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The Ulterior Epicure's 25 Best Dishes of 2012

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Since revealing his identity in September of 2011, Bonjwing Lee, who writes the blog the ulterior epicure, has embarked on a life of eating, traveling and issuing photographic dispatches from top tables around the world. For the past seven years, Lee has rounded up his favorite dishes, desserts, and restaurant meals in a series of "best of" lists that he publishes at the end of each year. Eater asked him to briefly talk about his latest year in eating and share his twenty-five favorite dishes from 2012. Take it away, Bonjwing:

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The last twelve months marked another spectacular year for me. Once again, I ate my way around the world, visiting restaurants and eateries of all types (you will find a list of all of the restaurants I visited in 2012, both foreign and domestic, on my blog).

Although I consider myself more of a taster than a tastemaker, I happily add my opinion (for, mine is but one man's opinion) to the blizzard of gastronomic white paper issued by tastemakers near and far at the end of each year. As I asked on the last week of 2010: "Who doesn't love rummaging through another's list of dirtied linens at the end of the year?"

I've already published a list of my favorite desserts from last year, and I will publish my annual list of ten best meals later this week. But Eater has asked me to share my list of the twenty-five favorite dishes from 2012. Here is an excerpt from that blog post, followed by all of the dishes:

Is my patience for fussed, high-end food waning? Or is the high-end becoming less compelling in general? I'm not sure.

But this year's roster of my twenty-five favorite dishes seems to have favored the simpler, and sparer. Dishes that showcased one or two quality ingredients, or focused on flavor or texture won my heart over those that aspired for more. This year, more than any prior year, the high-end seemed choked by esoteria and whimsy. I witnessed a lot of unedited attempts at genius that failed to deliver.

So, you will find a piece of nicely aged meat at the top of this year's list. You'll find pastas, barely dressed, and fish simply prepared. There is a sandwich among them, and a taco too.

This year's list is dominated by four days of eating in San Sebastian, Spain. Six of my ten favorite dishes of 2012, and eight of the top twenty-five, are from those meals. Otherwise, the list includes dishes from Charleston to Oaxaca, St. Helena to St. Louis.


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25. Fish Taco


(Los Originals Tacos de Pescado de Ensenada;
Ensenada, Mexico)

I'll never forget eating this fish taco, sitting on a stool in the shade of a food truck in Ensenada. There was a street vendor on the corner selling kitsch and blasting Alejandra Guzman on the radio. The fish, with its hot and crisp battered shell, was fried to order. We slung some crema and salsa on it, and piled enough garnishes on top to reassure the locals that we were gringos. But I didn't care. It was summer, and those fish tacos were delicious.


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24. Brisket Sandwich


Served on rye with Brie & horseradish mayonnaise.
(Winslow's Home; St. Louis, Missouri)

The brisket had been braised all night, and heaped between two tightly knit rye buns (having a toasted ciabatta-like crust, but with a dense whole grain crumb) with Brie cheese and a slather of creamy horseradish mayonnaise. It was warm and comforting, simple and steadying.


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23. Fried Green Tomatoes


Pimento cheese and Benton's country ham.
(Husk; Charleston, South Carolina)

The tomatoes had been lightly pickled, dredged in heirloom cornmeal, and then pan-fried in lard (not dropped into a commercial deep-fryer). Hot out of the fat, each golden-brown slice was topped with a spoonful of pimento cheese and a ruffle of shaved country ham. By any other hand, this little snack could easily have become a sloppy caricature of Southern home cooking: whacky and wild. But at Husk, it was the soul of Southern finesse. I've come to expect nothing less from Sean Brock's kitchen.


