I know I’m supposed to do these “best of the year” wrap-ups before the year actually ends. With the craziness of the holiday season, I’m just glad I made it through to 2018 in one piece, so I’m not going to be too hard on myself. Looking back, we traveled quite a bit – Savoie (France), Alaska, New York, Santa Barbara, Dallas, San Antonio, the Grand Canyon, the Navajo Nation, Sea of Cortez (Mexico), the Valle de Guadalupe (Mexico) and Tuscany – and ate very well along the way, as we are often wont to do. So while a list of my favorites would be exhaustive, I have compiled a list of 10 dishes whose memories currently haunt me while I am on a New Year’s diet. They are a list of my personal favorites in many of the places Hubby and I had the good fortune to visit in 2017. Some dishes I found wildly creative while others provoked an almost Proustian reaction to a childhood memory. They are not ranked, but rather are listed here in roughly chronological order.
1.) Lamb Shoulder Confit with Ratatouille at the Chalet de la Marine (Val Thorens, Savoie, France)
We kicked off last year with a mind-blowing trip to the French Alps, where in between all the eating and drinking, we skied a bit. While the regional specialty, reblochonnade, or tartiflette (think thinly sliced potatoes sautéed with bacon and onions, covered with cream, and baked in the oven with generous slices of creamy Reblochon (a cow’s-milk cheese made in the Haute-Savoie) melted on top) was extraordinary, it was the lamb shoulder confit with ratatouille served in mason jars at Chalet de la Marine in Val Thorens that makes me ache to return. Read more about our voyages here and here.
2.) Ahi Poke Taco at CRUjiente Tacos (Phoenix, AZ)
I have to give a huge shout out to fellow San Antonian, Chef Richard Hinojosa, of CRUjiente Tacos at 40th and Camelback in Phoenix for his Ahi Poke Taco. Chef Hinojosa is a Scottsdale Culinary alum who cut his teeth working at 5-star resorts such as The Phoenician – Mary Elaine’s – (how I miss that spot!!), the Westin Maui and the Wigwam Resort. His creations have won multiple awards at the Arizona Taco Festival, including first place for his Korean Fried Chicken Taco. His South Texas upbringing, along with his stint in Hawaii, influenced the marriage of two of my favorite things, taro chips and ahi poke, into a light and airy taco. He also has the best margarita in town, because he is from San Antonio after all…Go Spurs Go!!
3.) Texas Akaushi Beef Carpaccio at Elizabeth Street Cafe (Austin, TX)
My first foray to Austin in many moons did not disappoint. Many have asked me if Austin lives up to its hype, and I would have to say yes. To understand Texas is to understand that each of the larger towns in Texas has their own distinct personality. Imagine being invited to a party and meeting the following cast of characters: Dallas the debutante, Houston the socialite, San Antonio the cattle rancher, and Austin the hipster. But, what does this have to do with food? Everything. The town’s personality is reflected in the food. So a visit to Austin is funky, hip and cool, just like the food. Take for instance, the dish I am highlighting here: Texas Akaushi Beef Carpaccio. This is not just any beef carpaccio, but Texas Wagyu. Akaushi Cattle is a Japanese Wagyu breed whose beef contains a higher level of monounsaturated fat relative to saturated fat, therefore being branded as “heart-healthy”. Akaushi, and Wagyu in general, is known for its superior flavor, buttery texture and intense marbling. This dish with the marinated hon shimeji mushrooms and the crunch of the shishito peppers alongside the buttery beef was sublime.
4.) Binchotan Hamachi from Otoko in the tasting tent at Aspen Food & Wine Classic (Aspen, CO)
The Grand Tasting tent at Aspen Food & Wine is a beautiful thing to behold. I love to see the looks on the faces of people who are experiencing it for the first time. It is like the proverbial “kid in a candy shop” for foodies. The tasting tent hosts over 300 food and wine vendors, and the area I try to hit first is Food & Wine’s Best Chefs where the chefs themselves dole out creations and bask in their newly elected star status. From what I tried, my favorite dish was the Binchotan Hamachi from Kyoto-born Yoshi Okai of Otoko in Austin. Binchotan is a type of charcoal traditionally used in Japanese cooking that is considered the best fuel for grilling as it produces virtually no smoke or flames and the therefore doesn’t alter the flavor of the food. Read more about my experience at this year’s Food & Wine Classic here.
5.) Red Curry Coconut Queso at Velvet Taco (Dallas, TX)
Billed as a trendy, new age taqueria that’s a favorite of the post-bar crowd, Velvet Taco should make a taco purist like me go running in the opposite direction, as it is anything but traditional. Chef John Franke produces a wide variety of tacos such as the Spicy Chicken Tikka taco, the Falafel taco and the Cuban Pig Taco. I am not sure how I found myself here, as I don’t consider myself trendy, or new age, and I am usually in bed by 10 pm. But my daughter and I were hungry and craving tacos (shocker), so I walked into it without expectations. The red curry coconut queso we ordered to keep us occupied while we were waiting for the main event was such a lovely surprise. I won’t be able to do this justice, but it reminded me of the Velveeta queso I ate as a kid blended with a Thai soup, like Tom Yum Gai. I am going to return this weekend to taste it again so I can try to replicate it at home. I was also in awe of the colorful tortillas made with hibiscus pictured below.
