Whittling the best of 2009 down to 10 dishes has been tough, especially when you throw a couple of culinary tours of duty into the mix. How can we not talk about the suckling pig sandwich at the new Pilu kiosk? I've eaten killer black pepper crab in Singapore and sublime bo ssäm in Seoul, pig's heads in Paris and tails in Walsh Bay. Then there were the one-offs: the smoked eggs Noma chef René Redzepi did at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, or the lamb ribs the Maha guys did for Taste of Melbourne. Or the breakfast at Berowra Waters Inn and pretty much every side dish at Rockpool Bar & Grill and Sean's Panaroma should rate a mention, as should the superb buckwheat risotto with spanner crab and mustard butter at Sepia. And then there's the Dark & Stormy at The Red Door and the custard tarts at Casa Pastéis de Belém, and pretty much everything in Hong Kong, and the burgers in Idaho, the Negroni (replete with lollipop) at The Tippling Club, the wontons at HuTong, the foie gras burger at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, the tête de veau at Le Bistro Paul Bert, the everything at Quay, that freaky sea urchin custard at Marque...
1. The Agrarian Kitchen's bagna càuda with hot deep-fried pork rinds (pictured)
Sure, it's a cooking school, not a restaurant, but that's no reason it can't offer some of the best food in the state, if not the country. Here the bagna càuda, the Piedmontese "hot bath" of anchovies and garlic melted in olive oil and butter, is paired with grass-fine asparagus, little nubs of carrot and other raw baby vegetables pulled from the field the same afternoon, plus hard-boiled eggs from the Barnevelder chooks. The pièce de résistance? Crisp Wessex saddleback pork rinds, still hot from the fryer. Oh yeah.
2. Attica's simple dish of potato cooked in the earth in which it was grown
Is this the most talked-about potato of 2009? In Melbourne, definitely. Cooked hangi-style, it speaks to chef Ben Shewry's Kiwi background. The inclusion of crisp saltbush leaves gives it a sense of place, but the overall effect, combining coconut ash, the light, sharp touch of fresh cheese and richness in the form of shreds of trout, in a dish celebrating a potato (a potato!) speaks of a chef whose ambition and humility keep each other in check. And the violet crumble is pretty damned good too.
3. Spice Temple's stir-fried quail with steamed egg custard
"Spicy, crunchy, creamy," is the subtitle on the menu, and that's exactly how it is by turns. A curious melange of sang choi bau and baveuse savoury soufflé, this not-precisely traditional dish remains the star on Spice Temple's roster of variously hot, numbing and oily Hunan, Xingjiang and Sichuan-inspired treats.
4. Cutler and Co's anchovy pastries rolled in wagyu bresaola
Technically two different dishes combined at a whim, and not strictly served in the restaurant, this one should be a single item under the heading "2009's greatest things to eat while you're drinking a Negroni", but damn if the effect of super-richly marbled cured beef rolled around perfectly crisp anchovy cigarillos isn't one of the things that I most want to revisit in my waking hours. Plus an order of the pork buns.
5. Aria Brisbane's Brussels sprouts
The inspiration began at New York's Momofuku, marinated in chef Ben Russell's brainpan at Aria Sydney and then burst forth with the opening of Aria Brisbane, the dark sweetness of the double-cooked sprouts transcending their status as a mere side-dish and making them a must-have. Will this be the first dish to migrate from the sunshine state Aria down south to headquarters? Here's hoping.
6. Alinea's things that go well with butter
The name alone pretty much warrants a place on the list, but the execution of this remarkable dish at Chicago's most ambitious restaurant seals the deal. The clarity of flavour and control of texture are as regimented as the presentation of the assortment of pieces of king crab, citrus and corn in various guises (including popcorn) is rambling. The bread accompaniment? A nice hot slice of toast, naturally.
7. L'Arpège's turbot
Pretty much everything else about this meal sucked - from the uninterested service, the bad seats and the weak food, it was the very picture of a cliché of a disappointing and woundingly expensive Paris three-star meal, made all the worse for high and long-harboured expectations. This glimmer of how good things could actually be almost made it worse: a slice cut from this king of fishes, gently roasted whole on the bone over the course of the dinner service, with the subtlest of subtle green-tea sauces underscoring the flavour of the flesh.
8. Gambrinus's prego
And now for something completely different, the epitome of the Lisbon bar snack, eaten at the bar of the Portuguese capital's equivalent of Buon Ricordo or Melbourne's Café di Stasio, a clubby place where the service carries as much flavour as the food. The prego itself is a steak sandwich distinguished by the fact that it's made on a small bun. With a beer in one hand and a prego in the other, the world seems a far better place. Throw in some clams and a little hand-cut jamón and you can die happy.
9. Bocca di Lupo's broad beans, lamb prosciutto and pecorino
"That's not cooking, that's just shopping." Maybe, but there's something very cool about a kitchen confident enough to present small broad beans, not only raw but still in their pods, on a board with sliced-to-order lamb prosciutto and shards of pecorino from Sardinia. None of them is quite right on their own - the lamb ham a little gamy, the beans a bit bitter, the cheese just that shade too bitey - but together they form the holy trinity of the aperitivo hour.
10. Gumshara's tonkotsu ramen
Lotus chef Dan Hong dubbed it The Chronic, and this deeply savoury, collagen-rich lip-smacker of a soup certainly exhibited a drug-like sway over a large part of Sydney's underground dining community. Chef Mori only does a handful of other dishes at his stall at the Eating World food court in Haymarket, but it's his tonkotsu ramen, powered by a broth reduced from many a pork bone, that's the attraction. It's been likened to everything from a liquid pork roast to hot pig thick shake. You have been warned.
Eating World, Shop 209, 25-29 Dixon St, Haymarket, Sydney
This web exclusive article was posted in November 2009.