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Top 10 Restaurant Dishes of 2011

F&W editors are united in our love for eating out, but when it comes to our favorite restaurant dishes of the year, our choices are extremely diverse. One of us adored a sea urchin-coconut risotto from a $185 tasting menu; another, $7 pig-ear wraps. And two editors swooned over two very different duck recipes.

Foie Gras-Banana Bread Terrine: Seasons at the Ocean House; Watch Hill, Rhode Island

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Foie Gras-Banana Bread Terrine at Seasons
© Courtesy of Seasons

As more and more people chase down nose-to-tail dining experiences, I’d like to pause for a moment to celebrate food that’s more cerebral. That’s more beautiful. I wasn’t expecting to find that kind of refined cooking at Seasons, a hotel restaurant in the preppy beach town of Watch Hill. The hotel’s look is updated New England seaside, so when chef Eric Haugen began setting his dishes in front of me, I was surprised: Each was precisely plated, with a well-thought-out balance of color, form, flavor, texture and temperature. My favorite course involved Moulard duck foie gras. Haugen cooks the duck liver sous vide, so that it melts, then refrigerates it to firm it up; the result is exceptionally smooth. Layered with banana-walnut bread and a crimson rhubarb gelée, it is the most luxurious comfort food imaginable—creamy duck liver sandwiched between sweet bread and tart jelly, with painterly garnishes that include celery leaves and red watercress. It’s supremely gratifying to know that a 26-year-old South Korean chef adopted by parents from Illinois could land on the New England coast with such universally delicious dishes.—Dana Cowin

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Seasons at the Ocean House
Courtesy of Warren Jagger

Insider’s Tip At Seasons, the best place to sample chef Eric Haugen’s multicourse tasting menu is at the small counter right in front of the restaurant’s open kitchen.

Artichoke Agnolotti: Mica, Philadelphia

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Artichoke Agnolotti at Mica
© Jason Varney
Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Chef Chip Roman
© Jason Varney

Chip Roman (left), chef-owner of this 10-month-old New American restaurant, is an expert at restrained European cooking. Jason Cichonski, Mica’s opening chef, loves unexpected combinations. Together they created these exceptional artichoke agnolotti. The centers are molten (made by wrapping pasta around the frozen filling), and the chefs amp up the intensity of the artichoke flavor by adding a touch of miso.—Kristin Donnelly

Bourbon-and-Cornhusk Cocktail: The Office, Chicago

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Bourbon-and-Cornhusk Cocktail at The Office
© Christian Seel

I spend enough time in bars (it’s research for the F&W cocktail book!) to know how serious drink-making is these days. But executive chef Craig Schoettler’s attention to detail is on a whole other level, as I discovered when I visited The Office, the speakeasy-style bar masterminded by Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next. I am now obsessed with Schoettler’s bourbon concoction (Office drinks have no names). Since bourbon is made from at least 51 percent corn, then aged in charred oak barrels, Schoettler ingeniously mixes in a burnt-cornhusk syrup. An infusion of guajillo chile adds subtle spice and helps make the drink so mind-blowing.—Kate Krader

Wild Salmon with Sea Beans & Buckwheat: Salt of the Earth, Pittsburgh

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Wild Salmon with Sea Beans & Buckwheat at Salt of the Earth
© Laura Petrilla

"We’re not going to make crab cakes or give people a basket of bread and butter just because that’s what everyone expects restaurants to do," says Kevin Sousa, the irreverent chef and co-owner of Salt of the Earth. What Sousa will do is change his chalkboard menu daily and use everything from foraged acorns to fermented seaweed to make his food good (not to mention crazy adventurous, especially for Pittsburgh). He blends that fermented seaweed with tamarind to make a complex sauce—sweet, salty, funky—for wild salmon. He garnishes the plate with smoked-avocado cream and kernels of toasted buckwheat and tops the fish with pumpernickel bread and sea beans. The mix of flavors and textures makes each bite so interesting that I quickly devoured the whole thing. With food like this, who needs crab cakes?—KD

Insider’s Tip Salt of the Earth posts its menu on one big chalkboard. If the sightline isn’t good, waiters advise diners to download the menu on their smartphones.

