I apologize. I have been quite remiss when it has come to this blog. While 2017 was a great year for me from a dining perspective, it was also a very, very busy one. It was the first full year for the travel business (it started the year as Travel With Doc) that I have with my friend and business partner, Charles Grabitzky, I undertook a major commitment as Vice President of The Board of Directors of a great non-profit in Saratoga Springs, NY, The Pitney Meadows Community Farm, and was in charge of a major summer fund-raiser, The Fire Feast on the Farm, which turned out to be a rousing success that featured an all-star line-up of chefs and bartenders. In addition, my main workplace was going through a number of transitions, that also kept me quite occupied and sucked up any of the remaining spare time that I might have had. There is only so much time in a day and something had to give. Instagram was much more expedient, though less satisfying. It had to suffice, despite the plethora of incredible dining experiences that I experienced. I apologize to the majority of the restaurants listed below and others for not having fully reciprocated the incredible love and artistry that was directed towards myself and my dining partners, and I also apologize to you, my readers (if I have any left), for not having provided the detailed coverage that you have come to expect, and (I hope) enjoy. My life will be much different in 2018 as I will be only a part-time Anesthesiologist in order to devote more time to Rascal + Thorn, the travel/dining business that Charles and I have committed to.
Getting back to 2017, it was a bizarre year in which, to provide relief from the generally depressing news, it particularly helped to drown myself in fabulous food, often shared with family, friends and clients, who have become friends. I was quite fortunate to be able to do so. Travels took me back to Spain as Charles and I did a scouting trip to Barcelona in advance of a trip that we are planning to lead late this spring; to Mexico, Italy and France, as well as locations in the USA including NYC, Chicago, New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., amongst others. It was a year to match 2016, which was probably the finest year of dining of my life to date. Making this Top 25 list was no small feat, as so many great meals fell short through no fault of their own. Each of these Top 25 meals was truly extraordinary as were many that fell below that arbitrary line.
I don’t purport that this is an objective list. It is quite subjective and takes into account so many variables. The food and drink were of paramount importance, of course, but so were the people I was with, the service, the ambiance, setting and circumstance, and my own mood, sense of well-being and expectations. So here they are in reverse order:
Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia
Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia – Milan, Italy – November 9, 2017 – Wonderful food and service in a lovely setting, this reflects Italian modernity quite nicely. The restaurant is very under-rated, as it straddles a nice line between a respect for tradition and regionality and delicious creativity, which is currently shared by 2 chefs, the great team of Fabio Pisani and Alessandro Negrini, with such wonderful dishes as “Burrata of Taleggio Cheese over Bitter Greens,” and the outstanding dessert, “Tirami-Sud” an homage to the southern Italian roots of Chef Pisani. This food served in a wonderfully light, art-laden setting with outstanding service, will never get old.
Ardent – Milwaukee, WI – September 27, 2017 – Chef Justin Carlisle has created a wonderful restaurant that is cozy and comforting, yet creative and envelope-pushing. What makes this combination stand out is his and his team’s attention to detail, such as the knife pictured above. These fabulous instruments are custom made. They are beautiful, but they are also very, very personal to the chef and his family. The stock is actually made from aprons that have been retired from the restaurant. Making them even more special is that the aprons had been made by his mother! That would be for naught, if the food didn’t live up that kind of standard, but it most certainly does, with much of it coming from the family farm, included the justifiably lauded beef.
Restaurante Hotel Carlota
Hotel Carlota – Mexico City, Mexico – April 18, 2017 – The best natively Mexican meal of a wonderful trip to Mexico, the meal incorporated great creativity, beauty and deliciousness from top to bottom. A collaboration between Pujol alumni Joaquin Cardoso (savory) and Sofia Cortina (pastry), the food is personal, true to its Mexican roots, beautiful and delicious with an excellent bar program to round out the experience. The hotel is pretty cool as a place to stay too. As long as Cardoso and Cortina are involved, this needs to be on the short list for any gastronomes visiting Mexico City.
Il Centro – Priocca, Italy – Outstanding Piemontese cooking with great wine and at very reasonable prices too. This was the best traditional meal of our Italian trip. While important to most of the top dining experiences that I had in 2017, rarely did wine take such center stage as in Italy’s Piemonte. The 1988 Produttori di Barbaresco was exceptional, and a perfect match for the exquisitely prepared traditional cooking of the area, including a beef tartare that knocked the socks off any other just by using pristine ingredients and putting them together perfectly. This is what any traditional restaurant should aspire to.
