It was the year of craft beers, gastropubs, pop-ups, ramen, foraging, Asian street food, infusions, smoking, duck fat, fried chicken, Peruvian food, Nordic cuisine and pies. 2011, the year of the rabbit, was another exceptional year of fruitful culinary adventures around the world, new friendships that blossomed through memorable meals and gastronomic treasures inspired by passionate chefs who poured heart and soul into their craft.
My year, as usual, started off in Japan where I celebrated the new year with family and friends and enjoyed winter delicacies in the best restaurants in Tokyo. Then across the globe I went in spring, to New Delhi, India where I sampled Indian street food and ventured down to Kerala for Southern Indian cuisine. It was then that the tragic news of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck, and I took an unexpected and bittersweet return home to Japan for medical volunteer work. It was wonderful to see numerous chefs in the US and Japan stand up for the occasion and donate their time and services to raise money for earthquake and tsunami relief.
Later that spring I took my first step into the South where a casual weekend road trip through the Carolinas and Virginia turned out to be one of the most memorable and fun gastronomic trips of my life. I never knew that there was such history, such energy and so many beautiful flavors in this region of the US, and I quickly fell in love with Southern food.
The end of the summer was spent in Haiti for a cholera outbreak project, where my biggest impression, from comparing it to a year and a half ago when I first went after the big earthquake, was that there was very little progress. Millions of dollars worth of donated pledges have not come to form yet in this developing country where many still live in tents with no access to clean water and sanitation.
Then autumn came, the leaves turned yellow and I found myself infatuated with the restaurant scene in San Francisco. I spent many hours at the Ferry Building eating burgers, drinking coffee, lining up for pastries and buying charcuterie. Where else can one find amazing food right now? Baja California. I took 3 trips south of the border this year with the last one in October for the first Baja Culinary Festival where I was spoiled with fresh sea urchin, octopus, clams and fish from the Pacific.
Then winter came, I made my pilgrimage back to Japan, and just like that- 2011 was over. Through it all there were some exceptional dishes that left a lasting impression on my palate and my heart- dishes that I can still taste and smell as if it were right in front of me, and will forever be engrained in my life as a delicious memory. Some flavors were new to me while others were familiar and comforting, but all were beautiful and full of life.
Saint-Sever foie gras- Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, Les Créations de Narisawa (Tokyo, Japan)
My first restaurant meal of 2011 was at the acclaimed 2 Michelin star Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan, where Chef Narisawa draws inspiration from nature. The Saint-Sever foie gras dish was poêléed in red wine vinegar and fond de veau, then finished with balsamic vinegar and strawberries- a perfect balance of acidity, sweetness and the rich savor of foie gras.
Naruto Tai Nitsuke- Chef Kenzo Sato, Shigeyoshi (Tokyo, Japan)
My favorite restaurant in the world is Shigeyoshi in Tokyo, a 2 Michelin star establishment that has maintained the same level of service and excellent food for the last 40 years. This is what I look forward to the most when visiting Japan- sitting at the counter in front of Chef Sato and watching him prepare each dish as we engage in conversation. This year a traditional tai no nitsuke, sea bream head from Naruto gently simmered in a soy ginger sake broth, captured my heart. The flesh was tender and the flavors were comforting- something that I could eat every day of the year and smile after every satisfying bite.
Awabi no kimo- Chef Taira, Kyubei Sushi (Tokyo, Japan)
There are many stellar sushi restaurants in Japan- how does one choose the best? It’s about finding 1 or 2 favorite places and establishing a long lasting relationship with a sushi shokunin. I’ve been going to Kyubei in Ginza every year since I was a teenager, and Taira san understands my palate like no other. He always makes this dish for me- abalone innards simmered in abalone broth with rice, sake and a splash of mitsuba for texture and freshness. There is something about the bitterness of the abalone innards that I absolutely love and I simply cannot imagine starting off the year without this dish at Kyubei.