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22. Bay Scallop


Sliced clam with tofu skin, aged kimchi,
smoked egg, and pork broth on the side.
(Stuart Brioza presenting at the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

For me, the most memorable dish from the Twelve Days of Christmas dinner series at The Restaurant at Meadowood was a stir-fry of yuba and kimchi that had been tossed with sweet bay scallops and thinly sliced geoduck. All of it was snowed over with a generous shaving of cured egg yolks (the chicken egg yolks had been cured in a salt and sugar mix for a couple of weeks, then coated with cracked black pepper and air-dried under cheesecloth for another week; the shaved, cured egg yolks added a creaminess to the dish). The acid in the kimchi towed a high, bright line through the otherwise thick flavors (among them, the salty punch of fish sauce). With this dish, Stuart Brioza (chef of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco) served a warm pork broth infused with Meyer lemon. Fragrant and comforting, it had a little bite from togarashi spice.


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21. Lobster Coral Xiao Long Bao


(benu; San Francisco, California)

Like unicorns, the perfect xiao long bao seems to be a mythological creature, elusive and rare. Yet, the two that I was recently served at benu made it seem as if chef Corey Lee could produce them effortlessly. From these delicate purses gushed a warm broth that was rich with the flavor of lobster coral.


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20. Orecchiette


Lamb merguez, carrot purée, salad burnet.
(Del Posto; New York, New York)

Together, the sweetness of carrot purée and the musky spice of merguez sausage produced an elegant, ragu-like effect for a plate of orecchiette pasta. It offered all the warmth and coziness of Italian comfort without the saucy heaviness. To me, this dish represented Del Posto at its very best.


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19. Handcut Ligurian Pasta


Pole beans, pesto, Parmesan.
(Boulette's Larder; San Francisco, California)

I have come to admire Boulette's Larder for its consistently well-crafted dishes, always made from high-quality ingredients (I've eaten at this restaurant at least once on each of my three trips to San Francisco this year). The "Vegetarian Farmhouse Lunch," a daily special on the menu, is usually a hearty plate of food, like this bowl of handcut noodles coated in pesto, spiked with chile flakes, and topped with some pine nuts and shaved Parmesan cheese.


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18. Fresh Corn Polenta


Calamari, lime, cotija.
(Ideas in Food presenting at aldea; New York, New York)

Alex Talbot, one half of the blog Ideas in Food, celebrated the sweetness of summer in this steaming bowl of sweet corn porridge. Thick and rich, it was spiced with squid tentacles braised in a tomato-based sofrito, and brightened with the perfume of lime. Talbot decorated the top with tender ringlets of the squid cap - barely cooked on the griddle - and grated cotija cheese over it all.


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17. Smoked Tomato Pie


Silver Queen cornbread and whipped corn cream.
(Ashley Christensen presenting at the S.F.A. Symposium;
Oxford, Mississippi)

In the middle of a barbecue symposium, Ashley Christensen dazzled us with an amazing parade of vegetable dishes. The highlight was a beautiful pie of smoked tomatoes cooked under a caky cornbread crust over which was spooned a satiny run of whipped corn cream, milky and sweet. Southern food never was so sexy.


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16. Hazelnut and Bean Stew


With "Mother of Pearl"
(Mugaritz; Errenteria, Spain)

I don't know whether Andoni Aduriz, chef of Mugaritz, intended to mimic the flavor and texture of Chinese, sweet red bean soup (a dessert, served hot) in this beautiful little stew he served us, but he did so with the most unlikely ingredients. The thickened beef stock was grainy with bean starch, and surprisingly sweet with onion. Braised hazelnuts took on the texture of boiled lotus nuts, or peanuts, or taro root, which are common in red bean soup. The resemblance was uncanny, the effect unforgettable.


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15. Chipotle Relleno


Stuffed with beef and dried fruits, in a white corn tortilla, served with potato with fresh cheese and cream.
(La Teca; Oaxaca, Mexico)

In the humblest of settings, with the humblest of ingredients, Deyanira makes the noblest food. La Teca is less of a restaurant and more of a supper club that Deyanira runs out of her home. There, she makes authentic Oaxacan dishes, like sweet and smokey chipotle peppers stuffed with beef and dried fruits. The fat peppers arrived cradled in freshly pressed white corn tortillas with a side of boiled potatoes dressed with a warm cheese crema.


