The year 2016 was a strange one on so many levels. In many ways it was a year that was very sad and even depressing with the deaths of so many notable people, especially, it seems, of musicians and iconic athletes. Then there was the US election, which, I found disgusting and depressing throughout the year and even more so at the end of it. There were some personal bright spots, however, that involved family as well as travel and food. It is the latter two areas that are addressed by this list. Fortunately, unlike the list of notable deaths and the sense of political disgust, these and other restaurants provided a lot of positive balance in my life, so much so, that I consider it the deepest single year of dining that I’ve ever experienced. I only list 25 meals, though any of the next 45 or so restaurant meals not listed would have, in more typical years, been well within my Top 25. All of my Top 25 would have, in most years, been easy Top 10 candidates. I traveled a lot this year (for me) with two big trips to Spain, one to London and several around the USA including NYC, Chicago, Miami, DC as well as points in between. I ate extremely well everywhere, but as usual, especially so in Spain. The quality of the food in Spain never fails to impress me and that is brightly reflected below. I find that the food, people and restaurants there tend to really resonate with me, even more so the deeper I delve into its culinary culture.
This list is not scientific. It is a gestalt bourne from a variety of factors. First, and foremost, the food was exceptional. Whether focused on only a few dishes or many, the consistency and quality of all of the dishes eaten at a given meal are the single biggest factor in selecting a restaurant for this list. The quality of service, especially its genuineness is another major factor and so is the setting, including the level of sound and the ability to communicate with my dining partners. Perhaps, the biggest factor, though, is me. That is to say, the mindset I bring, the hunger I carry, the health issues I bear and the company I keep all contribute to how much I enjoy a given meal. When I bring negatives to a meal and they are overcome by the meal, the meal impresses me that much more and leaves a more lasting impression. Ironically, my number one restaurant meal of the year came on a day that I woke up with a huge pit in my stomach not knowing if I would even be able to eat a single thing, let alone enjoy it. The restaurant visit proved to be a tonic, that allowed me, for a brief time, at least, to put the feelings of that day aside – no easy feat.
The highlighted restaurant names in front of my comments lead either to a blog post or Flick’r album with details and additional photos from the meals referenced.
Gunpowder – London, England – 8/1/16 – Brilliant Indian cooking in London, some of the finest I have had anywhere. The flavors are bold, bright and on point, while the textures sing in luxuriant harmony and the colors and forms on the plate please the eye and cause the mouth to water. Food that is supposed to be crunchy is crunchy and food that is supposed to be spicy is spicy. The restaurant is unpretentious, cozy and welcoming. I would happily visit this restaurant wherever it might be. Their Karwari soft-shell crab preserves the best aspects of eating a delicious, full soft-shell, while providing enough bold flavor to add depth and heighten interest.
Achilles Heel – Brooklyn, NY – 10/23/16 – The “Hella Chicken” has redefined for roast chicken for me. It is only available on Sundays and I was fortunate enough to visit on a Sunday for my first time. The cocktails and other bites we had were also very , very good, but the restaurant is on THIS list because of that unforgettably delicious chicken, perhaps the most amazing bird that I have ever eaten.
The Crab Bag
The Crab Bag – Ocean City, MD – 8/12/16 – I love crab in general and have a special place in my heart (and stomach) for the blue crab. My experience here was limited to Old Bay seasoned boiled crabs and crab cakes. The restaurant does do other dishes, but I have no idea how good those other dishes are or aren’t. This ranking reflects the sheer perfection of what I did have. Like the chicken at Achilles Heel, the blue crab dishes that I had here were as fantastic as any that I can recall (outside of my mother’s crab sauce) and reset the bar for me on some of my favorite foods in a setting as genuine as a crab shack can be. This was a stop that I made in passing as I was traveling through the area.
Noble Rot – London, England – 8/2/16 – Noble Rot is such a wonderful restaurant! It is warm, inviting and very comfortable. The product is superb and the cooking from Chef Paul Weaver deftly balances a fine line between straightforward, wine-friendly flavors and interesting creativity, as with the stellar “Slip Sole and Smoked Butter,” one of the finest fish dishes of the year in my experience. Both points are important, especially since the restaurant defines itself as a wine bar, and, as one might imagine from the owners of the superb wine magazine of the same name, the wines are terrific and nicely priced. The food and wine here are truly synergistic. The combination reminded me of what drew me to enjoying wine in the first place.
Marisqueria Rafa – Madrid, Spain – 1/23/16 – My first meal of the year in Spain was a knockout with stellar shellfish, beautifully prepared. A second meal a couple of days later reinforced this notion. I love shellfish and ate a lot of it this year. For variety and quality, this was the best shellfish centric meal(s) that I had in 2016. The few dishes that I had that were not shellfish were of the same estimable quality. The authentic old world charm of the surroundings and the proprietors only added to the experience. Last year, the first time I visited it, Marisqueria Rafa was #19 on my list. Now at #21, it may appear to be a demotion, but the truth is, I loved it even more this year!
