Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 ... The Year of ...

I took my first real international trip this year (apologies to Toronto and Nogales, MX) to Reykjavik, Iceland in 2010. It was amazing. I ate amazing food, saw jaw-droppingly beautiful sights and met some amazing people (and became a regular at a bar in less than a week). But as amazing as that experience was, 2010 was NOT the year of travel.

It was the year of food/drink.

During the past year I had the distinct pleasure of eating three of the Top 5 restaurant meals in my life, along with some other Top 20 dining experiences (particularly thanks to the last week of the year). While in Reykjavik I enjoyed amazing meals at Silfur and Fiskfelagid, grilled monkfish and salted cod. And I was able to close 2010 with the best Mexican meal of my life and I also discovered the best beer experience I could ever have imagined.

The closer this year was Red O, which I would say is a must-eat for anyone visiting L.A. who has even the slightest inkling for amazing Mexican food. Acclaimed chef Rick Bayless, who won Top Chef Masters season 1, created the menu and two of the chefs from his extremely successful Frontera Grill in Chicago, are head chef and sous chef (or at least they were when it opened a few months ago. I don't know if they still are).

Red O opened this summer to rave reviews from the L.A. Times despite imperfect service. One of the things reviewer S. Irene Virbila mentioned in her review, which ran in August, was that the restaurant was so in-demand that reservations for weekend nights needed to be made at least a month in advance and otherwise still often left people settling for 6 to 10 p.m. My end of 2010 dinner, which I hope becomes an annual tradition with L.A. Youth alums Guianna and Stephanie, was the same. When I called six days in advance I could choose between 6:15 or 10 p.m. (I opted for the earlier.)

Super short review: THE FOOD WAS AWESOME.

We got there at 6:15 and were greeted by a very friendly hostess—apparently things have improved since the LAT reviewed the restaurant. Given that it was so early the restaurant was only about 1/4 full. The crowd spanned a range of ages and races even in the high-end restaurant West Hollywood locale.

Despite the high-prices and high-end, fine-dining classification our server was very friendly and immediately asked whether we'd been there before. Perhaps most importantly, when we said "no" he didn't change his friendly demeanor.

We started with with freshly made guacamole with warm chips and salsa ($9), which was amazing. Very simple and clean, obold flavors. Unlike many other restaurants that offer "free chips and salsa" these weren't oily and well-worth the price. The guacamole was sooooo fresh and chunky that it stood out. As someone who loves avocado almost by default, creating memorable guacamole was an accomplishment.

We then had some sopes, which are silver-dollar-pancake-ish sized circular masa (corn) cakes topped with three choices. We ordered the sopes with plantains, thick cream and fresh cheese. UM, WOW. A contrast of corn texture and earthy taste with the sweet cream and just sharp enough cheese. These are a MUST EAT.

I also had the Topolo Margarita, which was made with Sauza Commemorativo tequila, Gran Torres orange liquer and homemade fresh-squeezed limonada. WOW. I had it "up," meaning no rocks, with salt. It was sooooo smooth unlike most margaritas, which need to be served on the rocks so the water dilutes the nearly pungent tequila taste. Btw, the place has a literal glass-cabinet lined hallway of high-end tequilas in the middle of the dining room. We didn't explore the tequilas since G was fighting off a cold and I was driving. But it was so tempting. Next time!

For dinner I had debated between the Pollo en Mole Poblano, which is my standard Mex restaurant order (chicken with mole sauce), and Chilpachole, which is according to the menu "velvety seafood broth with chipotle and epazote, Mazatlan shrimp, Viking village scallops, Carlsbad mussels, striped bass, roasted potatoes and chayote.

Since I always order the Pollo en Mole, I decide to step out and go for the seafood. SUCH A GOOD DECISION.

Chilpachole is basically a generous-sized vessel of all those super fresh ingredients submerged in a zesty seafood broth. It was so rich in seafood taste that when I shared potato chunk Steph wasn't sure whether it was seafood or potato, because the potato was so infused with seafoodyness. The pieces of shrimp were huge and there were like five of them, along with four scallops, cubes of bass and like half a dozen mussels. On the menu this is listed under "Mexico's Celebrated Seven," which for Bayless means one of the seven regional specialties that he has mastered.

Each piece of fish was succulent and just overloaded with the complex flavors of the seafood broth. I don't mean to sound like a pretentious foodie, but it was the perfect marriage of flavor and texture.

Soooooo soooooo sooooooo sooooo good.

One of the things I love about fine dining is that the portion sizes are just enough to make you feel borderline full after the app and entree but leave enough room for dessert. AND THANK GAWD FOR THAT.

We each felt the compulsion to order a dessert. I got the Mexican chocolate brownie tart with gooey meringue, graham cracker crust and blackberry sauce. Gui got the goat cheese cheesecake with Mexican root beer sauce and caramel corn and Steph got the three sorbets, cantaloupe, strawberry and vanilla. They were all fantastic, but Gui and I ended up trading the second halves of our desserts as we realized the other had ordered what we had preferred. But they all were awesome. They felt decadent without being cloyingly sweet. Rich in flavor but also with contrasting textures (save for the sorbet which is obvi just cold and creamy).

Since eating there people have asked what I liked so much about it and I found myself paraphrasing Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio and saying essentially that the food isn't complicated, it just tastes fucking awesome. Repeatedly, throughout the TC seasons, the judges have said that even if you cook something simple, if you make it he best-X-you've-ever-tasted that's the most important. And that's what we all felt.

Steph ordered albondigas, which are beef and pork meatballs with smoky chipotle tomatoes and caramelized onions and Yukon gold potatoes, and noted that she thought her mom might even be convinced that they were worth the high cost, which initially had her mom thinking we were crazy to be going out for.

The great thing about this last week of 2010 is that though Red O was the highpoint, I had two other great meals to close the week after that. Oxnard (of all places) is home to a new solid classy restaurant and bar called Sugarbeets. And finally, Nem Huong Ninh Hoa (a Vietnamese restaurant in Rosemead in the San Gabriel Valley east of L.A.) that despite not serving pho or bahn mi, made the BEST Vietnamese meal of my life.

It was lemongrass-flavored grilled chicken served on broken rice. It was the juiciest chicken that still had a great slightly crispy surface. MMMMMMMMMMMM.

So what I've learned is that good food has made some of my best memories of 2010. I want 2011 to be even better.

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