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Food Writers and Experts Share Their Best Meals of 2012

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Illustration: Eric Lebofsky

To close out 2012, Eater asked industry experts, seasoned diners, and friends of the site several questions about the year in food. Those answers will post on the site throughout the next five days. Today, the series kicks off with a big one: What were the best meals you had in your home city, as well as in your travels? The exercise revealed that there's plenty of love for chefs like Ben Shewry, Christian Puglisi, Carlo Mirarchi, and Josef Centeno, as well as the dining scenes throughout Japan and Mexico. But there's much more than that. Here are the responses from eighteen writers representing cities around the world, from Melbourne and Tokyo, to Greenville and Kansas City:

Rachel Khong, Managing Editor of Lucky Peach:

At home in San Francisco, Nick Balla's fisherman's stew (sturgeon, collards, mushrooms, green chiles, magic) at Bar Tartine (plus some Tartine bread) is a meal I could happily eat forever. Another contender: scallop sashimi, bread/butter, and a pint of Anchor Steam at the counter at Swan Oyster Depot. Favorites abroad were boiled octopus and arroz marinara at Taberna Maceiras in Madrid, the post-cantina tongue tacos I ate standing on the street in Mexico City, and this chickpea-and-blood-sausage thing at Pinotxo in Barcelona.

Charlotte Druckman, WSJ writer and Skirt Steak author:

Some of the best meals at home in New York weren't necessarily the most delicious or well-executed — they were the most enjoyable. Sometimes, they were so bad that it became its own kind of fun. Alphabetically: A Voce Columbus, Babbo (for lunch), The Breslin, Brooklyn Fare, Dirt Candy, Dovetail, Il Buco A & V, Kin Shop, Maharlika, Momofuku Ko (for lunch), Puddin' NYC (some can make a meal of pudding), Yopparai.

In San Francisco: Atelier Crenn, Bar Tartine, Benu, Coi, Commis, Manresa, Rich Table. In Los Angeles: Baco Mercat. In Seattle: Sitka & Spruce, Walrus & The Carpenter. In Charleston: Husk. In Paris: Claude Colliot, Semilla, Table d'Aki.

Adam Roberts, Amateur Gourmet blogger and cookbook author:

I had two home cities this year, Los Angeles and New York, so I hope that means I get to have two answers (but no third answer because I didn't travel abroad): in L.A., my favorite meal was at Michael Voltaggio's ink. I thought I knew what to expect going in — a cold, technique-driven showcase for a Top Chef winner's ideas about food. Instead, I found the meal to be really warm and joyful, while still being fresh and inventive. I've had nothing like it before or since. In New York, the award goes to The John Dory, where, at lunch, I had a birthday meal that I'm still thinking about; especially the Parker House Rolls (holy crap, those were good) and the lobster chowder.

Sharlee Gibb, Melbourne Food & Wine Festival Organizer:

In Melbourne, Attica is my number one, but I also love the more casual neighborhood places like Hellenic Republic and The Moors Head.

In New York had great meals at Empellon Cocina, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Northern Spy, and I love what Mads [Refslund] is doing at ACME.

Ben Leventhal, Eater Co-Founder:

The first thing that comes to mind is the bone-in strip at Minetta Tavern, though I know that'll roll some eyes. Barbuto killed it for me over and over again, too, so I want to put it in the mix. And as for a one-off, I have to say the Cafe Boulud + Momofuku dinner for NYC was outstanding. Something about shaved foie above 14th Street that boggles the mind. Abroad, El Garzon in Uruguay was absolutely tremendous.

Adrian Moore, Mandarin Oriental Paris Concierge and Food Writer:

In my home city of Paris: surprise chef's menu at Roseval, which included smoked burratta and smoked puréed eggplant with grilled onions, sushi quality bonito with swiss chard, and an amazing spider crab mayo; the Egg, mayo sandwich at Chez Aline; the 22-Euro, 4-course surprise menu at Abri (stellar yellow pollack with chinese cabbage and cauliflower) — best value in Paris and already impossible to get in; classic burger at Le Camion qui Fume.

Here's what I recall from my travels: heirloom style rice porridge with Santa Barbara uni and Santa Barbara spot prawn, cooked in lemongrass over hot river stones, at Red Medecine in Los Angeles; Chinese BBQ pork stuffed steamed buns at China Poblano, Las Vegas; beer and bread porridge with salted butter caramel ice cream at Acme, New York.

James Casey, Swallow Magazine:

While the interior at Aamann's in New York City is austere, the smorrebrod is beyond reproach. Smoked cod with apples, dill, and fresh hazlenuts atop rye is Nordic perfection. Their slab of pâté with scientifically placed pink peppercorns, miniscule mushrooms, beets, mustard seed and hazelnut is an avalanche of amazing. These might be sandwiches, but they're hardly simple. Perhaps the most memorable dinner, though, was upstairs at The Spotted Pig, a meal organized by the brilliant Carla Rzeszewski to accompany the incomparable wines of Lebanon's Château Musar. Wine accompaniments started red, and finished with some serious serious old whites. April Bloomfield's gutsy cooking proved their perfect pair.

