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The 15 Best Dishes of 2013 According to Bonjwing Lee, AKA the Ulterior Epicure

For the first time this year, Eater has asked several globetrotting restaurant bloggers to share their 15 favorite dishes of 2013. Next up: Bonjwing Lee, known for his blog Ulterior Epicure, who shares his picks from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Chile below. See also: Lee's top 15 picks from 2012, and the top 2013 dishes from John Sconzo, AKA Docsconz and Elizabeth Auerbach, AKA ElizabethOnFood.

[All photos: Bonjwing Lee]

I literally sat in front of my computer and scrolled through every single dish I ate this year. When I was finished, I did it again. And then again. Eight years ago, I surveyed all of the dishes I had eaten that year and compiled a list of my favorites, more for my own record than for posterity. Since, it has become an annual tradition.

Considering the incredibly packed years that preceded it, it's unbelievable that 2013 was busier. I spent more time traveling and eating this year than any year before it. Like last year, I continued to find joy in simplicity. Dishes that focused on the integrity of products pleased me more than those that were unique or interesting. Many of my favorite dishes this year did nothing more than celebrate one or two excellent ingredients. Some of them explored texture in wonderful ways. Others took me through foreign lands. All of them were worth the journey.

Don't be fooled. Although much of what you'll find listed below seem like uncomplicated propositions — a roasted rib, a slice of smoked fish, a tortilla and some sauce, a rustic stew, or some porridge — all of them demonstrated a sophistication and confidence that only a skilled craftsman could produce.

This year's list is comprised of dishes from all over the world: the dusty Hill Country of Texas, the destination tables of Denmark, and a Michelin-starred gem in the 16th arrondissement. I found a couple of them among the archipelagos of the Pacific Northwest, and one at a roadside stand in Chile. Together, they proved to me that exceptional cooking can happen anywhere, and can come from anyone, even an octogenarian in a polyglot borough of New York City.

It's also worth noting that I ate quite a few of this year's best dishes more than once. In fact, I had three of them — all from Saison — more than half a dozen times. The frequency with which dishes from Saison appear on this list (three in the top fifteen) can be partly attributed to the fact that I ate at Saison nine times this year. I've made disclosures about my relationship with this restaurant and its chef, as well as others that appear on this list, in a prior post. Three other dishes — all in the top ten — I've had twice, one of them in two slightly different versions. The fact that these dishes were among my favorites is no coincidence. Although I travel and eat widely, both at the high end and the low end, I tend to return to places that have earned my trust, providing those chefs and restaurants multiple opportunities to impress, to improve, or, simply please again.

Outstanding, in a field of thousands of dishes gathered from hundreds of meals, are these fifteen. (To see all twenty-five of Ulterior Epicure's best dishes for 2013, visit his blog.)

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15. Piena Luna

Del Posto, New York City

Castelmagno cheese, Australian black truffles

The "piena luna" was as perfect in form as it was delicious, a tender disk of freshly made pasta — a "full moon" — waxing with butter and truffles.

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14. Fried Kokotxas

Relae, Copenhagen

Fried cod throats dusted with vinegar powder

In a complicated world, it's wonderful to have uncomplicated but incredibly delicious things, like these buttery nuggets of deep-fried cod throat. The outside was light and crunchy; the inside was molten and melty. Dusted with vinegar powder, it was terrific take on fish and chips.

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13. Square Pie

Di Fara Pizza, New York City

Three different mozzarella cheeses, tomato, and basil

Matt Accarrino, chef of SPQR in San Francisco, once described this style of Sicilian pizza crust best: "It's basically olive oil stabilized by gluten." As I wrote earlier this year, "The square pie [at Di Fara Pizza] starts off more like focaccia. [Domenico] DeMarco pats the thick, oily dough into a well-greased pan and bakes it naked. As the dough bakes, he pulls it out of the oven several times... Each time, he lifts the corners of the crust and bathes it with a generous pour of olive oil. As the crust crisps, he adds the toppings... The result is a molten, meteor-like bottom that's crunchy and oily, with a fluffy, cooked center. It's thick, but not heavy. It's perfect, really. Unlike Chicago deep-dish pizza, which is rarely cooked evenly or adequately — there's that fat middle section where you can't tell when the uncooked dough ends and the cheese begins — this is a thing of beauty."

