Best Eats 2015

The year in food in 2015 involved a lot of vegetables. Vegetable-driven tasting menus, vegetarian burgers, vegan brunches, produce became very hot. Those who know their way around a farmer’s market were very much sought out. Another theme in 2015–the return of flashy, high-end dining in Manhattan. Casual Brooklyn has been all the rage in recent years, but people are starting to embrace reservations and formal service again, and the over-the-top Major Food Group empire is making a killing. Food startups were a huge thing in 2015. Munchery, Maple, Ubereats, Blue Apron, suddenly everyone is trying to make delivery better in the city. What else is there? I loved the trend of natural, funky wine menus, the continued popularity of Korean influences, and the love for healthy California cuisine. Here’s my list of the top 10 dishes that I tried in 2015, which covers a pretty broad spectrum of tastes, but the one thing they have in common is that they grabbed my attention at the very first bite.

The beef brisket from La Barbecue in Austin, TX

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The fairytale eggplant from Bruno Kitchen

fairytale eggplant

The uni seaweed ramen course from Yuji Ramen Omakase

course 8 - seaweed ramen with Maine uni and thai basil

The apricot in brown butter and tonka bean from Timbre in Paris

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The king crab from Oaxen Slip in Stockholm

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The scallop and dashi course from Frantzen in Stockholm

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The beluga lentils in coffee course at Take Root

beluga lentils cooked in coffee with ham hock and truffles

The chicken and crepes from Dirty French

chicken and crepes, part deux - dark meat

The jang-jo-rim with buttered rice at Oiji 

jang-jo-rim with butter rice

The duck carnitas from Cosme

duck carnitas with white onions, radish and salsa verde

Favorite Foods of 2014

2014 was a good year for food. It was a year that involved an unprecedented amount of travel, due to the record number of friends getting married this year, and many of their ceremonies took place internationally. As a result, this created many opportunities for interesting meals–breakfast sushi at Tsukiji market or unripe strawberries in Copenhagen are not experiences that can be easily had back at home.

While the international meals were memorable, the majority of my favorite meals took place in New York, and Kansas City and New Orleans weren’t too shabby, either. Honestly, with so many chefs training at the same restaurants and then setting shop elsewhere, you can find really good cooking anywhere. But that also means that many of the meals and food trends seem all too similar. It’s amazing how many small plates, Brooklyn-esque farm-to-table restaurants exist in the world.

I personally preferred those meals that still retained their regional traits to the ambiguous New World Global cuisine that proliferated everywhere else. So my favorite food moments in 2014 crosses many borders and price points, a reflection of the glamorous and janky meals that were unique to the cities I ate them in. In no particular order, here is a round up of my favorite foods in 2014.

1. the z-man sandwich from oklahoma joe’s in kansas city

oklahoma joe's - the z-man sandwich

2. the melt-in-your-mouth sea eel from nakamura in tokyo

nakamura - 18 sea eel

3. the epic peking duck dinner at decoy in new york

peking duck

4. the ricotta gnocchi from the eddy in new york

ricotta gnocchi with oyster mushrooms, squash, rosemary and hazelnuts

5. the husk meringue with corn mousse dessert from cosme in new york

husk meringue and corn mousse

6. the duck carnitas from cosme in new york

duck carnitas with white onions, radish and salsa verde

7. the duck fat rice with kale and chinese sausage from tuome in new york

rice with kale, chinese sausage and duck fat

8. the beef tartare from manfreds in copenhagen

beef tartare with watercress

9. the breakfast sushi from tsukiji market in tokyo

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10. the omakase at sushi nakazawa in new york

nakazawa hamming it up with shrimp

11. the whitefish donburi bowl from ivan ramen slurp shop in new york

ivan ramen slurp shop - smoked whitefish donburi

12. the kale and wild mushroom risotto from gato in new york

kale and wild mushroom paella with crispy artichokes and egg

13. the lobster ravioli from cherche midi in new york

homemade lobster ravioli

14. the #1 bagel sandwich from black seed bagels in new york

black seed - sandwich 1

15. the butcher’s steak at st. anselm in new york (my pictures were so crappy and not post-worthy, but i would highly recommend that you brave the no reservation policy and make the trek out to brooklyn for this amazing piece of meat)

24 Hours in Antwerp

I recently stumbled upon a website called 12hrs (http://www.12hrs.net/#welcome) that gives you a 12 hour itinerary for different cities around the world. I like this approach, as well as the recommendations in them, because it helps you edit your trip to act more like a local and less like a frantic camera wielding tourist clutching a Rick Steves book. I’ve decided to lay out my own 12 hour itinerary for Antwerp, which obviously draws heavily from the 12hrs website but has a few worthwhile detours along the way.

