Below is a listing of categories of some of the standout culinary treasures I enjoyed over 2008. By no means is the list exhaustive in either categories or experiences. I am sure that I simply overlooked a number of items that deserved mention here, but this is the list compiled to the best of my memory.
– My wife and I cooked wonderful beans using product from Rancho Gordo,
better were beans cooked by others. I simply love the refried
beans at a local Mexican restaurant called El Mexicano and the
varieties of beans and legumes, especially lentils in India were
extraordinary, but the single most wonderful bean dish of the year was
the Asturian green beans with seafood at Asturianos in Madrid in January.
– Clams and other mollusks were an abundant part of my 2008 diet. From
pristine raw littlenecks on Long Island to Nantucket bay scallops to
amazing sauteed clams at Bartolotta's to fabulous fried oyster po' boys
at Parkside in new Orleans and much more, I enjoyed my bivalves as much
as anything in 2008. I would have to say that amongst all that
splendor, the best were the cockles served at Asturianos in Madrid.
– Possibly because they were unlike any breads I ever had elsewhere and
possibly because they were simply wonderful, were the breads I ate
everywhere in India. They varied by style and technique depending on
the location, but they were always great. Particular standouts included
the paratha at the Brunton Boatyard in Cochin and the naans at The
Royal Palace Hotel in Jaipur. Closer to home, the breads of Michael
London at Mrs. London's and those of Boris Villatte at the Wynn were
outstanding, albeit more of what I am familiar with.
Best Breakfast Spread – The Oberoi in Delhi, India was a feast for the eyes, the mouth and the stomach as it was fille with outstanding fruit, Indian cooked dishes, amazing world-class croissants and breads and delightful menu ordered dishes from the kitchen.
Best Cheese Course – Truly great composed cheese courses are, in my experience, exceedingly rare. Not only must the cheese be exceptional, so must the accompaniments. In addition, the cheese and the accompaniments must provide synergistic results for the course to be a true success. One of the best I have ever had was prepared by Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot during the Ideas in Slow Food benefit at my home in October. They took local heirloom tomatoes, skinned them and served them with fresh local goat feta cheese , local honey and Halen Mon sea salt. An element that made this pairing even more exceptional was that, to me at least, the pairing of honey with tomato was counter-intuitive. Combined with the feta and the salt, the creation was magical.
Best Chicken – chicken is one of those things that because it is so ubiquitous, rarely stands out. When it does, though, watch out. I had some wonderful chicken throughout the year including great tandoor cooked chicken in India, but the most memorable of the year for me was the chickens from Iacono's farm in the Hamptons on Long Island grilled by my great friend Joe Bavuso. They were moist and supremely delicious.
Best Chocolate Product
– I enjoyed much excellent chocolate this year with an amazing
concentration of the good stuff at the NY Chocolate Show. While always
enjoying Valrhona, Amadei and other chocolate makers and as happy as I
was to re-encounter the products of Madamoiselle de Margaux, the
products that really sent me for a loop were the ganaches from the
Japanese chocolatier Mary, especially their green tea ganache. The
bon-bons of Christopher Michael also impressed me.
– I had some really wonderful cocktails this year and this is a
somewhat difficult choice. I had two simply superb mint juleps. One was
in May over Kentucky Derby (and my birthday) weekend in Chicago at The
Violet Hour prepared by Michael and the other was in New Orleans in
August at the Bar at Pere Marquette Hotel prepared by master bartender,
Chris McMillan. Earlier this month I very much enjoyed a cocktail
created at RM Seafood called "the Gardener." It consisted of Hendricks
Gin with fresh lemon juice and basil in perfect proportions. My number
one drink of the year, though, was the wonderfully smokey and savory
"Mushroom Margarita" at tailor this past June (no photo). Made with huitlacoche
infused mezcal, the drink had savory satisfaction and impeccable
balance all while being original, unique, fun and absolutely delicious!
Best Coffee – Though I love coffee, I didn't drink a lot of it in 2008. I tended to save drinking it for those times when I expected it to be particularly good. The best of those occasions was drinking Kerala coffee in southern India. The hot coffee is poured from a height into a cup. It was delicious.
Best Egg Dish – The Sunday morning after the benefit dinner at my home, Alex Talbot prepared a frittata using leftovers from the night before. Incorporating pork, zucchini and other ingredients, the result was one of the finest egg concoctions I have ever had. Runner-up was the masala scrambled eggs I had at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai.
