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Best Restaurant Dishes of 2008

After traveling the country and eating hundreds of meals in search of excellence, F&W editors honor the year’s 10 most amazing dishes and congratulate the growing number of casual restaurants with outstanding food.

Zahav: Fried Cauliflower with Lebneh   |   Porter & Frye: Celery Bisque   |
SPQR: Rigatoni Carbonara    |   Ko: Shaved Foie Gras   |   Justus Drugstore: Mushroom Soup   |   Takashi: Duck Fat–Fried Chicken   |    Killen’s Steakhouse: Crème Brûlée Bread Pudding   |   L2O: Halibut, Parsley, Ginger & Chanterelles   |   Joule: Dorade with Almond Piccata   |   Bistro Daisy: Crayfish & Mascarpone–Stuffed Ravioli

Fried Cauliflower with Lebneh

Fried Cauliflower

© Jason Varney

Zahav, Philadelphia

Other than stellar hummus, I didn’t know what to expect from a restaurant calling its food modern Israeli. Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov (who previously cooked with F&W Best New Chef 1999 Marc Vetri at Vetri and ran Marigold Kitchen) has set out to enlighten people like me. Zahav is the Israeli-born chef’s pet project, evident in the perfectly prepared mezes, or small plates. My favorite was the cauliflower florets, fried until sweet and caramelized. Crisp enough to pick up with your fingers, they’re a terrific bar snack, served over a pool of tangy, dill-flecked lebneh (a thick, creamy yogurt) for dipping. I also loved the freekah (green wheat berries), cooked until hot and porridgy and stirred with lemon juice, and the moist ribbons of cinnamon-scented chicken breast. I was a bit squeamish about trying the kibbe naya, made with raw ground lamb, but after tasting the allspice-seasoned meat scooped into crunchy romaine lettuce hearts, I changed my mind. I left Zahav more informed about Israeli food—and delighted with what I’d learned. —Kristin Donnelly

Inside Dish: After dinner at Zahav, ask for the arak—an intense anise-flavored digestif served on a brass tray with a mini ice bucket and tongs.

Plus: Everday Food of Israel

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Celery Bisque

Celery Bisque

© Kris Drake

Porter & Frye, Minneapolis

Confession: I’ve never liked wild rice soup, the famed dish of my home state of Minnesota. And it’s not just that the name is misleading—wild rice is neither wild nor rice, but the seed of a grass grown in paddies. However, I finally found a version of the chicken-broth-based soup—typically accented with diced celery and ham—that I can get behind. At Porter & Frye, chef Steven Brown takes heartland favorites, then rearranges their elements into something entirely novel but unmistakably Midwestern. The base of his postmodern wild rice soup is a frothy, traffic-light-green celery bisque made in a process complicated enough to fill a textbook (a host of molecular-gastronomy tricks are involved). It is poured tableside over a pile of tiny vegetables, nuggets of deep-fried pork belly and, yes, a mass of crackly, puffed wild rice. Its lovely mix of flavors and textures all but wiped out my wild rice soup guilt, as did Brown’s own confession about the dish: “I hate wild rice soup, too”. —Nick Fauchald

Inside Dish: The best seat in the house is the grand, deep-sided VIP banquette lit by five tiered chandeliers.

slideshow Plus: Warming Soup Recipes

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Rigatoni Carbonara

Rigatoni Carbonara

© Ed Anderson

SPQR, San Francisco

Growing up, my favorite dish was the spaghetti carbonara at Trattoria da Alfredo in New York—James Beard ate there, too, though I had no idea who he was then. Later, I got Alfredo’s cookbook, saw how obscenely rich the dish was and promptly stopped eating it. Then, a few months ago, I went to SPQR, the tiny Italian spot co-owned by Nate Appleman of A16. SPQR offers a choice of spaghetti or rigatoni for its classic pastas (“Old, old restaurants in Rome let you choose,” Appleman says), and I was curious to try a short, fat noodle with carbonara. The wonderfully chewy handmade pasta, tossed with porky guanciale, eggs (1 per serving) and plenty of black pepper and grated pecorino, made me wish SPQR were just blocks from where I live, like Alfredo was. But it’s better for my diet that it isn’t. —Kate Krader

slideshow  Plus: Healthy Pasta Recipes

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Shaved Foie Gras with Pine Nut Brittle, Lychees & Riesling

Shaved Foie Gras

© Nicole Schilit

Ko, New York City

My most memorable dish of 2008 was born out of freezer-burned foie gras that had been hibernating in the cold, forgotten, for almost a year. When David Chang (an F&W Best New Chef 2006) was creating recipes for his 12-seat Ko, he had the idea to take that foie gras and shave it with a microplane grater. Miraculously, it didn’t melt: “The foie came out like snow,” he says. With help from sous-chef Sam Gelman, Chang added lychees, a Riesling gelée (with vinegar to cut the foie gras’s richness) and a honeyed pine nut brittle. The dish might look like a mound of wood shavings, but it offers a sublime combination of creamy, cool, juicy, salty and crunchy in every bite. —Dana Cowin