Atera – NYC – October 23, 2017 – It had been a while as I hadn’t been back to Atera since Chef Matt Lightner left the restaurant. Chef Ronnie Emborg’s food, different than it was under Lightner, is still, nevertheless delicious, and the service under Matt Abbick, superb, retaining a cordial, yet sophisticated approach. Atera remains a superb dining destination.
Tokuyoshi – Milan, Italy – November 8, 2017 – Beautiful, creative and delicious “contamination” cuisine blending Japanese culinary concepts with Italian product was a superb opening salvo of our fabulous Italy trip. The menu we chose was built around colors, with each dish conveying the select colors both visually and through synesthetic taste elements that were remarkably effective. Chef Yoji Tokuyoshi’s cuisine brought the best of his two worlds to the table.
Atoboy – NYC – January 24, 2017 – Modern, Korean-inspired cooking from Chef Junghyun Park in a stark and minimalist, but effective setting. With the high quality, low prices, great creativity, and good service, Atoboy is one of the best culinary values anywhere. The flavors are bright and delicious, the textures are what they should be and the experience is totally fun for a group or a couple! If I lived anywhere near Atoboy, at its quality/price ration, I would be an absolute regular.
Marea Alta – Barcelona – May 6, 2017 – The most amazing views of Barcelona with food and drink to match. Located atop the Edificio Colón near the Barcelona Harbor with a slightly kitschy nautical setting, this seafood restaurant under the helm of Chef Enrique Valenti, is so much better than it needs to be. It would still be great if it were in a basement so long as it continued serving food and drink as good as it does. Making it even better, I had what is probably the most delicious sangria that I’ve ever had, in the one level down Marea Baja Sangria Bar before our lunch.
Hemlock – NYC – September 1, 2017 – Confidently creative cooking that adds originality without dis-respecting the ingredients. The vegetable forward, but not vegan menu is a superb opening salvo from rising star chef, Diego Moya. He has an uncanny ability to take a dish like a tomato salad in September, and tweak it so that not only is it extremely delicious, but so that it is memorable too. If going with one to three people, sit at the bar overlooking the kitchen and enjoy the magic show.
Achille’s Heel – Brooklyn, NY – September 24, 2017 – One can not manufacture a restaurant like this. It has to happen organically and naturally. This has become one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. Everything about it is unforced perfection and the Hell Chicken remains the best roast chicken I’ve ever had. It is so good that I had to take Albert Adria, Jose Andres and their crews there during the StarChefs ICC just so they could experience it. Chef Lee Desrosiers may be most well known for his chicken, but he is no one trick pony. Everything that I’ve had there has been superb. Unfortunately, the opportunity to have Desrosier’s spectacular Hell Chicken at Achille’s Heel is no more, as he just announced that he is leaving the restaurant as of the new year.
Senia at Per Se
Senia at Per Se – NYC – March 6, 2017 – This inclusion is a bit of a ringer in that the dinner did not take place at Senia in Honolulu, but at a special dinner in the private dining room at Per Se. Senia’s two chefs, Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush met at Per Se and they returned for this dinner to highlight what they’re doing in Hawaii. If this is any indication, the original Senia has become a must visit restaurant for me with its elegant fusion of Hawaiian ingredients with European and Asian techniques.
McCrady’s Restaurant – Charleston, S.C. – August 27, 2017 – Sitting at a dining counter facing an open kitchen is no longer a novelty, though I still enjoy the experience. The counter and the kitchen at McCrady’s are visual knockouts. So is the food, though that has the advantage of being extraordinarily delicious too. Though Chef Sean Brock has never strayed from cooking delicious food, he is back in the world of super-fine dining with a vengeance!
Cosme – NYC – October 25, 2017 – I hadn’t been in a while, but the flavors are as bright, eye-popping and delicious as ever, no, better than ever! Chef Daniela Soto-Innes continues to shine with her scintillating modern Mexican cooking. To make things even better, while still a center of New York energy, the noise level appears to have been dampened just a bit, but enough to actually engage well with one’s dining partners.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Blue Hill at Stone Barns – Pocantico Hills, NY – September 23, 2017 – Nobody does farm to table better than Chef Dan Barber. He walks the walk and there is no better or more beautiful place to experience real farm to table dining than here. The emphasis is entirely on the extraordinary product. The specific elements of those products are heightened and highlighted by the cooking skills employed, whether the product is served raw, lightly cooked or fully cooked. The wine program and service match the quality of the food and the space.
