As a staunch omnivore, I eat it all, but I’m most excited by meat: Pork and beef and duck and game live and die very, very close to my heart, and having spent my teenage years as a vegetarian (yeah, OK, I was that girl), it takes a lot for a vegetable to really excite me (although I do make a habit of eating and enjoying them for many, many great reasons that do not warrant attention here).
But in 2013, the tables started to turn. While expected greatness from meats went unrequited, unassuming vegetable dishes were the sleeper-cells that really blew my dining Trojan horse to smithereens. This is a trend I REALLY hope continues into the new year and beyond…For the good of all of us!
Organized by date, my best meals of 2013.
February, Vinegar Hill House, 72 Hudson Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-522-1018
Valentine’s Day dinner began with bubbly and a tender whole roasted quail with royal trumpet mushrooms and smoked cauliflower. Sophistication gave way to informal intimacy as we picked up the bird and gnawed the last bite from its bones, working our way through a tender NY Strip — seared rare and still bloody — with béarnaise and buttery, twice baked potato, and a mild and sweet steelhead trout, its crisp, fatty skin a shard over a garden of bitttersweet brussels sprouts…To end it all with a double banana-split brought a hint of carefree nostalgia to otherwise sultry but comforting meal.
July,Uncle Boon’s, 7 Spring Street, 646-370-6650
Maybe we were buzzed by the heat (it was 90+ degrees when we sat down at 7 p.m.), or a few too many beer slushies, but by the end of our meal at Uncle Boon’s, a friend and I were so intoxicated, we were playing ventriloquist with a char-roasted head of dorade. This is, of course, after we picked its face clean of the tender bits ensconced in its cheeks, removed its eyes (hard as marbles) and eye-sockets (pliable but slimy) to see if they too could be eaten, having long put away the main meat of the dish. And THAT came after we sucked the meat from a plate of golden glazed fried frog legs, lightly sweet with soy, and beheaded a plate of crisp, briny grilled octopuses. And those were after we leveled a spicy mound of chicken banana flower salad, a heap of green julianne mangoes topped with a shard of squid so musky it could have been infused with the scent of an old attic. And finally, a toasted-coconut ice cream sundae.
November, Toro, 85 Tenth Avenue, 212-691-2360
A Thursday-night dinner for three at the bar was better than it needed to be. Between salty fried shishito peppers (an ideal bar snack), smoke-blackened carrots with harissa and dill dressing, sauteed wild mushrooms with farm egg, and marrow bone and beef cheek bruschetta, five glasses of not-too-sweet sangria couldn’t have gone down any smoother.
December, Piora, 430 Hudson Street, 212-960-3801
Part business, mostly pleasure, a weeknight journo-friend-dinner date began with carrots dusted in “ham snow,” chef Chris Cipollone’s brilliant, refined answer to the bacon bit, and followed with an impossibly good rigatoni, studded with crumbles of duck sausage and sweet fig. Then there was a porky plate of Rohan duck (the duck was so pink and decadently fatty, we wondered if we’d been given the wrong plate). And, as the evening grew ever more saturated with rich red wine and glass after glass of fine rye, being surrounded by dates and holiday dinners in the flickering candlelight couldn’t help but feel special.
December, Chez Jose, 160 Havermeyer Street, Brooklyn (no phone)
Snow was falling hard, and I was questioning my decision to dine at a “vegetable-forward” pop-up when all I really wanted was animal fat to comfort against the cold. But Jose Ramirez-Ruiz and Pamela Yung came through with rich winter food that warmed as well as any pork butt ever could. Golden fritters of crisp mushroom arancini and two squash courses got things started: first a seared butternut soaked in a smoky soy broth with silken tofu, then kabocha over nori puree that was as surprising as it was delicious. Then came roasted beets with brown butter and tarragon, paper-thin strips of rutabaga twisted into rosettes over a rich, almost cheesy puree (which I can only assume was more rutabaga, but I’d have to ask to be sure), and a basket of Yung’s bread (yes, bread!) — a pillowy yellow brioche so airy it threatened to float away and a sourdough that was just as good. And finally, a beet souffle with lavender cream, so effervescent it threatened to dissolve into thin air…Magical.