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12. Monkfish Liver

Manresa, Los Gatos, California

Wrapped in brassicas, a confiture of passionfruit and potimarron

This packet of liver wrapped in cabbage was masterfully crafted. The liver was silky and smooth, and clean as a whistle. (In my experience, monkfish liver is either glorious or wretched; there's very little middle ground.) But what impressed me the most was that the cabbage was just as supple. I sliced through it all without resistance.

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11. Toffee

Saison, San Francisco

Bread, milk, beer

This dish defies description. I can tell you what's in it. But, even though I've had it over a half-dozen times, I really can't tell you, with any sense of accuracy or confidence, how it tastes. Neither will the ingredient list prepare you for the experience. There's duck liver, whipped until airy. There's creamy milk, and frothy beer. There are slivers of grapefruit, tucked underneath it all, that help thin the fat and magnify the bitterness of the beer. Shattered over all of it are wispy shards of toasted bread; they help bring out the roasty flavor of the coffee oil. You'd be tempted to categorize it as a dessert. But it's not. It's usually served before the last meat course. So, it's kind of a cleanser, which makes sense given that it's oddly refreshing. Regardless, it's absolutely delicious.

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10. Lamb Tongue

Kadeau, Copenhagen

Onion and wild garlic

Onions, some wild garlic, a tender slice of tongue — griddled slightly to give it some color and crust — and a drizzle of jus. That's all this was. And it was delicious.

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9. Fideos

Casa Mono, New York City

With chorizo, clams, and aioli

The fideos at Casa Mono are not easy to eat. The noodles, which have been toasted with garlic and simmered with cava and chicken stock, are stacked high in a cazuela packed with clam shells. And on top, there's a generous dollop of aioli, the flavor of which has been smoothed and sweetened by a shot of Pedro Ximénez. But, this is one of those lusty dishes — here, done particularly well — that invites you to jump in and make a delicious mess of it all.

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8. Aji Fall Escabeche

The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, California

Fat and acid: when seen in the right proportions, they make an incredible couple, one that helped put this dish on the list. I had two versions of Christopher Kostow's aji escabeche. The first, a Fall version, was served at a regular meal in the dining room at The Restaurant at Meadowood. Kostow altered the garnishes slightly and served it again, a Winter version, on the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas. At the center was a beautiful slice of aji (mackerel), cured in salt to loosen up the oily meat, rendering it slippery and slack; the texture was exquisite. The fish was sauced with a sweet-tart escabeche liquid and glazed with a bit of dashi, made from aji stock. I slightly preferred the first version, which included a variety of vegetables (slightly pickled in the escabeche liquid), apple, dill, and habenero.

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7. Poached Eggs

Boulette's Larder, San Francisco

Creamed spinach and cardoons

Boulette's Larder, in its former iteration, was one of the most consistent restaurants I knew. (I haven't been back since it closed for renovation earlier this year. From what I understand, it essentially bifurcated into the adjacent space, opening a sister, lunch-only spot called Bouli Bar. The last time I swung through, I noticed that Boulette's Larder is serving breakfast, and prepared foods.) Over the past few years, I've had nearly a dozen meals there, and every dish has been spotless, top to bottom. Amaryll Schwertner's keen sense of quality and taste is apparent in everything she cooks. Last year, a simple plate of pasta with pesto at Boulette's Larder made my list of favorite dishes. This year, it was a spectacular plate of poached eggs nestled on a creamy bed of spinach and cardoons.

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6. Smoked Sockeye Salmon

Willow's Inn, Lummi Island, Washington

Perhaps it was the setting sun, streaming through the dining room windows, that made this sliver of salmon glow a particularly brilliant shade of red when it alighted on our table, glistening with a butter and brown sugar glaze. Regardless, the flavor of smoke and sea (brined in saltwater and smoked for six hours), lubricated by the fish's waxy fat, was just as intense as the color. Left at one bite, I would have felt cheated; at three, it would have been too much. At two, it was perfect.


