February 26, 2017

The Best of 2016

Ah, 2016.

You would probably lose a popularity contest to a burger without cheese. Can I say anything good about you?

Let me try.

On paper, 2016 was my best food year yet. I cruised through 18 cities in 13 countries relentlessly looking for the best edibles to be found. I pursued stars, points and rankings. I fixed my sight on the Scandinavian promise of a culinary epicenter. I used every opportunity to explore local cuisines in back alleys and snap coveted reservations at top restaurants. And even so, as I went through all my photos and notes of the year, a slight feeling of dissatisfaction kept growing on me.

While I did have outstanding food last year, a lot of it didn’t come from where I expected it to. Many of my meals at award-winning restaurants were unmemorable. Formulaic. Generic. I found chefs and restaurants, in lack of a strong personality, settled for flashy attempts to ride the wave of culinary showbiz. As disappointing as this situation was, it also pushed me to internalize just how important time and place are in defining the elements of gastronomy at all levels. It led me back to appreciating classic cooking for it’s quality, instead of how trendy it is. One good outcome of the year.

Also, I must recognize that I achieved my goal – I visited 3 Scandinavian countries and managed to visit noma 1.0 – before they closed and moved to a new location.

Other 24 wonderful moments of 2016 are listed below, in the shape of food served on plates. Most of them anyway. These are the dishes that stayed with me, traveled back home with me, and still populate my culinary dreams. I hope you enjoy reading about them half as much as I did eating them. As my Swiss comrades would say, En guete!

*As usual, I am taking a chronological approach, as not to rank these dishes against each other.

January-June

January was a quiet month – I was hardly adapting to the Zürcher winter, looking for an apartment and starting a new position at work. Not much to say about it. In contrast, February was explosive. It kicked off right at its peak with my dinner at Alinea Madrid, the first ever itinerant restaurant by 3-star chef Grant Achatz. You can read my full walkthrough of that dinner here.

I chose two dishes that sum up quite well the spirit of Alinea – the wizardry of its presentations, the intricacy of its technique, the perfection of its flavors.

1. Seafood – raw and cooked, pineapple, star anise

Restaurant: Alinea Madrid – Madrid, Spain (3* Michelin at original location)

Chef: Grant Achatz

Seafood - raw and cooked, pineapple, star anise

Served on a giant block of ice, the dish was composed of several elements: smooth clam with salsa verde; scallop on its shell, grapes and white gazpacho; snapper sashimi on a skewer – to be cooked to taste on your own hot stone, also resting on the ice; pineapple-star anise juice. I know it’s hard to imagine how all this comes together, but trust me, it does.

After a few more courses, the table was set with a print of Miro’s June 2, 1973. Subsequently, a large glass plate was placed right on top of it.

2. Rouget: bouillabaisse

Restaurant: Alinea Madrid – Madrid, Spain (3* Michelin at original location)

Chef: Grant Achatz

Rouget: bouillabaisse, Miró June 2, 1973

The painting was recreated by the different preparations: a fillet of rouget, saffron alioli, padron pepper, orange, squid ink. All the flavors were clean, bright. The fish was absolutely perfect. When artistic sensibility and master technique collide, the result is unforgettable – for mind, palate and heart.

In my Alinea chronicles I mentioned that the day after I had another dish of rouget that was equally outstanding. This is it.

3. Salmonete con tirabeques

Restaurant: La Terraza del Casino – Madrid, Spain (2* Michelin)

Chef: Paco Roncero, Sergio Pachón

5th course: Salmonete con tirabqeues (red mullet)

There’s a lot going on at Paco Roncero’s 2-star Michelin terrace. While ambiance can be improved – the place is so quiet it’s almost uncomfortable to have a normal conversation – the food is excellent. And while it can get really complex, the best of it was actually the simplest. Consider this elemental plate of red mullet and tirabeques – the first peas of the season.

