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The 20 Best Dishes of 2013

1 Jan

It has been a spectacular year of eating. A year ago, I was in Marseille, midway through a European sightseeing/food tour. I end it in Santiago, Chile, midway through a Latin American sightseeing/food tour. Many dishes required a long flight to taste, but a few were just 10 minutes from my doorstep. All are testament to hard work by people who through dint of hard work and creativity in their craft, have created some of the best tasting things on this planet.

  • * I’ll stretch the bounds of 2013 just a little to make room for two very late 2012 entries.

Happy New Year, and I wish everyone good eating in 2014!


20. Coconut Buns – Katong Sin Chew Cake Shop, Singapore

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My favourite buns from Katong Cake Shop are the coconut buns (marked with a green candied cherry cube on top), which are have a moist and hot sweet coconut interior, and an airy (corn?)bread outside.

19. Baby Pork Hazelnut – Tapas Molecular Bar, Tokyo, Japan

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This was an inverted xiaolongbao (soup dumpling). Here the pork (topped with shaved hazelnut), would form the outer covering for a soup within. How did they do it? I asked Aaron, the assistant chef. It turns out that they bake the chop, after they stuff a gelatin cube into the pork, and then cover it up with meat glue. The pork tasted superb, and the mechanics of the dish were sublime.

18. 55′ Rosemary Smoked Organic Egg – Jaan, Singapore

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Chef Royer’s specialty among specialties. Cooked for 55 minutes at 62 degrees celsius, this egg was the texture of an onsen egg. Crisp potatoes and fantastic ham matchsticks. This one will live long in the memory.

17. Sunchoke – Aska, New York City

2013-01-05 14.23.32

The 2nd dish turned out brilliant. This is the best sunchoke dish I have yet tasted. It may be dubbed “sunchoke 5 ways”.
  1. Strips of roasted sunchoke skin
  2. Discs of fermented sunchoke
  3. Rehydrated sunchoke chunks
  4. Fermented sunchoke jus, calrified and cooked with elderflower and butter
  5. Sunchoke puree.

Coaxing a bewildering amount of different flavours and textures from one ingredient. Bravo, absolute mastery of the sunchoke. The only barbarians on the plate were the little hedgehog mushrooms.

16. Baby Calamari – Ristorantino Da Spano, Palermo, Italy

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The Platonic form of calamari. Tender without a hint of chewiness, the little eyes of baby squid were savory and crisp. The most perfect calamari I could imagine having.

15. Wood-fired Squid Amatriciana – Avec, Chicago

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My favorite dish this time round. A delicious baked-glaze, like a mac-and-cheese, on top of amatriciana that contained pork cheeks (guanciale?) and squid.

14. Warm Red Beets – birch, Providence, Rhode Island

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Vegetable cooking of the highest order. This dish could have slid straight into service at l’Arpege. Beets are first dehydrated, and then rehydrated in lavender vinegar. The subtle sweetness of sunflower petals accompany the sunflower seeds, covered with a hearty helping of warm shaved walnut. Somewhere in that pile, there is also caramelised onion puree and the best, sweetest gooseberries I have yet tasted. Spectacular. A riot of colour.

13. Bak Kut Teh – Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha, Singapore

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Deliciously fiery and peppery, this was originally used to pep-up coolie labor in Singapore just before their work shifts. The ribs are best eaten slathered with sweet black sauce. I’ve tried all the famous bak kut teh stalls in Singapore, and this to me is the best one in the Teochew style.

12. Fried Chicken – má pêche, New York City

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Fried chicken done the right way and made to order. Juicy, with the crisp skin filled with the taste of Jabenero peppers. This was an unexpected comp from the kitchen, and really stretched the 3 of us to bursting point.

11. Minus-196 Mango – Nihonryori RyuGin, Tokyo, Japan

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A delicate bijou (of mild-tasting sugar?) coloured and shaped to look like a mango, containing freeze-dried mango powder, is broken by the diner and afterwards mixed with warm mango poured into the diner’s plate. This is the signature minus-196 degree dessert from RyuGin, which has been used for apples and peaches too, among others. (minus 196 is the boiling point of liquid nitrogen). Spectacular.

10. Rigatoni Bolognese, Alfredo’s Fresh Pasta to Go, Venice, Italy

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Rigatoni with Bolognese – the best bolognese I’ve ever had. Fresh tomatoes, succulent beef, went well with the large-penne that is rigatoni.

