Best Bites of 2021
Ospi, Los Angeles
In Jackson Kalb's evolution of the mozzarella stick, provolone replaces mozzarella, and the deep-fried appetizer is supersized into a puck large enough for two. It retains all the gooey, melty cheese magic, but with a slightly nuttier flavor. Kalb serves it with a mouthwatering vodka sauce that made me wonder why deep-fried cheese is ever served with anything else.
I audibly gasped each time I encountered this butter terrine, first gently melting on a stack of pancakes, and again when it arrived on a plate as part of the bread service at Lutie's. Chefs Bradley Nicholson and Susana Querejazu alternate layers of cultured and brown butter in a pan, chill it until it's solid, and then cut slices off of the terrine to reveal a beautiful slab of striped butter that adds a multitude of flavor to any dish.
Moon Rabbit, Washington, D.C.
We are living through a fried chicken renaissance. The sheer amount of excellent fried chicken available across the country is overwhelming, but at his new restaurant, Moon Rabbit, chef Kevin Tien (a 2018 Food & Wine Best New Chef) makes a version that stands out from the crowd—and not just because he serves the meat still attached to the bird's claws. The ga chien pulls from Tien's Vietnamese heritage and is lacquered in a chile-maple fish sauce, almost as if the chicken has been candied. The outer layer shatters with each bite, revealing tender, moist meat.
Pogiboy, Washington, D.C.
This cheffy riff on the Filipino fast food classic from Jollibee is the ideal comfort meal. Chefs Tom Cunanan and Paolo Dungca toss al dente spaghetti with a Bolognese made from hot dogs and shower it with melty Gouda cheese. It's deeply savory but also has a punch of sweetness from the banana ketchup in the sauce. What's not to love about a giant plate of carbs covered in cheese and tossed with slices of bright pink hot dogs? It's a dish that doesn't take itself too seriously, but just seriously enough to be the best version out there.
Toki, Portland, OR
I never thought one of my favorite dishes of the year would be inspired by a TikTok trend. Chef Peter Cho decided to do his own version of the "wrap" video, where tortillas are divided into four quadrants, topped with four different ingredients, folded on top of each other, and griddled. He uses a square of nori as his base, layering each quadrant with rice, ribbons of egg, and veggies like carrots and purple cabbage. Cho stuffs the center of the gim-bap with tempura- fried nori for crunch. It's served with a deceptively simple sauce of tamarind and French's mustard.
Dhamaka, New York City
Dhamaka might be the best Indian restaurant in the country right now, and it's definitely the most interesting. The menu is dedicated to underrepresented regional dishes that aren't commonly found in the West, and the sleeper hit is the paplet fry. It's a dish of pomfret, a delicate butterfish, that chef Chintan Pandya marinates with garlic paste, turmeric, red chile powder, and ginger and then fries until golden. The result is a succulent and flaky fish that's easy to tear with your hands.
Shrimp and Prosciutto Tortellini
Kimika, New York City
Don't call this fusion, but instead a masterful partnership between the Italian dish of tortellini in brodo and ozoni, a Japanese New Year soup made with mochi. Plump tortellini are stuffed with salty prosciutto and tender shrimp, only to float in a pool of crystal clear dashi. The bowl is finished off with slices of pink-rimmed kamaboko (fish cakes) and thinly sliced scallions. It's a playground of textures that's just really fun to eat.
Olive Oil Chiffon Cake
Bayou Saint Cake, New Orleans
Before I finally made it to New Orleans, I had stalked Bronwen Wyatt's cakes on Instagram @bayousaintcake for months, wistfully staring at the vast array of edible flowers and squiggles of buttercream that adorn each. Wyatt is part of an ongoing movement of pastry chefs who have left restaurants and are selling incredible baked goods directly to customers. The cake tastes just as stunning as it looks: airy layers of olive oil chiffon cake, swoops of fig leaf cream, and rose and geranium preserves. The whole thing is enveloped in a tangy crème fraîche buttercream and decorated with her signature buttercream twists and turns. And yes, I took a million photos of it before I dug in.