19 December 2011

2011: My Ten Dishes of the Year

The year is rapidly drawing to a close and, as usual, I'm left scratching my head wondering where all the time has gone. One of my favourite things about writing a food blog is that you have a handy diary of memorable food experiences to look back on – something tangible like photos and words, something other than the ever rising numbers on the bathroom scales. Looking back at 2011 I've been lucky to have experienced some truly wonderful food, and it's good fun to look back and relive some of those memories.

Of course, what good would a year-end post be without that hackneyed favourite of work-shy journalists the world over? Yes folks, it's time for a top ten list! I did a similar post last year and really enjoyed the exercise of reminiscing over some fantastic meals, so I thought I'd repeat the process.

So, without further ado, in reverse order here is a list of the best things I ate in a restaurant in 2011:

10. Roast LobsterHanami, Oslo
I'm a sucker for lobster, and when it's prepared like this, it truly becomes the food of kings. A lobster is halved, doused with silky smooth and utterly decadent sea urchin and foie gras butter, before being roasted in the oven. Three of my favourite ingredients in one dish.

9. Butternut Squash Velouté – L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, London
I always tend to overlook soup in a restaurant, believing it (wrongly) to play a mere supporting role to other, more substantial dishes on the menu. Here, at what has to be one of the most underrated 2 Michelin-star restaurants in London, a creamy butternut squash velouté is transformed by vibrant garnishes of citrus, coriander, cardamom, giving it fragrant notes of warming winter spices.

8. Pig FaceGirl & the Goat, Chicago
This fantastically named dish is the American Mid West on a plate – homely and inviting, but gutsy and direct. Meat from the pig's chin and jowls is pressed into neat discs and roasted in a wood oven so that the outside is crisp while the inside just falls apart into pieces of fatty porky goodness. Sitting on top is a fried egg, matchstick potatoes and a tamarind & coriander dressing. PIG ... FACE. Sort of like a cross between Patrick Bateman and manna from heaven. It was bloody gorgeous!

7. Foie Gras FriesBig & Little's, Chicago
Perhaps the most outrageous dish I've ever had was at this Chicago hole-in-the-wall. Fresh, hand-cut fries are cooked to order before being crowned with two glistening pieces of seared foie gras. However, the pièce de résistance, the crowning glory, the dénouement comes when the pan juices from the foie gras are gently drizzled over the hot fries. A wicked juxtaposition of the luxurious and the everyday; I regularly have warm fuzzy dreams about this dish.

6. Pluma IbéricaJosé, London
This tiny tapas bar in London's Bermondsey produced one of my favourite meals of 2011. At the heart of it was this dish of Ibérico pork fillet cooked on the plancha to an alarming shade of pink and served simply with piquillo peppers and a sprinkling of salt. Put your prejudices aside about eating rare pork; when the meat is this quality anything else would be doing it an injustice. Wonderfully juicy and packed with flavour, this dish would give the finest aged beef a run for its money.

5. Black Truffle Explosion – Alinea, Chicago
This is a dish that made my number one spot on last year's list. I was lucky enough to return to Grant Achatz's legendary 3 Michelin-starred restaurant in 2011 and this signature dish still tastes every bit as good as I remembered. A delicate ravioli was filled with the most intense warm black truffle broth. It was eaten in one bite, releasing a cascade of complex earthy truffle flavours that were totally intoxicating.

4. Coconut, Corn, Egg, Licorice – Next, Chicago
The penultimate dish of Next's 'Tour of Thailand' menu was this Alinea-esque dessert. It was a multi-layered sensory extravaganza containing no less than 12 separate components comprising of things like coconut and sweet egg yolk 'noodles,' powdered coconut, nitrogen-frozen corn parfait, liquorice-infused tapioca pearls, and coconut water ice. The idea behind the dish was to combine different sweet Thai street food bites in one dish. This many components in a dish shouldn't really work, but the flavours on display here were all perfectly in balance and created a dessert as stunning visually as it was on the taste buds.

3. Kantareller (Chanterelles) – Maaemo, Oslo
Regular readers will know that I've become totally smitten with restaurant Maaemo, and this dish is a classic example of why I love this place so much. What are basically two ingredients are transformed into a dish that is as amazing in its seeming simplicity as it is in taste. Duck heart from Holte Farm in Drangedal is served with pickled chanterelle mushrooms, small blobs of the most intense chanterelle purée, and a scattering of bright yellow winter cress flowers. The meatiness of the tender hearts is offset by the acidity of the pickled chanterelles, while a concentrated chanterelle purée and crisp peppery winter cress balance things nicely. I adore this dish. Profoundly.

