The 19 Best Dishes I Ate in 2021
(Bloomberg) -- According to Google, the food of the year is TikTok’s baked feta pasta. According to me, it’s pizza.
When I think back on the most remarkable dishes I’ve gotten to eat over the course of this wild and crazy year, I remember a lot of slices and pies. (And I didn’t even make it to Portland, Ore., which has been called the best pizza city in the country.)
I spent the majority of my year eating in Manhattan, as in 2020. I ascended to the top of a skyscraper for a compelling tasting menu and descended into a basement for brilliant Korean takeout. A few trips took me outside the city, namely to Miami, the buzziest food metropolis in the country, and Copenhagen, where you could happily eat pastries all day and night or have the meal of a lifetime at the restaurant voted No. 1 in the world yet again. I ate knockout vegan food in the form of a Vietnamese curry and potato salad, as well as a steak aged with cheese that defines indulgence.
But it was pizza that speaks best to the multiple, often contradictory trends that helped define the 2021 food world: It can be inexpensive and accessible, or served at an ambitious restaurant with a crust of elaborate grains. It can be meat-free or not, a delivery order or a dining room experience. Three wildly different specimens top my list.
If there’s one thing all these diverse dishes have in common, it’s this: They were all made by hard-working cooks and kitchens who continued to create terrific food in conditions that never stopped being challenging.
Here’s to all the great restaurants that made 2021 such a good year for dining. And to the cooks behind these captivating dishes that make me continue to believe in the all-encompassing power of food.
Burrata Slice, L’industrie Pizzeria, Brooklyn
L’industrie might look like any old pizza joint, but the reborn Williamsburg spot, helmed by Massimo Laveglia, serves extraordinary pies and slices based on crisp yet tender, bubble-dotted crusts with a light char and a judicious amount of thick tomato sauce and salty mozzarella. There’s no wrong move—shout out to the spicy salami—but the burrata topped pizza is a thing of beauty, with dollops of the shockingly creamy fresh cheese as a soothing melt-in-your-mouth final taste when you’ve devoured the slice.
Kimchi Jambalaya, Kjun, Manhattan
When Jae Jung cooked in New Orleans, she would tell people that the food reminded her of her native Korea: the seafood, spicy sauces, and fried chicken. At her five-month pop-up KJun, which stretched from spring to summer, the chef combined the two cuisines in such dishes as her kimchi jambalaya. Using fragrant jasmine rice as a base, her version is stocked with chunks of roasted pork and andouille. Her brilliance shines at the end: Instead of Crystal hot sauce, Jung folds in her mother’s three-month aged kimchi, which adds bracing heat and tang to balance the meaty richness. The good news for fans of Jung is that she plans to reopen her popup in February 2022.
Ajwani Paneer Tikka, Dhamaka, Manhattan
The special-order rabbit has grabbed the headlines at Dhamka, the high-powered Indian dining room tucked into Essex Market on the Lower East Side. But let me direct your attention to the paneer, from chef Chintan Pandya. It’s made with high-fat milk sourced from an upstate New York dairy; beyond that, he won’t reveal the recipe. The cheese, which goes for $16, is simultaneously creamy and feathery light, quickly grilled and coated with a potent housemade garam masala animated by anise-flavored carom seeds.
Gorgonzola-Cured Wagyu Striploin, Carne Mare, Manhattan
Gorgonzola butter has been melting into steaks for a long time, but the concept of infusing the cheese into the meat as part of the aging process—cutting out the butter middleman—is new. Andrew Carmellini implementedthe technique at his shiny downtown steakhouse Carne Mare. To make it, he rubs wagyu strip with the blue cheese and lets it age for four days; then he scrapes off the cheese, and it sits a week longer. The seared steak boasts the sweet, funky flavor of the cheese in every juicy bite. A 12-ounce wagyu strip loin goes for $110.
Collard Green Melt, Turkey & the Wolf, New Orleans
Mason Hereford is the country’s sandwich oracle. At Turkey & the Wolf, he’s garnered a huge fan base for such selections as fried bologna with hot mustard on white bread and the Mama Tried burger, with two beef patties, special sauce, and so forth in a non-sesame seed bun. At the top of the sandwich heap is the collard green melt, a fantastic triple-decker assembly of slow braised, savory greens layered with a piquant pickled-pepper dressing, creamy slaw, and melted Swiss. The griddled rye it’s encased in is buttery and crisp, an ideal envelope for saucy contents.