– The salt-crusted fish I had at Bartolotta was simply beautiful and
perfect in every respect. Back when I was still comfortable eating
bluefin tuna, I had some amazing examples both at Europa Deco in Madrid
and Soto in NYC. Rick Moonen served some fabulous big-eye at RM
Seafood, assuaging my conscience as well as my taste buds. I had great sea bass at Europa Deco, ceviche at Astrid y Gaston and fried pomfret at a cooking school in Delhi, India.
Best Food Market – The food market of Ernakulum by Kochi, India was incredibly evocative with tremendous produce, a variety of fish and wonderful color and light.
Best Guacamole – While the guacamole at Frontera Grill was its usual great self, that prepared tableside at Cafe Atlantico in D.C. at the end of may was extraordinary.
Best Japanese – While Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas was outstanding, my best Japanese meal of 2008 and one of my finest ever was at Soto in NYC in June. Chef Sotohiro Kosugi was simply amazing creating delicious and beautiful dishes. His hand was as deft with plated creations as they were with sushi. The uni was particularly extraordinary.
– An impromptu pan-grilling of the sweetbreads, hangar and skirt steaks
of a 40 pound live
lamb I bought from a friend this past spring were
some of the very tastiest morsels of the year (and then some) that I have
eaten. The roast leg was also quite delicious as were the grilled
offal. The lechazo I ate in Spain in January was also excellent. The
best plated haute cuisine lamb dish I had was that from the braised
lamb necks prepared by Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot in October.
Extremely flavorful, tender, perfectly seasoned and beautifully plated,
lamb doesn't get better than that.
Best Lobster – Rick Moonen's butter poached lobster at RM Seafood in Las Vegas was truly outstanding and the best of a number of good examples had over the course of the year.
Best Pasta Dish – If it wasn't for the Smoked papparedelle with gouda and truffles from Corton in November, it would have been a very difficult choice here. Stand-out runners-up included the spinach mezzalune at Noca, the tagliatelle with crostacei from Bartolotta, the raviolo with parmiggiano, egg and white truffles from Bartolotta and the duck ragu from Alex Talbot. Liebrandt's pasta dish was simply perfect, though with impeccable balance, each ingredient asserting itself just enough while supporting every other ingredient. This dish was in fact my dish of the year.
Best Pizza – My favorite was the clam pizza from Max London's in Saratoga Springs (no photo). Made in a wood-fired oven, the pie eaten over multiple occasions consistently had a delicious, crisp crust despite the seafood topping, and outstanding flavor. Their other pizze were also as good as anything other pizze I had this year. Another great one was the Pizza Araucana I had at Cucharamama on the last Sunday of 2008.
Best Pork –Cured –
Since I ate a fair amount of jamon iberico de bellota, chorizo and lomo of the
same quality from a number of producers when in Spain this past
January, can there be any question? Of the lot, my favorite was Cinco
Jotas, though I would (and did) happily eat any of them. I also enjoyed
some nice prosciutto di Parma at Salumeria Rosi and some great homemade
charcuterie from Chris Tanner.
Best Pork – Fresh – I literally ate a ton of great pork this year, from Joaquin Felipe's Pork cheek "Royale" to Rocco Verrigni's porchettas to a pig roast held at my home to celebrate my son's H.S. graduation to a whole piglet prepared several different wonderful ways for a spectacular dinner prepared by Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa, but the single most outstanding bites of pork for the year were from the roasted suckling Spanish pigs prepared at the third Starchefs International Chefs Congress by Candido Lopez from Spain's Meson Candido – heaven!
– Without a doubt the roasted porchetta sandwich (no photo) prepared this summer
by Rocco Verrigni, culinary professor at Schenectady Community College
at his stall near the Saratoga Farmers market. The meat was moist and
delicious with just enough crackling to give it textural contrast and
the stuffing was perfectly seasoned. The bread was fresh and ideal to
hold this somewhat messy treat. Runner-up was the fried shrimp and oyster po' boy I had in August at Parkside in New Orleans.
– Periodically throughout the year I would buy 2 inch thick chops from
Brookside Farm at my local Farmers Market (pre-ordered), cook them in
my CVap and finish them on the grill. Seasoned with salt and pepper,
they are perfect. I've not had better veal in any restaurant.
Best Wine – I took wines from my cellar and donated them for the benefit wine dinner prepared by Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa at my home in October to benefit projects of our Slow Food Saratoga Region convivium. I was quite pleased with how well they showed. One that exceeded my already high expectations was the 1982 Chateau Cos D'Estournel. It had depth, fullness, flavor and nuance.