January: A New Brooklyn Hangout
A small seafood bar with a great playlist becomes my go-to spot
When I lived in Brooklyn, I spent most of my time eating in Manhattan. Then a little place called Bergen Hill opened not too far from my apartment, and I found a new favorite neighborhood spot. In the midst of a boom in big Italian restaurants, Bergen Hill is a corner seafood bar with a smart, concise menu from chef Andrew D’Ambrosi. From a tiny kitchen, he serves inspired crudo like salmon with apple tzatziki, as well as lightly cooked dishes such as seared sea scallops with spicy agrodolce peppers and butternut squash puree (pictured). Bergen Hill has two other things I require from my local spot: a terrific wine selection and a great playlist. The latter is curated by co-owner Daniel Kessler (whose other job is guitarist for Interpol). We got to be friends, and every once in a while after dinner, we walk a block over to the legendary pizza spot Lucali and have pizza for dessert. 387 Court St.; bergenhill.com.
April: Edible Schoolyard NYC
The year’s best fund-raising dinner party
I’m all for saving the world, but I’m pretty much done with fund-raising dinners. With a few notable exceptions (Mario Batali Foundation galas; Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation events), I would donate money just to skip the unappetizing food. Then, in April, I got invited to the Spring Benefit for Edible Schoolyard (which promotes gardens and healthy eating in schools). A vast space in downtown Manhattan was the setting for a legendary dinner party, with 23 of the city’s top chefs each preparing a special menu for his or her own table. Momofuku’s David Chang seared giant rib eyes; Mission Chinese Food’s Danny Bowien served a crispy-skinned suckling pig. There was no bad place to be in the room, but I hit the seating jackpot: the table presided over by the incomparable Ruth Rogers and her crew from London’s The River Café. Rogers prepared dishes I’d read about but never tasted, including toasted slabs of bread with November 2013 I Canonici olive oil, out-of-this-world anchovy-packed bagna cauda with spring vegetables and, best of all, deep, dense chocolate nemesis cake. esynyc.org.
April: Questlove Salon
Epic evening with veggie burger goody bags.
It should surprise no one that Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson throws a great party. After all, the drummer entertains millions of people as bandleader for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. And he’s obsessed with the creative community that the food world now attracts. “My salons are places for the best chefs to cook for people I know from various worlds: music, art, comedy, academia,” he says. (Chris Rock, Carl Bernstein, Björk and David Cross are some of the “people he knows.”) “The salons are parties, but they’re also master classes in how good food can bring people together.” Truth. This winter, Cronut creator Dominique Ansel previewed his ice cream–filled crêpe suzette “sushi,” flambéed to order. At Questlove’s spring salon, The Spotted Pig’s April Bloomfield served pan-smoked pigeon— legs with the claw attached, holding a bright green ball of spherified sweet pea soup, which exploded in your mouth when you bit into it. It looked dramatic and tasted delicious. Questlove is such a good host that the party had great goody bags, too: Brooks Headley’s to-go veggie burger for a late-night snack.
April: WD-50 Fête
The best chefs in the world throw a surprise party.
“Shhh,” said René Redzepi. “Hide behind the wall.” When the world’s best chef tells me to do something, I comply. Obediently, I crouched down behind Ben Shewry, Magnus Nilsson and Blaine Wetzel, amazing cooks who had traveled from Australia, Sweden and Washington state respectively. They were among the 30 chefs from around the world who’d come to surprise their friend Wylie Dufresne at his avant-garde Manhattan restaurant WD-50. (It breaks my heart to say that WD-50 is closing this fall; Dufresne is looking for a new space, though.) The extraordinary event was organized by the unconventional chefs collective Gelinaz with help from S. Pellegrino. “Surprise!!” we yelled when Dufresne came in. And then we sat down with him to dig into 10 courses the superstar chefs had prepared in his honor. The astonishing dishes included shrimp noodles served on an ice block and hollowed-out apples stuffed with foie gras, but the most talked-about dish was a decadent bucket of fried chicken and biscuits. What made this riff on WD-50’s signature cold fried chicken so crazy? It was served with an insane amount of Petrossian caviar (every table got a giant tin), and each bucket was emblazoned with Dufresne’s face. Alongside was a pile of Kraft singles, the chef’s favorite cheese. “I just had caviar on American cheese,” Dufresne told me proudly. I asked how it was. “If you have to ask, I’ll have yours,” he replied.
May: Sex on the Beach Shots at Blackberry Farm
Plus a s’mores tutorial with Aziz Ansari
The luxurious Walland, Tennessee, resort Blackberry Farm is renowned for experiences like truffle hunting with adorable Italian-bred dogs. It’s also known for tours of its vast estate, where much of chef Joseph Lenn’s modern Southern menu is sourced, from salad greens to lamb to cheese (beer and whiskey is produced in-house, too). I didn’t realize that Blackberry Farm also makes the world’s best Sex on the Beach shots. I discovered this somewhere between exquisite white-barbecue-sauced quail and sweet roast shrimp, served with John Cope’s corn puree and smoky barbecue shrimp emulsion. The ’80s shots that appeared on the table were a gift from my buddy, the comedian Aziz Ansari, who was in town for a show and sitting nearby. They were the most ridiculous thing he could think of, but they were so good, I wanted to order more rounds. Instead, we found a luxe fire pit and Aziz showed off some unexpectedly good s’mores-making skills. blackberryfarm.com.