Konju tiger prawns- The Backwaters of Alleppey on a Houseboat (Kerala, India)
A visit to Kerala in Southern India is not complete without a relaxing houseboat tour on the backwaters of Alleppey. The boat slowly traverses through the murky waters of Alleppey, gliding past quaint villages and lush jungle-like vegetation. We picked up some Konju tiger prawns along the way from a local fisherman, giant prawns the size of my face with impressively long emerald blue claws. They were marinated in Kerala spices of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric and flash fried in the pan to a crisp. A lazy afternoon sprawled out on the deck of the houseboat, staring out onto the vast waters of Southern India while noshing on meaty prawns is an experience that I will never forget.
Crispy fried pig ears- Chef Sean Brock, Husk Restaurant (Charleston, SC)
A visit to the South this past spring was an eye opening experience for me. With Chef Sean Brock as my trusted tour guide at both of his restaurants, my adventure into Southern cuisine was educational, memorable and downright delicious. My dinner at Husk was my favorite meal of 2011 thanks to many sensational dishes that highlighted Southern ingredients, including crispy fried pig ears, soaked in tangy vinegar and served in a lettuce cup with preserved butter bean chow chow.
Beef cheek with hay-smoked milk- Chef John Shields, Town House (Chilhowie, VA)
Many chefs played around with hay and wood this past year, smoking, charring and burning them to extract unique aromas. It was John Shields’ Pastoral dish at Town House during my road trip through the South that demonstrated the allure of this trend the most successfully. Tender beef cheek was drizzled with hay-smoked milk and decorated with edible herbs and flowers, a well thought out dish that was both visually and conceptually inspirational. The smoked hay lingered on my palate for what seemed like an eternity, perfuming each cell in my body with the beautiful aromas of nature.
Sanda wagyu beef tongue dango- Sanda (Tokyo, Japan)
Only in Japan can a restaurant specializing in beef offals elevate organ meats to Michelin star level. At Sanda, they char Sanda Wagyu pancreas, poach tendons, steam lungs and braise cheeks. Sanda is a culinary temple for offal aficionados, and I became enamored with their beef tongue and throat cartilage dango soup, a soft airy meatball made with succulent tongue and crunchy cartilage for added texture. I experienced a moment of peace and serenity as I sipped the savory broth to its last drop.
Uni, junsai, yuzu- Chef Koji Koizumi, Kohaku (Tokyo, Japan)
A newcomer to the Tokyo restaurant scene but already awarded 2 Michelin stars, my kaiseki meal at Kohaku in Tokyo was a breathtaking demonstration of finesse, understated beauty and harmony. The first course was a study in textures and flavors- diced cucumbers, slippery junsai, and yuzu gelée that enveloped and highlighted the buttery sweetness of summer uni. Kohaku is a culinary oasis in the middle of Tokyo where one can experience true Japanese hospitality.
Smoked steelhead roe with French toast- Chef Craig Thornton, Wolvesden (Los Angeles, CA)
Chef Craig Thornton’s Wolvesden is no underground secret anymore, although reservations for his private dinners are still notoriously difficult to score. At one such dinner this past year, he challenged the traditional and classic concepts of a meal and reversed the order of his dishes. He started with dessert, served meat before fish and even incorporated breakfast inspired courses throughout the dinner. French toast drizzled with maple syrup and a side of smoked bacon sounds like the perfect morning meal- here Thornton decorated cinnamon ice cream with pearls of bright orange smoked steelhead roe, green apple slices and a side drizzle of maple syrup. The result? An explosion of climactic flavors- smoky, sweet and savory, all at once.
Heirloom rice porridge- Chef Jordan Kahn, Red Medicine (Los Angeles, CA)
Red Medicine is where I like to take out-of-town food aficionados so I can prove to them that there is something to be said about the Los Angeles dining scene. Chef Kahn’s desserts are without question some of the best in the city- and the country- demonstrating his unique style of sensibility, beauty and grace. Although he is a renowned pastry chef by trade, his savory dishes at Red Medicine are quite incredible as well. I can still remember my first bite into the heirloom rice porridge served with a bright orange ‘Kelley’s mom’s’ farm egg, Santa Barbara red uni, hazelnuts, ginseng, brassicas, liquid ginger, fried shallots and broccoli purée. I was hesitant about eating rice porridge at a non-Asian establishment, but that first heavenly bite almost brought tears to my eyes. At once comforting and familiar but also new, interesting and refreshing, this is one dish that everybody should eat.
