In exchange for a year's worth of reader restaurant recommendations, here's my annual list of the ten most memorable dishes I've eaten while on duty.
1. Kankong sambal belachan, Raffles Cafe, Fremont. I'd rather eat a durian over an overflowing sewer than open a jar of belachan (Singaporean shrimp paste), but tossed with garlic and chile paste in a hot wok, it becomes a luxuriously aromatic sauce for crunchy kankong (water spinach).
2. Beef kitfo, Finfiné, Berkeley. The ritual of kitfo, as well as the flavors, makes it so enticing: Use your injera to scoop up a little finely ground raw beef mixed with spiced butter, add a pinch of mit'mit'a chile and a few specks of dry cheese, and consume.
3. Spicy salmon tartare, Bistro la Rose, Berkeley.Vanessa Dang's colorfully garnished mix of chopped raw salmon and avocado in a sesame-oil-and-ginger vinaigrette proves that cold fusion - of East and West, at least - is possible.
4. Crème brûlée, Neumenali and A Street Bistro (tie), Hayward. Just when I thought I'd never force another spoonful in my mouth again, these two Hayward restaurants prepared equally perfect, classily classical vanilla crèmes brûlées.
5. Grill-it-yourself pork belly, Kong Tang Degi, Oakland. This Korean specialty - uncured bacon wrapped in rice noodles with spicy salad and miso paste - is authentically addictive.
6. Green gazpacho, Jackson's Canvas, Oakland. Peter Jackson's food is so seasonal that you and I may never get to taste this soup again, but I remembered this tart, complex puree of tomatillos, cucumber, celery, garlic, and herbs long after summer ended.
7. Fried chicken, Southern Cafe, Oakland. Casa Orinda, you have been beaten. The wait for the chicken may be interminable, but the crust is indescribable. Order greens and corn on the side.
8. Miso-crusted seabass, Norikonoko, Berkeley. As if the salty, tender fish isn't good enough, the pickles, braised vegetables, and garnishes meticulously arranged around it in a bento box contain dozens of contrasting flavors and textures.
9. Smoked whitefish sandwich on rye, Frishman's Deli, Berkeley. Good smoked whitefish sandwiches are like a tuna-bacon salad, but much lighter. You'll never mix Chicken of the Sea with your mayo again.
10. Chicken pipián, Memo's Cucina Mexicana, Concord. The pumpkin-seed molé on Memo's chicken, described as a Zacatecan wedding dish, tastes as if it took a score of ingredients and days to prepare. It probably did.
Walnut, ricotta, and arugula tortelloni, Dopo, Oakland; Kahlua pork, Kilohana Grill, San Ramon; risotto della ruffina, Locanda Olmo, Oakland; solyanka (sausage soup), Babushka, Walnut Creek; and garlic and basil paratha, Masala, Danville.
What the Fork - February 15, 2:00 PM
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What the Fork - January 31, 2:47 PM