I always go into these end-of-year lists thinking they'd be be a cinch to do. Then, I actually start doing it and realize how hard it is. No, it's not the writing part--that's easy; it's the winnowing process that's painful. It took me a day of deliberation to pare my original list of ten of the best restaurants I reviewed this year down to seven, and then to five. Unfortunately, South of Nick's and The Playground were number 6 and 7. But herewith is my final list. In each, I highlight at least one dish that made that particular restaurant great.
5. Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
Japanese shabu shabu is foreplay compared to Mongolian hot pot. At Little Sheep, you encounter not only the standards of sliced beef, lamb, chicken and pork, but also the decidedly kinkier diversions of tripe, tendon, blood cake, goose intestines and pork kidneys all to be boiled by you in two kinds of broth. No one orders the mushroom vegetarian option; everyone opts for the "Yin Yang", in which a divided cooking vessel gurgles the house-original, milky-white soup on one side, and the "Mala" broth, which translates to "numbing spicy," on the other. It's these soups that make your meal and inspire perspiration. The induction-powered pots you see at every table simmer liquids redolent of dried fruits, herbs and spices--all of them sending such delicious, intoxicating odors airborne that the whole room might as well be cooking potpourri. You don't walk into Little Sheep restaurant so much as wade in, as though you're swimming through a sea of smells. If there were such a thing as odor-imaging, waving your arms would show the turbulence your presence has on the environment.
4. Cucina Enoteca
Order the polenta board and the server comes to your table almost fumbling with too many things to hold. In each hand, there's a miniature pot. On her arm, a wooden paddle. She pours the polenta from the one of the pots onto the paddle, smearing it to an oblong shape on the wooden surface. She digs out a well in the middle to receive the meat, which she spoons out from the other vessel. When she finishes, she invites you to dig in with your spoons. This "polenta board" is one of chef Lauren "Lulu" de Rouen's signature dishes and is a revelation--an idea so rudimentarily perfect in what it communicates it makes you wish every Italian restaurant did it.
3. Izakaya Ku
When you order the mackerel dish at Izakaya Ku expect the waiter to show up with a hand-held flamethrower. The blue flame will lick the slab of mackerel as tenderly as a lover's tongue, the oily skin will sputter and hiss. Fine spatters of grease will fly like sparks, and just as the smoke will begin to rise, it will be done. He'll push the still-fuming plate toward you and tell you a dip in soy sauce will be all it needs. The fish will be delicate, the surgical cuts made so that each piece comes loose from the whole. It will be as if you were taking apart an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. In the middle of each morsel a shallow slit allows you to tuck in a dab of mustard. The welding torch may well have burned itself a permanent spot in your retinas, but so will this dish in your memories.
2. Mare Culinary Lounge
You know you're in for a good meal at any of Alessandro Pirozzi's restaurants, but Mare Culinary Lounge seems to overachieve. The venison filet mignon, two cubes the size of a baseball sitting on opposite sides of an oblong plate, was red meat epitomized: the outside burnished close to char, the inside a sinew-free crimson soft enough to be cut into by the dullest spatula. And then there was the way it was served: each piece perched atop a warmed, halved peach in which a sweet/tart port wine reduction pooled into the wells left by the pits. Who knew that peaches are to deer meat as apples are to pork chops? Or that amarena cherries, which Italians preserve with sugar for topping ice cream, work even better in a game meat-centered main course? In the middle of the plate, cupped in a rigid basket made from deep-fried pasta sheets, were the golden, home-style potatoes I remember fondly from Pirozzi's other Laguna Beach restaurant, Alessá. I've always been a sucker for crispy, buttery, fried potatoes, and these were pretty damn close to perfect, which is exactly what I have to say about the restaurant.
1. Han Yang
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Get two things here. The galbi tang and the donkatsu. In the soup, simmered beef is hacked lengthwise into 2-inch-long pieces, bones outweighing flesh. These are hand-holdable, actual ribs--so do it. Preceding each bite, dab on a mustard-smeared soy sauce to cut through the richness. Then sip the soup. It's a nectar-sweet, salty and savory miracle, a broth possible only when made by someone with saintly patience. To call it a great Korean soup would be unfair--this is just great soup. The donkatsu is also made with extraordinary care; once sampled, the breaded pork cutlet will become the local benchmark for future breaded pork cutlets. Han Yang serves it on a metal rack set above a plate, elevated above all else so every piece remains perfectly crisp and greaseless from edge to edge, top to bottom. And it's exactly that: perfect, with the meat between the crumbly coating so tender it crosses the line into fluffiness.