Hello there loyal Amateur Gourmet newsletter readers!
Here we are: my end-of-the-year Best Restaurant round-up. Now we all know that lists like these are totally arbitrary, and that my favorite meal of the year today might not be my favorite meal of the year tomorrow. Still, what rings true about a list like this is that these are my happiest restaurant memories from 2018; the moments that I'd most eagerly go back to in order to experience them again. So you'll find things on this list that might make you scratch your head ("a bag of potato chips by the beach in Cape Cod? How is that even a restaurant meal?") and omissions based on previous newsletters that you may find conspicuous ("where art thou, Bazaar Mar?"). Overall, though, I think you'll agree that this list represents a year of most excellent eating and, consequently, most excellent living.
So on with the list! I'll do it in reverse order to make things more exciting...
10. Hippo (Los Angeles, CA).
The moment that I walked into Hippo, I knew that I would love it. Located in Highland Park right behind Nancy Silverton's pizza spot, Triple Beam, the place is just buzzing with that kind of energy that tells you that everyone is excited to be here and that you should be excited too.
The food at Hippo mirrors the format of a place like Osteria Mozza, but in a much more relaxed style. So you'll find antipasti, like this crudo:
And these yellow and green beans (this was in the height of summer):
You can make a pasta your entree, as I did with this incredible corn agnolotti.
Dessert will be something in a cute jar, like this sundae with stone fruit:
Compared to the much fussier experiences I had at a place like Felix (which, admittedly, has some of the best pasta in L.A.), I preferred Hippo for its ability to just relax and have fun with itself. The bread is un-topped pizza dough from Triple Beam next door. The room is annoyingly loud. Sometimes it's hard to get a server's attention. But none of that matters when you're having a good time, and at Hippo we had a blast.
9. Mapo Dak Galbi (Los Angeles, CA).
One of the things that I hate the most about myself, living here in L.A., is my laziness in terms of branching out. We tend to go to the same places over and over again (Little Beast, Little Dom's, any place with "Little" in the title).
Luckily, though, I made a new friend this year, Chad, who invited me to dinner in K-Town at a place called Mapo Dak Galbi. As soon as we arrived, it was clear that we were somewhere special: the line was out the door and we had to wait about thirty minutes for our table.
Once seated, the show began. It's not original or particularly profound to liken a dining experience to theater, but this dinner at Mapo Dak Galbi was like a three-act play of the highest order. First, the lighting of the table. Then the addition of the raw ingredients:
Mapo specializes in one thing and one thing only: chicken cooked with vegetables and Korean chile paste (Gouchujang). The servers masterfully make the rounds and add the sauce when the appropriate moment comes.
Eventually, everything cooks down and you're staring at the most beautiful, enticing, pan of chicken you've ever laid eyes on.
You eat all of that, but the show's not over folks. Then comes the rice!
If you watched Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat this year and drooled over Samin's mom's Tadig, you can skip making it yourself and just eat here: the hot pan accomplishes the same effect, plus you get all of the spices from the Korean chili paste.
Loved every moment of our meal at Mapo Dak Galbi and I can't wait to go back.
8. 27 Restaurant (Miami, Florida).
This was the year that we branched out from Boca at Thanksgiving and spent two nights in Miami Beach. Our first meal there was with my parents at the glitzy and exciting Bazaar Mar. Why didn't that make my list? Well despite pretty extraordinary food, I just found the whole thing to be way too expensive. Case in point: tiny raw fish lollipops were apparently $12 each? (Our server, steering us towards the tasting menu, insisted that they were; but I still think they were three to an order). Anyway, the next night, Craig and I went to a place recommended by our friend Andrew that wasn't only more reasonably priced, it was infinitely more charming.
Restaurant 27 feels like you're going to someone's house which makes sense because the restaurant is in a house; a restored one from the 1930s. The food is eclectic; apparently, it's an homage to all of the different cultures that co-exist in Miami. So our appetizers included shrimp shumai, Yemeni Malawah bread, and sauteed mushrooms over tahini.
For our entree, we shared an arepa platter which came with meat and cheese and all kinds of salsas.
The best bite, though, was the dessert: guava bread pudding that Craig, who normally skips dessert, couldn't stop eating.
