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Best dishes of 2015: a roundup of a year of travel

2 Jan
If 2014 was the year of Americas and Europe, then 2015 was the year of Asia. Work took me to Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Leisure took me to Langkawi (Malaysia), Taiwan, Japan (Tokyo), New York, my old college town of Providence, the Black Forest in Germany, and the Alsace region in France.
The visceral highlights of the year were in the opening and closing months. At the end of January, I had a meal at Noma Tokyo (the stunning success of which has led to Noma moving to Australia in 2016).  At the end of December I took a sojourn to the German 3-Michelin restaurants, and was wowed by Claus-Peter Lumpp’s Bareiss and Harald Wohlfart’s Schwarzwaldstube. Three restaurants with very different philosophies, Rene Redzepi’s Noma a restless and extroverted celebrity chef that embraces the world of gastronomy, the German restaurants practicing a philosophy of “quiet perfection”. The pressures of being an haute chef in today’s world is to create a relentless storm of innovative dishes. Perhaps this is a deleterious pressure. I was struck by many of Noma’s dishes when I first had them, but outside of 2-3 (the botanebi with ants, citrus) dishes, they have mostly faded from my memory. Noma in Tokyo was still an excellent meal, a 3-star standard meal for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. But I find myself wanting more meals of 2-3 well composed courses, thought out to the nth degree, where I can remember them for months to come. Nouvelle cuisine, as I found it in Germany, was full of creativity, almost parallel to the modernist trends in Spain AND the naturalist trend in Scandinavia. Variations upon dishes, like pleasant fugues. Nouvelle cuisine is probably my favorite sort of European cuisine at the moment.
I was continually reminded of why Japan has the best ingredients, in the summer months at Quintessence and Saito, and a memorable autumn blowout at Kawamura. When you have goat’s milk like Quintessence’s bavarois, there is very little a chef needs to do. If you don’t like eating, Tokyo will be a very boring place to visit, but with a credit card and tolerance for penury, the city is a devil’s playground.
I explored some of the Modern Singapore restaurants back in my home city. I enjoyed Candlenut very much, especially when they served their family style Peranakan food. Labyrinth, while uneven, shows promise in its better dishes – satay ribeye and chilli crab ice cream. Wild Rocket serves decent food, but needs to do more to justify its tasting menu prices.
Some quick dips into the Hong Kong dining scene showed me a great bowl of wonton noodles at Mak’s noodle, and excellent roast quail at the dynasty restaurant. One Harbour Road also made a bowl of excellent truffled fried rice and suckling pig. I’ve found the roasts in HK to be top class. The restaurant Ta Vie is also doing interesting things with Chinese produce in French-influenced dishes.
Vietnam captured a large part of my heart, as you will see the selections below. Excellent street food (half-formed duck eggs, papaya salad, crispy custard cakes (banh khot), banh mi, etc etc), excellent pho, and also some great French cooking – at Le Beaulieu in Hanoi Metropole, and La Villa in Saigon. Honorable mention goes to the excellent wine program at Trois Gourmands in Saigon.
Here are some of the best dishes and desserts I had in 2015. Bring on 2016!

MAINS
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1. Boiled veal with beetroot and horseradish, beet sugar.

Bareiss
Baiersbronn, Germany
Dec ’15

This was served as an amuse. It was shocking. It looked like a typical nouvelle cuisine dish, elaborately constructed, multiple layers. But an intense horseradish kick broke the rules of engagement – no spiciness! The sauce was at first sweet from the beet, and then became ultimately savory as it began to resemble a veal red wine sauce. It was a “three-body problem”, chaotically orbiting spicy, sweet and savory until it vanished. Superb.

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2. Kartoffelblini mit mildgeräuchertern Seesaibling und Limonenbutter, Saiblingskaviar | Kartoffelblini with mild smoked char and lemon butter, char caviar. 

Schwarzwaldstube
Baiersbronn, Germany
Dec ’15

The cooking at Schwarzwaldstube is unashamedly “Asiatic” nouvelle cuisine, which is to say purloined Asian spices to serve a nouvelle cuisine core. Here, kaffir lime enhanced a lemon butter fishsauce with char inside a ethereally pillowy cheese blini, topped with char caviar. A decadent Russian dish perfected in a nouvelle cuisine way.

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3. Variation of goose foie gras with Williams Pear soaked in red wine and wintery spicy punch.

Bareiss
Baiersbronn, Geramny
Dec ’15

First plate: foie terrine with red wine and caramel jelly, with a pear sponge on top. Various preparations of pear with foie, including cream, ice cream. Second plate: Kugelhopf with foie cream. Drink: wintery spicy punch. A perfect expression of the generosity of the season.

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4. Beef brisket wonton noodles. 

Mak’s Noodle
Hong Kong

Nov ’15

Beef brisket flavored with a hint of orange. Springy noodles, and shrimp dumplings with shrimp so crisp and fresh that they are still springy with every chew… I knew there was a special reason why AT made us wade through 30 minutes of Central HK traffic to go from our office to Mak’s noodle.