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14. From 2011, Grilled Sirloin "Luismi"


Over a bed of swiss chard "chloropyhyll," cheese bon bon.
(Martin Berasategui; San Sebastian, Spain)

Together with the grilled rib eye at Asador Extebarri (see #1 above), this strip of dry-aged sirloin convinced me that the Basque people have mastered the art of cattle ranching. Is it the breed, the feed, the animal husbandry, or the aging process that makes their beef so spectacular? This meat was unbelievably dense in flavor (boosted by a pungent sphere - or "bon bon" - of liquified Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese), and had a shockingly tender, ropey texture not unlike hanger steak. It had been seared on the plancha once, unseasoned, and set aside to rest. Then, it was seared again, sliced immediately, and then - only at the very end, right before being plated - seasoned with a dash of salt. The beef was served with an emerald-green "chlorophyll sauce" (liquified chard and spinach greens), a grassy reminder of the land on which the cattle had grazed.


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13. Matsutake Meshi


Yuzu, clams, koshi hikari, foie gras, and sea bean.
(Paul Qui presenting at the Friends of James Beard Foundation Dinner; The American Restaurant; Kansas City, Missouri)

This was no ordinary congee. Qui ringed this hand-cracked rice porridge with matsutake mushroom purée and topped it with thinly sliced matsutake, trimmed clams, a slice of kelp, and a sprig of sea bean. It was an unbelievably flavorful collection of umami that was intensified by warm dashi, which was poured over the porridge at the table. I spooned my way around the comforting carousel of treasures until I reached a nugget of foie gras, nestled in the porridge, that ended the tour in a creamy explosion.


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12. Brassicas


Quail egg, stew of toasted grains,bouillon of wild seaweeds.
(saison; San Francisco, California)

In this dish, Skenes brought the nutty, toasty scent of the earth together with the breezy smell of the sea in a warm and comforting bowl of leaves and grains. There were eight different varieties of brassicas leaves - each one dried in the hearth for about an hour (which helped soften the bitterness); several types of seaweed - including sea lettuce and mermaid's hair - some dried, some hydrated; and about a half-dozen different grains, including Sonoran wheat berry, emmer, barley, and Nigerian black wheat. Enriched with the flavor of seaweed bouillon and the fat of a coddled quail egg, this dish painted a warming, pastoral vignette.


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11. Abalone


Plankton-coated matsutake.
(The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Tender abalone, the briny flavor of plankton, the smell of woodsy pine in the matsutake, all tied together with a drizzle of warm vinaigrette of dried abalone stock and brown butter: together, a sophisticated combination of flavors and textures that showcased great ingredients and pointed towards a higher way of thinking about food. This represented three Michelin-starred dining at its very best.


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10. Revellons and Foie Gras


(Ganbara; San Sebastian, Spain)

Ganbara's bar counter was mounded with wild mushrooms of all different shapes and sizes when we walked in for a late-night bite. It was mushroom season, and the kitchen was serving fleshy revellon caps with nuggets of seared foie gras. With a dash of crunchy sea salt crystals and the velvety run of a raw egg yolk, this was a rich but unforgettable combination of earthy flavors and textures.


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9. White Asparagus


Sorrel ice cream, pine nuts and brown butter.
(The Oval Room; Washington, D.C.)

At first, this dish struck me as an odd combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures. But, together, they worked wonderfully. Tangy sorrel ice cream helped balance the creaminess of white asparagus soup and the richness of toasted pine nuts warmed in brown butter. Tucked among it all was a mild, creeping heat that remained just on the periphery.


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8. 30-Day Mendocino Lamb


Slowly roasted over the embers, onions and sheep milk.
(saison; San Francisco, California)

Slowly roasted over embers and carved to order, this aged lamb came from a private ranch on the Mendocino coast, where the sheep graze on mineral-rich grass near the sea (giving the meat a pré-salé quality). Tender and juicy, the meat's mild lamb flavor was echoed in the musky Vadouvan-like spices in the dish. The lamb was also dressed with with pan juices from its roasted bones and sheep's milk from the same ranch.