The food was all expertly made and, more importantly, there was a conviviality to the experience that made us feel right at home. That sense only expanded when we wandered out back and discovered a whole scene by the pool; one of the best bar's in the country, Broken Shaker, is out there, and we sat and had after-dinner drinks amongst the palms and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I hope to make 27 Restaurant a new Thanksgiving tradition.
7. Majordomo (Los Angeles, CA).
Surely the most exciting restaurant opening of the year in L.A. was Majordomo. David Chang (!!!) finally brought his brand to the west coast and, at first, the reaction was skeptical. Well, specifically, it was skeptical from the late, great Jonathan Gold, who sort of panned the restaurant in one of his last reviews in The L.A. Times.
The review seemed to be a bit of settling of scores: Gold was pissed that Chang had ended Lucky Peach prematurely. Maybe there was more to the story that we don't know about. In any case, I went to Majordomo with a group of friends and we had a grand old time.
I'm a big fan of Chang's Netflix show, Ugly Delicious, and you can tell watching it that not only is Chang a perfectionist, he's a seeker of the best of the best. He wants the best ham, he wants the best crawfish, he wants the best everything.
And that's what it's like eating at Majordomo: you feel like you're experiencing the best ingredients, the best techniques, the best stuff that Chang knows how to deliver.
The room, on the night that we went, was buzzy and cool and every so often you'd see a server go by with a huge wheel of cheese and a blow torch, serving up one of the most expensive dishes on the menu (boneless chuck shortrib with raclette, $82) which we skipped, but may try next time round.
Do I remember everything that we ate at Majordomo? Not really. Do I share Gold's suspicion that the food at Majordomo is a watered-down version of what you can find in K-town? Maybe! I'm no expert, even having eaten at Mapo Dak Galbi.
But it's here that we return to the theme of this list: I just really liked the experience of eating here. And isn't that the most important thing about a restaurant? How much you enjoy your night out? Plus, the shaved ice dessert was epic.
For Christmas this year, Craig asked which L.A. restaurants I would like a gift certificate to and I put Majordomo at the top of the list. So there you go.
6. Far Land Provisions / Canteen (Provincetown, MA).
Here we may come to the most controversial part of this list: lobster rolls in Provincetown.
Are they the best I've ever had? No. In fact, I had a better lobster roll at L&E Oyster Bar in Los Angeles for brunch one Sunday not too long ago.
So why are they on this list? Because eating these lobster rolls in the middle of summer near the beach in Cape Cod was easily one of my favorite eating experiences of 2018. The first came on a bike ride with Craig; we stopped at Far Land Provisions for the lobster roll you see above. I chose one with mayo, not butter, because I like the way the mayo extends the lobster flavor (I'm sure I'll get e-mails from butter purists). With a bag of Cape Cod chips and a view of the beach, I can't imagine a bite more perfect summer bite. And it gave us plenty of fuel for our journey.
We were on our second annual trip to Provincetown with a group of good friends:
And on the night that picture was taken, everyone snacked at The Red Inn before going out. A few went out for pizza. But I wasn't going to let my last meal in Provincetown be pizza! So I snuck off to Canteen, our favorite Provincetown watering hole (rivaling only Liz's Diner, where the clam chowder and blueberry pie almost made this list), for a lobster roll, a glass of white wine, and another bag of Cape Cod chips.
Actually, none of this should be controversial: I think I'm making my point very well here. This slot on the list is all about the marriage of food, mood, location, and season. And if you're in Provincetown in the middle of summer, you can't do much better than this.
5. Miku / St. Lawrence (Vancouver, BC).
Craig's family lives really close to Vancouver (they're in Bellingham, WA) and yet, we rarely go when we visit; we more often go down to Seattle, where Craig has a bunch of friends from his college / post-college days.
This year, though, we took a trip to Vancouver to see the star of Craig's movie, Alex Strangelove, Daniel Doheny in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Daniel was terrific, as was the play; and as for our trip to Vancouver, we absolutely adored it. Our hotel, the Fairmont Pacific Rim, was très chic. And the food that we ate was all top notch; the highlights of which were our lunch at Miku...
The restaurant overlooks the water and the room gets great light. But the sushi is really what made it special; I don't think I ate a more remarkable plate of sushi this year:
And then there was our dinner at St. Lawrence, which is a hidden gem if there ever was one.