4. Açorda de lavagante

Restaurant: Solar dos Presuntos – Lisbon, Portugal

açorda

My Portuguese friend sent me to El Solar. Packed and vibrant on a Wednesday night, I managed to get a spot for one close to the entrance. Without asking, the table was immediately served with jamón and azeitão cheese – a luscious, creamy, runny wonder. I finally decided to get the Açorda, a poor man’s confection, save the lobster. In a cast iron pot, (a lot of) bread is fried with garlic, then simmered in lobster stock. It’s then seasoned with piripiri and coriander. The lobster plus eggs are added and mixed at the table for optimal texture and flamboyance. This is all you want on a plate. And you can live for a week on the calories of that alone. Probably.

5. Pudim Abade de Priscos

Restaurant: Tasca da Esquina – Lisbon, Portugal

Chef: Vitor Sobral

Pudim Abade de Priscos

A couple of nights after the bread and lobster bash, I finally felt hungry again. My other Portuguese friend had told me about Vitor Sobral, a chef whose modern take on traditional cuisine was bewitching the whole town. She walked me through the menu and explained each dish meticulously. I had a little tuna and foie sandwich, an elevated version of bacalhau à bras and the dessert. That thing. Picture a flan taken to the next realm. The texture – absolute perfection – is achieved by beating only egg yolks, no cream or milk, with four times as much sugar as you would add to a creme renversée. What else? Ah, yes. It’s cooked with a BIG chunk of toucinho de presunto, aka. fatty bacon. Sweet mother nature.

Back in Madrid I kept on pursuing red-guide stars, and I had Ramón Freixa´s eponymous restaurant fixed on target. I loved my meal there, which went on for what felt like 100 courses. But really, it was around 24 different preparations, paired with 10 different wines (seriously, look at this). I actually had a nightmare that night – that I was still there and they kept sending dishes to the table and pouring wines, but I couldn’t eat no more. It was horrifying.

Anyway. The whole menu was outstanding. Enchanting dishes kept coming one after the other, served on gorgeous tableware – my friend recognized more than one Christian Lacroix plate here and there. After a mimetic stone of pine seeds and a veil of truffle royal and octopus came this dish:

6. The color of winter

Restaurant: Ramón Freixa – Madrid, Spain (2* Michelin)

Chef: Ramón Freixa

The color of winter; Under a veil of black garlic: Wild mushrooms, chestnuts and pumpkin; 'caserío' egg yolk injected with Oloroso wine

The whole title read: ‘Under a veil of black garlic: Wild mushrooms, chestnuts and pumpkin; ‘caserío’ egg yolk injected with Oloroso wine’ and that’s all you need to know. I’ve mentioned before how much I love the over-the-top style of some Spanish chefs. At Ramón’s, several courses were served on more than one plate at once, enhancing the main serving with interesting sides. In this case, a perfect egg yolk injected with vino oloroso – a variety of fortified wine from Andalucía. It is worth mentioning that the dish was paired with a glass of amontillado sherry – creating a surprising contrast of different kinds of sweetness.

7. What does not go with chocolate

Restaurant: Ramón Freixa – Madrid, Spain (2* Michelin)

Chef: Ramón Freixa

'What does not go with chocolate:' cauliflower, bell pepper, carrot

On the sweet end of the meal, after the cheese break, came one of the best desserts I had last year. Mainly composed of ‘savory’ veggies – roasted cauliflower, bell pepper and carrot sorbet, subtly accompanied with caramel and chocolate. I tend to like this approach to desserts, where the natural sweetness of some ingredients is leveraged by taking them out of their regular context. It takes vision and a lot of courage to serve – I loved it.

8. Bacalhau graúdo à lagareiro

Restaurant: California – Lisbon, Portugal

On another business trip to the outskirts of Lisbon, my friends took me to this little restaurant close their studio. Even though it was supposed to be just a quick lunch, what they served me there was not a quick confection. I had a massive fillet of salted cod, drowned slowly in fragrant olive oil, potatoes and parsley. Again, my fascination for simplicity and tradition reigns.