Having spent an fair amount of time in Mexico City this year, Contramar and Mero Toro have my vote. The former serves up superlative seafood, all simply cooked in regional Mexican fashion. Lunches run long and are often rather alcoholic affairs. Each time I visit I find a new favorite — the most recent being exquisite clam ceviches, and butterflied grilled snapper, rubbed in persillade on one side and ancho chile on the other. Mero Toro is chef Jair Tellez's homage to an imaginary Baja, where he presents seafood in the most delicate manner possible. Sea urchin with gooseneck barnacles; raw clams in their own liquor with sea beans; octopus with morcilla — all are amazing. Interesting Mexican and Spanish wine list, with a couple of Burgundian bangers to back things up.

Kat Kinsman, CNN Eatocracy

Any time went to Sarah Simmons' City Grit, I knew I was eating at the single best restaurant in NYC that night. There's a glorious air of community to these dinner, and the enthusiasm of the participating chefs comes through in the meals. They've got such a distinct point of view and locality to them (many chefs bring their own ingredients) and then *poof* — it's over, never to be repeated. There's something magical about that and I inevitably leave feeling tremendously lucky. Soigne in Park Slope is quietly turning out some of the most beautifully executed cooking in NYC. Marco Canora makes my knees weak at Hearth and I am considering entering into unholy matrimony with the NoMad chicken.

Other restaurants knocking it out: Husk in Charleston, SC (duh), Glass Onion in Charleston, SC, Beasley's Chicken and Honey in Raleigh, NC, Toups' Meatery in New Orleans, Hog & Hominy in Memphis, TN, R'evolution in New Orleans. The common factor: a serious sense of terroir. They're all paying homage to the traditions and ingredients of their very distinctive local cuisine and executing it at a shockingly high level.

Best bit of the year: tendon taco at China Poblano in Las Vegas. I honestly dreamt about it last night.

Helen Rosner, Saveur Senior Web Editor:

At home in New York: I loved the high-concept, visual-pun cuttlefish "ramen" course at Atera, and I was totally bowled over by the wine pairings at Blanca, and I think I could go back daily for the mushroom rice cakes and the pork belly and mint at Yunnan Kitchen. But for an overall meal — and I feel like this is going to be everyone's pick — it's NoMad. It really is a spectacular restaurant. The food itself obviously (the arctic char! The duck fat carrots!) but also the tone of the place: Eating elegant, refined plates of food à la carte in a (relatively) casual setting feels totally right for right now. It's great to have a counterbalance to the high-end lobster rolls and high-end burgers and high-end dim sum: it's just high-end high-end, no shame. And you can wear (nice) jeans!

The muffuletta situation in New Orleans has been pretty awful for as long as I've been going there (sorry, Napoleon House and Central Grocery, but you're running on fumes, dry bread, and tourist dollars). But I finally had the version of my dreams at Cochon Butcher: an inch-thick wedge of super-savory meats and spicy olive salad on a flawlessly oily-airy sesame loaf. It was the best sandwich I had all year. I brought three of them back on the plane to bring in to the office, and they were basically inhaled by the Saveur staff. There were moans of pleasure.

Outside of the US, I had a pretty life-changing rendition of moqueca—the Brazilian seafood stew—at Tordesilhas in São Paulo. Not least because of the crazy array of pickles and chilies that came to the table alongside, all made in-house, all of them sweet and weird and fiery in ways I hadn't experienced before. With several rounds of cocktails made from cachaça and cashew fruit, which is almost impossible to find in North America because it has a super short shipping life, but it's amazing: it has this highly astringent, ma la thing going on where it gradually starts to numb your mouth the more you eat it.

The Gurgling Cod:

Depends on how you define home city. Closer to home, but still a drive, Aaron Manter is just murdering it at the Owl. Serious avant-garde food at fast-casual prices in an abandoned Pizza Hut on the outskirts of Greenville, SC. Especially considering the deplorable state of dining in Upstate SC, I am very happy to see this place flourish. And they have a great beverage program.

A bit further abroad, and across a state line, Whitney Otawka is throwing down and making Farm 255 the most interesting restaurant in Athens, GA. Kitchen is stronger than the front of the house. But where a lot of places with a local focus are content to write purveyors on chalkboards and think they're running a serious restaurant, Whtney is running her place as you would expect a Thomas Keller stagiaire to do.

Bonjwing Lee, photographer and blogger behind the Ulterior Epicure:

While I continue to love watching Colby and Megan Garrelts's restaurant Bluestem evolve, I've really enjoyed welcoming Patrick Ryan's new restaurant, Port Fonda, to my regular rotation when I've been home in Kansas City this year. The chicken chimichanga there, when it's on the menu, is terrific. When I have out-of-town guests, I take them on a short barbecue tour of my city, which includes Oklahoma Joe's (I always insist on the ribs and chicken there) and LC's (for burnt ends and fries). I think I've been to each at least a half-dozen times this year.

