My 42 Best Food Experiences of 2015

It has always been difficult for me to choose the best 10 or 15 dishes I’ve had for the year because meals are the sum of many moving parts. At each year’s end, I fill a desktop folder with food photos but can never whittle it down to less than several dozen. How can I pick 10 or 15 favorite dishes?

I can’t.

So here are 42,  okay I snuck in one more so technically there are 43 of my favorite food experiences from 2015. I wish I could select 100 but most of you won’t even get past 12. Some are dishes I made at home with the kids and some were raging parties. Some were Michelin meals or eaten standing up. Some were made in my kitchen or eaten in my car. But everything listed here is special to me beyond the ingredients, skill, technique and in some cases, even taste.

May your 2016 dining experiences be filled with peace, adventure and love.

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Recreating this Avocado Toast dish from Copenhagen’s Atelier September brought my formerly average avocado toast to a whole new level with the addition of lemon zest, chives and chili powder. It’s become my favorite thing to eat when nothing appeals to me because it always reawakens my palate. [Avocado Toast at home]
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Out of frustration in not finding the quality and flavors of Asian food in Chicago as when I lived in San Francisco and Seattle, I have become a pretty good pan-asian cook, especially Thai food. This is my take on Pad See Ew Beef which I can confidently say is better than any I’ve ordered in the Chicagoland area. That’s a tall claim from someone who doesn’t even know how to hold a knife correctly. [Pad See Ew Beef at home]

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My Filipino Beef Empanadas with potato, peas, hard-boiled egg. I make them once a year, store them in the freezer and we eat them one by one until they are gone. This year, my kids have been hiding them in various parts of the freezer and that is what made these special this year. Yes, they have raisins and we like them that way.

%22Fideous%22 Toasted Vermicelli, Asparagus, Peppers, Poblano, Saffron ($12) We added clams and shrimp (2)
This year, mfk warmed my heart by reminding me of my food adventures in Spain. How much do I like Spain? I went three times in the span of a year and a half. Anyone who chooses to open a Spanish restaurant has obviously been touched by the beautiful products that come from the magical trifecta of Spanish sun, soil and sea. Not only does mfk nail it with their interpretation of Basque cuisine, but also with their vibe and warm hospitality. This particular dish tasted like a paella but with a creamy broth and pasta instead of rice. There were layers of flavor yet each bite on its own was simple. Bravo mfk! [“Fideous” Toasted Vermicelli, Asparagus, Peppers, Poblano, Saffron, Shrimp at mfk. Chicago]
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The Jean Banchet Grand Chefs Gala for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is an event and cause I have become attached to over the years. The event always runs smoothly, has the best auction items and gives a rare opportunity to mingle with a lot of local chefs and mixologists in a fun and social setting. The food and cocktails at the VIP Chefs Cocktail and the Late Night Bites are always their best “event” items. And this year one of my photos was included in a magazine! [Jean Banchet Grand Chefs Gala for Cystic Fibrosis]
GNOCCHI potato, ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh Italian black truffle
This is the only dish in the history of Spiaggia’s 30 years of existence that has never left the menu. Divine. [Potato Gnocchi, Ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano, Italian Black Truffle at Spiaggia Chicago]

Amuse - Foie gras mousse with cherry gelee
Valentine’s Dinner at Spiaggia. Foie gras mousse with cherry gelee
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The Alinea 10-Year Anniversary party was held on the same weekend as the James Beard Awards. José Andrés, Thomas Keller, Ming Tsai, Andrew Zimmern and some of the best local and visiting chefs were in attendance. The champagne and molecular Bloody Marys flowed freely, guests snacked on Truffle Ravioli, Hot Potato Cold Potato and helium Apple Balloons were made to order.

