It’s no secret that the best meals are more than just food; they’re about the family, friends, and feelings you share while taking in the dishes. A truly exceptional meal engages the senses and leaves you with a well-rounded, happy-go-lucky, when-can-we-do-this-again sensation.
Below are my ten favorite restaurant meals of 2010. The one commonality among them is that I went in with no expectations, and emerged with a feeling of completeness. And while they all included exceptional dishes, they also remind me that good food is best when shared with good company.
American Seasons (Nantucket, MA)
The tiny island of Nantucket grows most of its own produce and raises most of its own meats. Dozens of restaurants on the island capitalize on the fantastic abundance of local ingredients, but American Seasons is my favorite, executing a creative daily menu with flair... Last summer my family and I enjoyed an exceedingly pleasant meal of seared scallops, tempura figs, and Nantucket mushroom tarts.
l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (London, UK)
My husband and I capped our holiday season with a brief jaunt across the pond. Several restaurants on my list were closed for the week, but that gave us a chance to sample Robuchon’s global appeal at the two-Michelin-starred l’Atelier. The meal was exceptional—from the scallop tartar and egg cocotte to the Iberico ham and foie gras burger. Plus, we sat at the bar, a favorite vantage point of mine.
Bootsie’s Heritage Café (Tomball, TX)
Randy Rucker’s latest venture concentrates on local ingredients served up in outrageously delicious way using interesting techniques. The “3rd coast menu,” a five-course culinary fireworks display for just $35, reminded me just how fun eating can be—and gets me all kinds of excited for Rucker’s next venture, restaurant connate, opening soon. The meal was complete, from small-plate appetizers to larger meats to wowerrific dessert.
Commis (Oakland, CA)
This tiny eatery in Oakland was perhaps my single favorite meal of the year. That’s partially because I had no idea what to expect and was then awed by the jaw-dropping dishes that expertly played with textures, flavors, and styles. Commis has all the pizzazz—with none of the pretention. Fennel bulb soup, wild hake, abalone, and butter-poached chicken… Amazing. Plus I was with my hilarious friend Julie, which always makes everything better.
Just August Project (Houston, TX)
Houston’s first pop-up restaurant stunned diners with creative texture and flavor pairings. I loved that the chefs placed a distinct emphasis on each dish’s accoutrements… Things like powdered red wine vinegar, ash yogurt, black garlic jam, and dehydrated chorizo added a thundering depth, plus a ribbon and bow, to each course. We ate with our ever-entertaining friends Greg and Sharon, which only enhanced the good eats.
Kata Robata (Houston, TX)
After the Just 8 Project, Seth Siegel-Gardner popped up again, joining chef Manabu Horiuchi in the kitchen at Kata Robata for a limited time. Omakaze at the sushi bar offers the best chance for both a stunningly delicious meal, which comes complete with entertainment as you watch them prepare it. We had ten courses this past December, each excellent in its own way. My favorite bite of the night was the grilled sushi rice topped with uni and togarashi lardo. [Swoon!]
Matt’s in the Market (Seattle, WA)
I take a baseball trip with three close buddies from San Francisco every summer... The most recent found us in Seattle, where we happened upon this lovely place—and glad we were. Located in a light-filled haven near the storied Pike’s Place Market, Matt’s is the essence of fresh, cooking almost entirely with local produce and seafood. Buzzed on good weather, good friends, and beer, we sat at the bar and shared oysters, fish stew, and scallop ceviche.
Sons & Daughters (San Francisco, CA)
Dinner at Sons & Daughters was a last-minute venture on my recent trip to San Francisco. Went there on the rec of a trusted advisor… and then basked in the glory of lamb tartare with dehydrated beet chips, sweetbreads with creamy foie gras, and herb salad with microgreens and edible flowers. We knew nothing about it going in, and it has become a favorite recommendation ever since.
Tag (Denver, CO)
Tag describes its fare as Continental Social, which is somehow supposed to imply that’s it’s unconstrained by geographic borders. Certainly the menu is playful and fun, capitalizing on Chef Troy Guard’s Hawaiian upbringing and global travels. I loved eating the duck fat fries and sliders, stunning carpacchios, and taco sushi, but I had even more fun watching my young nieces reveal in the sushi topped with candy pop rocks.
Uchi (Austin, TX)
We went to Uchi on the night after we got engaged, so I was probably too in love to truly notice the food in front of me. Mmm-hmmm, I honestly can’t remember the specifics of a single thing we ate, but I do remember the overwhelming happiness as I coupled incredible food with an overwhelming feeling of joy. Not that I’ll be able to emulate that again, but I simply can’t wait to return.
Honorable mentions: Lunch in the sun at Gilhooley’s, birthday dinner at Brennan’s, testing the entries for the Peking Duck Food Fight, girls night at Vic & Anthony’s, lunch at Japadog in Vancouver, and happy hour at Catalan.