The 11 Meals I’ll Remember the Most From 2020
(Bloomberg) -- “The best dishes of 2020” reads like a headline from the satirical Onion website.
In a normal year, lists of this type are stocked with dishes from around the world. They’re an opportunity to celebrate (read: brag) in ways big and small about the places you went and the edible treasures you discovered. References to caviar and truffles abound.
But in 2020, the hospitality world has been fighting for its life. Chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, and bakers have been simply trying to keep their places open and their staff employed.
And yet this proved to be a year in which hardworking cooks turned out incredible food under the toughest of circumstances. Working with tight resources, from skeleton crews to conflicted food chains, they came up with new dishes that suited the times, making use of handy ingredients, evoking their past, and making dishes that traveled well.
All the dishes below were created as a result of the pandemic. A few of the spots opened this year; the rest evolved because of it. Amid travel restrictions, only one dish hails from outside New York: a roast duck in northwest Connecticut.
Here are the 11 dishes that shone in the most challenging of years.
BLT, Winner Bakery, Brooklyn, N.Y.
On weekends, most of the prime baked goods at the six-month-old corner bakery are sold out by noon. Chef Daniel Eddy, a veteran of Spring restaurant in Paris, created his BLT to make it especially comforting during anxious times. His version requires two hands to hold and is based on a hefty, housemade ciabatta with monumental chew and thick seared Heritage pork bacon slices. “Something with ‘oomph’—something that recreated the experience of going to Peter Luger and ordering the bacon,” he says about the celebrated dish at the Brooklyn steakhouse. Most unconventional of all is a generous dollop of grainy mustard; its heat and acid are so good with the fatty bacon that Eddy should change the name to BLMT.
Sea Urchin Toast with Cauliflower, Parcelle Patio, Manhattan
Parcelle, a postage stamp-sized wine store, started life in the Hudson Yards neighborhood before owner Grant Reynolds moved it to an events space in the West Village during the pandemic. In the fall, he brought in former Legacy Records sous chef Ron Yan, who created a small menu to pair with Reynolds’s bottles. “The idea was to make a Covid-friendly wine-tasting party for the neighborhood,” says Reynolds. One of the best sellers at the temporary cafe was the uni starter, an unorthodox combination of buttery, salty sea urchin with the creamiest of cauliflower purees set on a crisp toast. The two-bite snack is a textural dream, made even better with a savory white wine. Reynolds favored a Boudignon Chenin Blanc from the Loire.
Chile Fried Chicken, Pecking House, Queens, N.Y.
Operating out of the kitchen of his family’s shuttered Chinese restaurant in Flushing, N.Y., chef Eric Huang makes the best fried chicken in New York. To create it, the Eleven Madison Park alum coats buttermilk-brined pieces in a mix of flour, potato starch, and a modernist product called EverCrisp. His frying oil includes a little bit of duck fat; when the chicken is cooked, the pieces are doused with Sichuan peppercorns, sugar, salt, MSG, and a little of the frying oil to make it all stick. The result is the crispest, craggy-est crust you can imagine, covered with a sauce that’s got layers of sweet, piquant heat. After cooking up dozens of orders a day, Huang takes off his apron and delivers the chicken, served with a few sides made with Greenmarket produce, all over New York. For $35, it’s one of the best deals around.
Pork Tacos, Wildair, Manhattan
Mexican food has never before been on the menu at the thrilling, five-year-old wine bar Wildair. But chef Fabián von Hauske Valtierra missed his native Mexico City, so he and co-owner Jeremiah Stone decided to do an occasional Mexican pop up, the Gueros. The simple-sounding pork taco is based on one he grew up with at a stand called El Venadito. “It’s inspired by carnitas, but the style is to have all different cuts of the pork chopped up,” he says. His version is a meat extravaganza, with bits of belly and crisp bites of skin, along with braised pork rinds, all piled on supple corn tortillas with a bracing side of salsa verde. Served on a paper plate, it tasted like a straight shot of Mexico City.
Sashimi selection, O.d.o., Manhattan
Before the pandemic, the only way to indulge in the sashimi at the Michelin-starred Odo was as part of the $200 kaiseki menu. When O.d.o., its outdoor dining option, premiered this summer, the a la carte menu offered the opportunity to sit on a quiet Flatiron street and order a kushiage (fried skewers of meat) and grilled wagyu. The bestseller was premium raw fish. “We didn’t see many places serving high-quality sashimi for outdoor dining,” explains chef Hiroki Odo, He offered seafood that was seasonal and could be sourced from Japan, including standout slices of o-toro, the fatty, melt-in-your-mouth tuna belly, and shime-saba, the lightly cured mackerel. The chef imports from his hometown of Kyushu because, he says, “It’s fattier, with more minerals from the sea, than any other mackerel in the world.” You can taste it.
