*****Let's get down to business . . . Everyone on planet earth has written a “best of the best of the year in food” type of column, and there’s not much I can add to the clutter. And they really are my least favorite type of columns to pen. It means rummaging through huge piles of notes, and I worry incessantly that I have left something off or gotten something wrong, but my interview the other day gave me the moral certainty to simply do it. So without further ado, here she goes: Any and all errors are mine and mine alone, and the opinions expressed below are solely those of the author.Heroes
Batali for taking a stand against the man, and being principled enough to look the cash register in the eye and say what he did about the moneyed community. Now comparing anyone to the old Nazi regime is foolhardy, and he apologized for his hyperbole, but that guy has got a pair and a half and believes in his convictions. Like it or not, agree with him or not, principled people are, for me, most admirable . . . and he answers more cooking and food question tweets than anyone I know. 2011 was the year I got friendly enough with him to tell you he is a truly exceptional dude.As is Jose Andres, a man for whom my respect knows no bounds. I spent a decent amount of time this last year with Jose, and one night in NYC after he and I spent the day judging Iron Chef he invited me out to dinner and we spent about two hours at Anissa talking about child hunger, international politics, our broken food system, his non-profit work, and the responsibilities incumbent upon those to whom a large platform is given. The man is a passionate, super-intelligent monster of a talent, and an amazing chef also. That dinner changed the direction of my life. Bourdain is on my hero list, because no one is less self conscious about image or cares less about what others think than AB. Is that a gimmick? Supreme overconfidence? Nope. He gets the idea that what others think is inconsequential in terms of preserving integrity and caring for his family. And his frustrations are ours. Admit it, we all want to tell more people to F*** off, but we don’t.
Mike Philips and his team at Green Ox are committed to launching genuine Minnesota cured meats onto the global stage, and his product is superb. Better than La Quercia. I am blown away by his commitment to excellence, and that takes a lot of guts.
Steven Brown opened my “restaurant of the year,” Tilia, in Linden Hills. Kieran Folliard (Brown’s old boss) bowed out of his mega successful restaurant business and launched a whisky company called 2 Gingers. Solveig Tofte’s Sun Street Breads was a risky move that has been a huge hit and a favorite morning stop of mine. Masu filled a real void and is launching a second spot at MOA. The Kleins over at Meritage have not only solidified their restaurant as a St Paul destination of note but launching Oyster Fest took vision and sweat, and they nailed it. Stewart Woodman is not only turning culinary cartwheels at Heidi’s but he also continues to speak his mind on real issues over at shefzilla.com. Isaac Becker finally took home a well-deserved Beard Award, as did Amy Thielen from the Star Tribune. Tim McKee has proven that you can be an amazing chef, get to the top of the pyramid, and if you understand your own brand, you can stay there. He’s a rockstar in my book and his team of chefs and cooks are, and will be, the stars of tomorrow.
My most anticipated opening of this coming year is Butcher and the Boar, a meat-centric gastro pub from the great Jack Riebel and his partner in crime Peter Botcher. Look for doors to open in February. Jack can do it all. He has an amazing skill set and is mature and poised as a chef. I look for him to be smart about what not to do (an editorial call), as opposed to what he can do (which is a massive list). With his concept, less is more if you know what I mean. Hiring Botcher proves he is willing to listen to another voice, something most restaurant chef-owners don’t do enough of. Sue Zellickson deserves a ton of juice for creating the Charlie Awards. Honoring local food stars is something we need to do more of and no one does more to do that than Sue.
Worst TV Food Moments of Year
Well it was close. The Sondra Lee outtakes reel was great, but VH1’s Famous Food, with the all-star psych-ward cast including Heidi Montag, Ashley Dupre, Danielle Staub, Three 6 Mafia, and Sopranos star "Pussy" Bonpensiero was so ridiculous to watch that it took the cake for me. In other genres, rarely does one event win both ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ awards in my book but watching Simon sing “I Am Real” on Watch What Happens Live was more uncomfortable than every angst filled moment of Curb Your Enthusiasm rolled into one. I crack up every time I think of it. That poor emasculated schmuck, and the NYC Real Housewife he married, are some pair.
