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The beginning of the decade seemed promising. That was January, of course. As I prepared to traverse the country I was excited to see what 2020 would bring us restaurants-wise. The first two months revealed my enthusiasm was well founded. Chefs across America were cooking outstanding food and focusing on creating experiences that would get people away from delivery apps and off their couches. The pandemic put us all right back onto our sofas, relying largely on takeout to experience our favorite restaurants. The industry has been decimated and the government has largely abandoned it.
But one thing is certainly true: Before and during the pandemic, restaurants were producing exceptional food worthy of recognition. So I’ve gathered 25 of my favorite dishes of the year, to tip my cap to the chefs who excelled. Some restaurants on this list couldn’t survive the prolonged shutdowns, while others, hopefully, will be able to hold on through this tough winter to make it through the other side of Covid-19. With any luck, when I make next year’s list, we’ll all be dining together again across the country and the globe.
Pan Roasted Brioche, Auburn
For a restaurant that lasted just over year because of this damn pandemic, it’s a credit to Auburn that it appeared on my list both years it was eligible. On top of its outstanding dinner service, Eric Bost has brought a real creativity to brunch. These weekend services were truly a time for pastry chef Dyan Ng to shine, like with her innovative pan roasted brioche that’s cooked on the stove while being basted with honey butter—instead of baked in the oven.
Kaiseki Jubako, n/naka
My wife’s birthday was supposed to be a big night out, one I’d been planning months in advance. Well, everyone knows how April went, so that didn’t happen. But there is some pretty special takeout happening in the City of Angels, with Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama’s luxurious two-level bento, the kaiseki jubako, among them. An early incarnation of the box included braised abalone with liver and truffle sauce; lobster with uni and caviar; sashimi; crispy lobster nanbanzuke and more.
Lobster Bao, Essex Pearl
Inside the Market Line food hall on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the first place to greet you as you descended the stairs to the lower level was the Essex Pearl, a fish market and restaurant that cooked directly from the tanks out front. Chef Bun Cheam helmed the kitchen before the pandemic, bringing flavors from Cambodia as well as around Southeast Asia to the menu. So while you could get a traditional lobster roll, the go-to was Cheam’s Spicy Essex Bao which featured lobster claw, brown butter and sriracha.
Gluten Free Chocolate Cake, Jinju Patisserie
The unofficial mayor of Portland, Gary the Foodie, took me to this quaint pastry shop in town that was started by the duo of chocolatier Jin Caldwell and pastry chef Kyurim Lee. Along with partaking in fruit-infused chocolates, we feasted on these layers of gluten-free sponge interspersed with equal amounts of decadent chocolate mousse.
Sweet Potato and Pecan Taco, Nixta
Rushing from my hotel to the airport with not much time to spare, I needed one last taco fix in Austin. Such is my commitment to gout. So with my luggage I rumbled into Nixta to stand in line and order my tacos. I was richly rewarded with a duck carnitas taco featuring watermelon radish and shaved white onions, a steak and avocado taco, and this amazing sweet potato and pecan taco.
Grilled Dorade, Vernick Fish
While Jean-Georges Vongerichten took the penthouse at the new Four Seasons in Philadelphia, his protégé Greg Vernick holds it down on the first floor with his ode to the oyster bar, Vernick Fish. Arriving in late summer 2019, it was one of the best new seafood restaurants to open across the country. This butterflied and grilled dorade is served with a pumpkin seed and arbol chile salsa macha.
Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark’s encore to Michelin-starred Parachute is an egalitarian tasting menu spot in the mold of Contra in New York or Chateaubriand in Paris. The final savory course was a pheasant with perfectly crispy skin and mushrooms over a mousse that has a slight tanginess, which provided a nice balance to the earthiness of the mushrooms and bird.