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7. Salted Anchovies


Toasted bread.
(Asador Etxebarri; Axpe, Spain)

The anchovies in northern Spain are spectacular. I learned this eating along the Costa Brava - Spain's northeastern coast, near the French border. The meat is incredibly silky, and, having been cured in salt and bathed in oil, surprisingly clean, free from any sort of metallic fishiness. At Etxebarri, along Spain's northern coast, also near the French border, the anchovies were just as great. These were meatier, but no less delicate in texture or flavor. They were served simply, splayed on warm, buttered toast.


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6. From 2011, "Smoked Balloon"


With mille feuilles of endives, oily fish,
watercress, and chickweed.
(Martin Berasategui; San Sebastian, Spain)

Bitter is not a flavor that Western chefs often explore, or master. But Berasategui did both in this stunning dish that combined smoke with bitter greens. The sharp, bitter edges of both were smoothed beautifully with the pungent fat of oily bluefish.


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5. Clams and Rice


(Ibai; San Sebastian, Spain)

This was a simple proposition: some rice, some clams, some garlic, oil and chopped herbs, and perhaps a dash of wine and a pinch of salt. And yet, the flavor of this porridge was so bold and briny, you'd think the whole ocean was in it.


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4. Shrimp Rice


Caramelized plantains.
(Yu Ne Nisa; Oaxaca, Mexico)

Tangy with tomato and rich in "xian" with the flavor of shrimp (specifically, the flavor of dried baby shrimp, which takes me back to my childhood – I knew it as sha pi growing up), this rice dish was topped with a plantain that had been split and fried until caramelized on the outside. Like the rest of Doña Ofelia's food at Yu Ne Nisa, the flavors were stacked and shingled carefully, each one distinct – the nuttiness of the rice, the mellow sweetness of the plantains, the brininess of the shrimp, the acidity in the tomatoes – yet part of a complex whole. As with her mole negro (see #3 above), the experience of tasting so many flavors in this rice dish, cascading in quick succession, was addictive.


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3. Mole Negro


With chicken thigh.
(Yu Ne Nisa; Oaxaca, Mexico)

High in umami, Doña Ofelia's mole negro was a carousel of flavors that sent sweet chasing salty, bitter chasing acid, and smoke chasing fat; around, and around, and around, it went so quickly that getting off it was hard. I was compelled to go back, and back, and back, and back for more. We couldn't get enough of it, lapping it up with such focus that we barely paid attention to the chicken that it dressed. On one plate, there was simply a thigh, with the leg attached. On another, were two enchiladas, filled with pulled chicken meat and topped with a dusting of cheese and slivers of raw, white onion, which, somehow paired perfectly with the mole. They were both terrific, in part because they both were swimming with that amazing sauce.


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2. Whole Sole


Salt and vinegar sauce.
(Ibai; San Sebastian, Spain)

We were presented with the entire fish at the table, naked save for the vinegary pan juices that pooled around it on the platter. With a few, quick cuts, our server unzipped the fish and parceled out the filets to each of us. The meat was delicate, and slightly sweet against the tang of vinegar, which had been sharpened by a healthy amount of salt. The best part of the fish was the skin, sticky with gelatin and sauce, especially the webby parts around the fins that had gone a bit crusty. Those parts were like salt and vinegar chips.


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1. Grilled Rib Eye


(Asador Etxebarri; Axpe, Spain)

The thought of sitting down to a mound of meat appeals to me very little, which is why I rarely visit steakhouses. But the grilled rib eye that my friends and I shared at Asador Etxebarri was so amazing that it was, undoubtedly, my single favorite plate of food from 2012. The meat was grilled on the bone, resulting in a charred crust and a scarlet middle that was marbled with fat that had yellowed with age. It stained the air with a mustiness that only dry-aged meat can. And it coated my mouth with a waxy layer of fat that was so flavorful, so complex, so wonderful, and so thick that only a vinegary lettuce salad, served on the side, could thin.


· All Year in Eater Coverage [-E-]

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