Despite the fact that it is now the middle of August, we have decided to revisit the first half of 2014 to nominate our best meals of the year so far. We have had a lot of great meals, but which should make the list? It is a tough decision. Our highlights span Europe and the US, so here we go:
1. Central Provisions – Portland, Maine
Portland was our hometown for many years and a place where Drew’s restaurant career began. A trip back to the USA during the summer months must include a weekend visit to Maine. Portland has been known for years as a food destination, with literally dozens of fantastic restaurants. Each year we have gone back, we visit the new hot spots, since new restaurants basically open daily there.
At the top of this year’s list was Central Provisions. Located on Fore Street in the heart of the Old Port, Central Provisions is yet another spot opened by an out of town chef from a big city looking for cheaper rent. Like many of the recent openings in Portland, Central Provisions is mostly a small plates concept, with a strong focus on local products and a great local beer program.
The dishes are truly stunning. Foie gras torchon cured in Fernet Branca and vegetable ash and an apple sorrel puree. Yes please. Fluke ceviche. Umm, yes. Roasted suckling pig. Oh my god yes. The dishes are well portioned and a bargain compared to anything similar in London. A must go for anyone.
2. Relae – Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen’s reputation as a food-centered city precedes itself. Noma, the huge celebrity restaurant du jour, is there. Now, all of those people who ‘worked at Noma’ have opened their own spots that have begun to gather global accolades in their own right. We planned our meals in Copenhagen before booking our flights to ensure we would be able to visit two up-and-comers over the weekend. Relae (owned by a proud former-Noma chef) recently achieved its first Michelin star.
It is casual, veggie-heavy and just the right amount of quirky that makes you swear you’re actually in Brooklyn. Restaurants at this level frequently minimize the choices that customers can make – menus are set, or may have a small amount of variation, but the idea is that you eat what the chef says is good. When the chef is right, it’s magic.
We also relied heavily on our server, who was the wine buyer for the restaurant, to help us select a few wines by the glass to pair with our meal. Very popular now in Denmark are natural wines, which don’t have any additives (which most wines have). High points for Relae also go to their table design – the various silverware for the courses are located in a small drawer in the table like an old time school desk. Very cute, Denmark, very cute.
3. Kitchen Table – London, England
We’ve made lots of new friends in London and we always ask for restaurant recommendations from those who have lived here longer than us. Our new friends recommended Kitchen Table so strongly that we made a reservation that day.
This small yet acclaimed London eatery is located behind a different kind of hot London restaurant – Bubbledogs, home of hot dogs and champagne. The couple who opened Bubbledogs have very different culinary approaches, so they literally split the location into two businesses. Kitchen Table is a set menu restaurant, located in the room behind Bubbledogs – it is inventive, and delicious. The room has a mere twenty seats, which are seated in two waves each night.
The menu has roughly fifteen courses, labeled ‘Chicken’ and ‘Egg’ and ‘Kale.’ Yes, those one-word dish titles are a little tired and overdone, but when the product is amazing, you just don’t argue. Six months later, we still remember a fabulous mango dessert, crispy chicken skin and some freshly cut Iberico ham. The very steep price tag was fully worth it, but this is definitely a special occasion restaurant. We have passed on the recommendation to others, most recently to a couple with an upcoming wedding anniversary.
4. La Mer du Nord/De Noordzee – Brussels, Belgium
We booked a weekend trip to Brussels on a whim, taking advantage of a deal on Eurostar. When we were looking at restaurants, La Mer du Nord (it has two official names, thanks to the French and Flemish languages in Belgium) kept popping up. Unlike the other selections in this list, this place is not a traditional sit down restaurant.
It is part fish monger, part fish shack with some bar tables set up around the storefront, so you stand and eat. The terrible weather didn’t stop the crowds – we went in February and it was quite cold, incredibly windy and raining, yet the place was packed. We ordered a fish sandwich, sole al a planca (cooked on a griddle) with salsa verde, fried white fish and some fishcakes, all topped with a more than generous dollop of luxurious aioli and washed down with some crisp white wine.
There is something unique and fun about the set up and the craziness of this packed outdoor fish shack in the heart of Brussels with your fingers freezing. Serving some of the best seafood in Brussels certainly helps as well.
5. St. John – London, England
Have you ever eaten a dish cleverly labeled ‘bone marrow’ in some hipster restaurant? Well, you have St. John to thank for that. They were doing bone marrow years before it was cool. Fergus Henderson, the chef/owner, inspired a generation with ‘off cuts’ like bone marrow, livers, kidneys and hearts.
The fact that you now regularly see such items on menus around the world is purely due to Henderson’s lead. We’ve dined at the flagship St. John location twice in the last six months and the food has been striking. We had the famous bone marrow appetizer, served with their delicious bread and an acidic parsley and caper salad.
We tucked into seared cow heart, served with beets and a sinus clearing horseradish sauce and faggots, which is a terrible word that means meatballs made from a blend of meat and organs and wrapped in fat and seared (we almost did not order them simply to avoid having to say the word to our server).
Obviously, this is not low fat cuisine, but everyone needs to live a little. If you ever felt uncomfortable about eating organ meat, St. John will show you how it should be done. Oh and if you’re still squeamish, they also do great fish and chips, which Julie can attest to.
6. Eventide – Portland, Maine
Eventide was on our best eats of 2013 list, and deservedly so. Our first visits to the now well-established Eventide were spectacular. It’s like the restaurant you would expect to find in the dream version of Portland, Maine.
There’s a faintly nautical air about the place with heavy ropes and rough wood flooring, it’s a block from the ocean, you can eat a million oysters without shame, the local beer list is impressive and ever growing, and after a meal here, an afternoon on a boat sounds like the best idea in the world. Even their website is quintessential Maine. It’s like that. It’s our first stop in Portland now (we park our rental car on India Street (1 or 2 hour free parking during the day) and duck into Eventide. It’s that simple. You know where to find us.
7. The Clove Club – London, England
Three friends decide to open a half-restaurant/half-bar in London. Among them is a chef and a couple front-of-house guys. They have spent some time running foodie events in parks, warehouses and the like. They have a cool location – the old Shoreditch Town Hall. In a city that can be wicked in its reviews, it’s a risky proposition. Can these friends hack it in the big scene?
Fortunately for all of us, yes. Like some of our other memorable meals in 2014, The Clove Club has set menus only – either you like it or you don’t. Eight courses is the norm, for £55 (as of August 2014…this is already up from the opening price of £47). Oh, and just to be clear, this is considered to be a good value set menu in this here London town.
We enjoyed the elegant dining room, with high ceilings and open kitchen, that also felt casual enough that a spilled glass of wine wouldn’t be the disaster of the year. Some of the food was simple to the point of not being really a recipe (raw radishes dunked in amazing salt), but others were composed and boggled the senses with the many dainty components. It’s a nice juxtaposition.