Larry Olmsted, Contributor
As the door closes on 2013, it is time for my annual reflection on my standout restaurant meals from the past 12 months. This is a tradition I started with my “10 Most Memorable Restaurant Meals of 2011,” and continued last year with the Top 10 from 2012. These are still worth checking out, as most, if not all, of these eateries are still very much relevant to travelers.
One reason these lists remain pertinent is because unlike most food publications, I don’t confuse “new” with good, and just because I ate someplace this year for the first (or fifth) time doesn’t make the restaurant better or worse. What matters is simply how good the restaurant is.
As the weekly Great American Bites restaurant columnist for USAToday.com, the website of the nation’s largest newspaper, I scour the country looking for the best regional and standout foods in every corner of the US. My other food media outlets take me all over the world, an eating tour that spans every price point and style of cuisine, from Bucket List 3-starred Michelin legends to mom and pop dives. These food media outlets include this column, the many airline in-flight magazines I write for, and the consumer magazines and newspapers I contribute to (everything from the Financial Times to Cigar Aficionado, where I am the Contributing Travel Editor). In short, I eat out a lot for work, and back of the napkin calculus suggests that I had over 250 restaurant meals this year – most of which were forgettable or just “fine.”
When you eat out as much as I do it takes something special to stand out, and special doesn’t mean fancy, precious or pretentious, which an increasing number of “hot” eateries are. As an example, I dined at a very highly reviewed and acclaimed new restaurant this year that did something I had never seen before and divided its wine list into subheadings by soil type, rather than grape varietal, country of origin or style. The reason I hadn’t seen this strategy before is because it’s stupid. I’ve seen creative lists that divide wines by weight or sweetness, such as full bodied or dry, or by the type of entrée to enjoy them with, all of which helps the customer. But how many of us go to restaurants hoping they have something volcanic? This is an example of the pretense found in many of today’s popular restaurants – but it’s a pretense you won’t find on my list. Memorable meals are about great food and atmosphere, and this can include creative invention or rest solidly on tradition, but the key element is a dining experience that makes you want to go back. A perfect example is Casa Julian, a very old, very simple and very much unchanged steakhouse in the heart of Spain’s Basque country. It was so memorable that I cannot imagine visiting San Sebastian without eating here – like a pint of Guinness in Ireland, it is now an integral part of the travel experience to that region for me.
On that note, you will notice that this year’s list contains several steakhouses, and that’s more by chance and the places I visited than anything else. Yet steakhouses typify the overall global dining scene in microcosm, because they are very popular, with new ones opening all the time, they a have a unified tradition yet are constantly being reinvented, and no matter how much money owners or chefs spend or how hard they try, most add nothing new or better to the equation and come up short. The ones on this list, old and new, were the less common success stories. Believe me, I also ate at plenty of high-end steakhouses that were not memorable in any way.
Sadly, most of the hundreds of places I visited this year are restaurants that I’d be perfectly happy never to eat in again. These 15 – an expansion over the past two years’ lists – are so memorable that I look forward to visiting them again, and hopefully soon.
Casa Julian, Spain: I wrote in detail about this exceptional steakhouse here at Forbes.com earlier this year, describing it as “a blink-and-you-missed-it non-descript storefront restaurant in the little visited town of Tolosa.” After entering through the loading dock and storage area, you are led into a small dining room with an open wood fire in a stone recess in one wall, and a ceiling thoroughly blackened by decades of smoke. Casa Julian does only one thing, a very thick bone-in steak meant for two, and they do it very, very well, cooking it over the open fire, intentionally flared as needed with chunks of excess fat, and covered in a thick layer of coarse salt while cooking. The steak is exceptional, as are the very limited sides and appetizers: stellar thin sliced jamon Iberico ham and lomo (cured pork loin), jumbo white asparagus with vinaigrette, hearts of a local lettuce similar to Romaine but stronger, and fire roasted red piquillo peppers, always served piping hot with the steak. Steak with these accoutrement and a big Spanish red wine from the deep list are the only reasons to visit this place, and very good reasons – it is an exceptional meal.
Brown Dog Pizzeria, Telluride, CO: Given that most ski-town pizza is not good, and Brown Dog looks just like all the other places, you would never guess that inside is some amazing pizza – specifically Detroit-style pizza, among the rarest of the many regional styles in this country. This is only the second venue I have seen outside of the Motor City doing it, with a square (small) or rectangular (large) pizza cooked in a black steel pan, sort of a cross between New York Sicilian, but not as bready, and the buttery curst of Greek pizza. It is excellent, with a stunning crust, and I suggest always ordering the small because then every slice is a corner piece with more of the crust, which is what you go here for.
Sack’s Café, Anchorage, AK: Most of the great fresh seafood in this country comes from Alaska, and Sack’s, in downtown Anchorage, celebrates this by paring exceptional fresh local fish with interesting sides featuring a Pan-Asian fusion spin. It is simply some of the best seafood I have ever had, in an upscale but relaxed setting with great service and equally stunning desserts – their chocolate peanut butter crème brulee was one of the best sweets I have ever tasted. Specialties include local oysters, shrimp, and crab (snow and king), cod, halibut, rockfish and Alaska’s five salmons: chum, sockeye, silver, pink and king. Every dish here was winner but I especially enjoyed the “silver salmon with deconstructed spring roll,” a grilled piece of fish served grilled atop a pile of sautéed Asian vegetables with Jasmine rice and a foamy, spicy wasabi aioli.
Kobe Plaisir, Kobe, Japan: Loyal readers will know that I have written at length in this column about the myths and realities of Japan’s famous Kobe beef, and the sad fact that almost every time you order it, anywhere in the world, including the US and Japan, you are not getting the real thing. Kobe beef is probably the single most abused ingredient in terms of false advertisement, on high-end menus around the world, even in the many countries that cannot legally import the stuff. So if you want to try the real thing and see what the big deal about Kobe is, there is no better place on earth than Kobe Plaisir – not only is it in the birthplace of the famed meat, but it is owned and operated by the cattle producers’ association – it is sort of the official steakhouse of Kobe Beef. There is no doubt about the authenticity, and they serve the beef in the two most traditional ways, with a variety of cuts cooked on a teppanyaki grill with seasonal vegetables and sides, or as a hot pot (shabu shabu) meal.
Dreamland Barbecue, Tuscaloosa, AL: As usual, I ate a lot of great BBQ this year, as it is a topic I write on regularly and extensively. There are many places I visited in 2013 that I would happily return to, including Austin’s Stiles Switch and Lamberts, Birmingham’s Rib It Up and Colorado’s Oak, but when I close my eyes and imagine ribs, I see the heaping pile at the original Dreamland (it’s now a small chain), which fittingly came to be as the result of a dream, an epiphany that the founder had that he should open a rib place on his front lawn. For many years, this icon has served nothing but full-sized pork ribs (always preferable to baby backs) and white bread (they recently added sausage and some basic sides). The ribs are not classically smoked, but rather cooked on grates over a wood fire, and doused in the house red BBQ sauce, and they are big, meaty and so addictive you just can’t stop eating them. I love this place.