Before I do that, I have a few overall impressions of Antwerp that I’d like to share. Some cities make an instant impact on a visitor. Antwerp is not one of them. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a bit more reserved than other cities. It is cute and has some character in certain parts, but there’s nothing definitive that makes it “antwerp.” Some parts felt reminiscent of Amsterdam, others looked like a small town in England, and some of the streets felt like Spain. You’ll have to dig a little deeper to get to know it, because there is stuff to do.

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the Belgians love their bikes

Morning – start it late. The city doesn’t really get going until 12 pm. Really. Not the best place for a morning person such as myself.

10 am – the MOMU, or the fashion museum of Antwerp, is one of those few places open at 10 am. There is no permanent exhibit here–the museum carefully pulls from its enormous archive for a thematic exhibition. On the day we visited the special exhibit was titled “Plumes and Feathers in Paradise,” which featured the use of feathers in high fashion over the years. My favorite was this beautiful feather dress designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, also known as the woman who designed Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. Another standout was this crazy aggressive bird lady mermaid gown from Thierry Mugler. Totally unwearable but that’s not really the point.

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sarah burton’s alexander mcqueen dress
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thierry mugler’s crazy firebird dress

MOMU: Fashion Museum Province Of Antwerp // Nationalestraat 28 // Tue-Sun 10 am-5pm

11 am – stores are just barely opening at this point. Two that were open included Labels Inc. and Rosier.  They sell high end designer clothing at very attractive price points. They organize everything by designer, with one rack dedicated to homegrown Belgians such as Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, and another for foreign brands. As with all discount and vintage stores, you really have to browse everything to stumble upon something great. I was not so lucky today.

Rosier 41 // Rosier 41 // Mon-Sat 10.30am-6pm
Labels Inc. // Aalmoezenierstraat 3a // Mon-Tue & Thu-Sat 11am-6pm, Wed 2pm-6pm

We also pass by the Dries Van Noten store, a spectacular retail space housed in a beautiful chateau-like building owned by the designer’s family. I’ve never been in such an elegant store–everything was draped and laid out with such aesthetic purpose. He’s clearly a master of color and florals, as there were many dresses in this style on the rack. I was too intimidated to try on anything, and I felt bad about messing up the careful displays, but it also didn’t help that the salespeople were a bit aloof. The men’s section, one floor above, also had these amazing long floral jackets and impeccably fitting narrow suits. If you don’t have a thousand to spend, don’t even bother dropping by.

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the dries van noten flagship store in antwerp

Dries Van Noten // Nationalestraat 16

12:00 pm – lunchtime! We stopped by for lunch at Chez Fred, a small, cute eatery with outdoor seating.  The fare here was pretty conventional, a lot of salads and pastas on the menu. I ordered the Thai beef salad, while Ruoxi ordered the linguine of the day, a slightly strange dish consisting of smoked salmon, broccoli and pasta. My Thai beef salad was decent – the beef was very good, although it could’ve benefited from more salt and seasoning. But it was light and filling, which is what we needed to power through the day.

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thai beef salad at chez fred
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pasta of the day with smoked salmon and broccoli

Chez Fred // Kloosterstraat 8 // Mon-Sun from 10am

1:30 pm – we head over to the north part of town near the shore for MAS, a national gallery of sorts for Antwerp. There was no real consistency to the exhibits. One floor was dedicated to weapons, another to ships, and then there was another dedicated to modern photography. The building itself is an architectural feat, but I wouldn’t say the exhibits lived up to their surroundings.