The Sportsman – Seasalter, England – 8/3/16 – Great Britain is known for its pubs and its gastropubs. The Sportsman is a gastropub owned by the brewery Shepherd Neame, but it is a pub like no other than I have ever been to. It is a wonderful restaurant that screams of terroir, using outstanding locally sourced, seasonal product like the lamb pictured above, and a spectacular assortment of seafood including the superb local oysters. This restaurant from Chefs Stephen Harris and Dan Flavell, set on an idyllic coastline harkening back to another era, is as genuine as it gets.
Coque – Humanes, Spain – 1/24/16 – A superb multi-sensory dining experience helmed by the three talented Sandoval brothers, Coque is evidence that high-end Vanguardist cuisine still lives and pushes the envelope. The food and drink, taken in four different areas (basement wine cellar, kitchen, the main dining room and the original restaurant dining room) presents a full kaleidoscope of delicious and beautiful sensations with service on a par with the cuisine.
Sacha – Madrid, Spain – 11/10/16 – This is one of those idiosyncratic, clubby restaurants (it doesn’t even have a website) where it helps to know someone. Fortunately, I did. This old-school French cum Spanish bistro serves superb product in dishes based on tradition, but with exquisite, creative flair. From the first tapa of a fried Galician oyster sitting atop a glass of sherry, through the dessert he called “Disperso,” a lighthearted jab at the plating of Dabiz Muñoz at DiverXo, chef/owner Sacha Hormaechea wowed us with every course. Aside from being able to get a table, I believe the biggest difference between being an insider and not, is getting to experience and enjoy the attention and banter of Chef Hormaechea himself, which was no small factor in the pleasure of this meal.
Kaia Kaipe – Getaria, Spain – 11/7/16 – Like a number of other Spanish restaurants, Kaia Kaipe is making a return visit to this list, albeit at a lower point than in 2015. That is not a reflection on the quality of the experience, but rather on the quality of my dining throughout the meal. I had an excellent dining year in 2015, but for this restaurant to drop from #5 to #17 without a drop in the quality of the experience, is a greater reflection on the restaurants ranked above it. Once again, the turbot was majestic and the wine list, incomparable in terms of depth, quality and value.
Noor – Córdoba, Spain – 11/11/16 – A truly unique and creative restaurant that is unlike any other restaurant that I’ve been to. Chef Paco Morales has given us his interpretation of Arabo-Andaluz cuisine from the Moorish era of Andalucia and it is brilliant. He sets a mood with the space and furnishes it with a series of exquisite delights using ingredients and recipes present in those long ago times. The result is reminiscent of the original, genius premise of Next Restaurant in Chicago, creating a sense of time and place. Morales has done that in his home town, fulfilling a long time dream of his and giving those of us lucky enough to visit much pleasure in the process.
The Clove Club
The Clove Club – London, England – 8/4/16 – Modern, sophisticated, but comfortable, Chef Isaac Mchale’s The Clove Club is the epitome of the modern restaurant that is at once both local and global, using local ingredients with global inspiration. Mchale, however, does it better than most with impeccable cooking, superb balance and a modicum of restraint. His food is stellar, the service excellent and the ambiance hip, but not arrogant.
Birch – Providence, R.I. – 2/18/16 – Visual and gustatory artistry, creativity and deliciousness in every bite and sip. Chef Ben Sukle’s Birch is a small restaurant in a small city, but with big aspirations. I’m in awe watching Sukle’s development as a chef over the last few years. His dishes are unique, sophisticated, beautiful and delicious. Birch has become one of my very favorite restaurants in the country. I’m tempted to move to Providence just to eat there more often.
Smyth – Chicago – 9/17/16 – Only open a few weeks, this is already one of the finest restaurants in the USA. Both John and Karen Urie Shields have a way with subtle flavors and textures, blending them in marvelous ways, such as the refreshing and delicious dish pictured above. Their space feels like being in a private home, but that home would be that of a very well-heeled friend with very good taste. With one Michelin star quickly under their belts, I expect more in their future as the restaurant continues to mature and evolve.
Espai Kru – Barcelona, Spain – 11/5/16 – Stellar seafood prepared with skill and just enough imagination to make the dishes unique and interesting, but not so much as to take the attention away from the pristine ingredients. Neither purely Spanish nor purely Japanese, Espai Kru utilizes some of the best traits of both cuisines to create a luxuriously sensational meal comprised primarily of seafood.
Betony – NYC – 6/13/16 – By the time you read this, one of my favorite restaurants, Betony will be history, having served their last meal and drinks on the final day of 2016. That fact saddens me greatly as the collaboration between chef-wizard Bryce Shuman and Front of the House superstar Eamon Rockey provided me with plenty of pleasure over the years of the restaurant’s existence, never more so than for lunch on the day of the World’s Fifty best Awards, when, dining solo, I sat at the bar and sampled a variety of outstanding cocktails and dazzling dishes. I take solace that while the restaurant will be no more, both Shuman and Rockey will continue to create. I look forward to following them both, wherever they wind up!