Aska – Brooklyn, NY – December 12, 2017 -Special occasion, a beautiful room, fine service and tremendously creative and delicious New Nordic cooking unlike anything that I’ve had anywhere else, make this restaurant under Chef Frederick Berselius a real standout. Never would I have imagined eating lichen, let alone loving it!
Next – The World’s Fifty Best Menu
Next – Chicago – September 29, 2017 – The private dining room with people whom I’ve come to know and love over this past year was the perfect setting for this extraordinary meal showcasing an array of great dishes from some of the finest restaurants in the world. This is precisely the kind of menu this restaurant was meant for and the service led by Gary Obligación was stellar as well. A tour of the ice program and a nightcap at The Office didn’t hurt either.
Piazza Duomo – Alba, Italy – November 14, 2017 – Everything about this restaurant is stunning from a table covering opening bombardment of small plate tastes to excellent wine service to the slightly clinical, but provocatively well-lit space, to the superb service and the sensational food. Chef Enrico Crippa has it all covered.
Hoja Santa – Barcelona – May 2, 2017 – Simply put, this has become one of the very best Mexican restaurants in the world and one of my favorites of any kind anywhere. The adjacent Niño Viejo is equally superb, though not quite as ambitious as its Michelin starred sibling. Chefs Paco Mendez and Albert Adriá have managed to transplant a bit of Mexico to Barcelona of a quality that surpasses all but a very few Mexican restaurants that I have experienced anywhere.
Alinea – Chicago, IL – September 30, 2017 – Creative deliciousness and effectively fun culinary theater as wonderful as I’ve ever experienced at Alinea. This was my first time back sine the restaurant had been completely renovated.The result was fresh, thrilling and delicious, combining the creative genius of Grant Achatz and his team, led here by Chef Mike Bagale, and their ever-present sense of fun and whimsy.
Smyth – Chicago, Il – September 28, 2017 -I loved what Chefs john and Karen Shields did at Town House in Chilhowie, Virginia. They made a name for themselves there, but it was truly a destination restaurant in a very difficult to get to destination. Now, with a restaurant that has the feel of someone’s very comfortable home, they have translated that incredibly creative, beautiful and delicious experience to a much easier place to get to, even if, by doing so, it may have become much more difficult to get in to.
Osteria Francescana – Modena, Italy – November 10, 2017 – This was my first time dining at this, one of my all-time favorite restaurants, without the larger than life presence of the great Massimo Bottura. I admit that I had some trepidation that the wonderful experiences that I had always had, would not be quite as wonderful without Il Maestro and his marvelously effervescent personality. I’m happy to say that while his presence was missed (how could it not be?), my experience of the place, the food and everything else about this wonderful place was every bit as outstanding as ever.
Eleven Madison Park
Eleven Madison Park – NYC – June 3, October 23 & December 12, 2017 – I had the great good fortune to dine at this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants No. 1 restaurant three times in 2017, once before they closed for renovations, once after they reopened and then again for lunch in the refurbished bar area. Add to that the experiences over the summer at their East Hampton pop-up, and I had a year’s worth of outstanding dining experiences, intermixed with a variety of people, all of whom were great company to go with the fabulous food, delightful drink and stellar service.
Mirazur – Menton, France – November 15, 2017 – Lunch on a perfect day with a perfect table overlooking a perfect Mediterranean sunset whilst eating perfectly beautiful, creative and delicious food with fabulous people and stellar service, all attended to by Chef Mauro Colagreco and his most charming wife – what is better than that?
Enigma – Barcelona – May 4, 2017 – Absolutely special, a spectacular birthday meal as only the Adria brothers can do it. elBulli lives. Albert Adriá’s Enigma Project is a restaurant unlike any other that I have experienced. Other restaurants have utilized a variety of spaces and utilized them well, but none have used a space as effectively to create a sense of mystery and exclusivity as well as Enigma. That the food is as wonderfully magical as ever, with a wide variety of palate pleasing experiences from both food and drink, made this a stand-out meal of the highest order and just about impossible to beat.
Noma Mexico – Tulum, Mexico – April 16, 2017 – a monumental feat with gorgeous, delicious, creative and brilliant food in a magical setting. Rene Redzepi and the Noma team showed why they have lived at the top of the food world for so long. This was a truly extraordinary, once in a lucky lifetime experience, made all the more special by sharing it with my wife and two of our sons. The only thing that could have made it better, would have been to share it with all three of our sons.
Location and contact information for each of the restaurants can be found at the map on the top of the page.