there in two weeks, I really need to rectify that situation.

Dominic Armato

Rice, Chicken, Egg, Takana Pickle
Raku - Las Vegas

The omakase at Raku was so refined, so precise, so flavorful and so delightful that the only question was which dish I'd put here. I could've gone with the agedashi tofu, which for some reason I didn't fully appreciate on our first pass. I could have gone with the symphony of flavors and textures that was the uni shooter. I could have gone with a simple, delicate and mature treatment of ankimo, perfect dashi complementing the delicate monkfish liver. But when I stopped to think about the dish that stuck with me -- the one that I couldn't get out of my head -- I was surprised to find that it was our final savory course, a humble bowl of rice with minced chicken, slivered omelet, some pickled mustard leaf and shredded shiso. Even beyond the fabulous flavors, I loved the statement implicit in the fact that it was even a part of the menu. Yeah, you've had a virtuosic assortment of Japanese specialties, but your last course before dessert is going to be something completely simple and comforting. And, might I add, perfect.

But there are so many more! I agonized over which to picture. Any of these could have been above. Many of them were at one point or another as I debated with myself. Here they are, in similarly random fashion:

Original Chopped SaladCitizen Public HousePhoenix
Chicago Style Hot DogGene & Jude'sChicago
Shrimp and Sea Bass MushimonoShinBayPhoenix
Kowloon Style CrabNee HousePhoenix
Steamed Sole with Spring VegetablesL'AtelierLas Vegas
Lamb RibsFnBPhoenix
Fish TacosTacos AtoyacPhoenix
Italian BeefChicago's Taylor StreetPhoenix
Branzino alla GrigliaAndreoliPhoenix
Spanish Sea Bass StewKaiPhoenix
Shrimp with Spiced Demiglace and LeeksPoshPhoenix
Trippa alla FiorentinaPradoPhoenix
Birthday CakeMrs. Skillet DouxPhoenix
Larb KhunAroy ThaiChicago
The RehabFood SharkMarfa
Dry Chili Fish FiletLao HunanChicago
Uni ShooterRakuLas Vegas
Lamb Belly RouladeWelcome DinerPhoenix
Butter BurgerSolly'sMilwaukee

You know, you stack 'em up like this, and it looks like a pretty darn fabulous year of eats. And really, it was. I can only hope 2012 is another year like this.

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

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


Another killer post and I'm so happy to seeing ShinBay kick things off. Love that pork belly pastrami too... And there is no way you could have left Santuoka's ramen off the list. I think many just won't get that until they have it once. So brilliant. You've got me jonesing for Raku and that beef belly at Sage but most of all, I'm envious of the Aroy Thai meal. I so lament the lack of great Thai here. I think we should really start honestly working at a Vegas road trip to hit LOS with the folks that feel similarly so we can order a vast amount of menu items.

Love your blog as always, Dom!

Nice list Dom, Binkley's certainly knows how to treat foie. The butter burger is definitely one of the ugliest beasts to grace the blog, there's no question about that. And I'm with you on the Sonny Boy - that's my favorite pie at Bianco.

Vegas next weekend for family stuff - any Lotus of Siam rec's? Never been...Chris, feel free to chime in. :)

Agree completely on Santouka (which I don't think gets nearly enough respect on LTHforum) and getting some ramen in Japan. A first rate tempura bar is probably worth a go too, especially as it's something that is hard to find in the US.

Check and check. Makes me miss Phoenix more and more -- its a depraved culinary irresponsibility that makes you post things like this and a masochistic compulsion which makes me lasciviously read each one.

Makes me miss Phoenix.

I cant believe I just now remembered it, but have you been able to drop by Lon's at the Hermosa? I'm not sure it qualifies as categorically fine dining as you define it, but it's certainly not "downscale." In either case, one of my fondest PHX food memories is sitting at the bar, by myself, about an hour off my flight into Sky Harbor. They have a respectable wine program and one of the most straightforward and well-executed venison dishes Ive had in the Southwest.

The relaxed decor eschews pretension, even if it revels in the typical Sonoran style that may turn off us east coasters.

Have a great year Dom!

Nice list, and yeah - Binkley knows his foie. The seared foie I had there was good. The Foie Milkshake and Beignets were outlandish.

Can't wait to explore more of the Valley in the coming years, and good to see there just might be some sushi worth searching out.

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