Asador Etxebarri – Axpe, Spain – 11/8/16 – This low on this list can only mean that those meals higher were absolutely sensational! Asador Etxebarri, thanks to its sensational product and the deceptive simplicity of the cooking has become an absolute favorite restaurant of mine. Chef/owner Bitor Arguinzoniz is absolutely dedicated to his craft and his restaurant and it shows in everything he touches. His food kisses perfection and the location is as stunningly beautiful and evocative as any restaurant destination that I have had the pleasure of visiting.
Pineapple and Pearls
Pineapple and Pearls – Washington, D.C. – 4/15/16 – A most unexpected, but ultimately welcome layover in DC allowed this glorious meal. This was pure serendipity born from what initially appeared to be misfortune. Our initial leg on the way to Miami was late, causing us to miss our connection at Washington National Airport. We now had an unexpectedly long layover that would cover an early dinner in nearby DC. When I was able to snag a table at P&P, I knew that our luck was good! The creatively delicious cuisine and the casually elegant service did nothing to dissuade that idea. It was a truly magnificent meal made all the sweeter by our good fortune.
Bodega 1900 – Barcelona, Spain – 1/28/16 – The very best of Spanish product handled with total respect, aplomb and skill with a creative touch used only to enhance, Bodega 1900 has always been outstanding whenever I’ve visited, which has been often of late. It represents a magnificent combination of traditional Spanish with a touch of Vanguardismo. Oh, and their house Vermut is the most delicious I’ve ever had! This is the most purely Spanish of the Adriá restaurant empire.
Disfrutar – Barcelona, Spain – 1/29/16 – Like Tickets, but with its own, distinct personality, Disfrutar carries the tradition of elBulli with pride and skill. This was a meal that was amazing, fun and absolutely delicious! The trio of chefs behind Disfrutar and its sister restaurant, Compartir in Cadaques on the Costa Brava, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas, were all major cogs in the elBulli creative machine. That level of delicious creativity continues here, leaving many wondrous smiles and happy palates. Currently, Disfrutar, may be the closest thing to elBulli out there.
Hoja Santa – Barcelona, Spain – 1/28/16 – Paco Mendez and Albert Adria’s Mexican fine dining restaurant was superb last year and even better this. That such high quality cooking of this cuisine can be accomplished outside of North America is amazing. Hoja Santa is not just a great Mexican restaurant for Spain, nor for Europe. To qualify it as just “a great Mexican restaurant” doesn’t do it or the cuisine justice. As with other great Mexican restaurants in the world, they aren’t just great restaurants for that particular cuisine, they are great restaurants period!
Aponiente – El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain – 11/12/16 – An extraordinary new space, superb service and a revolutionary way with seafood that was beautiful, unique and delicious. This is an important restaurant that treats seafood differently than most starting by casting a wider net to bring in more species, especially from those lower on the food chain, treating the product in unique fashion and making even the least luxurious components (e.g. plankton) appear as the epitome of luxury.
Tickets – Barcelona, Spain – 1/29/16 – Vanguardist creativity still lives with incredible vitality at this gem of a restaurant! Tickets is a place of incredible energy and creativity. It leaves a feeling of being at a grand circus, a bit surreal, but always entertaining and delicious. This is the third Albert Adriá restaurant in my Top Ten this year. There might have been four, but Enigma, for which I had a reservation, was not yet opened when I was last in Barcelona in November. hopefully, it will be on my list for 2017. If I can make it there, I expect that it will be.
Eleven Madison Park
Eleven Madison Park – NYC – 5/31/16 – A flawless 30th wedding anniversary celebration at the restaurant in which my son works is nearly impossible to beat and this was beyond flawless. EMP has matured into true greatness with spectacular food, stupendous service, sensational cocktails and wines and a space that has always been a stunner. It is a restaurant that never rests on its laurels and always strives to improve, even though there is exquisitely little room for it to actually do so.
El Celler de Can Roca
El Celler de Can Roca – Girona, Spain – 1/29/16 – Presentations that might seem hokey in lesser hands are pulled off with magic at this stunningly wonderful restaurant that hits on all cylinders. I had been to the original restaurant space and had a wonderful meal, but that previous experience didn’t prepare me for how exquisite the current iteration would be in every respect. It had been a superb restaurant in its prior location, but now, in this space, it has catapulted to a truly rarified level.
Quique Dacosta – Denia, Spain – 11/9/16 – A truly stunning experience that was seamless, thorough and very, very professional, all the while infused with a superabundance of soul, passion, artful creativity, and unlike how I felt after a previous meal here years ago, all done in the ultimate service of deliciousness, and delicious it was! In addition, the wine pairing was as spot on perfectly matched and delicious as any as I have ever had. What made this experience all the more impressive was that when I woke up that morning, the day immediately following the US Presidential election, I had a huge pit in my stomach and no appetite at all. I was very distressed and depressed. For the time I was at the restaurant, at least, I was made to forget all of that and to simply enjoy a perfect meal with wonderful company. Isn’t that what a great meal does?