The Original Butcher’s Feast, Cote
If I could actually go to New York right now, I’d want to be at Cote. Aged beef at the level of the city’s best steakhouses combined with Korean barbecue banchan and an atmosphere much more fun than white tablecloth expense account meateries makes for a great night out. I had to settle for the next best thing: Having Cote ship me a steak dinner with all the fixins through Goldbelly. The kit arrives with four different pickles, marinated galbi, a hanger steak, a ribeye dry aged for 45+ days, an American Wagyu steak, lettuce to make ssam, seasoning salt and ssamjang sauce. If only the soft serve ice cream you get at the end of an in-person Butcher’s Feast could have been shipped too . . .
Lingonberry Almond Cake, Lost Larson
My hotel in Chicago was situated dangerously close to the second outpost of Bobby Schaffer’s Scandinavian-influenced bakery, Lost Larson, which meant breakfast was a short stroll in the wintry cold away. The various treats included a cinnamon bun, an almond croissant and this lingonberry almond cake that really tapped into my Scandinavian heritage.
Apple, Le Bernardin
When Le Bernardin reopens fully, the lifehack I’ll offer to you is going to the lounge for a night cap and ordering all of Thomas Raquel’s desserts, including his famed “Apple,” which is brown butter mousse, apple confit and Armagnac sabayon.
Blue Crab Meatballs and Spaghetti, Maialino Mare
At Danny Meyer’s DC debut, Maialino Mare, chef Rose Noel created a seafood-centric Italian menu that incorporated some outstanding mid-Atlantic catch. A standout of her selections was the spaghetti and meatballs that seemed pretty standard upon first look, but were actually generous lumps of blue crab formed together and disguised to look like your garden variety meatball. They were anything but.
Rice Krispies Treats, Demi
Gavin Kaysen’s magnum opus tasting counter experience Demi winds you through a journey that touches on his background as a chef and the food and culture of the upper Midwest. The dishes are delivered with precision and beauty, but the little grace note at the end is what will really charm you. The final dish isn’t some super composed dessert, but a tiny, warm pot of Rice Krispies treats, just like Kaysen loved to eat as a kid.
Manti Dumplings, Albi
The more traditional version of manti dumplings isn’t one of chef Michael Rafidi’s favorite dishes, so he tweaked the format to make it more his own. He’s turned a yogurt-and-dumpling stew into lamb-and-eggplant-stuffed dumplings that are served with a dollop of yogurt and a Chinese-influenced Urfa chili crisp.
Mentaiko Carbonara, Kaisho at Yugen
At Michelin-starred Yugen, its front lounge, Kaisho, served an a la carte menu by chef Mari Katsumura and a cocktail menu with a Japanese twist. Before the shutdown, Katsumura featured dishes meant to be more casual than the tasting menu in the main dining room, but the results were elegant all the same. She wowed with selections like her takayoki with black truffle and chicken karaage, but her biggest winner was the stunning carbonara made with udon noodles and uni butter.
Duck Five Ways, Berlu
Berlu is the culmination of a globe-trotting culinary journey for Vince Nguyen, the 34-year-old chef who ventured from Los Angeles to Copenhagen, on to Dunkeld, Australia, and back to San Francisco before finally arriving in the Pacific Northwest. The Southern California native worked in some of the world’s great kitchens, developing a minimalist, produce-driven style that now feels uniquely his own. The final savory course is a stunner, showing off different parts of the duck, including this grilled leg with green garlic, duck-fat popovers, breast tartare and tongues wrapped in mint and sorrel.
In LA, one of the most thoughtful and phenomenally executed takeout experiences belongs to Vespertine’s Jordan Kahn. The experimental dining destination that’s inextricably linked to the architecture of the four-story building it occupies had to break from its own identity for a Covid-19 world. It did so by reimagining its menu multiple times, on each occasion completely changing the focus of its cooking. One month it may be a tribute to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, another an exploration of Sicily and then at a different time the food of Cuba. These Arancini kicked off a stellar Sicilian menu.
