Year-end lists are always agonizing. It's not easy pitting a burger against octopus crudo when bestowing "best of" status, or whittling down the candidate list to five, 10 or some other arbitrary number. But the task is especially hard when you didn't show up in Seattle until April.
Culture shock? Here's the last meal I reviewed in Dallas.
For the purposes of my retrospective, I'm working off an eight-month calendar. I'm sure if I spent more time on Google, I could find an ancient tribe that did the same.
So rather than declare the best dishes of the year - while I've had incredible food since April, I have no idea what Seattleites were eating in February - I've put together a list of 10 outstanding dishes that I'll still be contemplating come 2012:
And here's a photo I shot on my first day in Seattle.
Ham cracklings, The Coterie Room
It's best to nab a table even if you're just banking on bar snacks. And it's somewhat silly here to talk about snacks, plural, since there's only one snack you'll be wanting: ham cracklings...To make its bully cracklings, the kitchen first makes a ham stock. The stock's heated to 194 degrees and tossed in a blender with tapioca flour, then the whole hammy mess is rolled in plastic wrap. Once set, cooks shave off and fry bits of the stock/flour log. The resulting translucent wisps are extraordinary, their captivating lightness a worthy rejoinder to the old question about flying pigs.
"Marche's Bottle Shock", Dec. 7
A peppery omelet, stuffed according to the season, for one. Made rich and yellow by organic eggs, the rolled omelet's joined by a poof of oiled butter-lettuce leaves that bring a surprising amount of razzmatazz to the most basic of bistro preparations. The quiet omelet is almost radically rustic, and--as Elizabeth David famously counseled--enormously enhanced by a glass or two of wine.
Chipotle Prawns, Poquitos
"Breaking the Rules at Poquitos", Jun. 29
There are sufficient enticements here to feed fantasies and spur multiple return trips. Take the shrimp, which I rationalized back to my table by pointing out that my second-round dining companions deserved the opportunity to try it. The half-pound of plump prawns are shrouded in a maroon-hued chipotle garlic sauce that stings the fingers. While the curlicued critters are no doubt designed to be swaddled in one of Poquitos' cushy, housemade corn tortillas, it's tempting to treat them like Mexican crawfish, alternating swigs of draft Pacifico with brave gulps of saucy shrimp.
Chili ice cream sandwich, Revel
"Rachel Yang's Revel Yell", May 4
I can't quite tamp down my overwhelming affection for Revel's deranged housewife's dessert, featuring a cylinder of assertively spicy whipped ice cream tucked between two brittle chocolate-chip cookies that would claim the blue ribbon at any bake sale. The remarkable two-sandwich plate is completed by a ramekin of tar-thick chocolate-caramel pudding graced with flakes of sea salt. While dairy products and chili peppers are frequent culinary companions, Revel's ice cream--pink as a salmon mousse--is an especially playful take on the partnership.
Black cod potato chip, The Willows Inn
By the second or third course, most guests are reduced to monosyllabic exchanges meant to determine whether or not they're enjoying the best meal of their lives. Almost every dish is an argument in the yes camp's favor.
There's a crisp saddle-shaped potato chip, garnished with a scrawl of sauerkraut and a swag of meaty black cod for a singular flavor that could displace sour cream and onion if a chip company could be bothered to replicate it.
Stroganoff, Budapest Bistro
Save belly room for Muszka's always-housemade spaetzle, eggy and tender. The side should accompany any dish with sauce in need of sopping, including a hardy beef stroganoff enriched with slips of bacon.
Tokyo Classic, Katsu Burger
"Katsu Burger: Come Fry With Me", Nov. 30
Katsu fries its patties in very hot oil, producing consequential-looking burgers clad in chestnut-colored coats. For the Tokyo Classic, the rough-surfaced burger is slathered with a tangy tonkatsu sauce, from which a wine drinker might pick up notes of dried fruit and earth, and a vinegary Japanese mayonnaise. It's perched on a soft sesame-seed bun, which it shares with a blizzard of crisp shredded cabbage, tomatoes, pickles, and red onions. The burger's Japanese pedigree doesn't signal refinement, however, as the sauces and cabbage have a tendency to sloppily overshoot the bun, creating a triumphant mess.
Caesar salad, Skillet Diner
Personal photo; All other photos by Joshua Huston
"Skillet's Truck Stops Here", Aug. 3
The cooks at Skillet are kind to asparagus, pulling fat spears off the grill at exactly the right moment, and surprisingly adept with greens. A Caesar made with papery kale and oily white anchovies attests to the restaurant's willingness to muse beyond muscular ingredients.
Pho, Ba Bar
"Ba Bar: A Regular Destination", Aug. 31
The pho tai nam (is) a pleasingly mellow version of the classic soup, bobbing with thin noodles and delicate sheets of Painted Hills beef. If diners wish to up the beef quotient, they can enhance their order with tendon or meatballs, stunning ping-pong-ball-sized pods of concentrated beef flavor. Otherwise, they can meddle with the typical pho accoutrements: bean sprouts, jalapeños, lime wedges, and stalks of basil. Yet even without editing, the bracing broth is as restorative as a springtime walk and reverberates with citrus and chestnut notes; there are sufficient time-wrought nuances here to keep the colossal serving of soup interesting through the final spoonful.
Crab ravioli, Chimayo
No photo available
"Chimayo's Orcas Noodling", Sept. 28
Crab is a headache for Patterson, who can almost hear the shellfish's freshness ticking down: "It has to be iced, it has to stay on ice, and you've really only got about 48 hours to use it. I don't care what the package says." His urgency to rid the kitchen of crab before it goes bad might account for the abundant portions of meat he encases in each delicate raviolo. Confronted with so much deep-seated sweetness, eaters are unlikely to question Patterson's motivations. They'll be too busy savoring the dish's oceanic flavors and fighting over the third raviolo, finished with bloated sun-dried tomatoes, effervescent leaves of basil, and enough butter to coat the bottom of the shallow serving bowl.
The foregoing dishes were new to nearly everyone in 2011, but my recent arrival means there were plenty of tastes, familiar to Pacific Northwesterners, that were brand new to me. My personal best list would also include oysters shucked on the beach; The Walrus & Carpenter's grilled sardines; Seatown's smoked salmon; Anthony's strawberry shortcake at Taylor Shellfish's bivalve bash; Marination Station's kalbi tacos; Spring Hill's fried chicken; Spinasse's tajarin; Hue Ky Mi Ga's garlic wings; Paseo's Cuban Roast and dried oyster congee at Mike's Noodle Bowl, among many, many other things.