I was fortunate that 2014 was a year of great eating across the country: Spicy Pie slices on the Coachella sprawl; the best steak of my life in Maui; impossible gnocchi in D.C. But there were many dishes to be discovered here at home as well. From new twists on old classics to simple things done right, I knew right away what dishes inspired me in the kitchen, or simply kept me coming back for more.Here's my top 5 plates of 2014.
5. This Eclair from Marche Moderne
Marche Moderne's $25 prix-fixe lunch is a steal every time. The first and second courses are always bangers, but dessert tends to disappoint. The small bite pastries and ice creams feel like incomplete thoughts when the previous dishes pack so much oomph. Maybe that's the intention, to give 'em something simple and small, but who doesn't want their meal to end on a high note every time? Finally, a savior: this eclair–a full-sized, oblong shell drizzled in chocolate and filled to the brim with silky hazelnut cream. There was a delicate balance between the flake of the pastry and the weight of the cream, tasting somewhere between Nutella on toast and a Ferrero Rocher. I wish they'd just serve this all the time.
4. Anything on a Flour Tortilla at El Pico de Gallo Grill
The best flour tortillas in SanTana are at El Pico de Gallo Grill. They're made to order: formed with with love, shaped into a mound and pressed into a flat circle. You can watch them puff up on the griddle by the front door as they achieve the perfect char in all the right spots. So tender and chewy, it's easy to forget corn tortillas ever existed at all. Best bet is to go with the battered fish taco plate or an al pastor burrito. Add a heavy pour of red salsa and call it a day. You won't want to do much else after these filling meals.
3. Toasted Pound Cake at Maggiano's
Down at Maggiano's, they give a thick slab of pound cake a proper scorch on both sides, rendering the outside toasty-warm and the center spongy and moist. It's served in a pool of viscous, rich chocolate sauce, with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and slices of bruleed banana. Downright dirty, and oh, so good. In a year when Captain Crunch Ice Cream (Sprinkles, Newport Beach) and Ovaltine Chocolate Cake (Migrant, Maui) blew my mind, a simple slice of toasted cake was the clear winner in the sweets division. How is it I've gone 32 years without encountering this simple tweak on the old-school classic?
2. Bacon and Eggs at Break of Dawn
O.C.'s top breakfast man paired two of his greatest achievements and entered a new stratosphere of badassery. Before Chef Dee Nguyen's move and remodel in early 2014, the only way to order the eggs or bacon was a la carte. The relaunch of the restaurant saw some menu additions, including this dish, which first debuted at a BoD pop-up dinner the Crosby hosted a while back. The elements are magical: Tempura-battered soft eggs; meaty hunks of housemade bacon; a mound of zippy kimchi slaw to cut through the gluttony. Rice on the side. The plating has changed since the relaunch, but it's still the gateway drug on a menu stacked with eclectic winners.
1. Hummus with Chicken at Zait and Zataar
It's all about ratios when it comes to hummus and Z and Z has perfected the balance of softened chickpeas, creamy tahini (sesame seed spread), olive oil and garlic. Order it with chicken. The hummus becomes a foundation for a dense pile of thin-shaved, succulent hen; the juice from the meat blending in to the party. Smear it thoroughly with their assertive garlic paste and a drizzle of hot sauce. Each plate comes with two large rounds of saj bread, cooked to order on a convex metal dome. It's the only utensil you'll need. Z and Z has been closed since around the week of Ramadaan because of a fire and subsequent remodel, but their website promises an impending return. I'll see you in line as soon as they get back to business.