6.) “Quail’s Egg” from Modernist’s Cuisine’s Nathan Myhrvold (Seattle, WA)
I had the unbelievable fortune to attend one of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine dinners at his science lab in Seattle, Washington in the spring. As I was seated with the likes of Barry Diller (Media Exec – Fox Network) and Anne Wojcicki (23andMe), my IQ and BS being on the lower end of the scale, I could do little more than gape at the various courses and marvel at the intricate dance between science and food. Nathan was a child prodigy, attending college at the age of 14, earning a couple of masters degrees and a PhD here and there, working under Stephen Hawking, and then became the first Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft. Since retirement from Microsoft, he has dedicated much of his time to the study of food and the publication of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Not just any cookbook, at five volumes, 2,438 pages and 52 pounds, Modernist Cuisine is an encyclopedia and guide to the science of contemporary cuisine. To say what Nathan is doing is revolutionary would be a sad understatement, so just forget I said it and check out his smaller book of 230 pages called Modernist Cuisine at Home. Or, you could do what I did and just buy a calendar for $15.** While it was hard to choose a favorite from the evening, I am a sucker for passion fruit, so I have to choose this delicate take on a “Quail’s Egg” dish that was actually passion fruit and lemongrass concentrate. To see a video of how they make it, look follow this link. If you don’t understand the complicated words they use, that’s ok because I didn’t either. Incidentally, the feature photo for this post is also from Nathan’s dinner and was called Elote, which was his take on roasted corn on the cob. But smaller. And easier to eat.
** Nathan has recently published a five-volume book called Modernist Bread: The Art and Science.
7.) Salpicón de Pato from Malva (Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico)
It was painful having to choose a favorite dish from our food and wine safari to the Valle de Guadalupe, but in the end, I had to choose Roberto Alcocer’s Salpicón de Pato. While there is no translation for the word salpicón into English, I would describe this as a duck confit tostada. I wrote a lengthly, and hopefully not too rambling post, on our trip which you can read all about here so I will not bore you with repetition. A close second were the oysters at Deckman’s en el Mogor, which are also picture below.
8.) Cauliflower Flan with Truffles at the Villa Cerna Winery (Tuscany, Italy)
We went to Italy with some friends in November, and it was in the Tuscan countryside that they set up a hunt for the exclusive and rare white truffle. “Hunt” may not be the right word for the occasion as all we really did was watch. The dog did all the hard work, finding three beautiful and precious white truffles. Afterwards, we celebrated the dog’s success with a three-course truffle lunch, the highlight of which for me was this delicate Cauliflower Flan. That’s my kind of hunting!
9.) TEXAZ Grill Chicken Fried Steak (Phoenix, AZ)
I was invited to meet Steve Friedkin, owner of TEXAZ Grill in Phoenix, this past spring. We chatted for over two hours bonding over our love of brisket and Pat Green. I was fascinated by his stories of judging at the Terlingua Chili Cook Off and the path he took from growing up in Highland Park (Dallas) to opening his own restaurant in Phoenix back in 1985. While I had tilted back a couple of Shiners at TEXAZ when Hubby and I were dating, it had been long overdue for me to return. This time we were tilting back bottles of Big Red, and Steve was ever so kind as to make a Pink Cow for my daughter, which is a Big Red Float. The specialty at TEXAZ is the Chicken Fried Steak (or CFS for short), and it doesn’t disappoint. It is an plateful -literally- of crispy yumminess covered in cream gravy. Don’t miss out…just be sure to buy a pair of fat pants to wear afterwards. If CFS isn’t your thing, try the Smoked Prime Rib which the Phoenix New Times included on its list of 50 Dishes That Everyone In Metro Phoenix Should Experience At Least Once. I included a picture of the Pink Cow just in case you were curious to try that too.
10.) Show Stopper Milkshake -Eggnog Extravaganza – at Café ZuZu (Scottsdale, AZ)
This is the only dessert on my list, but at $16 dollars and big enough to feed 4 people, it is a totally indulgent one. I swung by the Hotel Valley Ho by invitation to try this inventive concoction that changes monthly. For the month of December, as pictured below, the Eggnog Extravaganza was a frosted mug filled with eggnog ice cream, white chocolate with sprinkles poured over the rim and in the shape of a Christmas tree, a carrot cake pop snowman and a miniature ginger bread house. I was completely won over and vow to return monthly to see what kind of creations pastry chef Audrey Enriquez and her team dream up. I am also eager to try the monthly Chef’s Table where Executive Chef Russell LaCasce and a guest offer a four-course meal paired with wines. But I am getting ahead of myself as I plan to include that in my Restaurant Bucket List for 2018. That is, after this awful Seven Day Vegan Challenge upon which I have embarked has ended. In the meantime, Happy Eating in 2018! xo M
All photos by Marci Symington for texAZtaste.com.