It’s no great secret that I’m a fan of the retrospective. So I’m reflecting on my bests from 2014 as we count down to the New Year — and there were many! Best restaurant bites, meals from our kitchen, travel moments, writing and reading… here we go!
In the past year, Austin and I were fortunate to enjoy some truly memorable meals at some truly memorable restaurants. It was so hard to narrow this list, but from street food to fine dining, here are the 10 best restaurant dishes I ate in 2014.
Tacos El Pastor from a hole in the wall in Tulum, Mexico
An argument in taco form for simple food being some of the best. We got off the collectivo in Tulum, dusty and thirsty and starving at 11:30 AM. We plopped down at a little mom-and-pop tacos shop, ordered a bucket of cervezas and these tacos el pastor. Melting pork, charred pineapple, a little dusting of cilantro and fine radish bits overflowing from fresh tortilla made next door. We ate nothing better over those two weeks in the Riviera Maya.
Miso-glazed black cod from Kingyo in Toronto
It’s hard, I think, for fish to be sublime. This was a perfect tiny piece of cod in a sweet-salty miso glaze. It disintegrated on my tongue in a way I’ve never experienced, offset by the crunch of radish slices and brightened by cilantro and lime. Austin and I still talk reverently about this fish, which never again appeared on Kingyo’s menu. Maybe one day…
Asparagus, braised and plated with potato and black truffle from Eleven Madison Park in New York City
This was one of those dishes I worried may be more show than substance. The runner dramatically presented to us a giant inflated pig’s bladder in a beautiful copper saucepan, noting that our asparagus were braising within its womb. Austin and I side-eyed one-another.
The asparagus was returned to table, a single spear alongside a puddle of potato hiding a black truffle purée. Dishes like this one remind me why Eleven Madison Park has three Michelin stars and why I love fine dining. This was refined, delicious and classical French cooking with the Daniel Humm nod of irreverence.
Chocolate from Jean-Georges in New York City
It takes a lot for a dessert to make a top 10 list for this savoury girl. But this was such a brilliant dessert, reminding me why Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the world’s masters of contrast and flavour.
Pastry Chef Joe Murphy played with chocolate in this dish in all its types and forms: white chocolate offset by bright yuzu; milk chocolate accented with smoked salt meringue and candied orange; and a deeply bitter chocolate tart punched up with red wine sorbet. All of this could be cliché if executed by a lesser chef, but it was a balanced interplay of salty/sweet/sour/bitter.
Chicken liver mousse with armagnac prunes and brioche from The Prune in Stratford, Ontario
This was an unexpected and rare moment of eating bliss. I often order chicken liver mousse when dining out, because it’s reliably tasty. Who can argue with brioche points spread with butter-whipped livers? But this mousse! It was a towering gamey cloud of air, accompanied by little booze-soaked bits of prune and dusted in orange zest. Austin and I were spreading the stuff on brioche and moaning. I would return to Stratford just for this dish.
“That Pushed Egg” from Hugo’s in Portland, Maine
My best dish of the year. As someone who has enjoyed a lot of fine dining that tends toward modernist, it’s rare I am served a dish so completely unexpected that I’m not sure what to make of it. This happened at Hugo’s. I even emailed the restaurant after we returned to Toronto to ask about it; it so strongly stuck with me. Here’s the reply I received from Owner and Executive Chef, Mike Wiley:
RE: That Pushed Egg
Maria;What a fine compliment it was receiving your email! Not only to learn that you enjoyed the dish, but that it resonated to the point that you needed to get in touch with us–all of it is quite flattering.So, the dish then: it was a hard-boiled egg pushed through a potato ricer. We dressed the egg with a nasturtium vinaigrette, and garnished the egg with a changing array of fresh and crunchy elements, including but not limited to, grilled breadcrumb, bacon crumble, tomato water gelée, dehydrated prosciutto crisps, dehydrated black olive, radish micro greens, thinly sliced radish, and pickled shimeji mushroom. The thinking behind the dish was that eggs are delicious and the vinaigrette was tasty, so those baseline elements could support a whole host of crunchy, salty, and sour garnishes.Thanks again for your kind email, we look forward to cooking for you again.
Summer veloute with speck cream from L’Arpège in Paris, France
A first joint visit to Paris for a couple who love food as much as Austin and me is an invitation to quickly become poor. So we limited our starred dining to a couple restaurants that most excited us both. One of those was L’Arpège, whose chef Alain Passard I have admired since my vegetarian days of yore for his vegetable-focused cooking.
This summer veloute with a dollop of speck cream was the first appearance of meat in our meal, about 6 courses in. It was a brilliant interplay of sweet but vegetal soup and a salty, umami cream.
Ravioles de langoustines, mousseline d’artichauts from Les Cocottes de Christian Constant in Paris, France
This dish. This is the one dish from Paris I told people about over and over. We almost didn’t order it — langoustine ravioli in an artichoke mousse seemed cliche. But we did anyway. It arrived in a little cast iron pot, two big free-form ravioli draped over a thick artichoke gel and covered in an intensely seafood-y cream. When someone asks me what perfect French food is, this dish is my reply — reveling in its simplicity and strong, balanced flavour. We scraped the bowl with our spoons then cleaned it with our bread.
Tiny flash-fried prawns with raspberry powder from Le Chateaubriand in Paris, France
A proof point of Inaki Aizpitarte’s singular brand of genius: this dish was so weird but just totally worked. Tiny, salty prawns were flash fried then dusted with piquant raspberry powder. Paired with Marie Courtin’s delightful Resonance blanc de noirs 100% pinot noir Champagne, they were an unexpectedly awesome bar snack.
The entire tasting menu from Dill in Reykjavik, Iceland
Gunnar Karl Gislason’s Dill is to Iceland, to me, what Rene Redzepi’s NOMA is to Denmark, having transformed their countries’ respective culinary reputations around locally-focused fine cooking. As a food lover, there’s no way to visit either country without a pilgrimage to these restaurants. When I learned we’d have a stopover in Reykjavik on our return from Paris, reservations at Dill were priority one. With their website being rebuilt, Facebook unanswered, and emails bouncing back, it was a rocky start — I was gearing up to learn some simple Icelandic to make a call. Happily, an email finally went through.
As I reflected on this menu, I couldn’t choose one dish as my favourite. The entire progression made so much sense as a whole, each course in the tasting (menu pictured above) building on the last and sending us into a food delirium built of seaweed, Arctic char, skyr, potatoes, goose, whey, angelica… and isn’t that exactly what a tasting menu should do?