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This year I had dinner at Alinea at different times with friends visiting from Boston, San Francisco, New York, Paris and Copenhagen. This compact caramel bite had perfectly balanced, bold Thai flavors. Sharp, smooth, tangy, sweet, salty, sour, spicy, funky, crunchy, chewy. As the last bit of caramel melted away, I was quite moved by Grant Achatz’ pure brilliance and what he has gone through. It’s as if almost dying made him cook invincibly and without fear.The Alinea experience is comprised of so many ingredients and dishes inspired from many regions using many techniques, yet the courses are strongly connected from one to the next and the palate transitions are effortless. As you try each dish, the flavors are very focused and clear and your senses are never overwhelmed. I am very relaxed when I dine at Alinea. My mind is quiet and I am always able to enjoy my meal. Just how it should be. [Tamarind Young Coconut, Nam Prik Num at Alinea. Chicago]
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This is one of Curtis Duffy’s signature dishes. Not only is it visually stunning, but it tastes as refreshingly crisp as it looks. [Alaskan Crab, kalamansi, cucumber, lemon, mint at Grace. Chicago]
Baja Shrimp - Cuttlefish noodles, truffle squid ink vinaigrette, fried spoon bread, black kale, chorizo (1)
This was a complimentary taste from their tasting menu so it might vary from the actual menu item. This dish stood out to me because it was an elegant way to combine different elements from the sea into one dish. It wasn’t over-plated or swimming in sauces or artsy smears. This meal stood out to me because I hadn’t been back in a while and I felt so welcomed when I returned. From burgers to lobster, Acadia has the kind of food I like to eat and it’s where I feel most comfortable for casual to special occasion meals. Ryan throws pretty good parties too. [Baja Shrimp – Cuttlefish Noodles, Truffle Squid Ink Vinaigrette, Fried Spoon Bread, Black Kale, Chorizo at Acadia. Chicago.]
April Bloomfield pop up at Nico Osteria Chicago
I always manage to embarrass myself several times a year. This particular time I was waiting for April Bloomfield to come out of the kitchen in hopes of meeting her. I waited and waited and then figured she was too busy so I held up her new cookbook that had a picture of her face and held it up to my face only to feel a tapping on my shoulder. Yes, it was April. This event was particularly successful because chefs Erling Wu Bower, Lee Wolen, Paul Virant, Stephanie Izard and April Bloomfield were all in synch. The pacing ran as if we sat down for regular service. Everything was well-balanced and the portions were hearty. We were able to order a la carte and selected at least two items from each of the chefs. Our only frustration was that we were too full and couldn’t try them all. [April Blomfield Pop Up at Nico Osteria at Thompson Hotel. Chicago]

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Cochon 555 is a traveling food event that embraces where our food comes from and celebrates farmers. This series of events is all about the pig. It’s hip, laid-back, has great music and a friendly crowd. The chefs in each city create various dishes using pig, the attendees vote and one chef in each city is crowned the King or Queen of Porc. The winners from each city later compete for the grand title. This blood sausage packed so much flavor into one bite. I do not remember who made it but I loved it.

Duck dog, truffle aioli, for gras, fleur sel
Hot Doug’s may be closed but long live the Duck Sausage Foie Gras Dog at Hot G Dog [Sauternes duck sausage, foie gras, truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel at Hot G Dog. Chicago]
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My favorite 2015 burger and one of my favorite local meals of 2015 goes to White Oak Tavern. Former Alinea chef John Astbay has since moved on, but I hear his burger creation is still intact with slight modifications. [Beef Burger, Aged Cheddar, Butterkase Cheese, Smoked Chili Ketchup, Aioli, Pickles, Pickled Onions, House Bun at White Oak Tavern. Chicago]
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Octopus, chickpea, tapioca, cardamom at Alinea. Very interesting dish visually, texturally and taste-wise. [Alinea, Chicago.]

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Dario Cecchini’s Meatloaf Polpettone with Red Pepper Jelly served at RPM Italian. Chicago. Holy cow was this good!
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Meeting Dario was a great moment for me! Someday I want to visit his butcher shop in Italy.

