The Year in Food
By Stett Holbrook
RATHER than offer a compendium of what I think are the best restaurants of the year, I've assembled a list of the best dishes I had the pleasure of eating in the past 12 months. These are the dishes that floored me, the ones that made me slow down and sit back and say, "Damn. That was really good." In no particular order:
Risotto al nero at Vittoria The squid ink-stained risotto looked like a plate of polished black pebbles. It was only the melting mound of ricotta cheese and thin ribbons of basil on top that offset the inky color. Inside the ebony mass of rice were hidden gems of seafood—calamari, shrimp, clams, mussels and scallops. Each bite sang out with a slightly different flavor and in the background was a faintly spicy, tomato sauce. The dish used premium carnaroli rice instead of the more commonplace arborio rice, and the results were fantastic. 27 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos. 408.395.6000.
Frog leg ravioli at Chez T.J. You seldom see frog's legs on menus anymore, and it's invariably an old-line "Continental" restaurant that goes for the de rigueur preparation of saut»ing them in garlic butter. Chef Christopher Kostow revives the delicate amphibian appendages by wrapping the meat in a translucent ravioli and accenting it with green garlic, Meyer lemon and fava bean leaves. This understated, elegant dish glided down my throat like a warm oyster. 938 Villa St., Mountain View. 650.964.7466.
Mentai kinoki at Gochi "Fusion pizza" sounds hokey, but it's really good. The ethereal, blistered crust is made from rice paper and is wonderfully light and crunchy. Mentai kinoki combines a rich, far-better-than-it-sounds combination of spicy cod roe, snow crab meat, wild mushrooms, bacon and cheese. The roe floats in a rich mayonnaise that forms the pizza's "sauce." 19980 Homestead Road, Cupertino. 408.725.0542.
Iced buckwheat noodles at the Corner Place This warm-weather dish blew me away. The tangle of gray-black noodles rose above a moat of spiced beef broth that floated shards of shaved ice. The broth tasted like a refined beef broth but with tangy, complex flavors that lit up my tongue like licking a battery. Each spoonful was crunchy, cold and fascinatingly delicious. Slices of pickled cucumber, half a hardboiled egg and pine nuts bobbed in the frigid soup as well. The noodles are only served May-November so you'll have to wait until spring to try them. 2783 El Camino Real, Santa Clara. 408.249.8990.
Chicken skin yakitori at Sumiya For this dish, chicken skin was threaded onto a bamboo skewer and grilled pleasingly crisp on the outside and deliciously rich, sweet and chickeny inside. It was fantastic and not at all fatty or blubbery. 5160 Moorpark Ave., San Jose. 408.973.0604.
Grilled catfish 'thanh long' at Saigon 75 This turmeric-scented, northern Vietnamese-style dish arrived sizzling on an iron platter on a bed of lightly charred fennel fronds and green onions. A separate plate was piled high with rice noodles and a tangle of cilantro, Thai basil and Vietnamese mint, a highly aromatic, saw-toothed herb that tastes like lemon grass. The fish was well charred and yet remained perfectly tender and moist. 304A Santa Clara St., San Jose. 408.286.4900.
Pan-fried striped bass at Tanglewood The meaty fish was perfectly crisped on one side and snowy white and moist everywhere else and served in a bowl with woodsy wild mushrooms and a brothy lobster sauce poured on top. The generous slab of foie gras served on top pushed the dish over the top, but deliciously so. 334 Santana Row, San Jose. 408.244.0464.
Chicken 65 pizza at Amber Cafe The pairing of Indian-spiced vegetables and meat atop thick, naanlike bread is a natural. The "chicken 65" version came filled with chunks of curried chicken, cheese, red onions and green bell peppers. It was a delicious, satisfying dish. 600 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View. 650.968.1751.
Snails with truffle butter, pistachios and chocolate at Restaurant O For a clear expression of chef Justin Perez's cooking, head straight for this exotic appetizer. Using chocolate in unlikely places is one of his signature techniques, and it was used to great effect here. Presented on individual spoons, each snail exploded on my tongue with a heady, rich, sweet, nutty and chewy surprise. 2081 S. Winchester Blvd., Campbell.408.871.3135.
Steak tartare at Arcadia Prepared tableside with a quail egg, black pepper, mustard, salt and other seasonings, the rich, glistening raw beef was spooned into an iced goblet. Scooped onto pita chips, it had clean, steely flavor and was surprisingly light and refreshing. 301 S. Market St., San Jose. 408.278.4555.
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