Beef with Winter Treasures: Benu, San Francisco

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Beef with Winter Treasures at Benu
© Ai Sugano

I might have overlooked this generic-sounding dish altogether. But I’d opted for Corey Lee’s tasting menu, and his Korean-inspired beef was one of my favorite courses. Marinating, braising and grilling the well-marbled meat makes it deeply tasty and tender; and Lee serves it with the silky braising liquid and a ginkgo nut, a truffle cube, balls of Asian pear and a flicker of gold leaf—no ordinary stew.—Tina Ujlaki

Jar Jar Duck: Uchiko, Austin

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Jar Jar Duck
© Marshall Wright

Jar Jar Duck is more than a dish with a funny name inspired by Star Wars. It’s an elegant and completely delicious combination of smoked and confited duck, super-crunchy duck cracklings, sweet kumquat confit and pickled endives. The dish is the brainchild of executive chef Paul Qui; like Uchiko’s owner Tyson Cole (an F&W Best New Chef 2005), Qui likes to create small worlds on a plate—or, in this case, in a jar. What’s magical is the rosemary smoke that drifts out when the lid is opened. "I love running the dish to tables, just to catch the reaction," says Cole.—Kate Heddings

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Uchiko restaurant in Austin, TX
© Marshall Wright

Insider’s Tip The chefs at Uchiko use a smoking gun to create the rosemary smoke for Jar Jar Duck. Home cooks can find the gun at williams-sonoma.com.

Beer Can Chicken: A-Frame, Los Angeles

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Beer Can Chicken at A-Frame
Courtesy of A-Frame

"It’s a poem to the Korean-pub fried chicken called tong dak that I ate during college," says Roy Choi, an F&W Best New Chef 2010 and the creator of the Kogi Korean taco. At his second L.A. brick-and-mortar restaurant, Choi marinates the bird in beer, the way Korean traditionalists do. "Then I start going into fantasy land, adding herbs, spices and citrus to the marinade," he says. He air-dries the chicken for four hours, rotisserie-cooks it for six, and then chills it until it’s ice cold. Then comes frying time. "Shock waves," says Choi.—KK

Crispy Pig Ear Wraps: Husk; Charleston, South Carolina

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Crispy Pig Ear Wraps
© Peter Frank Edwards

Sean Brock’s crackingly crisp pig ears vaguely resemble a dish at my local Chinese place, #17 Chicken in Lettuce Taco. But if #17 tasted remotely like Brock’s dish, I’d be ordering it every night. Instead I have to go to Charleston for the deep-fried pig-ear strips, tossed with a diabolically spicy sauce made with Husk’s own aged-for-a-year hot sauce and served with lettuce wraps.—Ray Isle

Japanese Snapper with Sea Urchin and Coconut Risotto: Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, Brooklyn, New York

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011: Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare
© Courtesy of Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare

César Ramirez, chef of the 18-seat Brooklyn Fare, believes "recipes are meant to be broken." He likes to work without writing things down (which might explain his strict no-note-taking rule for customers; no photos, either). One recipe he cares enough about to record is his risotto. He makes it in a pressure cooker, with Japanese rice and unlikely ingredients like sea urchin, coconut, a little truffle, mascarpone, tomato water and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Topped with quickly seared madai (a delicate Japanese red snapper, normally served raw), the risotto is gorgeously creamy, savory and sweet; it might be the world’s best example of umami.—KK

Peking Duck: WP24, Los Angeles

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2011:
© Courtesy of Peden & Munk

I know my Peking duck. I have ordered it in restaurants around the world. I’ve only interrupted a Peking duck dinner once, to rush to the hospital to give birth to my son. So trust me when I say that the best Peking duck can be found at Wolfgang Puck’s WP24. The room is super-glamorous, with a panaromic view of Los Angeles. The tableside service is fabulous. But what stands out is the perfectly plump duck and its crisp, not-at-all fatty skin, ready to wrap in magnificently puffy bao buns. There’s nothing brand-new about Puck’s duck—he’s been serving some version of it for 28 years—but its succulence makes it exceptional.—DC

More Great Restaurant Dishes:

Published December 2011
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