Pork Trotter Tonkotsu, Emilie’s
Crispy, crunch pork covered in kewpie mayo on top of a toasted slice of milk bread? Yes.
Sunchoke Flatbread, Rustic Canyon
Andy Doubrava is one of the most talented young chefs around right now with a creativity that means every time I head to Rustic Canyon (admittedly, a couple blocks from my home) there’s always something new and delicious to try. I happened to be there on a night when he debuted this sunchoke flatbread with sunflower XO sauce and a tangy crème fraiche dip.
Brisket Tostadas, Loro
After having some brisket breakfast tacos over at the original Franklin Barbecue, I drove across town for lunch at Aaron Franklin’s joint venture with chef Tyson Cole to grab lunch in their big beer hall-like spot to snack on Franklin’s brisket in a different form. This time on a crisp corn tortilla with crème fraiche and shishito salsa verde.
Spicy Sea Bass Temaki, Nami Nori
Taka Sakaeda, Jihan Lee and Lisa Limb created a picture-perfect ode to temaki after years at Masa. Each order arrives tucked into little wooden holders, standing the U-shaped rolls upright with ingredients bursting out the top in a way that practically begs you to post them on Instagram. Chefs Sakaeda and Lee don’t obsess over “authenticity” drawing from cultures beyond Japan for their hand rolls, like with the chojang that adds the heat to this sea bass temaki.
Grilled Chicken, Laser Wolf
About two weeks before the world ground to a halt, I had dinner at Mike Solomonov and Steven Cook’s newest restaurant Laser Wolf. Chef Andrew Henshaw runs an ode to an Israeli shipudiya, or skewer house. Ordering is simple: Just choose your meat, and along with it comes a sprawling selection of dips, pickles, vegetables and salads called salatim that have roots across the Middle East—perfect for dragging your fresh pita through or slathering on lamb merguez. The chicken grilled over the coals was a perfect vehicle for all the salatim and expertly executed by Henshaw and team.
Lobster Bolognese with Truffle Sauce, Melisse
As the pandemic wore on we realized my birthday would be spent in quarantine, so my wife got us something fancy for the evening. Melisse, which had just reopened a few months before the Covid-19 shutdowns, channeled some of the old hits for its takeout tasting menu. It included the crowd-pleasing Josiah Citrin classic lobster Bolognese with truffles, which I took the time to plate myself, because why not.
Pike Quenelle, Grand Café
Sadly, Jamie Malone’s Grand Café in Minneapolis won’t return in its old form when the pandemic ends, as she’s moved to a new model of meal kits and takeout experiences that’s operated out of her other Twin Cities restaurant Eastside. Her quenelle was a throwback to the classic Lyonnais dish of a poached egg mixture served in a rich crayfish sauce.
Lamb Curry, Eem
On an afternoon in February, Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom’s Eem was packed out, with people at the bar partaking in co-owner and bartender Eric Nelson’s cocktails. I guess you could attribute this to me being in Portland, where young people go to retire. But I chalked it up to this Thai barbecue spot serving really great food and drinks in a fun atmosphere. This Thai massaman curry was the perfect mix of warming spices and lamb.
Everything They Serve, Hestia
Folks, there’s a reason I crowned this place the best new restaurant in America. Kevin Fink and Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s latest venture creates dishes with a rugged heartiness that doesn’t sacrifice precision in flavor. And though Hestia looks like a modern steak house, it’s so much more inventive, exemplified by the lion’s mane mushroom. It sits atop a sauce of smoked oil and miso, shrouded by thinly sliced rounds of Badger Flame beet. The mushroom has a deep, satisfying char, while the flesh retains the chewy unctuousness of fatty pork—even the vegetarians get to feel like carnivores. And the restaurant named for the Greek goddess of the hearth proves itself worthy of its moniker. Then there was the Wagyu bavette, the king crab, oysters with smoked tomato, koji tarts with chestnut mushrooms, mackerel and avocado, sweet potato cake and more. Every single dish satisfied.