Schnecken, Gertie, Brooklyn
Before baker-in-residence Melissa Weller started offering her sensational pastries at the modern deli Gertie, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she made treats at New York’s Sadelle's. Renowned for her sticky buns, she now has a new specialty, the German bun schnecken. The pinwheel pastry has the texture of a rich, exceedingly moist coffee cake. On top and seeping over the sides is an intense glaze that’s half deep-salted caramel and half honey to add depth of flavor. “Basically, it takes all the doughs I’ve made in the past and merges them together,” says Weller. “People are staying in their own ‘hoods, I wanted to make something special for the people in this one.”
Jerk Cauliflower, Kokomo, Brooklyn
Cauliflower, presented whole and as steaks, have been the darling of the vegetable world for a while, but it didn’t make the starting menu at Kokomo, the Caribbean restaurant in Williamsburg. However, not long after opening in June, owner Kevol Graham added it as an alternative to richer dishes like rasta pasta flatbread and oxtails. "We had multiple customers looking for healthy dishes, and decided to add cauliflower since it’s high in antioxidants to help boost the immune system,” says Graham. The one here is roasted whole, but what makes it stand out is the exuberant jerk sauce made with a sweet nutty cashew base, caramelized garlic and scallions, and the fireworks of scotch bonnet and jerk spices.
Barbecue Chicken Pizza, Momofuku Ko, Manhattan
In mid-August, a dish that had never appeared on the menu at Michelin two-star restaurant Momofuku Ko made its debut: pizza. Chef Sean Gray says he spent the early days of the pandemic perfecting the recipe after purchasing a 50-pound bag of flour. At Ko, he ferments the dough and then bakes it in the bread oven so it’s charred with notable tang and chew. The topping is the brainchild of chef de cuisine Esther Ha. “She’s our barbecue chicken pizza whisperer,” says Gray. It’s based on the restaurant’s esteemed cold fried chicken and topped with swirls of tangy barbecue sauce. What makes it exceptional, though, is an accompanying drizzle of extra thick ranch dressing flavored with smoky charred leeks.
Duck Carnitas, Atla, Manhattan
Duck carnitas have always been one of the destination dishes at chef Enrique Olvera’s well-heeled Mexican restaurant Cosme. But the dish migrated to Atla, his more casual downtown spot that reopened in spring for pickup and delivery. What made this dish stand out is how well it was reconsidered for takeout. The luscious duck, whose long, slow buildup includes a braise infused with Mexican Coca-Cola, benefits from traveling in its banana leaf wrapping; the blue corn tortillas tasted as fresh as if they had just been pressed. The natural pairing for the dish: a bottled margarita. (Note that the carnitas have gone home to Cosme; they’ll be on the menu when the restaurant reopens for indoor dining.)
The Cake, Blondery, Brooklyn
Virtual bakery Blondery was founded by Auzerais Bellamy, who has done stints at both French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., and at Pies ‘n’ Thighs in Brooklyn. During the pandemic she came up with a knockout new way to showcase her namesake blondie brownies. “I was bored. Then I thought: ‘I’ll make a cake on Instagram Live and raffle it off. And it worked.” The colossal dessert is a construction of her chocolate chip blondies, layered with salted caramel ganache, devil’s food cake, vanilla butter cream with fat pecans, and cocoa nibs thrown in. It’s breathtaking, with varying bites of contrasting creaminess and crunch—and of course, plenty of chocolate.
Vinegar Roasted Duck, Mayflower Inn & Spa, Washington, Conn.
In the fall, April Bloomfield arrived as chef in residence at the grand Mayflower hotel and began offering food that’s both cozy and highly flavorful. Even at a time when duck is everywhere (see the carnitas above), Bloomfield makes a version that stays with you. It’s glazed with an Italian red wine vinegar, which cuts through the fattiness of the bronzed bird. With it she serves root vegetables sourced from local farms, pureed to pick up additional flavor from the duck and its juices. “I love food with good acidity; it’s the thing that makes you go back for more,” she says. Exactly.
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