Best Of :: Food & Drink
Chinese diners have been appreciating fish heads for years. Not only do they add a pleasing gooey texture to the broth, but the individual parts of the fish face have estimable flavors all their own: The skin on the forehead and chin is crisp and slides off easily, the eyeballs pop when bitten into, and the flesh below the eye, known as the cheek, is the most succulent found anywhere on a finned creature. At the brilliant new restaurant Hunan House, dishes like the whole fish braised with chile sauce come with the head thrust upward from the rest of the fish, making for easy access. And the same dish can be ordered with just fish heads.
Bacon has been made in America since colonial times by curing and smoking pork belly. Yanks prefer what the Brits call "streaky bacon"—bacon sliced so that the layers of fat and meat alternate. This year, we've been bombarded with bacon, finding it in the most unexpected places: in salads, in vinaigrettes, draped across scallops, in ice cream, as sides, and even wrapped around dates at the General Greene. But the combination we found most persuasive was a weirdo appetizer at Polish newcomer Karczma, which features a bread dip called "peasant lard"—a pool of molten fat dotted with smoky bits of bacon.
Some of us look back nostalgically to a decade ago, when food-related matters were far simpler. Each year, there was a score of significant restaurant openings to be covered, a small passle of important new products, a few memorable cookbooks, and just a handful of dishes that knocked us on our collective asses. Now, the food scene has exploded. So many restaurants have opened that we can barely keep track of them, much less write individual reviews on them. Our Fork in the Road blog—with which we're assisted by a pair of new writers, Chantal Martineau and Rebecca Marx—has helped us extend our reach, but sometimes, we just throw up our hands in despair.
And that's why we enjoy doing the "Best Of" issue each year: It helps us take stock of and condense what we feel has been important—foodwise—during the past year, in a form our readers can savor and save. No equivocation here: Every dish, every restaurant, every phenomenon mentioned is worth enjoying. Whether we're talking about the fiery dan dan noodles at Grand Sichuan in Bay Ridge, the juicy grass-fed steaks at United Meat Market in Park Slope, the locavoric milk products at the Lower East Side's Saxelby Cheesemongers, or the octopus fusilli at Manhattan's Marea, all of these dishes are scrumptious, and all of them shout, "Eat me now!"
To accomplish this, we've divided our Best Of recommendations into two sections. In the first, you'll find our picks for the best dishes of the year—the most mind-bending plates that make use of ingredients or preparations that are so right now, if you'll pardon the expression. Who can reflect on the past 12 months and not have a crusty vision of banh mi spring to mind? For that matter, any voracious eater chomping their way through New York circa 2009 is likely to have come across at least one slab of quivering bone marrow, more cupcakes than necessary, a dollop of strangely flavored soft-serve, a dozen fat-dripping hamburgers and new-wave hot dogs, and certainly a floppy pizza or 10. Bacon, of course, has failed to slip back into obscurity, and ramen is still slithering its way around the East Village and environs. Who knows why certain dishes work their way into the collective appetite at a certain time? It's not for us to reason why. It's for us to tromp around the city, mouth open wide, and revel in pronouncing dishes' relative merits. Maybe you'll hate our pick for the best sausage of the year, or the best goat dish of the year—but feel free to curse our names, and let us know which ones we've missed.
In our second section, you'll find the transcript of a critics' smackdown, a bloodthirsty battle-to-the-death that played out on IM. You'll also find the more conventional Best Of categories—like best bistro, best street food, best regional Chinese, and best seafood restaurant. No one loves a good argument over culinary superlatives like we do, and we hope you'll feel free to shout along.
In the end, the "best" is in the tongue of the taster, and we're lucky to live in a city where there are so many contenders for the crown, even for something like cold Sichuan tongue and tripe. But, like we said: No equivocation. These dishes are the most delicious we've tasted this year. Go forth and eat, friends.
Banh mi spread like a particularly fatty strain of pig flu this year—and while we may weary of hearing about these Vietnamese sandwiches, we'll never tire of eating them. While first-generation banh mi makers preside over agreeably spartan Chinatown joints in Manhattan and Sunset Park—the best is Ba Xuyen on Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn—second-generation sandwich moguls have spread across the city, and they are as likely to take their inspiration from a sloppy joe as from a grandma. Our favorite newfangled rendition is the pho banh mi at Nhà Tôi—a baguette piled with all the makings of the famous soup, except the broth and noodles: fatty brisket, bean sprouts, mint, Thai basil, hoisin sauce, mayo, cilantro, and pickled daikon and carrots.
Among variety meats, bone marrow—the slimy generative tissue in the hollow interior of long bones—has been neglected by all but the French, who consider it the perfect thing to spread on toast. The popularity of marrow has multiplied in the last year, so that now there are a half-dozen or more restaurants in town that feature it. Though we've long loved the appetizer at Landmarc, our fave this year is at Minetta Tavern, where the bone marrow starter features extensively roasted cow shinbone, offered with a pot of mustard, a mess of lentils, and a plenitude of toasts to scrape the quaking, gelatinous contents.
The definition of "brunch": Obligatory social occasion for which one must stand in long lines for overpriced eggs on a pre-packaged English muffin. Although it seems so very New York, the mash-up of breakfast and lunch actually originated in England around 1896, when Punch magazine informed readers that "to be fashionable nowadays, we must 'brunch.' " How things change, and how they stay the same. It's appropriate, then, that our favorite new brunch is served by British gastropub The Clerkenwell, where you can choose a very fine full English breakfast, bangers and all, or bubble and squeak (fried patties of mashed potatoes and cabbage) decorated with a fried egg.