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the mas building
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an amusing tin tin installation

MAS // Hanzestedenplaats 1 // Tue-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-6pm

3 pm – we walk back to the city center and enter De Kathedraal, or the Cathedral of Our Lady, which is home to some very impressive religious works of art painted by Peter Paul Reubens and other famous Baroque artists. Reubens’ Descent from the Cross is especially grand and imposing in person. The collection is small, so if you get overwhelmed by all the hell and heaven imagery just know it will all be over very soon.

De Kathedraal // Groenplaats 21 // Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 10am-3pm, Sun 1pm-4pm

On the way back to our hotel, we pass by a very high-end boutique called Houben. It carries brands like Celine and Balenciaga, while there was a lot of Thom Browne on the men’s side. The section devoted to Celine is extremely well edited and merchandised. I wanted all of the beautiful clutches and wallets, and the styles were different from what I’ve seen back in the states.

Houben // Maria-Theresialei 17-19 // Mon-Sat 10:30am-6:30pm

5 pm – coffee break at Barnini, a cute cafe also recommended by the 12 hour guide. Each drink comes with a delicious macaron, which pairs quite nicely with the thick and robust Belgian drip coffee. Apparently the bagel sandwiches are good here, but we were trying to hold out for dinner.

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barnini cafe

Barnini // Oude Vaartsplaats 10 //Mon-Sat 8am-7pm, Sun 8am-5pm

As an FYI, on Saturday mornings, a vibrant farmers market takes place on the street in front of Barnini. The farmers market is huge, even bigger than the one in Union Square, and there’s just so much more variety in terms of what is sold. I would definitely recommend devoting a morning to that if the timing allows for it.

7:30 – head over to Ardent, a small restaurant in south Antwerp, for a four course tasting dinner. For only 45 euros, you get four incredible and well executed dishes, along with additional amuse-bouches and a dessert plate that make you feel like you got your money’s worth. You can also upgrade to a wine pairing for an extra 24 euro, which I recommend since each wine does absolutely enhance the flavors of the dish it’s paired with.

Ardent // Dageraadplaats 3 // Wed-Sun 12pm-2pm, 7pm-9:30pm

 If you want to go out, you should head back over to the area of the Cathedral. There are many bars in the town square, and during the World Cup almost everyone is out watching the game on flat screens set outside of every bar. The energy is quite electric, especially when Belgians are seeing their team winning (I was the only one sad that Korea lost). There was also a lively scene at a jazz bar called De Muze on Melkmarkt 15. Walk around and see if there’s a crowd of people–that’s usually a sign that the place is pretty good!

Antwerp Travels: Dinner at Ardent

After such a fabulous dinner at Te Kook, we were hoping to recreate the positive experience at Ardent, a small restaurant in a more residential part of Antwerp. And luckily we were not let down. Ardent has quite a different feel to it than Te Kook. Whereas Te Kook was very slick and modern, Ardent has a much more homey and comfortable vibe. You feel like you are having dinner at someone’s lovely dining room, a quality that was enhanced by the presence of a family having dinner at the center table.

Service is a bit slow and uneven here, although not in an offensive way. Our server, yet again, patiently translated the whole menu for us, which was a definitive plus. But it took awhile for him to stop by to take our order, and sometimes the lag time in between courses was really long. And the girl with the bread would refill everyone else’s bread plate except ours. They were quick to right the wrongs, however, and some of the stumbles seemed to be due to youthful inexperience, so I couldn’t really hold it against them.

The bread came first, which was fantastic, but even more so were the butter and tomato pesto spread that came with it. Did I mention that the butter in Belgium is amazing? It tastes like it has been just freshly churned, possessing a sweet and creamy quality that American butters seem to lack. I kept ordering more bread just to get an additional taste of the butter.

bread with butter and a tomato pesto spread
bread with butter and a tomato pesto spread

The amuse-bouche arrived–a duo of veal tongue and pig ears. The veal tongue was remarkably tender–I suppose they must have tenderized the heck out of that springy piece of tough muscle. It reminded me of a cold, unseasoned pate, which I wasn’t the biggest fan of, and the raw cucumber balls didn’t do much to add any flavors, which the dish could have benefited from.