It was a bit of a walk to get there, and then you kind of have to find the place behind a curtain in a pretty desolate part of town. Once seated, though, the place just oozes charm; our French-Canadian waiter steered us through the menu. We started with the most decadent appetizer of the year: a Paris-Brest stuffed with foie gras mousse.
For my entree, I had the wonderfully named Duck with Barbra Streisand sauce. (How could I not order that?) And Craig had an epic piece of meat (a veal chop? I forget) on the butteriest mashed potatoes.
With a bottle of red wine, on a chilly night, this was just the kind of meal the doctor ordered. Unless he was a real doctor in which case he'd say, "What the hell were you thinking?"
4. n/naka (Los Angeles, CA).
If my dinner at Mapo Dak Galbi was like a play, our dinner at n/naka could only be compared to a poem.
Getting in was the hardest part: ever since we saw the Chef's Table about Chef Niki Nakayama (if you haven't seen it, you're in for a treat), I'd been trying (and failing) to make a reservation. As the episode makes clear, the restaurant is incredibly loyal to its loyal guests; they keep a log of everything you've had before and make sure you don't get it again on your next visit. But how do you become a loyal guest in the first place?
I finally figured out the perfect strategy and now that I've already been, I'll share it with you! Download the app Resy (that's how n/naka takes reservations). You'll see that it's completely booked. Now set an alert for cancellations for every day that's booked for the next few weeks. You'll probably get an alert in a few days and then you can snatch up a spot. That's what I did and it worked like a charm.
OK, now back to the poetry metaphor...
The food at n/naka is exquisite. The food at n/naka is so carefully made, so thoughtfully constructed, it's almost hard to eat it: you don't want to destroy the beauty on your plate.
The feeling that you get, eating there, is that Chef Nakayama is in the kitchen crafting individual gifts for you that are then scurried out by a team of servers who are all part of this elaborate ritual that you're lucky enough to be part of for an evening.
The restaurant itself is almost like a temple; there's a certain hush that you feel around the room as people contemplate the food in front of them. And how could they not? It's a marvel that Chef Nakayama has the energy and the drive to create edible artworks like this night after night after night.
And if you think I'm kidding myself that Chef Nakayama is really in the kitchen making all of this, I'll have you know that after our meal, she made the rounds and said hello to every table. She was humble, almost bashful, as if we were doing her a great service eating there, and not the other way around.
Her dessert was, for me, the most poetic of all the dishes; a meditation on the landscape where she grew up in Japan.
The fact that this restaurant serves up food of this caliber in a little tucked-away spot in Culver City is nothing short of a miracle. If you're lucky enough to eat there (and now you know how!), you'll probably feel just like I do: truly and utterly hashtag blessed.
3. Tartine Manufactory (San Francisco, CA).
Whoever said that "man cannot eat by bread alone" has clearly never been to Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco.
The bread... my God, the bread!
I've never smelled or tasted loaves like these. That funky, yeasty smell of a natural starter pervades this much ballyhooed institution (that's coming soon to L.A!) and when it arrives at your table, there's no denying it: this is the best bread that you will ever eat in your life.
I really mean that. I've been to France (see next entry); I've had baguettes there. They're amazing, especially with French cheese. But none of it came close to the bread at Tartine Manufactory. The bread is undeniable, a force of nature. If I lived in San Francisco, my cells would be entirely composed of this bread.
But Tartine Manufactory isn't #3 on this list just because of the bread (though it very well could be). The whole environment is just absolutely lovely. There's a little shop in front that sells flowers and magazines.
There's a little bakery, where you can get coffee and cake (in fact: I did that before the screening of Alex Strangelove at the SF Film Festival, which is why we were in San Francisco in the first place).
And then there's the restaurant itself. We went there for brunch with Craig's parents on the morning after the screening. I got there early to get our name on the list (it's one of my favorite heroic things to do; get to a restaurant early before the rush).
Look at all of that light coming in through the windows; that's my kind of restaurant. Everything felt so open, so calm, I think this is what a restaurant in heaven might feel like?
As for the food, it was hard for it to compete with the extraordinariness of that bread. The best dishes incorporated it, like the grilled cheese.