2015-11-14 20.04.45 2015-11-14 20.09.195. Beef consomme.

Kawamura
Tokyo, Japan
Nov ’15

Kawamura’s most unbelievable dish. The consomme was made with 100% beef. However I simply could not believe it, for the sweetness of the consomme was perfect.I would have expected mirepoix (carrot, onion, celery) to achieve that sweetness. I have no idea which part of the cow or which techniques would enable this sweetness, and other chefs have been puzzled by this. A true masterpiece.

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6. Onion rings.

Kawamura
Tokyo, Japan
Nov ’15

Honestly, I could have put at least three or four other dishes from Kawamura here, from the Ise lobster curry rice, to the steak tartare, to the steak, to the creme caramel. I’ll talk about the onion rings. The best form of onion rings I’ve had. A light panko batter around first-class sweet onion. The batter was a sheer negligee, forming a thin wisp of crust that lent the onion crisp textures without being oily.

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7. hot vit lon. (balut)

Various places
Saigon, Vietnam
May-Jun ’15

A lot of Western tourists are overly squeamish about this dish, it is actually a really delicious mix of textures – boiled chicken, yolk, white, textured bits of wing, feather, head, especially when salt is used to bring out the flavors.

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8. iwashi (sardine) sushi. 

Sushi Saito
Tokyo, Japan
Aug ’15

When the differences between high-end sushi joints are so marginal (and they really are, unlike French restaurants, because they will serve just about the same types of fish with similar kinds of rice), sushi-lovers start nitpicking at factors like – oh, does this chef use red vinegar or white vinegar? Does he serve his rice at two or three temperatures? These are arcana that I haven’t quite acquired the perceiving feelers for yet. The greatest differences perceivable to the laymen are in seasonal fish, not in the conventional tuna or uni cuts. The humble sardine was elevated in Saito’s hands.

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9. Asaissonement. 

Quintessence
Tokyo, Japan

Aug ’15

Quintessence’s signature dish – a goat’s milk bavarois, made with goat’s milk everyday transported fresh from Kyoto, fleur de sel from Brittany (high minerality), lily bulbs, shaved macadamia, a fruity olive oil from the south of france. The intensity of flavor from the goat’s milk was amazing. Every spoonful had a perfect proportion of salt, milkiness and green fruity olive oil, with sweetness and textural contrast from lily bulbs and macadamia. A perfect combination of ingredients.

2015-08-01 19.54.0310. Nodoguro.

Quintessence
Tokyo, Japan

Aug ’15

Blackthroat seaperch, a red fish with white meat, is incredibly fatty.Accompaniments; Vegetacle sauce,  quinoa with seaweedThe flesh was falling apart smooth, with an amazing crisp on the skin. The pairing of the two was uncanny, since I expected the crispness of the skin to be accompanied with some toughness to the flesh. But the rosy-hued flesh were parted easily with fork tines.The fish was pan seared, then put in a 320 deg C oven, then a 90 deg C oven, and then researed afterwards with the skin.

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11. Rhode Island monkfish, roasted on the bone with Celeriac, broccoli, and potato. 

Birch
Providence, RI, USA
Dec ’15

When a fish has been on land for less than 6 hours, you know the results are going to be great. Monkfish roasted on the bone, which has spectacular and had the gelatinous texture of great turbot. Potato, in a brown butter broth, with roasted celeriac and broccoli bits. This was served on the second night of two meals at Birch where I had the entire menu, and it was favorite of all on Ben’s winter menu. Birch is Providence’s Chez Panisse.

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12. Citrus and long pepper.

Noma
Tokyo, Japan

Jan ’15

This was a perfect dish of 4 types of citrus – pomelo (bampeiyu), mikan (mandarin orange), two types of buntan from Kochi [one named Pompeii buntan].With roasted Rishiri kombu oil for a umami, nutty flavor. Pine salt andground kinome (AKA sansho), whole kinome, Okinawa longpepper. The nuttiness of seaweed oil contrasted beautifully with the sweetnesses of the four citrus, and the longpepper provided the bite of spiciness, the kinome provided both sourness and a light menthol taste.

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13. Hokkori pumpkin; cherry wood oil and salted cherry blossoms.  

Noma
Tokyo, Japan

Jan ’15

Hokkori pumpkin cooked in katsuobushi, with cherry tree oil, sakura blossoms that were dried and salted, with roasted kelp sticks, and a sauce made of fermented barley koji and butter. The sauce was sour in a rustic way, but the pumpkin it surrounded was very mellow – not starchy, sweet, fragrant from the cherry tree oil, and very balanced. You bit into pumpkin and smelt cherrywood. An intelligent homage to sakura.

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14. Beef pho. 

