- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
I remember sunsets and monuments, evocative music and spectacular architecture. But what I most regularly recall from my travels are the meals. A great dish leaves its imprint on you. And it’s not just the components on the plate. It’s what the dish says about a place and about the people there. It’s a harmonic sense memory that blends smell, taste, sound and sight, lingering with you for months and sometimes years, always luring you back. These are some of the best dishes at some of the most memorable places I ate during my travels in 2017.
Avenue A at General Muir
The restaurant envy was real on the first day of 2017. Austin is in need of a Jewish deli, a home to kettle boiled bagels balanced with gloss and chew, along with smoked fish, like the velvety salmon that layered this open-faced sandwich dotted with avocado, grapefruit, cucumber and onion and layered with wisps of dill.
Baja California Sur, Mexico
Smoked marlin and torito tacos at Los Claros
Nothing beats a stop at a roadside taco stand after a hunger-building dip in the ocean. The salsa bar at this open-air spot marked by a sign of a cartoon shrimp and marlin shaking hands rivals any taqueria in Austin. I could have visited this small outpost located between San Cristóbal and Cerritos daily for its meaty smoked marlin, enlivened with brilliant salsas and escabeche, or for the torito, a yellow pepper stuffed with shrimp and cheese, the taco sweet and crunchy with a mellow vegetal tang.
Ma hor at Nahm
David Thompson’s Michelin-starred restaurant is not considered traditional Thai, but it still exhibits layers of depth and flavors that electrify and seduce your palate. Lunch here started with ma hor, a wedge of pineapple (the pineapple in Thailand fortunately lacks the fruit’s trademark acidic sting back home) carrying toasty and sticky balls of palm-sugar-sweetened minced pork, chicken and prawns studded with peanuts and brightened with coriander.
Whole chicken at Roister
A slightly contained pandemonium vibrates through both the kitchen and dining room at Alinea’s kid brother in Fulton Market. Live fire cooking and roasted birds have been all the rage at American restaurants over the past couple of years, and the unique preparation by executive chef Andrew Brochu has few equals. The whole bird is used in a trio of ways. The supple poached breast, brined in chamomile sweet tea, is seared on the grill for a dark, lacquered finish, the heat caramelizing the sugars from the tea, and the buttermilk fried thighs are so airy they almost rise from the plate.
Drunken noodles at Sandwich Me
Ask a server in Thailand what his favorite dish is and he’ll almost always just point you to the hottest option on the menu. But, more temperate palates like mine can ask for a milder kick, allowing the ability to savor the complex cornucopia of this dish that I loved so much I rented a scooter and went and picked up a to-go version on my final night in town. The stir-fried flat rice noodles wobbled with an elastic bounciness, twirling around medallions of rosy smoked duck breast. Tangled up in the mix, clustered baubles of fierce green peppercorns, fragrant hot basil, and, of course, the hallmark chilis.
Maitake hummus at Shaya
As of press time, the excellent chef Alon Shaya was suing the embattled Besh Restaurant Group, its former leader accused of running an operation poisoned by a culture of sexual harassment. While he had given up trying to buy back his namesake restaurant, Shaya still wants to wrest back the use of his name. I hope the Israeli-born chef prevails. That name was built on the strength of dishes like his incredibly smooth hummus; this variation sways from the earth of roasted maitake mushrooms to the piquant rise of spicy chilies, with sunflower seeds adding crunch to the creamy affair. I’m positive we still have much more to hear and taste from Mr. Alon Shaya.
New York City
Pike quenelle in lobster sauce at Le Coucou
Grand and intimate. Rich but lithe. Mannered yet fun. Sophisticated but not stuffy. The perfect dining experience. One of my groomsmen used my description of Le Coucou during a toast at my bachelor party in an attempt to shame me for my overwrought Instagram captioning. But I’ve got no shame when it comes to the best meal I ate in America all year. Chef Daniel Rose transforms pike, cream and eggs into a cloudlike delicacy surrounded by a rich but not oppressive lobster sauce Américaine. The dish epitomizes all of the reasons to love this throwback French gem.
Pastas at Il Corvo
Sometimes you fly halfway across the country to find yourself enjoying an experience that feels completely foreign and yet totally familiar. Such was the case as I stood on a hilly street in Seattle waiting and chatting with strangers almost an hour before Il Corvo opened. It was like the carb-friendly version of Franklin Barbecue. The shoebox-size restaurant’s tiny menu focuses on a trio of seasonal pastas, each priced around $10, with the stalwart being the pappardelle alla Bolognese. The star on my visit: bits of pattypan squash that clung to the ribbed lining of firm rigatoni sheened with lemon and butter, proving that summer can be both sunny and sumptuous, and worth the wait.
Scallops with pickled chili pepper sauce at Shinsen Hanten
Imagine the massive multifloored dim sum halls in New York City’s Chinatown wedded with the gilded dining rooms of a casino in Las Vegas and then set it on the high floor of a hotel overlooking Singapore and you’ve got an idea of what Singapore’s most revered Chinese restaurant is all about. The menu here is boundless in the best way possible, with entire sections dedicated to barbecued dishes, abalone and live seafood. The plump and lightly seared Hokkaido scallops hide beneath a colorful confetti of a pickled chili pepper sauce that lights up the plate and palate.
Spicy shrimp and pork wontons at Din Tai Fung
I don’t care if I just have an overnight layover in a city, I am going to get a taste of the place. I wrote a story about two years ago asking chefs and food professionals what Austin’s dining scene was missing. More than one person responded with Din Tai Fung, the xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings) specialists that opened their first restaurant in Taiwan in 1972. Peruse the lengthy menu while you wait and form a game plan at this casual restaurant that also feels part dumpling warehouse, a team of cooks and chefs in a windowed kitchen turning out dishes at an alarming pace. The dumplings may get top billing, but these were the best wontons I’ve ever eaten: the rippled and pinched folds glistening with a toasty chili sauce and just translucent enough to reveal the plump, pink shrimp inside. I now understand the craze that has extended to locations in California and Washington and remain hopeful maybe Texas will get its own someday.