The Lost Kitchen: Freedom, Maine
At the height of the summer, I ate dinner at chef Erin French’s American bistro in an old mill. At the beginning of the meal, Erin recounted for all the guests her day gathering ingredients and inspirations—jumping over a fence to grab onions from a farmer friend, choosing a dozen varieties of tomato for a salad. She told us she’d also tackled the pastry for a peach galette and had to throw out her first batch: She’d been thinking about her ex-husband, and she could taste the anger in the dough. The food was brilliant in its simplicity and honesty. 22 Mill St.; 207-382-3333.
Chez Nous: Charleston, South Carolina
I’d never seen a two-seat porch until I visited Chez Nous. Sitting there, overlooking the garden, F&W’s deputy editor Chris Quinlan and I ordered every dish on the menu (because there were two choices for each course, it was the obvious thing to do). The food is classic French, made with Southern ingredients: supremely rich and crispy pork trotters (which sound better in French: galette de pieds de cochon panée), black bass with tomatoes, sublime cherry clafoutis. 6 Payne Ct.; cheznouschs.com.
La Balena: Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
One of my lunch companions was the extraordinary Italian winemaker Piero Incisa della Rocchetta. He’s delightful, but the experience made me nervous. Would the food live up to his standards? Would this be a disaster or fun? The latter, it turned out. The restaurant’s energetic host, Emanuele Bartolini, showed off his obscure Italian wines and handmade pastas, and the result was an afternoon bacchanal: lasagnette with Bolognese sauce; gnocchi with wild mushrooms; black spaghetti with clams and octopus. Junipero St.; labalenacarmel.com.
Momofuku Ko: Manhattan
David Chang might be getting attention right now for his $8 fried chicken sandwiches at Fuku, but I’m more riveted by the ambition of his restaurant Ko and its head chef Sean Gray. Razor clams with pineapple basil are stunning, with dots of basil seed in the broth. And mackerel sawarazushi—pickled fish placed over a rectangle of rice and then seared—is a work of quiet genius. Beverage director Jordan Salcito’s pairings—which can range from wines in magnum to Champagne, sake and beer—made the night complete. 8 Extra Place; momofuku.com.
I often avoid tasting menus: too much food, too little control. Which explains why it has taken me almost a year to get to this 18-seat tasting-menu-only restaurant in Williamsburg. But I actually hoped for more courses that would show off the vegetable-centric cooking of José Ramírez- Ruiz and Pamela Yung. The tomatoes stacked on puff pastry were especially good, transformed by a sparkly shiso leaf hiding under the layers. I’d go back for the bread alone, made from a different grain every day and served with Cowbella butter. 160 Havemeyer St.; semillabk.com.