June: A Blowout Southern Picnic in Aspen
Three incredible Southern cooks join forces to create an off-the-charts cookout
There’s a lot of food to freak out about at the F&W Classic in Aspen. Our most recent class of Best New Chefs serve their signature dishes, while Grant Achatz creates miraculous edible green apple balloons and José Andrés runs around roasting pigs and slicing Ibérico ham. Still, I couldn’t believe my outrageous good fortune to be at a cookout with three of the South’s great chefs cooking side by side. Hugh Acheson, whose newest spot is The Florence in Savannah, was serving best-ever pimento cheese sandwiches, with crisp bread-and-butter pickles slipped in with the chunky, spicy cheese spread. It’s his version of the famed one served at the Masters golf tournament. “That recipe is kept in a vault; I cracked the code,” he told me. Alongside him was Mike Lata of Charleston’s The Ordinary, whose incredible Carolina oysters were smoked over hay, then barbecued and finished with fennel butter. Sean Brock, chef-owner of Husk in Nashville, was working the deep fryer, producing baskets of hot chicken. It had such a crispy crust, such lingering heat, I couldn’t stand it. “I took all my favorite fried chickens—Gus’s, Prince’s, some gas station versions—and here they are, in one,” he said.
July: Petit Trois
A star-studded omelet in Los Angeles
For months I followed the launch of Petit Trois in Los Angeles on social media. I watched chef Ludo Lefebvre and his partners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo transform a dingy Thai restaurant space into a softly lit bistro with black-and-white-tiled floors and an open kitchen outfitted with copper pots. People began talking about dishes on the casual French menu: confited chicken leg with brioche butter; steak tartare; insanely good bread and butter. Most of all, I heard about a Boursin cheese omelet. For dinner? I thought. Weird. (I don’t like omelets, and haven’t thought much about Boursin for a few decades now.) Lefebvre had different ideas. He grew up eating them—for dinner, not breakfast—in Burgundy. He also loves the taste of Boursin. “It’s the French Velveeta,” he says. “You find it in most French home refrigerators. And it melts so well.” Indeed it does. When I got to Petit Trois, it was the first thing I ordered. It arrived, a puffy omelet with airy eggs and creamy herbed cheese overflowing from the sides. But I felt a little late to the party. A few weeks earlier, Justin Timberlake had Instagrammed his empty omelet plate with the caption, “Los Angeles, you are NOT ready…. #PetitTrois.” In fact, JT (pictured, with Lefebvre) was sitting next to me the night I was there, back for another omelet. 718 N. Highland Ave.; petittrois.com.
August: Modern Chinese
Fourteen brilliant courses at Next.
The server set down a stone bowl of batter-fried sweetbreads and banana coated in a thick caramel, and a bowl of ice-filled vinegar broth. “This dish is called Pulling Threads,” he said. “You’ll see why.” He instructed us to dip each caramel-coated piece in the vinegar for 10 seconds, then bite. The cold liquid turned the caramel into a crisp shell; the burnt sugar formed strings as we lifted the sweetbreads and bananas, giving the dish its name. It was one of the brilliant courses on the Modern Chinese menu at Next in Chicago from Dave Beran and Grant Achatz. A centerpiece was actually okra hot-and-sour soup; an array of five stacked bowls turned into Duck in Layers with juicy smoked slices of breast meat (pictured). A giant fortune cookie held the menu, a record of all the cool things I ate. 953 W. Fulton Market; nextrestaurant.com.
September: Ivan Ramen Epiphany
Learning to slurp noodles
I first read about Ivan Orkin—the Jewish guy whose ramen was a sensation in Tokyo—a few years ago in Lucky Peach magazine. Then he launched a series of sold-out pop-ups around New York City—at Momofuku Noodle Bar, at the Ace Hotel. I tried the superrich triple-pork mazemen (the brothless ramen) and even bought an Ivan Ramen poster, but I can’t say I truly understood the fuss. Finally, Orkin opened a sleek spot on the Lower East Side that looked like a diner, except for the giant comic book–style panels illustrating the art of the slurp. First I was captivated by monkfish-liver-packed dirty rice. Still, I was there for the ramen. My friends and I ordered all six options, and I became an Ivan Ramen convert. His Tokyo Shoyu has a rich soy sauce and chicken stock broth (I prefer not to know how much fat is in there) garnished with a mound of pork chashu, the marinated belly. The Spicy Red Chili Ramen had fantastic burn and an equally rich broth. Orkin’s noodles, made especially for him by Sun Noodle, have terrific suppleness. By the end of the night, I was loudly, proudly slurping my ramen. 25 Clinton St.; ivanramen.com.