Sometimes the best food is to be found in unassuming places. The mild January winter of Venice brought me to a hole-in-the-wall take out place near St Mark’s Square, and I found two young owners who wanted to make all their sauces from scratch, and feed the local Venetians.

9. Crab & Obsiblue ‘Shell’ – Jaan, Singapore

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The sublime taste of Obsiblue prawn comes out beautifully in a tartare, with crab salad and caviar on top. An avocado foam tops it; a crustacean jelly undergirds it. Superb.

8. Noix de Saint Jacques, legumes d’hiver –  Une Table au Sud, Marseille, France

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A truly spectacular dish, a complex edible canvas. A bold decision was made to serve a raw root vegetable (the shaved rose-pink slices of tuber you see in the picture), along with a savory pumpkin-y sauce, and starchy sweet potato. A braised soft asparagus-like stalk looked liked the sweet potato, but had a different texture. Perfectly seared scallops finished off this dish. Each vegetable’s texture and flavor rang clear, and harmoniously together. It looks like a “winter vegetable riot”.

To me, this is a reference dish. When I think about winter vegetable compositions or a scallop dish, I still recall this dish very fondly.

7. Anago Sushi – Sushi Bun near Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan

No pictures, because the chef didn’t allow it. I was in a 7am stupor, when I met fellow Brownie But it was so good, I had it twice. A brilliant sweet sauce on top of almost falling apart anago (saltwater eel), it just melted in my mouth.

6. Raw “Cheesecake” – Maitrea or Lehka Hlava, Prague, Czech Republic

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So good I had it three times in six days in Prague. Who cares if it’s vegan? A tart raw strawberry sauce drizzled on top of a raw “cheesecake” – made with cashew nuts, walnuts, raisins, coconut butter, and honey.

5. Foie Gras Terrine with Umeboshi Puree – Eleven Madison Park, New York City

2013-05-22 13.10.05

A stunning dish. 3 sweet crisp layers of tuile sandwich savory blocks of foie gras, cut to perfect and uncloying thickness. Soursweet dark complexity from an umeboshi (pickled plum) puree and syruped plum bits with plum jelly. Tremendous. The umeboshi puree was a perfect complement to foie-tuile sandwich.  The best foie dish I have ever tasted, as far as I remember.

4. Egg Custard and Uni – Nihonryori RyuGin, Tokyo, Japan

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A simple pairing of egg custard and uni (sweet). 3 types of onions refer to green onion flowers (pictured), fried onion (brown bits pictured), diced onion (the white cubes). Showcased delicate raw sweet smell of spring onions without the bitterness.

3. Sweet Grain Cereal – birch, Providence, Rhode Island

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2013-05-22 13.10.05

birch’s tribute to breakfast consists of whipped grain milk, on top of apple sauce and a cornmeal johnnycake, mixed with the kitchen sink: honeycomb, puffed rice, oat snaps, and a few other things that are delicious. Eating this is like eating the best bowl of breakfast cereal ever. The mix of textures is complex, with at least four different kinds of crunchiness: thin, oaty crunchiness from the oat snaps, hollow crunchiness from the rice, and sweet dense crunchiness from the honeycomb, and what I think are airy cylinders of dried apple. One of the best desserts I have ever tried anywhere.

2. Oyster Ice Cream – Restaurant Andre, Singapore

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This is one of Restaurant Andre’s great dishes. It was introduced by Stepan Marhoul, restaurant Andre’s manager. Oyster ice cream, which has to be made with the flesh of firmer oysters and not the creamier ones, was perfectly cold and tasted of the cold, salty sea. Underneath the oyster ice cream, which had a firm texture, was a small oyster. Green apple, which seems to be one of the kitchen’s favorite ingredients, is here a foam, set beside the ice cream. Served on an oyster shell in a bed of coral salt. A very tricky and technically perfect dish.

1. Cevennes-Onion Gratin – l’Arpege, Paris, France

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One of l’Arpege’s signature dishes, this dish blew me away. A Cevennes Saint-Andre White Onion has an delicate sweet flavor. Here they were caramelised to concentrate the sweetness and put in a parmesan gratin, and had a sweet-tangy finish that the mild shaved black truffle did perfectly to complement.

I still think very fondly of l’Arpege I visited right at the doorstep of 2013 – the simplicity of the dishes, and the depth of the flavours gave me pause. With hindsight, many of a sustained sequence of dishes there were almost served in Technicolor.