veal tongue with cucumber
veal tongue with cucumber

The fried pig ear was much more up my alley. It was fried, crispy and delicious–imagine eating a thin piece of crisp bacon on top of a fresh piece of fried chiccarones, that marriage of pig fat definitely happened and it was the greatest of unions. The pieces arrived on what looked like small black shards of asphalt. Perhaps it was a play on a pig rolling around in mud? Whatever the reason, the presentation and flavors were both in sync.

pig ears
pig ears

The first course arrived soon after–a reinterpretation of a classic Belgian dish of tomatoes stuffed with gray shrimp. I’m not too familiar with this traditional dish, so I can’t really say how the new rendition compares to the original. But it stands very well on its own. The flavors in the dish are very clean–the taste of the shrimp and the tomatoes is remarkably intact. But once everything starts breaking apart and submerging into the pool of consommé beneath, that’s when the flavors truly gel. The consommé assumes a medley of sweet, savory and briney qualities that make for a wonderfully flavorful broth. The precious little broth that remained, I slurped up with a spoon much too big.

a reinterpretation of tomato stuffed with gray shrimp
a reinterpretation of tomato stuffed with gray shrimp

The second course was the steak tartare. The tartare arrived underneath two thin slices of truffle mushroom, and was accompanied by a family of earthy vegetables, including artichoke, radish and fried onion. I was struck by how visually the tartare portion looked like a bed of soil from which the mushrooms and root vegetables were emerging. Even flavor wise the meat almost played a secondary role to the surrounding vegetables, yielding a very earthy bite of steak. I thought this was a clever way of emphasizing the rawness and wildness of the food chain. At the end of the day, from dirt we came and to the earth we return, so what really makes meat and vegetables all that different?

steak tartare with truffles, artichokes and fried onion
steak tartare with truffles, artichokes and fried onion

The third course was the entree–a turf and turf combo of cooked bacon and pigeon. It was a little unsettling that I was eating pigeon, which in New York is equivalent to rats with wings, I would have appreciated a euphemism like squab instead. Nevertheless, the pigeon meat was tender and slightly gamey, and extremely well cooked. The small slab of bacon, likewise, was out of this world. I’ve never had bacon this rich and flavorful, a hybrid of the most delicious pork belly and tenderloin you could ever find. The vegetables again played a crucial supporting role. The mashed broccoli “potatoes” helped balance out the richness of the proteins, as did the puréed parsnips and slices of rhubarb.

 

bacon and pigeon
bacon and pigeon

For dessert we had the option of a lemon dessert and the cheese plate. Intrigued by the cheese cart that I saw passing by earlier, I opted for it. This is not cheese for the faint of heart. Almost everything I had was strong, even the user friendly ones. One cheese, a soft cheese from France whose name escapes me, tasted like the stuff that builds up in rotten milk. The taste lingered in my mouth for a long time. And the intense sour smell as well. Of the 5 different types, I could only finish the mild Belgian hard cheese. The others were left almost untouched. I felt bad for not embracing a more adventurous dessert, but sometimes you just can’t force it. Ruoxi’s cold and refreshing lemon sorbet dessert was fantastic, as were the small bites of macarons, caneles and tarts that arrived on the side. They were almost enough to get the cheese taste out.

a very strong cheese platter
a very strong cheese platter
lemon dessert
lemon dessert
some additional sweet treats
some additional sweet treats

After the meal, we took a stroll around the town square. People were having drinks outside, while children were running around a basketball court with strung lights. It was nice taking in the vibe of a small town. You wouldn’t expect a place like this to be home to a restaurant capable of very conceptual and high-minded cooking, but they have Ardent to call their own. In Manhattan this place would be booked all the time, but in Antwerp, it remains comfortable and accessible.

Guest Blogging for NYC Food Truck Association

Coolhaus - duo
read about coolhaus’ spiked ice cream sammies and more on my guest blog post!

Hi everyone, here’s my first stint as a guest blogger for the New York City Food Truck Association! Want to know where you can try “the Frodo”? Wondering where you can get spiked ice cream sandwiches? Want to know why vegan ice cream is no longer the Lady Edith of frozen desserts? You can find out all this and more at the following link!

http://www.nycfoodtrucks.org/2013/06/guest-blogger-of-the-week-sherry-chen