5. Pork Rib

Rancho Doña Maria, Santiago, Chile

We drove forty minutes outside of Santiago to Doña Maria's road-side shack for empanadas, which she bakes in dung ovens (they're not traditional unless they're baked in dung ovens, so they say). Her empanadas were great, especially the crust, which was more lardy than flakey, with golden-brown blisters all over. But her pork ribs, which we ordered as an afterthought, knocked my socks off. These hefty ribs were rubbed with spices, and then smoked until the meat brimmed with juice and fat. They were amazing.

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4. Black Cod

Saison, San Francisco, California

Swarnadwipa spices, plaintain chip

I've tasted this dish through a number of iterations this year. I've had it with sea bream, spot prawns, king crab, and black cod. But the underlying brothy curry remained consistently magical, a warm, comforting expression of every flavor sensation my mind can comprehend, and yet, taken together, I cannot adequately articulate: salty, sweet, spicy, umami, floral. It's made from a mix of spices that Joshua Skenes calls "swarnadwipa" (inspired by spices and stories he learned from his friend Jing Tio, owner of Le Sanctuaire) and is enriched with coconut oil and kaffir lime. Hidden beneath the seafood were slivers of rangpur lime, which added bright splashes of acidity and bitterness. Although any one of the versions of this dish that I had would have ranked on this list, I preferred the sea bream and black cod versions for the plantain chips that topped the fish. This dish needed some texture and structure. It really is splitting hairs, but I preferred the black cod, for its particularly buttery texture, over the sea bream.


3. Gullah Fish Head Stew

Sean Brock, Music To Your Mouth Event

Catfish, Carolina gold rice

I ate this dish standing, while cooks and servers swirled around me, hustling to plate and run dozens of dishes to a room full of guests at a Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner at this year's Music To Your Mouth Festival. I was hired to photograph the event, so I didn't have time to sit and eat. But, in an unsurprising stroke of Southern hospitality, every one of the guest chefs made sure there was an extra plate for me. For that I'm very grateful, especially because I got to taste Sean Brock's grouper head stew, a hearty, tomato-based postcard from the Carolina Lowcountry. The saucy stew — piping-hot, as Brock insisted — was poured over a bed of fragrant Carolina gold rice. On top, there was a filet of super-clean-tasting, farm-raised catfish from Rob Mayo at Carolina Classics, and a tender stalk of okra coated in benne seeds. For that brief moment, the bustle of service around me faded away, as I disappeared into Brock's retelling of Gullah cuisine.

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2. Smoked Oyster

Willow's Inn, Lummi Island, Washington

It was just an oyster, but it was an unforgettable one. It had been smoked in the shell, gently, for hours, until the surface of the oyster darkened, concentrating the flavor of smoke and the ocean in a caramelized layer that was not thick enough to be called a crust, and yet firm enough to seal the warm, creamy interior. To say that I went through the trouble of flying back to Seattle and driving two hours to Lummi Island, with a ferry ride across the sound in between, just to have this oyster again is probably a stretch. But it was definitely a motivating factor.

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1. Koshi Hikari Risotto

Saison, San Francisco

Parmesan custard, white truffles

I've had this dish about a half a dozen times this year, both with black and white truffles shaved over it. And every time, I was amazed by how perfectly the rice was cooked. The pearly kernels were consistently tender, yet firm. They're enrobed in a starchy glaze the viscosity of velvet and the flavor of the sea (the rice is cooked with a bouillon of aged seaweed). Chef Joshua Skenes nestled a quivering spoonful of Parmesan "chawanmushi" in the middle of the porridge and finished the dish, table side, with a shower of shaved truffles. Altogether, it was a masterful marriage of Western and Eastern umami, a brilliant transposition of Italian and Japanese cookery. And, it was the best dish I had in 2013.

Want more where that came from? Head over to the Ulterior Epicure's Top 25 Dishes of 2013 List.

· Ulterior Epicure [Official Site]
· The 15 Best Dishes of 2013: Elizabeth Auerbach, AKA ElizabethOnFood [-E-]
· The 15 Best Dishes of 2013: John Sconzo, AKA Docsconz [-E-]
· All Year in Eater 2013 Coverage [-E-]