TV Food Hosts of the Year
Michael Symon branched out in some big ways this year on Iron Chef and The Chew. Gail Simmons truly became a complete talent over the last year in terms of selfless presence on the little screen, but it’s my friends Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine and their Perennial Plate project that really gets me excited and where I saw some great stories over the course of the year. Check out perennialplate.com and watch for them on HuffPo.Deserve Recognition
Marion Nestle and Mark Bitman continue to champion the issues I hold nearest and dearest in the food genre. If you are reading this and don’t read Bitman’s work at The New York Times I would be shocked, but you all should be reading foodpolitics.com regularly as well. Marion Nestle is brilliant, authoritative, and delightful dinner company. I met her last year sitting with her at the Beard Awards dinner and hung on her every word. She is a rarity.
Big kudos to the Cooking Channel for having the cojones to air shows starring hysterically singular talent such as Eddie Huang. His Cheap Bites show pilot was good, I hope it gets picked up for more eps and I hope his prod-co can help him grow and not use him ‘as-is.’ He is smart and I want more from his show, but its got Eddie and that’s what matters . . . the talent.Best Local Meals
My best meal locally in 2011 was at Piccolo. Doug Flicker is just killing it over there. Going through my notes I was amazed at how much I loved that meal above all others. Travail, Tilia, La Belle Vie, all came close. Best moments of the year in food? The burger and the organ grinder sandwich at Travail, the shrimp at Tilia (and about six other dishes I am addicted to), the Sunnyside pizza at Lola, the foie and quince canapé at La Belle Vie, about a thousand portions of lobster-egg crostini at La Grassa, the Tour De Farm dinner, the tongue canapé and mussel soup at Heidi’s, the three-year-old ham I tasted with Mike at Green Ox in his lab-kitchen, the fresh geoduck stomach mussel in miso sauce I had one day at Fuji Ya, the scallop Benedict at Manny’s, the new Szechuan revolution in Minneapolis, the vibe at Bachelor Farmer, the Hot Brown Sugar and Canteloupe ice creams at Izzy’s, and I can go on and on. I spent 34 weeks on the road last year. Ouch. Not enough time at home. I need to get out and eat more around town that’s for sure. I need to go eat some Salty Tart sweets in my fridge right away before I become morose. That is my favorite bakery, by the way.
Bests Outside MSPMy best meal outside of the metro? Holy crap, I had some good ones. I ate some killer meals in some great restaurants in about 30 states. Canlis and Eleven Madison Park, Marea, Morini, The Dutch, Spices, Incanto, Alinea, Next, Uchiko, Foreign and Domestic, Uni, clio, Coppa, O ya, DNA, Pieds de Cochon, Cabin Sucre, Joe Beef, and dozens of others topped the list. I ate well at a lot of homes last year too; perhaps the crab rice on Daufuskie Isle with Sallie Anne Robinson would top the list. I ate some great meals in some off the beaten path places and my meal at Martha Lou’s with Sean Brock probably tops that one. My wife and I ate pretty darnn well at Jose Andres’s house in Aspen last June where many of the best chefs on the planet gathered to kick off Aspen Food and Wine Festival, but the best meal of all was probably my 50th birthday dinner at our house. Oh, wait, that doesn’t count since it was here in Minnesota.
I gotta go with the roasted squab I ate at Sebastian and Esther Bonneau’s house at Countryside Farm in Cedar Creek outside of Austin, Texas. He raises some of the finest birds and rabbit in the country, but he’s a brilliantly talented cook as well. Eating about 10 courses cooked at Nathan Myhrvold’s place was pretty good, too. Last but not least, after a long day in Kitchen Stadium on the set of Iron Chef America, just like at the end of the movie Big Night, Masaharu Morimoto took me downstairs to one of his restaurant kitchens and silently cooked me a small feast. Had I not been so ticked off at losing I would have enjoyed it more. Morimoto is a class act and one of the world’s greatest chefs. Having the opportunity to cook and eat with him is always a treat.
Best New Eats in Town
I gotta say Tilia.
Worst New Eats
Most disappointing, by a mile, was Rye. How do you mess up soup?
I Told You So Award
Ringo and The Forum closed. Second place goes to the place at MOA owned by the guy who won that Next Great Restaurant show on NBC.
Most Embarrassing Local Moment
After much haranguing and getting so much right, despite the difficulties in establishing awards that aren’t purely about excellence, The Charlies named salmon with roasted corn sauce at Porter Creek Hardwood Grill as the outstanding dish of the year. Ouch.