Abroad, I fell in love with the flavors and simplicity of the cooking on the Basque coast of Spain, and the complexity and history of the cooking all over Mexico, where I went four times this year. Also, I had some of my most soulful and satisfying meals this year in the American South.

Robbie Swinnerton, Japan Times columnist and Tokyo Food File blogger:

In Tokyo: Ishikawa (faultless kaiseki, always welcoming), Umi (superb quality seafood, humble and not overhyped, sushi at its best), Torishiki (simply the best yakitori in town), Den (ex-Ishikawa chef Zaiyu Hasegawa is now forging his own kaiseki path), and Florilege (chef Hiroyasu Kawate, ex-Quintessence), is a chef for the future).

Abroad: Quique Dacosta in Denía, Spain (superb, the best meal of the year), Agapé Substance in Paris (inventive, casual, fun, memorable), and Hedone in London (superb ingredients, presented without hype or frivolity).

Adam Goldberg, blogger behind A Life Worth Eating:

I had a remarkable meal at Blanca in August. It was light and varied, with an almost Japanese minimalist aesthetic, which is not what one typically thinks of Italian cuisine. One course in particular stands out — snow crab cooked and served in its shell — with a sauce made from crab brain and sea urchin.

Two of my best meals outside of the US were at Relae in Copenhagen and Kitcho in Kyoto, Japan. Chef Christian Puglisi's cuisine at Relae is pure and concise, distinctly Danish, with a Northern Italian influence. His four-course tasting menu is focused and to the point. He also uses dairy products in a way that I haven't seen before. Kitcho is what I want every Japanese kaiseki meal to be: an almost spiritual experience. When there are so few ingredients on a plate, the quality and cooking of each one becomes much more prominent, and that was the focus here — absolute perfection of every single element put in front of us.

Katie Parla, food writer and Parla Food blogger:

The best meals in my home city were at Roscioli and Metamorfosi. Roscioli serves Rome's best carbonara year-round, and in the late fall adds the stunning seasonal specialty of egg pasta with butter and white truffles from Alba. Regardless of the season, Roscioli's pasta never disappoints and must be preceded by burrata and mixed cured pork. Metamorfosi's fall menu, especially the squab and ox heart, is stellar.

Abroad, the best meals I have had this year have been at Hedone in London and The Sportsman in Whitstable, both of which serve the most incredible Dover sole. Everything I've eaten at Kantin in Istanbul has been spectacular, especially the roasted suckling lamb intestines served only in the spring.

Amanda Kludt, Eater Editorial Director:

Home, New York: I am very bullish on these guys but I had some great meals this year at my local spot Gwynnett St., a great addition to that part of Williamsburg. And I had a straight up epic meal downstairs at Legend in Chelsea, where a friend who speaks Chinese ordered off menu for a group of 10. Some of the best Chinese I've had in New York.

Abroad: I really enjoyed Tickets in Barcelona. The decor is a bit much, but I love that most of the restaurants in Spain are so bright, so you can actually see and appreciate everything. And the food was modern without being annoying, delicious but not overwhelming. In San Sebastian I fell in love with Rekondo. I can't think of anything more luxurious than eating perfectly cooked steak with 60 year-old Rioja.

Ali Kurshat Altinsoy, MAD Symposium Director:

At home in Copenhagen: a recent meal at Relae was perhaps the best one that I have had there, ever. Another memorable meal was at Kadeau, after it reopened in its new location.

I have eaten out more abroad than I have at home this year. The most exciting and enjoyable meals include those at: l'Arpege, l'Astrance, Attica, le Baratin, le Chateaubriand, DOM, Faviken, Momofuku Sei?bo, Pujol, Sixpenny, St. John Bread & Wine, and Willow's Inn.

Edmund Tijerina, San Antonio Express-News Restaurant Critic:

On a newspaper salary, I don't often get to visit expensive steakhouses, but I went to one of the best in Texas at Bohanan's, and the entire experience was exquisite. Not nearly as pricey, I loved a 5-course menu at Laurent's Modern Cuisine, a small and underappreciated place here that serves dishes that reminded me of contemporary bistros in Paris. I also have to put in a note for Nosh, where a new chef, Luca Della Casa, has elevated a small plates menu into something worth experiencing.

Outside San Antonio, my favorite meal had a SA connection — Baco Mercat in Los Angeles, where San Antonio native Josef Centeno brilliantly mixes cuisines and approaches and somehow makes it all seem familiar.

Per-Anders and Lotta Jorgensen, Editors of Fool Magazine:

At home in Malmo, every single lunch at Saltimporten Canteen. Dinner at Bastard Restaurant never disappoints, a true find! Christian Puglisi at Relae in Copenhagen constantly pushes the boundaries and highlights a contemporary vegetable-focused cuisine.

Abroad, we were captured by Ben Shewry at Attica in Melbourne and fellow australian Mark Best's Marque in Sydney, as well as up-and-comers Loam. Aponiente by Ángel Léon was eye-opening, and the pig's ear at Borda Berri in San Sebastián and the meal at Bar Tartine in San Francisco were plain genius.

· All Year in Eater 2012 Coverage [-E-]

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