2. Yoghurt, Beetroot, Apple & Sorrel – Young Turks at The Ten Bells, London
The roving culinary geniuses that are the Young Turks finally have a semi-permanent home in the Ten Bells, an old East End boozer I actually used to own. A dish of yoghurt, beetroot, apple and sorrel was the highlight of our meal there and was quite simply one of the best conceived and tasting desserts I've had. The humble red tuber was transformed into something very special indeed. Beetroot granita and beetroot meringues were paired with poached apples, fresh yoghurt and a sorrel sauce, the combination of which was revelatory. It was a perfect balance of sweetness, freshness, acidity, and earthiness. Simply heavenly!

And so, the best restaurant dish I ate in 2011 was... (drum roll please) ...

1. OystersMaaemo, Oslo
Another dish from Oslo's sublime restaurant Maaemo (in the interests of fairness and balance I limited myself to selecting just two dishes from this restaurant, which was no easy task as quite frankly most of this list could easily have comprised of Maaemo dishes). This dish has been on the menu since the start and it's served as an amuse bouche. It arrives at the table and just knocks you out with its sheer brilliance; a theme that is then repeated throughout your meal at Maaemo.

Atop a hollow seaweed-filled bowl is a dollop of velvety soft oyster emulsion blanketed by a thin disc of oyster jelly. At the table a mussel and dill sauce is spooned over the top. The star of this dish is the oysters, which come from Bømlo. The cold Norwegian waters result in a slow growing oyster, which intensifies their sweet mineral taste. And what a taste it is – this dish is the absolute quintessence of the sea. Imagine standing on a pebble beach with a cooling salty mist of sea water brushing your face, while fizzing waves lap against your feet. That's how this dish tastes! Sublime.

So that's my top ten restaurant dishes of 2011. The highlights of the year have definitely been my meals at Maaemo. This is a restaurant that is quite simply redefining the concept of Norwegian cuisine and I've no doubt we'll all be hearing a great deal more about it in the near future.

So, what about you, what have been your standout dishes of the year? What is your top-ten food list of 2011?

Here's wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


  1. I was definitely impressed by the oyster dish at Maaemo and I'll certainly rank it among my top ten, but most memorable of 2011 was the cauliflower and pine-oil dish I had at Noma which blew me away by it's audacity and flavour. I also remember fondly a chestnut, roe, walnut and cress-dish at the same place.

    It's certainly an exciting time for food. I had a very good 2010, and wasn't sure I'd be able to top it this year, but a trip to The Fat Duck fixed that.

    I'm looking forward to visiting Maaemo again next year, and I can't wait to see what Bjørn Svensson at Restaurant Oscarsgate can do with a larger kitchen as they'll be moving next autumn.

  2. As a native Chicagoan, I'm so glad to see so many Chicago restaurants on your list as well as your blog! I've had the truffle explosion and the coconut dessert from Next, but I'll have to try the others as well! Great list!

  3. Hei Bjørn. Sounds like you had some wonderful meals this year. I'm also looking forward to the 'new' Oscarsgate in 2012. Svensson's cooking is amazing, but the old restaurant was just way too cramped.

    Hi Tanvi, I love eating in Chicago. It's a city that really has everything to offer for food lovers.

  4. Great article, particularly like the look of the Young Turk's dessert, quite a 'Scandi' dish?! Nice to see the Foie Gras Fries dish, and not just 'fine dining' dishes. In a similar vain I highly rated the battered oysters from Stein's Fish and Chips in Padstow. Deep-fried in beef dripping, and served in their shell they were plump, juicy and moreish. Absolutely delicious with a pint of Guinness. I thoroughly enjoyed a number of dishes in Alba this autumn. Raw veal topped with white truffle at La Piola has got to be one of the most natural, earthy and delicious dishes I've eaten. The creamy veal taking on the intoxicating white truffle. The aromas induced by the table side truffle shaving only added to the dish. At Osteria Dell'Arco, a hens egg baked and topped with a substantial layer of white truffle must be the best an egg can possibly taste!
    A number of dishes at El Celler De Can Roca, Girona (during 2010) were outstanding. Veal tendons in a veal reduction were bundles of sticky, gelatinous goodness with a fantastically rich, meaty reduction. Red mullet (boned and served with both fillets intact), with a Catalan seafood sauce was another example of the simple (although technical), regional cooking, with maximum flavour being the salient factor.
    After having tasted some pinjekjøtt for the first time this year, I can now understand it's popularity in Norway!

  5. I love top ten lists like this although sad to say I have not shared any of your top ten dishes for the year - I wish I had eaten them all. Good to see a few London places get a mention....

  6. great fun going through your list!...keep up the excellent work

  7. Some amazing food there....makes me want to try harder in 2012.
    Alan ( cumbriafoodie )

  8. Loving your best dishes of the year , makes me want to try even harder in 2012
    Alan ( cumbriafoodie)