Later, in June, my friends and I took a trip north to Finland and the Baltic countries. Our first stop was Helsinki, where we scored two awesome reservations. The first one was at Sasu Laukkonen’s charming little restaurant, where he personally enchants every table with his stories. I believe Chef & Sommelier was my first contact with New Nordic cuisine. I don’t even know if Sasu labels his own cooking as such, but I definitely recognized several elements that sent my thoughts in that direction: hyper-localism, the elevation of the humble ingredient and a lot of pickling and fermentation. All of those elements were present in this dish, which doesn’t really need much more explanation.

9. Carrots: pickled and grilled, sauce of the tops, crème fraiche, salted egg yolks

Restaurant: Chef & Sommelier – Helsinki, Finland (1* Michelin)

Chef: Sasu Laukkonen

Carrot and eggs, elevated through technique and love for the terroir.

3rd course - Carrots: pickled and grilled, sauce of the tops, crème fraiche, salted egg yolks

The other fantastic dinner in Helsinki we had on the night of my birthday. At the creative kitchen of OLO, three cooks put out 18-course menus for a few lucky diners. New Nordic continues to be the topic of this and the next 7 dishes on this list, so let’s better get in the mood. That was in fact what happened at OLO, as they served us sourdough in different forms, pickled baltic herring and dried reindeer heart over porridge.

10. Pike perch with soured cream and cucumber

Restaurant: OLO Creative Kitchen – Helsinki, Finland (1* Michelin)

8th: Pike perch with soured cream and cucumber

Our 8th course was a disc of pike perch cutlets glued together to create a magical look. Topped with the fried scales of the fish and a sauce of cream and fresh cucumber, this dish was brilliant in its simple combination of crisp flavors. Two courses later, another outstanding dish came. Braised sweetbreads in their thickened jus, with some peas cooked briefly in it.

11. Sweetbreads and lettuce

Restaurant: OLO Creative Kitchen – Helsinki, Finland (1* Michelin)

10th: Sweetbreads and lettuce

The last part of the menu was commanded by Chef Santeri Stenvall. He plated this beautiful dish of cooked rhubarb under a frozen disc of sorrel, goat’s milk yoghurt both fresh and nitrogen-frozen into crumbles. A delicate touch of acidic rhubarb sauce, almost a gastrique, completed the plate and gave it an elegant balance.

12. Rhubarb and kyyttö milk yoghurt, sorrel

Restaurant: OLO Creative Kitchen – Helsinki, Finland (1* Michelin)

Chef: Santeri Stenvall

18th: Rhubarb and kyyttö (goat) milk yoghurt, sorrel (frozen disc)


July-December

This year I finally made it to noma. It took me dozens of tries month after month to get the reservation. I planned my trip to Copenhagen around it and took the chance to visit other wonderful restaurants – some of which also made it to this list.

Visiting noma is a game-changing experience. As I’ve dodged the dreaded is it really the best restaurant in the world? a thousand times, I do believe it is as unique as it is mesmerizing. It is a category by itself. Also, no other restaurant ever has generated more press than noma, and this made it extremely difficult for me to write about it without feeling it was pointless. So I’ll jump directly into the dishes.

13. Crisp of wild roses and danish peas

Restaurant: noma – Copenhagen, Denmark (2* Michelin)

Chef: Rene Redzepi

Crisp of wild roses and danish peas.

After a rhubarb rose, a radish pie, and an assiette of pickled and grilled vegetables smothered in ant paste came this delicate, little thing. It takes THIS many vines to make one portion – explained Juan, his arms hugging an imaginary keg of ale. We peel each pea twice by hand and discard any that are not the perfect size. We dress the peas with an oil of wild roses and mount it on a crisp made out of fermented plums. We finish with a touch of thyme flowers.

Light as a feather and just as delicate, one bite of this will make you understand why Rene, not yet 40 years old, is already one of the most influential chefs in history.

14. Steamed king crab and egg yolk sauce

Restaurant: noma – Copenhagen, Denmark (2* Michelin)

Chef: Rene Redzepi

Steamed king crab and egg yolk sauce.

