22 December 2010

2010: My Ten Dishes of the Year

I sit writing this from a bitterly cold Oslo. Sunshine and warmth seem like a long-distant memory. Walking outside is a somewhat surreal experience as shadowy figures dressed in thick duvet-like jackets shuffle along the half-lit icy pavements. But it's not that bleak really. The winter solstice has just passed, and with it we can slowly expect the daylight hours to get longer and our depleted vitamin D supplies to be replenished. Christmas is just around the corner, and of course we have a fresh new year with all its challenges and delights to look forward to.

Now, what good would an end-of-year article be without some sort of look back at the year gone by? Yes folks, it's time for a clichéd top-ten list! Without further ado, I bring you my ten best restaurant dishes of 2010. Drum roll please.

In reverse order, these are:

10. Caviar with Crab and Shellfish JellyJoël Robuchon, Monte-Carlo
What a way to start a meal! A little trompe l'oeil that looks like a whole tin of sevruga caviar is, instead, caviar atop layers of shellfish jelly and sweet crab meat. A perfect blend of flavours – rich, luxurious and a blast to eat, making you feel like a billionaire oligarch. Mwah-ha-haa!

9. Yose TofuYashin, London
This was perhaps the finest tofu I have ever tasted. Served still warm, and barely set, it came with freshly grated wasabi and diced tosazu jelly, whose tart acidity was a perfect complement to the clean and fresh flavour of the tofu. Within seconds, we had scraped the bowl clean, and promptly called the waiter over to order another one. Heavenly!

8. Tartaleta de Chocolate con CajetaTopolobampo, Chicago
Second best dessert of the year is from newly Michelin-starred chef Rick Bayless. This titan of Mexican cuisine is a favourite of President Obama and I can see why. This tart consisted of luxurious, silky-smooth, dark Mexican chocolate sat atop a thin layer of soft, gooey cajeta (goats' milk caramel). This ensemble was lightly sprinkled with flakes of salt and encased in crumbly pastry. Accompanying this was a scoop of goats' cheese ice cream, toasted marshmallows, and graham cracker 'gravel'. Who knew chocolate and goats' cheese would go so well together!

7. Mascarpone Cream, Sponge Pudding, Almond Foam, White Truffle from AlbaHélène Darroze, London
The undisputed best dessert of the year was this innocent looking number from Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. The cool, sweetened mascarpone was offset by a warm, eggy, vanilla sponge pudding. The residual warmth of the rich sponge was just enough to bring out the flavour of the abundant Alba truffle shavings, so that those wonderful aromas enveloped everything. The almonds and oh-so-light almond foam added a touch of perfumed nuttiness and a variation in texture. When combined, the flavours were nothing short of breathtaking – think of it as 'trifle of the gods.'

6. O-toro nigiriSushi Dai, Tokyo
I thought I knew sushi until I ate sushi in Japan, and then I realised everything I knew about it was wrong. The main culprit was this simple piece of o-toro nigiri served to me at Sushi Dai in Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market. Pristine tuna (bought a few hours before) had a beautiful spider's web of rich marbling. Eating it was such a sensual experience; the cool flesh of the tuna juxtaposed by the perfectly al dente and lukewarm rice. I hardly needed to chew, the buttery tuna just melted on my tongue. Epic.

5. White Truffle RisottoLaunceston Place, London
Without doubt, the finest risotto I have ever had – rich and creamy with an oh-so-perfect consistency, full of that intoxicating white truffle aroma – I shall be having warm fuzzy dreams about this dish for a long time to come.

4. Guinea FowlOscarsgate, Oslo
At this tiny Oslo restaurant, Swedish chef Björn Svensson is performing little miracles with food. Meltingly tender guinea fowl was served with apple purée, beetroot, and potato. Scandinavia on a plate.