Pho Suong
Hanoi, Vietnam
May ’15

Sometimes (okay many times), it’s about the company. A reunion with one of my favorite people happened to be in Hanoi. The pho had buttery fat attached to the beef, and chives inside. Hanoi pho is different from Saigon pho in its addition of the fatty pieces; in Saigon they give the lean pieces and perhaps some tendons or stomach if you’re lucky. Great street food.

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15. Chicken pho.

Hotel Metropole Hanoi
Hanoi, Vietnam
May ’15
The best pho is not actually beef pho, but chicken, and the version made by the Metropole Hanoi at breakfast is the very best. Bits of dark and white meat from the chicken, fatty, a tasty chicken stock. My favorite pho – more than any beef version I’ve tried.

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16. Coq au vin.

Hotel Metropole Hanoi (Le Beaulieu restaurant)
Hanoi, Vietnam
May ’15

It was past midnight when I checked into the Metropole Hanoi. I was very hungry, and decided to order room service. I did not expect to find a coq au vin that captured my heart, stuffed with bacons, mushrooms, potato, fit to feed a hungry traveller. Hunger is the best spice. Surprise is second.

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17. Bloody Mar.

Aziamendi
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Sep ’15

Aziamendi is 3-Michelin star Azurmendi’s pop-up in Phuket in Thailand. In the latter half of 2015, they staged a 4 month pop-up in KL, Malaysia under head chef Alex Burger (formerly of Daniel in New York). I had two meals at Aziamendi’s 4 month pop-up in KL, with both the shorter menu and the longer menu. I thought the first night (shorter meat focused menu) was terribly disappointing, with multiple execution mistakes (a soggy croquette), a 60 minute dining time for 8 courses that felt like a forced march, and multiple pre-prepared ingredients that struck me as poorly prepared (yes, I know Azurmendi uses sous-vide extensively as point of principle, but when you use it for more than half of your dishes it is a lazy menu. Also, Eneko Atxa at Azurmendi uses plancha grill cooking as well). The second menu was much better, and included a variation I enjoyed better even than the original version by Eneko. Bloody Mar, served as a cocktail at Azurmendi with a wafer, was a bit unwieldly in the original version. here, it was reimagined as a French nouvelle cuisine dish with uni and crab, with a bloody Mary sauce poured in.

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18. Crisp baby pigeon

Dynasty restaurant
Hong Kong
Nov ’15

When it’s 10pm in HK, and most of the restaurants are closed, you don’t expect an amazing dish. This was the week after I had been to Kawamura, and one of the HK-based diners there recommended Dynasty for charsiew. I should have known that char siew, which is often pre-prepared, would not be great at 10pm. But the crisp baby pigeon had an amazing skin, and the meat was super tasty.

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Ben Thanh Night Market
Saigon, Vietnam
May ’15

While being taken around by a guide around Central Saigon, D G, and I, found the perfect street snack while travelling around Central Saigon. A spicy flavored glass noodle, with flavored meat jerky. As good as pad thai, anyday.

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20. Satay Ribeye, Satay marinated wagyu ribeye, pan seared foie gras, peanut mochi. 

Labyrinth
Singapore
Feb ’15

I really enjoyed this combination. It was robust in flavor, and a good pairing. I respect what Chef LG Han is trying to do, and this was my favorite “Modern Singapore” dish of the year.

DESSERTS

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21. Palate cleanser of watermelon sorbet, red dragonfruit, passionfruit and purple shiso

Candlenut
Singapore
Multiple visits in 2015

I like Candlenut’s cooking very much, enough to have gone there more times than I can count this year. I think Chef Malcolm cooks excellent Peranakan food, and great kueh. His most memorable concoctions are the ones with tropical fruit. This concoction is genius in its seeming simplicity – but is refreshing after a hearty family-style meal. It is a dish I will remember.

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22. Glace Meringue.

Quintessence
Tokyo, Japan

Aug ’15

Ending off the meal on a high was a Quintessence signature: Meringue ice cream. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, you’re right – what looked like ice cream was not ice cream at all, but crushed meringues, mixed with dry ice to make it cold and creamy, with ginger confit and lychee liqueur poured on top.The taste was uncanny – the egg-white taste of meringue with the cold texture of ice cream. Fruity lychee, sweet ginger, meringue – these combined for a perfect bite.

DSC0518723. Carrot – cardamom with rum meringue ice cream.

Momofuku Ko
New York, NY, USA
Dec ’15

That little spice cardamom is what drives you wild. A rum meringue adds that alcoholic touch of class (or declasse). I really like carrot-based desserts. (a carrot-coconut concoction from Asta in Boston was one of my favorites in 2014)


 

 

 

*** And now… for the real MVP…

 

Honorary mention: Military Energy Caffeine Gum. It may not have been the most gourmandaise of edibles, but in the wee hours of the morning, when you are about to nod off but still need to make some “pages”, you need that something extra to perk you up. Caffeine gum, the real MVP 😀