Immediately after the danish peas came a small bowl of magnificent king crab. It had been lightly steamed to preserve its sweetness and evident freshness. Any smart cook, his hand on such precious product, would just adorn it and let it shine on its own. Not at noma. Here, the plate is taken to another level by bathing it in egg yolks that have been cured in beef garum. The nutty flavor of aged beef is incredibly powerful, while magically letting the crab be the star. To make the garum, ground beef is let to hang and ferment for 6 months. It only takes a few minutes to cure the egg yolks in it to achieve this amount of flavor.

15. Charred ramsons and scallop paste

Restaurant: noma – Copenhagen, Denmark (2* Michelin)

Chef: Rene Redzepi

Charred ramson and scallop paste.

I haven’t shut up about this one dish for 8 months. After the crab, the table was set with a fork and a Laguiole steak knife. There is actually no meat in your next course. We want to prove that a vegetable can be as rich, as satisfying as a cut of meat. What came to the table was a monument to gastronomy. Three or four green leaves of wild garlic, slightly charred on a Japanese charcoal grill, were arranged rhythmically to the side of a plate. These are brushed in a paste of scallops that have been caramelized and fermented around 18 months – time works its magic into nature and develops an intensity of flavor that no quadruped has bore before. More umami than Kikunae Ikeda could ever distill. With a strong aroma of garlic entwined in smoke and finished with hints of horseradish cream, magnificent doesn’t even start to qualify it.

Stimulating to palate and mind, this is simply the best dish I had the whole year. Rene, you are something else.

16. Unripe strawberry tartar, marigold, preserved strawberries, spring onions

Restaurant: Relæ – Copenhagen, Denmark (1* Michelin)

Chef: Christian Puglisi

Unripe strawberry tartar, marigold, preserved strawberries, spring onions. (Juice: Toasted buckwheat and chamomile)

With reservations for lunch and dinner the whole weekend, my friend Milena and I ran a tight schedule in Copenhagen. On Saturday we had lunch at Relæ, a semi-casual restaurant by Christian Puglisi – a half-Sicilian half-Norwegian noma alumni.

We took the long tasting menu and decided to pair with juices – a wonderful choice. Every drink was beyond complex and intricate, misled to simplicity by reductionist names. Strawberry-pine, buckwheat-chamomile, berries-chanterelles were just some of them. The dish that I most enjoyed there was this tartar of strawberries and marigold flowers. It was acidic and herbal in a very delicate way. It was beautiful.

17. Fresh Norwegian scallops, smoked butter, caviar

Restaurant: Kong Hans Kælder – Copenhagen, Denmark (1* Michelin)

Chef: Mark Lundgaard

Fresh Norwegian scallops, smoked butter, caviar.

That night we had dinner at Kong Hans Kælder, located in the oldest building in Copenhagen and one of the most beautiful dining rooms I’ve been in. The cooking is classic French, and imbued with so much life. After having the table flooded with amuse bouches, I had my starter – fresh scallops, a lot of delicious smoked butter and a decadent spoonful of caviar.

18. Danish black lobster, green asparagus, Lammefjords fricassee

Restaurant: Kong Hans Kælder – Copenhagen, Denmark (1* Michelin)

Chef: Mark Lundgaard

Danish black lobster, green asparagus - Lammefjords fricassee.

My main course there was a whole lobster cooked and served in two courses. The first one – the tail, accompanied by a giant asparagus and a delicate sauce nage with fava beans and chives to make it just a bit brighter. Do I need to explain why this dish was exceptional?

Danish black lobster, green asparagus - Lammefjords fricassee.

19. Waldviertler Erdäpfelknödel

Restaurant: Cafe Prückel – Vienna, Austria

During a quick weekend trip to Vienna my friends took me to Cafe Prückel, a century old cafe serving all the traditional pastries and Viennoiserie. There I had this plate of potato knödel with poppy seed and a ton of butter. Often I reflect on the fact that I eat – and love – potatoes more than any other food. Add butter and you got my heart.