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When I first ordered this sandwich, I asked for some au jus on the side but was told there isn’t any. I eyed the surrounding restaurants plotting where I could get some type of gravy or dip. I use sauces, dips, condiments in all my food, especially meats and sandwiches. I was surprised how well this stood up on its own. [Black Angus prime rib sandwich, extra virgin olive oil, housemade porcini rub at Eataly. Chicago.]
QUAIL EGG RAVIOLI brown butter sauce, white truffle
Always a favorite. [Quail egg ravioli, brown butter sauce, white truffle at Schwa. Chicago.]
 

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Life-changing meat. [Spanish-Style, bone-in rib eye, oak-wood fired, Washugyu/Angus at Bazaar Meat by José Andrés. Las Vegas]
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When you eat something so common to 1970-80s America like a Sloppy Joe sandwich but as elevated as this, you can’t help but wonder why our entire country stopped evolving in the at-home kitchen. Why do so many restaurants still cater to what was our formerly fast-food and TV dinner lifestyle? Middle America’s tastes have become somewhat refined if not luxurious when it comes to cars, homes, vacations and clothing, but our overall food tastes remain antiquated and lazy and we still find it hard to spend money on the good food. Even kids’ menus could be better and updated but they have remained the same for decades. American parents and restaurants underestimate children’s palates. Macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese, chicken fingers and PB&J is on every American’s children’s menu no matter the food. Why not serve smaller portions of what adults eat? Even hotels dumb down the menus for adults. There is so much unleashed talent out there and it crushes me to see even hotels serving flat choices for their beef, chicken, fish and salad offerings. So anyway, if you had to take something from a very “easy meal” time period in America and update it, this Sloppy Joe is what happens when you push and want to do American food well. An incredible, memorable bite. [Sloppy Joe Beef bolognese, fried straw potatoes, steamed bun at Bazaar Meat by José Andrés. Las Vegas.]
LE FOIE GRAS Tortellini filled with liquified foie gras, dashi bouillon, matsutake and shiitake, white soy sauce, lemongrass, ginger, onion
This dish was so dainty and delicate that I felt like a bull in a china shop wolfing it down. The pasta was so thin, almost transparent, yet sturdy enough it didn’t fall apart as you poked your spoon in and around the bowl. The ravioli gave the illusion of melting on your tongue. As the contents of the bowl started to disappear, I fought with myself deciding if I should save a drink of the broth or a ravioli for the final bite. [Le Foie Gras Tortellini filled with liquified foie gras, dashi bouillon, matsutake and shiitake, white soy sauce, lemongrass, ginger, onion at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Las Vegas]

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Kobe beef slider, foie gras and caramelized bell pepper at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Las Vegas
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Duck fat dog with house-made/grown garnishes: pickle, serrano chili, tomato, celery salt, onion, relish. One of my photos of this dog (not this one) is going to be on an upcoming TV show! I’ll keep you posted! The Duck Inn. Chicago.
Foie gras torchon - cassis and citron macarons, cherry and blueberry preserves
Foie gras torchon, cassis and citron macaron, cherry and blueberry preserves at The Blanchard. Chicago.

Sweet Corn Risotto, Chanterelles, Okra, Squash Blossoms
You don’t realize how many poor renditions of risotto you’ve had until you try one that’s outstanding. [Sweet Corn Risotto, Chanterelles, Okra, Squash Blossoms at Virginia’s. New York City.]
Hmm Dog - Bacon-wrapped with black truffle and celery
I am never splitting this with anyone else ever again. [Humm Dog – Bacon-wrapped with black truffle and celery at Nomad Bar. New York City.]
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I tried to make this yesterday and failed miserably. Keste’s pistachio pesto sauce and crust are hauntingly delicious. [Pistachio e Salsiccia – Pistachio Pesto, sausage, mozzarella, Pecorino Romano, basil, extra virgin olive oil at Keste Pizza and Vino. NYC]
White Truffle Risotto
Another fine risotto. [White Truffle Risotto at RPM Steak. Chicago.]