Spicy Green Curry, Falansai, Brooklyn
At his terrific Vietnamese restaurant in Bushwick, Eric Tran’s curry is an almost surreal shade of soft green. It packs the powerful punch that you get from blending generous amounts of ginger, onions, and garlic, plus two chiles, Thai and serrano, to balance the sweetness of the coconut milk. Tran makes it vegan, stocked with vegetables from the Union Square Green Market, often including squash, leafy greens, shaved raw carrots, and grilled cauliflower, so you get a fun mix of textures along with the spicy heat.
Black sesame cookie, Hart Bageri, Copenhagen
Ignore the cardamom croissants that get so much attention at the vaunted Hart bakery. Instead, focus on the hockey-puck sized, sesame seed-encrusted cookies made by baker Talia Richard-Carvajal, who developed them with Cannelle Deslandes. The treats are crumbly tender, made from a brown sugar dough with black sesame paste stirred in and studded with white-chocolate chunks. It all makes for a sweet, creamy, and compelling contrast to the intensely nutty treats that are like the ultimate version of a peanut butter cookie.
Dry-Aged Duck and Squash Tagine, Saga, Manhattan
It’s hard to compete with the view at Saga, a panoramic vista from the 63rd floor of 70 Pine Street in Manhattan’s Financial District. But the dry-aged duck, prepared tagine style with sweet kabocha squash, will get your attention. The entrée option on James Kent’s $245 tasting menu features a glazed breast infused with the flavor of the chili honey and fermented soy beans it’s cooked with. Bowls of accompaniments include labneh studded with preserved lemons, bright chicory salad, and flaky m’semen flatbread, laminated with butter and semolina.
Mustard Pizza, Ko, Manhattan
Experts will know that mustard pizza existed before Momofuku Ko elevated it to cult status. Former executive chef Sean Grey was inspired by the pie he heard about at Papa’s Tomato Pies in Trenton, N.J. He took advantage of burnt onion mustard he had on hand and slathered it on dough, then topped it with thick tomato sauce and grated mozzarella and threw it in the oven. Chef Esther Ha continues the legacy of serving the thick-crusted, chewy pizza. What makes it so brilliant is the unexpected pungent, mustardy blast that doesn't fight the pie; it’s like an unseen force that makes the toppings—separately and together—so much more compelling.
Hazelnuts and White Truffle, Noma, Copenhagen
One of the most remarkable dishes I’ve ever tasted was at Noma about a decade ago: a plate of fresh chestnuts, thinly sliced with a brown butter vinaigrette. The nuts had indelible sweetness and crunch and with the toasty butter, they were unforgettable. At his latest incarnation of Noma, Rene Redzepi offered a similarly revelatory dish on the game and forest menu, but it boasts fresh hazelnuts that garnish a dish of earthy cep (porcini) mushrooms, topped with white truffle slices. The best part of all is the luscious hazelnut milk that dresses the mushrooms. The flavor is so concentrated, it tastes like the platonic ideal of the nut; Redzepi says he uses about 50 hazelnuts for each serving.
Marinated Mussels, Rosella, Manhattan
Mussels are not the dish that typically defines a sushi spot. But when a restaurant is focused on local and sustainable seafood, the eco-friendly mollusk can become a star. Chef Jeffrey Miller makes this incredible shellfish, packing sweet-salty richness in what looks like ordinary mussels, first by steaming them in sake with an aromatic mix of ginger, garlic, and lemongrass. The mussels then get a second bath in a sake-butter sauce that further flavors and enriches them. They’re served as gunkan nigiri—boat-shaped sushi—with a layer of bright herbs, of which Miller’s favorite is rau ram, Vietnamese cilantro.
Mapo Tofu Sandwich, Poulette, Copenhagen
It’s a brave chef who turns a hallowed Sichuan dish into a sandwich. At his fried chicken sandwich spot, Martin Ho took on the challenge, deep-frying a breaded slab of firm tofu to a dark golden state and dousing it afterwards with a Szechuan chili oil the way the Nashville hot-chicken crowd does, infusing it with tingly heat. It’s then set on a tender toasted brioche bun and animated by mapo mayo, made with the salty, fermented bean paste doubanjiang and both Sichuan chili oil and peppercorns. The result is electrifying.
Shaved Fennel Salad, One White Street, Manhattan
Austin Johnson says he’s never cared for raw fennel. So when the chef put it on the menu at One White Street, the elegant TriBeCa townhouse-turned-restaurant, he made sure it was well marinated and seasoned. His salad comprises long, noodle-like strips of the vegetable with blasts of yuzu, white anchovy, blue cheese, and pistachio—four of his favorite ingredients in one bite, along with a handful of crunchy croutons. The result is a dish that ricochets around, from tangy to pungent to creamy to crunchy. All the better if you like fennel, too.