Earth’s deep perfumes- Chef Roberto Cortez, CR8 dinner (Los Angeles, CA)
My first of 3 meals at Chef Roberto Cortez’s private CR8 dinners was quite an experience. Textures, flavors, music, aromas and tactile sensations came together for a well orchestrated meal that touched me on a deep emotional level. Food can evoke memories and make us feel in ways that we haven’t in a long time, and Cortez’s risotto with crunchy ground coffee and Syrah glaze did just that for me. Shiitake mushroom cappuccino coupled with the bitterness of coffee took me down memory lane to a place of love and sorrow.
32 and 70-day aged pigeon, cherry blossoms- Chef Joshua Skenes, Saison (San Francisco, CA)
One of the most exciting restaurants in the US right now is Saison in San Francisco where Chef Joshua Skenes concentrates flavors through aging and roasts proteins over hot embers to extract its fine essences. This past autumn I indulged in an astounding tasting menu at the chef’s table inside the kitchen where he presented a 32 day aged pigeon, its cavity salted and roasted over cherry wood, and a 70 day aged pigeon, left unsalted, likewise roasted and served with a glass of rosé infused with salted cherry blossoms. So much work for just a sliver of pungent breast meat, but worth every delectable bite- the 70 day aged pigeon meat was a surprising sensation for me, dark concentrated crimson meat with a thick waxy texture that tasted just like Epoisse, aka heaven.
Tuetano de Res Rostizado- Chef Javier Plascencia, Mision 19 (Tijuana, Mexico)
When I tell people about my trips down to Tijuana, people always ask why. ‘For the food’, I reply, to which I am met with skeptical and quizzical looks. There is a budding culinary scene in Baja California with Chef Javier Plascencia at its forefront, and on a recent trip down south of the border for the 1st Baja Culinary Festival, he amazed me again with his innovative and exquisite cuisine. Roasted bone marrow topped with generous chunks of tender Yellowfin tuna, brightened with the popping textures of tobiko roe, a side of crunchy salicornia and Serrano foam was just brilliant.
Pear, Quince, Sage- Chef Dominique Crenn & Pastry Chef Juan Contreras, Atelier Crenn (San Francisco, CA)
Autumn turns to winter, and soft powdery snow blankets the dying autumn leaves in this outstanding dessert served at the end of an exceptional tasting meal at Atelier Crenn, one of my best and most memorable meals of the year. While I wish that I could list every single dish of Chef Dominique Crenn’s tasting menu on this ‘best of’ list, I choose this dessert, made by her pastry chef Juan Contreras. Edible hibiscus leaves mingle with yogurt sage powder, pink quince granité and crunchy phyllo dough around a pear sorbet that is shaped into a perfectly frosted miniature pear. It is served with a dessert consommé of vanilla beans and spices that are infused into a broth on a tabletop siphon coffee maker- love at first sight and until the last bite.
Peruvian Cau-Cau- Chef Ricardo Zarate, Picca (Los Angeles, CA)
Chef Ricardo Zarate’s new restaurant Picca was a breath of fresh air in the Los Angeles culinary scene this year. Anticuchos of beef heart and black cod charred over hot Japanese coal and signature ceviches spiked with aji amarillo have become standards in my weekly dining repertoire, but there was one comfort dish that he made during a special themed dinner that captured my attention and my heart. Peruvian potato and tripe stew, cau-cau, with braised honeycomb tripe that melted in my mouth like butter was a bowl that I would like to eat over and over again. Earthy hearty flavors with a touch of turmeric, dressed with piquant salsa and a drizzle of cumin yogurt was just what the doctor prescribed, and what this talented and amazing chef provided on that unusually chilly evening.
During 2011 I was introduced to new cuisines, impressed by new flavors and intrigued by new foods. I met some amazing chefs who inspired me to continue exploring the world and the possibilities of how food can enhance and complement our lives- from Sean Brock to Dominique Crenn to Roberto Cortez, and I am truly thankful for the continued friendships with exceptional chefs like Ricardo Zarate, Craig Thornton, and Javier Plascencia. 2011 was an amazing year, as you can see, but I have a feeling that 2012 will be even better as I write this entry from Tokyo, Japan and plan for some delicious trips to Europe and beyond. May your 2012, the year of the dragon, be a fulfilling and delicious year!