Here are the 10 most devastating dishes I ate in 2007, regardless of cuisine or price level, excluding Los Angeles, and listed in alphabetical order.
1. FIG – Charleston, SC – Sautéed Roe Shrimp With Spaghetti
FIG chef-owner Mike Lata has developed a national reputation for his seasonal, market-driven cuisine. No dish we sampled demonstrated this approach better than his sautéed roe shrimp ($11). According to our waitress, the shrimp are caught three miles off the coast, during their spawning stage. The roe is undetectable in the bowl, but produces sweeter, more delicate shrimp. In this case, they were tossed with spaghetti, cherry tomatoes, basil, pesto and Nicoise olives.
2. Hiro’s Yakko-san – North Miami Beach, FL – Whole Hog Fish, Nitsuke-Style
On the fringes of a residential neighborhood in North Miami Beach, Hiroshi Shigetomi’s izakaya is turning out incredible Japanese comfort food. Though not a sushi restaurant, Hiro and his staff approach local seafood with surgical precision. As a result, we decided to go whole hog (hog fish, that is). Our waiter presented us with a silver tray of orange-skinned specimens, plus other varieties like tilefish, wahoo and grouper. Our waiter recommended a fish at the bottom of the pan with “good eyes and flesh.” He also suggested that we have it prepared nitsuke style, steamed with sweet brown sauce. Done and done. The fish ($31, at $1.25 per ounce) was startlingly good, with luscious chunks of snapper pulling easily from the bone and caramelized skin. The fins were crispy and caramelized. The fish was so addicting that I plucked nuggets of sweet flesh from the fish’s cheek and from behind tiny, sharp teeth. I even ate an eyeball (not recommended). The dish also featured squares of caramelized eggplant and creamy tofu, which soaked up the brown sauce.
3. the house – San Francisco, CA – Salmon Roll
Larry and Angela Tse’s North Beach Asian cafe rarely gets mentioned as a heavy hitter in the San Francisco dining scene, which is a shame, since the food is consistently terrific. The house’s top-flight salmon roll ($7.50) was cased in delicately fried nori, topped with orange smelt eggs and plated on spicy Asian slaw, which included cabbage, chilies, chile oil and sesame seeds. Another flavor jolt: the dish of house-made Chinese hot mustard.
4. Pizzaiolo – Oakland, CA – Rambassici
Charlie Hallowell fired his traditional margherita pie in a wood oven, leading to a supple crust. Topped with prosciutto di Parma, gobs of fresh mozzarella and tangy tomato sauce, the pizza was excellent, but not as good as the Rambasicci ($14). This was a new but welcome concept for me, cabbage stuffed with spiced ground pork, pine nuts and currants, served in broth and sprinkled with shredded cheese. The juicy, meatball-like filling packed incredible flavor.
5. Pizzeria Bianco – Phoenix, AZ – Sonny Boy
I ate at Pizzeria Bianco for two straight meals in 1996 and ever since, remembered Chris Bianco’s wood oven pizzas as some of the best of my life. Eleven years later, they exceeded my memory. We ordered one pizza with sauce and one without. The sauce-free Wiseguy was topped with candy-sweet wood-roasted onions, phenomenal house-smoked mozzarella, and spicy cuts of fennel sausage from Schreiner’s Fine Sausage in Phoenix. The sauce-laden Sonny Boy ($13) was slightly better, a thin layer of robust tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, Gaeta olives and salami shipped from New York, made crispy in the oven. On both pizzas, the crust was excellent, with a good chew, and not a single dry centimeter.