By virtue of having spent four great dining and drinking weeks there this past year, Spain dominates this list. As a result, if there is a theme to this year’s Top Ten Dishes it is primacy of product. It was a great year for finding food in which great primary product was allowed to be itself and through the use of carefully selected accents and great and subtle technique, actually enhanced to its maximum inherent greatness. I have chosen no more than one dish from any given meal and only one example of any particular product from across all of the meals I had over this past year.
- Percebes – Asador Etxebarri – Axpe, Pais Vasco, Spain –
Sheer perfection in every way, these were not on the tasting menu, but ordered extra when seen at another table.
- Zamburiñas Negras – D’Berto – O Grove, Galicia, Spain –
I love scallops, but I’m rarely thrilled with roasted scallops. These small black-shelled beauties from Galicia were cooked just so and their inherent deliciousness thundered forth like no other scallops that I’ve ever had. They were just as wonderful on my second visit as on my first, while the same dish at other restaurants paled in comparison.
- Chickpeas and Sea Urchin – Momofuko Ko – NYC –
While I love contrasting flavors and textures in a dish, it is much more difficult to blend two ingredients that are quite similar in taste and texture, yet still have each ingredient shine separately as well as together. Much like the scallop and avocado dish I had at Saison highlighting 2013, this dish did just that with the additional similarity between the main ingredients of color. That a dish of different ingredients yet so monochromatic and mono-textural as this could be so good is in and of itself extraordinary.
- Grilled whole turbot – Kaia Kaipe – Getaria, Euskadi, Spain –
If the turbot at Kaia Kaipe’s sister restaurant Elkano is better, than I absolutely must have it, because the whole roasted turbot at Kaia Kaipe is as wonderful a fish as I have ever eaten.
- Arroz de Conejo y Caracoles- Restaurante Elias – El Xinorlet, Alicante, Spain –
I no longer indulge much in carb laden dishes, but when in Alicante, one must eat an arroz (or several). This socorrat and flavor rich example, correctly roasted over a fire of grape vines, was simply sublime and worth all of the extra insulin that it required and then some.
- Whole Roast Chicken – The NoMad – NYC –
In the United States, chicken rarely connotes luxury, but this one at The NoMad provides the very definition of the word. The chicken is roasted to maintain all of its natural juices and abetted by a bevy of complementary flavors and products including foie gras stuffing, potato puree and succotash. The dish has been popular in NYC for a few years now, but untasted by me until this year.
- Pimientos de Cristal – Restaurante El Crucero – Corella, Navarro, Spain –
I enjoyed many a great vegetable in 2015, but these roasted peppers at the mostly unknown El Crucero were sweet, savory and stunningly gorgeous. They were to ordinary red peppers what Cristal is to ordinary Champagne.
- Gambas Rojas de Palamós – ABaC – Barcelona, Spain –
This was a brilliantly sourced, conceived and executed dish that focused on the primacy of the ingredient, albeit in a creative and rather beautiful way, showcasing not just one, but many facets of the main ingredient.
- Maiz, Chocolate y Cajeta – Hoja Santa – Barcelona, Spain –
Easily the best dessert I had all year and one of the best ever. It was clever, beautiful, interesting and above all delicious with true notes of corn, chocolate and more with tremendous balance.
- Pulpo a la Galega – Bar El Dorado, O Barco de Valdeorras, Galicia, Spain –
Having spent considerable time in Galicia and elsewhere in Spain, I ate a lot of octopus in 2015 and most, if not all of it, was really, really good. I also had plenty of excellent octopus, both boiled and grilled outside of Spain. The very best to me, however, was in a little bar in the inland mountains of Galicia prepared by the mother of the two wine-makers who own and run the bar/restaurant. I had the pulpo here on two separate occasions and each time, with its traditional wooden plate, bright Spanish olive oil and plenty of pimentón piccante, it was truly outstanding, head and shoulders above any other that I’ve had anywhere else.
- Golden Flavors – One Restaurant – Chapel Hill, N.C. –
This was a dish of pure harmony with a stupendous integration of flavors, textures and aesthetics fitting within a beautiful color-based scheme. This is what creative cooking is all about and though it incorporated uni, this dish did not feature it in the same way that the dish at Momofuku Ko did. In that dish, it received the award for best actor in a leading (uni) role. In this way, the award was for best supporting actor.
- Esqueixada de Montaña – Curaté – Asheville, NC –
A local variation on a classic Spanish dish that normally uses salt cod as its base, this one substituted local, North Carolina mountain trout for a result that was creative, fresh, bright and delicious enough that I could eat it over and over again. It was because of dishes like this that I feel that Curaté is as great a Spanish restaurant is I have experienced outside of Spain. Recipe here.
- Lobster Ravioli – Fiola Mare – Washington, DC –
This dish defines luxury in the very best way. It is rich, but totally harmonious and surrenderingly delicious. I did not eat a lot of pasta in 2015, but this was the top pasta dish that I did eat.
- Olives – Disfrutar – Barcelona, Spain –
Just when I had thought that I had experienced all that there could be with my favorite Vanguardist conceit – the faux olive – my assumption was shattered by these divine orbs at Disfrutar.
- Hot Pastrami – Harry & Ida’s – NYC –
The inclusion of this pastrami is a bit of a ringer on this list, because, while I tasted it at Harry & Ida’s on the Lower East Side, where it is made and sold, it was a sample and not part of an actual meal or even how it is typically served there (part of a sandwich). It was, however, the most wonderfully delicious, tender and satisfying piece of pastrami that I have ever had and I, a born and bred New Yorker, do enjoy a nice pastrami. As such, I had no choice, but to include it on this list.
This list represents the best of the best that I had eaten in restaurants over the course of 2015, but it was, as always, a very difficult list to limit. There were a number of contenders that fell just short of inclusion such as the gorgeous mussels right from the sea that we had on a tour boat examining the rias of Galicia, any number of dishes at Wildair, The grilled squid at Chef Joel Viehland’s Community Table swan song, chef Mario Navarette Jr’s outstanding Peruvian cooking, especially his ceviche, in the unlikely location of Montreal, Canada, a host of chuletones across northern Spain, the perfect Gilda pintxo at La Ganbara, angulas at Madrid’s Rafa, Fabada Asturiana in its heartland at Restaurante Los Arcos, and what may have been the single most sensational cocktail I tasted in 2015, the savory, meal-like Phil Khallins, which is actually served in a soup bowl. Anyway I slice it, there was no shortage of great things to eat on my plate in 2015.