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Mushroom Soup

Mushroom soup

© Davis Baker

Justus Drugstore, Smithville, MO

It’s hard to believe Justus Drugstore truly exists—it sounds like it was made up by an ambitious publicist or a Hollywood screenwriter. Located in a small town outside Kansas City, it’s the brainchild of chef Jonathan Justus, who renovated his family’s 1950s drugstore (the bar where handcrafted cocktails are served is the former soda counter). Justus makes all the breads and many of the cheeses, and cures the meats. The highlight of my meal was a soup with about a dozen varieties of mushrooms, each with its own distinct flavor. The waiter brought out a bowl containing a creamy grilled button-mushroom pâté surrounded by seared shiitakes, hedgehogs and porcini, then poured in hot pork broth. I ate quickly to get a bite of the delicious pâté before it dissolved, enriching and totally changing the soup. I’m not sure a screenwriter could have dreamed that up. —Kate Krader

slideshow Plus: Mushroom Recipes

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Duck Fat–Fried Chicken

Duck Fat Fried Chicken

© Tyllie Barbosa

Takashi, Chicago

Takashi Yagihashi (an F&W Best New Chef 2000) told me that some people are disappointed not to find sushi on his menu at Takashi, the restaurant in Chicago’s hip Bucktown that he opened in late 2007. That’s silly, I think, when I try his amazing duck fat–fried chicken. Yagihashi marinates the bird in sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and chile oil overnight, then coats it in cornstarch and deep-fries it in duck fat. The secret is that the duck fat is a leftover from his duck confit recipe, so it’s flavored with spices and seasonings like bay leaves and herbes de Provence, which make the fried chicken taste insanely good. To accompany that crispy, juicy bird, Yagihashi serves a cold, crunchy Asian slaw of kimchi, fresh cabbage and carrots that’s a little sweet, a little vinegary and a little spicy. Who needs sushi? —Kate Heddings

Inside Dish: All of Takashi’s sakes and green teas are from Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture, where Yagihashi grew up.

Plus: More Chicken Recipes and Tips

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Crème Brûlée Bread Pudding

Killen’s Steakhouse, Pearland, TX

As a Houston native, it never occurred to me that Pearland, a nondescript suburb, might be a food destination. But one restaurant definitely worth the drive is Killen’s Steakhouse, where chef Ron Killen prepares some of the best beef in the Houston area, as well as an unbelievable crème brûlée bread pudding. He soaks croissants in a silky custard, mixes in blueberries and sun-dried apricots, then bakes the entire thing until the outside is crisp and the inside creamy. As if that weren’t enough, he tops it with a sauce of brown sugar, butter, apples, raisins and brandy. I finished my portion and began eyeing my mother’s plate; she, no fool, shut me down completely. —Ray Isle

slideshow Plus: Bread Pudding Recipes

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Halibut, Parsley, Ginger & Chanterelles

L2O, Chicago

In this challenging economy, I’ve got to hand it to anyone who opens a luxe restaurant. That is just what visionary restaurateur Richard Melman did with Laurent Gras (an F&W Best New Chef 2002) when they launched L2O in the Belden-Stratford hotel this spring. With a focus on seafood from around the globe, the menu comes with a fish glossary to help diners navigate either a four- or 12-course prix fixe meal. The most delicious dish was also an architectural delight: A bright white halibut fillet, poached then steamed, was perched upright beside a briny shaved fennel and oyster salad with woodsy chanterelles, a jamón (Spanish ham) chowder and a swirl of black-olive puree. Parsley and ginger took the form of a crispy, airy “cracker” that vanished as soon as it hit my tongue. Happily, the flavor lingered well into the next course. —Tina Ujlaki

Inside Dish: At L2O, cocktails are poured tableside and miniature breads come filled with bacon.

slideshow Plus: Healthy Fish Recipes

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Dorade with Almond Piccata

Joule, Seattle

All I knew before stepping into Joule in Seattle was that the husband-and-wife co-chefs, Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang, met while working at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York City. I was expecting fancy and formal but was pleasantly surprised to find that Joule (the name refers to a unit of energy) was so casual, with a wooden floor and an open kitchen. Among the couple’s Korean-inflected French-American dishes, my hands-down favorite was the grilled whole dorade. I’ve never had a whole fish so impeccably cooked: Its pleasantly charred skin was shatter-crisp, and its moist flesh just fell from the bones. Capping it off was a nutty, tangy topping prepared with roasted lemons, toasted almonds, capers, parsley and shallots. The dish’s ingenious Asian twist? A side of eggplant sautéed with ginger, soy sauce and sherry vinegar for a sweet-and-sour burst of heat. —Tina Ujlaki

Inside Dish: Joule’s sides are served in charming old-fashioned glass jars and on cast-iron trays.

Plus: More Fish and Seafood Recipes and Tips

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Crayfish & Mascarpone–Stuffed Ravioli

Bistro Daisy, New Orleans

In 1999, chef Anton Schulte was cooking at the famed Peristyle when a disastrous kitchen fire left him scrambling for a new job. He found one at Gerard’s Downtown, where chef Gerard Maras taught him a phenomenal pasta recipe made with durum flour. “And I’ve never stopped making it,” Schulte says. At Bistro Daisy, his crayfish ravioli (available during crayfish season, from January to July) is packed with shellfish and sweet, creamy mascarpone lightly seasoned with cayenne; an herb-infused cream sauce puts it over the top. One of the few people who doesn’t like the dish is the chef’s 2-year-old daughter, Daisy. “She’s in the overcooked-spaghetti phase now,” Schulte says. “But she’ll grow out of it”. —Kate Krader

slideshow Plus: Cajun and Creole Recipes

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Published December 2008
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