And some of it was undeniably Instagram-worthy:
But the bread is the reason for the season. It's the most memorable thing that I ate this year, in a year of memorable eating. In fact, I may hop into my car and drive to San Francisco right now just to have it again... you think I'm kidding, but I'm very tempted.
2. La Bourse et La Vie (Paris, France).
Hard to believe, but we started our year in Paris, France, where I shepherded Craig (who'd never been before) from bistro to market to cheese shop and so on. We drank cocktails at Ina's favorite bar (and crazy enough, she was on our flight home. Really!). Our French friend Cris, who was there with his husband Harry, toured us through the Marche d'Aligre, where we stocked up on cheese and baguettes and foie gras for our New Year's Eve dinner.
There were so many wonderful food moments, but if I had to choose a favorite restaurant meal, it would have to be our lunch at La Bourse et La Vie.
This may be seen as a controversial pick (so much controversy in this newsletter!) because the chef, Daniel Rose, is an American. He's also the chef at Le Coucou in New York, easily the best meal that we had in New York on our last visit. Politics aside, the food at La Bourse et La Vie is just the most sublime illustration of how thrilling French food can be. All of it was just so perfectly executed; the ingredients, the techniques.
Even our steak frites, which can only be so good (it's just steak and French fries, right?), was better than it had any right to be. The sauce, in particular, made me want to stand on the table and sing "La Vie en Rose" by that famous French chanteuse, Lady Gaga.
What sealed the deal was the dessert: the most luscious, sexual (yes, sexual) crème caramel.
That picture really is NSFW. And that's French cooking at its best.
1. Chi Spacca (Los Angeles, CA).
Chi Spacca is not a new restaurant. It's not impossible to get into, the way that Bestia is. There's not a lot of fanfare surrounding it, or buzz. It's just kind of sitting there, next to Osteria Mozza, with a little sign featuring a cleaver.
And yet, when it came time to make this list, I had very little trouble choosing my favorite restaurant of the year. It's where I went for my birthday in February. And it's also where we went, the other night, after Craig conducted a Q&A with Peter Hedges at the DGA and we wanted to go somewhere festive. There's no restaurant environment in L.A. that feels cozier or more welcoming. And the food. Oh, the food.
We had a salad there the other night (not the one pictured, that one's a citrus salad from February) that had red endive, apples, walnuts, olive oil, and lemon juice. That's it, really. And it was, arguably, the best salad anyone has ever made in the history of salad. I demanded from the waiter information: how did they do it? Is it the olive oil? Is it the lemon juice? Is it the salt? I tried to recreate it on Sunday after a trip to the farmer's market and didn't come anywhere close.
That's what the food is like at Chi Spacca; it offers precisely what you want from a restaurant: the kind of stuff that you wished you could make at home, but just can't. Look at that orb of burrata above. It's imported every Thursday directly from Puglia and served with the thickest, most garlicky, oil-slicked bread.
And then there's the focaccia de recco (it's the lead picture of this newsletter), which Nancy Silverton makes in special pans that she brought back from Italy. It's like somebody's wet dream of a pizza. Shards of the hot, cheesy crust crackle off as you bite into it; it's slicked with oil and salt and it's just earth-shattering as you eat it.
I haven't even mentioned the meat. Chi Spacca is a meat restaurant and animals would be so lucky to wind up on a plate here. All of the charcuterie is made in-house.
The other night, Craig and I shared a pork blade chop that was marinated with cider and jalapeños.
It defied logic. It defied reason. A pork blade is a very tough cut of meat, it comes from the shoulder; normally you have to braise it for hours to make it tender. Here, they just grilled it, and it was some of the most succulent meat I've ever tasted. And so powerfully flavored, it made me sweat.
And then there's the dessert. You know dessert at a Nancy Silverton restaurant has to be good; and the pastry chef, Dahlia Narvaez, is a James Bead Award winner for best pastry chef in the country. I can't think of a better image to see on your birthday.
Again, all of this is subjective, arbitrary even. But in terms of the food that I like to eat (ingredient-driven, flavor-forward) and how I like to eat it (comfortable environment, welcoming staff), no restaurant made me happier this year than Chi Spacca.
And that's all for this year's list!
Thank you for letting me revisit so many delicious memories. I think I need to go run about ten miles to burn off just the images of the food that I ate this year.
Until next time....