Aged Marlin Sushi, Sushi Noz, Manhattan
Chef Nozomu Abe is famed for aging fish, which concentrates the taste and makes it more tender. Among the seafood that benefits from the treatment is striped marlin, or makajiki, a popular sushi order in Japan, though less so in the U.S. At Noz, it’s cut from the upper part of the belly that’s been aged for 10 days, then marinated in a mirin-soy mix. The sushi evolves as you savor it; first you get the unexpectedly meaty chew of the fish, then the sweet-pungent glaze, and finally, the pillowy rice, seasoned with two vinegars that almost makes you forget about the marlin.
Cachito de Jamon and Pastelito de Queso, Caracas Bakery, Doral, Fla.
Set in a small mall in a West Miami suburb, Caracas Bakery specializes in sensational Venezuelan pastries. Manuel Brazon used to work with Miami’s resident dough expert Zak Stern (aka Zak the Baker), from whom he learned the fine art of lamination, which he employs in his pastelito de queso. The delightful square stuffed with three cheeses—mozzarella, ricotta, and fresh white paisa cheese—is light flakiness incarnate, enclosing the creamy, melty, luscious filling. Cachito de jamon is a second Caracas standout, made by Manuel’s son and co-owner, Jesus, who went through 17 versions of pastry until he settled on one for his ham-stuffed cornette. The winning dough is deceptively tender, hiding a smoky, meaty mix of salty Venezuelan ham and fatty bacon. Consider it the ultimate breakfast food.
Potato Salad, Cadence, Manhattan
Anyone unimpressed with potato salad needs to try Shenarri Freeman’s version at Cadence, her pocket-sized, vegan soul food restaurant in the East Village. What makes it so good is her trick of chilling the cooked red potatoes before adding the dressing. That keeps them firm, creamy, and toothsome, shining through the mustard mayo mix, to which she also adds plenty of chopped pickled and red onion.
Gnocco Fritto, Ci Siamo, Manhattan
Many of the dishes Hillary Sterling offers at the Danny Meyer-owned, expansive Italian restaurant come from the wood oven. Not the gnoccho fritto; as the name suggests, it arrives fresh from the deep fryer. Sterling’s remarkable take on the puffy, crispy pasta squares from Emilia Romagna is to stuff them with goat’s milk gouda filling for a melty, tangy contrast. While the pastry is hot, it’s coated with more cheese—Parmesan and pecorino—as well as a liberal sprinkling of coarse black pepper, spicy little exclamation points to the over-the-top snack.
Fish in a Cage, Shukette, Manhattan
Cheers to chef Ayesha Nurdjaja. Not only for expertly cooking a lemon-stuffed, tomato-chile rubbed whole porgy in a wire grill cage, so it’s well browned outside with juicy meat within. And for surrounding it with all the colorful seasonal vegetables she can find. But also for enhancing the fun and appeal by bringing it to the table in that cage, accompanied with a vibrant herb pistou, to make the whole dish feel like a party.
Nduja and Stracciatella Pizza, the Pizza Experience, Stone Barns, Tarrytown, N.Y
For four weeks in the summer, esteemed baker Pam Yung hosted “the Pizza Experience” on the bucolic former Rockefeller Estate as one of the Stone Barns Center chefs in residence. Working from a wood-burning oven in a field that was built just for her (and will hopefully have a second life), Yung used ancient grains and flours to make a crust with a strong sourdough vibe. The best one was topped with a dead simple combination of nduja, the addictive chili-spiked pork spread, and dollops of strachiatella. It's a pie that makes you appreciate the art of balance: The intensely meaty and spicy nduja is the polar opposite of the soothing cheese; together, on top of the moist, blistered crust with a smattering of sweet onions, they are in harmony.
Spicy Tuna Maki, Itamae, Miami
Why order a spicy tuna roll on a menu so full of compelling Nikkei dishes? Because it’s done so well, it makes you remember what made the roll great to begin with. The sublime maki at Itamae, served by brother-and-sister, chef-owners Nando and Valerie Chang, starts with outrageously fresh tuna scraped from the carcass of a yellowfin or big eye. It's spiced up with a confit of the spicy Peruvian pepper rocoto, then wrapped in nori and rice and enveloped with slices of silky avocado and shiitake that’s been braised in a sweet soy mixture. The crowning touch is dollops of aioli infused with more of the rocoto confit that hits the oversized roll with luscious, fruity heat.
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