3. Flame Grilled Mackerel with Cucumber, Celtic Mustard and ShisoThe Ledbury, London
A classic by The Ledbury's Brett Graham. This is the dish most people rave about. Mackerel can be a tricky fish to tame – its oily fishiness is always in danger of overwhelming the taste buds. Here the fish was cooked to perfection; the core of it was soft, almost sashimi like, while the skin magically retained a smokey crispness. Accompanying this was a little parcel of smoked eel wrapped in a translucent film of cucumber jelly. A lightly pickled cucumber and delicate leaves of shiso and coriander cress added the needed acidity. I was lost for words at how good this dish was – one of the real highlights of the meal. Magnificent!

2. Langoustine with Oyster, Parsley and Seawater Emulsion, and Rye CrumbsNoma, Copenhagen
In July, I ate at Noma, and the "world's best restaurant" lived up to the hype and more. This dish brought the house down for me. The most perfect langoustine, barely cooked, was placed on a warm basalt stone that was dotted with small pearls of oyster, parsley and seawater emulsion. A purple powder of seaweed was sprinkled over the stone. This was a dish you eat with your hands and we were encouraged to "make art" as we dipped the langoustine in the emulsion. I closed my eyes and felt transported to a beach on a hot summer's day. Simply amazing.

And the winner of the Nordic Nibbler best restaurant dish of 2010 award is ... *opens envelope* ....

1. Black Truffle Explosion, Romaine, ParmesanAlinea, Chicago
Alinea totally and utterly took my breath away. The level that head chef Grant Achatz is cooking at now is just astounding. Alinea is on another planet altogether. The Michelin gods saw fit to deign this restaurant with three stars in their inaugural guide to Chicago. Every dish of the meal I had there was stunning, but the standout dish for me was a one-bite symphony of flavour called 'Black Truffle Explosion.' A wafer thin ravioli was filled with the most intense warm black truffle broth. It was eaten in one bite, releasing a cascade of unworldly truffle flavours.

This exercise was actually a lot harder than I imagined. The highlight of the year for me was undoubtedly my meal at Alinea, and at least half of the list could easily have been dishes from the newly crowned three-Michelin star Chicago restaurant. But there were lots of other incredible highlights, and looking back I feel very lucky to have been able to sample such wonderful food. I'll be honest, part of me can't wait to see the back of 2010, it's been that sort of year, but looking back at some of the happy memories, maybe it hasn't been so bad after all?

So, what have been the standout dishes of the year for you? What is your top-ten food list of 2010?

Finally, here's wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


  1. Oh you are killing me!

  2. It is absolute madness but Chicago has slowly edged its way into my to do food list above Japan.... and it is all because of the reviews I have been reading of Alinea...

    Shame it is something like 99 hours flight from HK.

  3. Hi Tom. Yes, Chicago is rapidly becoming a must-visit place for food lovers. The city's inaugural Michelin guide will probably help matters too.

    Interestingly, I saw an interview with Alinea's head chef, Grant Achatz, in which he mentioned that his restaurant probably wouldn't work in NYC, where people claim to be in too much of a rush to spend 4 hours eating dinner, or in calorie-conscious LA. With his two new ventures, Next and Aviary, opening up soon it's a great time to visit Chi-town!

  4. I must say, there is nothing wrong with your diet. I wish I had the money and opportunity to travel the world eating at the best and most expensive restaurants there is.

  5. Hei Espen, I'm not sure my doctor would agree with your analysis of my diet - I'm probably on the fast-track to an early case of gout.

    My passion is food, both eating out and cooking, and believe me, I'm very aware as to how fortunate I am to be able to indulge in my 'hobby.'

    Nice blogs by the way!

  6. Regarding the Langoustine with Oyster at Noma, you wrote that it was barely cooked but wasn't what is covering the meat cooked? Just asking because I can see that there's some work on that langoustine: poached then grilled on the top?

  7. Hi S Lloyd. The langoustine tail was barely cooked in the sense that it wasn't raw, but had been given the lightest of cooking treatments. The Noma cookbook states that it should be sautéed in butter for 32 seconds. Given that the langoustine is quite plump (approx 150g) then end result is a langoustine tail that is cooked 'rare' and tastes utterly heavenly. It's a stunning dish.