20.Risotto de trigo y hongos de lluvia

Restaurant: Pujol – Mexico City, Mexico

Chef: Enrique Olvera

IV. Wheat, squash blossoms, wild mushrooms

Every single year I eat at Enrique Olvera’s soon-to-be former restaurant – location and concept, at least – it makes it to this list. This time, I had that wonderful dish of beef tongue in consommé again, and it was way better than the first time. I also had a plate of wheat, cooked like risotto with an incredible variety of wild mushrooms – the flavor of the raining season in the Valley of Mexico, boiled down to a perfectly seasoned plate. It made everyone at the table silent for a few seconds.

21. Tártara de aguacate tatemado, escamoles y chips de quelites

Restaurant: Quintonil – Mexico City, Mexico

Chef: Jorge Vallejo

3. Tártara de aguacate tatemado, escamoles y chips de quelites. (Tartare of charred avocado, ant eggs and quelite chips)

Another consistent high-performer on my yearly list. Am I biased towards Mexico? Sure. Should you trust me and just let Jorge Vallejo do the rest? Fuck yes, you should. This time I decided to showcase the greatness of Quintonil in two dishes. The first one, this dramatic combination of charred avocado and escamoles – those ant eggs that are a delicacy in Mexico and that you should be dying to try. It came with a gorgeous shot of shrimp chilpachole, a maiz based soup.

The second one is this brutal sauté of mushrooms, a paste of sage and pitiona – a traditional Oaxacan herb – and finished with a reduction of ‘tinga de pollo’. A classic stew of tomatoes, onions and chipotle is reduced until thick and pitch black. If you look up flavor in the dictionary, this is what comes up.

22. Hongos de lluvia en mojo de pitiona y salvia, reducción de tinga de pollo

Restaurant: Quintonil – Mexico City, Mexico

Chef: Jorge Vallejo

5. Hongos de lluvia en mojo de pitiona y salvia, reducción de tinga de pollo. (Wild mushrooms, dressed in pitiona and sage, onion-bayleaf-tomato juice)

23. Duck, Morel and Ginger Consommé & Hundred-Year-Old Madeira

Restaurant: The Clove Club – London, UK

Chef: Isaac McHale

6th course: Duck, Morel and GInger Consommé & Hundred Year Old Madeira.

Funny enough, one of my courses at this former supper club in London was inspired by a meal in Mexico city, as the chef explained. It was advertised as a little buckwheat pancake of crisp suckling pig belly and long pepper. In reality, it was a big old taco. Not big nor old (actually, quite small and definitely modern, but you get my point), it was a sort of tribute to Enrique Olvera’s tacos at the original Pujol in Francisco Petrarca.

Your next course is a liquor course – announced the sommelier as he approached the table with a silver tray. On it, he had arranged a bottle of 108 year old Madeira, an elegant crystal flask and a wine glass for each of us. We first got to try the wine – it has become so volatile with age that its aroma invades your whole body in an instant. Intensely sweet and acidic, and still very elegant. Right after, the wine was mixed with the contents of the flask – a duck consommé with morels and ginger. Be careful, it’s very hot. The warning should’ve been It might ruin all your soups for a good while.

24. Callos a la Madrileña

Restaurant: Taberna San Mamés – Madrid, Spain

Callos a la madrileña

Callos a la Madrileña is a capital-t-traditional dish in Spanish cuisine. It is also one of my favorite foods ever. And also it is a stew of beef tripe.

The highest expression of it I had at San Mamés, a tiny tavern dated to 1913. It takes a lot of technique and a little bit of magic to get the callos just right – achieving that meloso texture of the sauce that makes them so unique.


Wow, that was a bit long. Still I hope you found it amusing, and it helped inspire your next adventure!

I have started 2017 with a few great meals at classic restaurants in Switzerland and France, and an exciting new restaurant in Mexico. My next big objective is Japan, my promised land, which I will (finally) visit in May with the highest expectations. Later in the year I want to cruise the northern coast of Spain and fall in love with the south of France. Can’t wait.

Thanks for keeping up with me. I wish you a blast of a year.

FIRMA web

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About Fran Cedillo

I'm all about food. Home cook and Food Blogger.

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