Robert’s Top Ten 2006
As is the tradition in this column, each year I compile a list of the top ten dining experiences I enjoyed over the past year. The list is never based on price or atmosphere. I believe that good food can be served in a fine-dining environment or in a run-down diner. The only considerations are good food and good friends, which always lead to a good time.
This year I have listed only meals eaten away from home. As loyal readers know, I would choose eating my wife’s spaghetti with my children at my dining room table— or any meal eaten as a family— over a dinner at any of the world’s finest restaurants.
10. Breakfast at John Besh’s Home, Slidell, LA— While filming the pilot to a television show I am developing, Besh— in a true act of culinary improvisation— prepared a crawfish etouffee using heirloom tomatoes served over stone-ground grits and topped with a fried egg. It was accompanied by Allan Benton’s bacon, Besh-made andouille sausage, biscuits, and fig preserves from. Beautiful.
9. Ina’s, Chicago— Breakfast at two in the afternoon with my friend Art Smith. We arrived as the restaurant was closing (a no-no in the restaurant business). Nevertheless, Ina insisted we stay, sent the chefs back into the kitchen, and served us a dozen of her best breakfast offerings, the most memorable being whole wheat oatmeal pancakes. Afterwards Art, Oprah’s personal chef, threw in a behind-the-scenes tour of Harpo Studios just down the street.
8. Nobu, New York— Sushi perfection.
7. Asiate, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, New York— Lunch with my publisher, editor, and agent at a restaurant of my publisher’s choosing. The highlight being a non-sushi filled Bento Box.
6. Tie: Bouchon, Las Vegas; Aureole, Las Vegas— Vegas is quickly becoming a major food destination.
5. Gary Danko, San Francisco— I am still amazed by a fine-dining restaurant that will allow customers to select their own tasting menu from an offering of eight appetizers, caviar service, nine fish and seafood choices, seven meat and game-bird selections, a cheese course, and nine dessert options with one prepared tableside.
4. Geronimo, Santa Fe— The multi-course lunch began with sautéed morel mushrooms served with an English sweet-pea potato cake finished with first press New Zealand olive oil. A second course of macaroni and cheese, was the highlight of the meal, it consisted of Eliche semolina pasta, aged Asiago, Sage Derby, and Fontal cheeses, a julienne of smoked country ham, white truffle essence, English peas, and fresh herbs. A mesquite-grilled flat-iron steak with New Mexico roasted chilies, pommes frites, and veal sauce was the main course, and a banana tart ended the meal.
3. August, New Orleans— Just my wife and me. Nine courses, all dictated by John Besh. The top three being: 1.) I will forever call this dish “Death by Foie Gras.” On one plate I received four unique and inventive treatments— seared, grilled, smoked, and wrapped in the thinnest of five-layered pastries. 2.) Gnocchi with lump crabmeat and black truffle. 3.) Agnolotti filled with a crawfish reduction and tossed with fresh peas, sweetbreads, morels, and a small dice of smoked bacon. The pasta was tossed in a delicate cream-infused fish fumet.
2. Per Se, New York, NY— Eleven courses featuring jet-fresh foods flown in from all over the world. The most memorable offering being a pan-roasted sirloin of Australian Wagyu beef that was served alongside a Wagyu brisket that had been braised for 48 hours, a roasted potato gratin that was 16 layers thick but less than one-inch tall, a forest mushroom duxelles, crisp haricots verts and sauce bordelaise.
1. The French Laundry, Yountville, CA— A humbling, 32-course culinary bacchanalia at the hands of Thomas Keller. It is the only meal I have ever eaten that needed a halftime break. We started with salmon crème fraiche in a tuille cone, moved to oysters from Greece, poached in butter and served over a savory sabayon of pearl tapioca with Russian Sevruga caviar and it only went up from there. In conclusion, 32 courses, five hours and 15 minutes from start to finish, brilliant food, excellent service, good friends, and the country’s greatest culinary institution made for a most memorable evening.
Snookie’s Chicken Salad
Next to my grandmother’s chicken salad, Snookie Foote’s recipe is the best. Snookie was my surrogate grandmother, so I guess that’s fitting.
2 pounds chicken breasts2 tsp poultry seasoning 1 onion, quartered 2 celery stalks 1 cup chopped celery
1 bay leaf
1 1 /2 quarts water
4 eggs, hard-boiled, chopped 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning
1 tsp Lawry’s Seasoning Salt3 /4 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbl creole mustard
1 can water chestnuts, roughly chopped
1 /2 cup pecans, toasted
1 /2 cup minced celery
1 /4 cup red onion, minced1 Tbl lemon juice, freshly squeezed 1 /4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground 2 to 3 tablespoons chicken stock
Place the chicken poultry seasoning, onion, celery, bay leaf and water in a large stock pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from pot, reserve broth and cool.
Dice the cooked chicken and place in a large bowl to cool.
Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
Yield: 1 1 /2 quarts