This post originally appeared in Bill Addison’s newsletter “Notes From a Roving Critic,” a twice-monthly dispatch from Bill’s travels across the country. Browse the archives here.
Today Eater published its fifth guide to the 38 Essential Restaurants in America — a project to which the staff refers internally as the “National 38,” since it was conceived as a counterpart to the lists compiled by the editors who run our 24 city-based sites.
Creating the National 38 was the guiding assignment of my job back when I was hired in March 2014. The stories I’ve written for Eater have since taken many forms, but traveling, dining, and thinking about this list remained my pillar. It was never meant to be merely a presentation of excellent restaurants. We aimed, with this maddeningly finite number, to capture a polychromatic image of American food in its truest light. The more I wandered, the more I learned, and the more grueling it became to narrow down the selections.
As proud as I am of the final list, I always wish for a few more slots. And who knows, in some parallel existence à la The Man in the High Castle, maybe I’m given the number 41 to work with. It’s always tempting to slip in restaurants that I personally love: I’m thinking of a place like Ops in Brooklyn, a restaurant whose calzones and roster of natural wines and easy vibe I came to treasure this past summer while staying in New York.
It would be easy to toss out a dozen other national standouts that might have made the cut. But I’ll tell you about the three it pained me most to leave off. Please visit them and shout out to me on Twitter — @billaddison— to let me know if you think they should have been included after all.
Costa Mesa, CA
Fought is maybe too strong of a word, but my editors and I certainly tussled over the inclusion of Carlos Salgado’s Costa Mesa marvel, the most praised restaurant in Orange County, California, and a favorite of the late Jonathan Gold. Lunch and dinner here are, well, night and day experiences. In the evening, Taco María serves a four-course $79 prix fixe that echoes Salgado’s tasting-menu background at Bay Area restaurants like Coi and Commis. Each course includes two options: the second, for example, might be either callo gratinado (scallops bound by melted, chewy queso Chihuahua with squid ink crumbs for crispy contrast) or a taco of smoked sturgeon, served with a salsa of smokier chile morita and peanuts. The plates show off fastidious cooking and presentation; the flavors are full-throated and harmonically complex.
At noontime the menu goes a la carte. My god, those tacos, all built from the masa Salgado and his crew make from corn varietals grown by small, independent farms in Mexico. They usually craft five or so taco variations — perhaps a block of pork belly finished with tangerine segments and avocado salsa, or a similar theme with pork cheek and peaches. I’ve not had a better fish taco in America: black cod garnished with charred scallion aioli, cabbage, and, blueberries, or a fall riff subbing sturgeon and grapes. (I’m into Salgado’s predilection for fruit and meat/fish pairings.) There’s also a killer mushroom quesadilla surrounded by a halo of narcotic griddled cheese.
Plainly stated, the food is sublime no matter when you show up.
The Purple House
North Yarmouth, ME
The shorthand is that Krista Kern Desjarlais, one of Maine’s most accomplished chefs, currently focuses her energies on a daytime restaurant centered around Montreal-style bagels baked in a wood-burning oven. Really, though, this tiny converted house in just-as-diminutive North Yarmouth, a town about 15 miles north of Portland, is Desjarlais’s workshop. You never know exactly where her culinary whims might next lead, but you can expect that the flavors will be bright and warming, and that the meal will be worth the trip.
Bagels come in speckled with expected ingredients (plain, poppy, sesame, everything) and less expected (za’atar, which I particularly love, kombu, or maple sugar). Sandwiches like the Smoked Salmon Plus (with scallion cream cheese, trout roe, and pickled radish) or the Just Right Right Now (sherry soaked raisins, apple confit, and cream cheese humming with ras el hanout spices) gush and zing in all the right ways but still highlight the crusty, satisfyingly dense nature of the bagels.
But Desjarlais is always darting around the kitchen, one step ahead: She’s finishing pastries like orange blossom brioche, or strategizing toppings for the day’s pizza (sold in rectangles, Roman-style, by weight), or smoking brisket as a weekly special, or scooping out the day’s batch of green walnut gelato.
Desjarlais spent many years, at her Bresca in Portland and other restaurants, earning her deserved reputation. This cooking comes across as that of someone who feels creatively liberated. She tends to close the Purple House for a summer break, but she always reopens to find loyal customers, locals and otherwise, happy to see her back.
Ghee Indian Kitchen
Miami’s dining scene is percolating these days: During a recent trip I had a ridiculously good soft-shell crab sandwich — and some beautiful takes on Japanese-Chinese-Peruvian dishes — at Itamae in the St. Roch Market Miami; fun wood-grilled oysters with bone marrow butter and a killer frita Cubana at Ariete in Coconut Grove; and a beautiful vegetable plate (including corn piquillo and a curried cauliflower puree) composed by chef de cuisine Erv Bryant at Blue Collar. Ah, there was also that enormous and crackling calzone at the Miami outpost of Brooklyn’s Lucali; it was so much easier to grab a seat at the Florida location.
But the meal that reverberates most from this jaunt was a nuanced, Technicolor dinner at Ghee Indian Kitchen. This was in the city’s Design District. Chef-owner Niven Patel previously worked for local luminary Michael Schwartz; Patel opened his second location of Ghee last year in what had been Schwartz’s swank Cypress Room.
The day will come when India’s richly diverse cuisines will be showcased specifically and individually on menus in American restaurants. Ghee is not that, but it does showcase a kitchen that revels in local farms and compiles regional dishes of India into a cohesive feast: corn cobs with chili-lime butter, okra with tamarind and peanuts, Kerala-style beef curry with coconut and frizzled curry leaves, a variation on pani puri with soaked moong dal and herbaceous “green juice,” Key West shrimp over broken basmati: stunning dishes, one and all. Lamb neck, a cut of meat that appeared in restaurants this decade across the country, is smoked, served with chickpeas, and served in a deliciously chaotic mass.
I left wishing that more restaurants across the country were rendering Indian flavors with such consideration and ardor. For me that’s a working definition of essential.
Your roving critic,