TART Pumpkin, sea urchin, dried mushroom shell
Pumpkin, sea urchin, dried mushroom tart at the Ryan Poli Pop-Up at Jam. Chicago.

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The combinations of this tabled dessert masterpiece are infinite and you can’t stop eating it even if you’re full. I love this particular combination of flavors and textures. [Tropical fruit, rum, vanilla, kaffir lime at Alinea. Chicago]
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I finally had one! Growing up on pork buns instead of Doritos, I was skeptical by how it looked, but it works. [Steamed Buns – pork belly, hoisin, cucumber, scallion at Momofuku. NYC]
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Perfectly cooked. Comforting but bright. Delicate yet rich. [Ricotta Agnolotti, trumpet mushrooms, lemon, winter truffle conserve at Maple & Ash. Chicago.]
Yorkshire Breed Suckling Pig at The Duck Inn Chicago
I’ve had a lot of roasted pig in my life. More than you, unless you are my cousin. My cousins who lived next door had a built-in brick pig roaster in their backyard so we had a lot of roasted pig growing up. This was outstanding. So clean tasting and the way it was cooked was so tender that the meat pulled apart easily with a fork. [Yorkshire Breed Suckling Pig at The Duck Inn Chicago by Kevin Hickey.]
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One of my favorite meal openers. Glass of Krug not shown.[Pork lard glazed Parker House roll, caviar, plum gelée at Saison. San Francisco.]
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No words. [Uni on buttered toast at Saison. San Francisco.]
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Abalone, liver, crispy rice at Manresa. A few things made this meal special for me. I used to live about 9 minutes away from Manresa (before it existed) so I knew the area and had a fond attachment and longing to come back and breathe the air again. I was also excited for this dinner to be able to catch up with chef Mitch Lienhard, previously of Saison, and before that Grace Restaurant which is one of my favorite places that I had been going to since they opened. Lastly, the meal was full of the flavors and style of food that I like. [Abalone, abalone liver, crispy rice at Manresa. Los Gatos]

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Chaufa Aeropuerto (Peruvian pork fried rice) at Tanta. Always good and comforting! Chicago.

EGGPLANT tofu, plum hoisin sauce, cashews, thai basil
This dish hit the that umami balance that many Asian restaurants can’t seem to get right. It starts with ingredients, but after that it can’t be too much of anything or you can’t get that umami sensation. Folks, Giuseppe Tentori can cook! [Eggplant, tofu, plum hoisin sauce, cashews, thai basil at GT Fish & Oyster. Chicago.]
adria
I flew in to New York City for one night to attend a collaboration dinner with Albert Adria’s Hoja Santa (Barcelona) and Alex Stupek’s Empellon Cocina. If there was ever to be a place with dessert tastings only, it could be with desserts by Alex Stupek, Paco Mendez and Albert Adria. Pictured is a dessert is by Paco Mendez and Albert Adria. [Corn ice cream, Chocolate truffle, Cajeta (syrup made of caramelized goat milk) at Hoja Santa / Empéllon Collaboration Dinner. NYC

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A group of us from all over the world planned a dining trip to San Francisco over the course of a year. Here we are in the kitchen at Saison. It is still surreal for me to look at this photo and think some of us would have never met if it hadn’t been for Facebook. And now I’m sneaking in #43. Having lunch with Andy Hayler and his lovely wife was also one of my favorite food experiences this year. Andy has a unique talent to absorb, process and organize enormous amounts of information and deliver a concise, straightforward summary in a timely way.
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And finally, how can a party bus transporting food enthusiasts to several restaurants in one night, NOT be one of the best dining experiences of the year? Special thanks to Kevin Hickey of The Duck Inn and Matthias Merges of Yusho for taking the time to prepare some top-notch courses and cocktails for our group and talking to us about them!

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