Thursday, March 20, 2014

James Beard Awards 2014: Outstanding Restaurant Nominees

Dan Barber, co-owner and chef of Blue Hill, the 2013 winner of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant, pictured with Martha Stewart (Photo by Kent Miller, James Beard Foundation)

Last year, I had the very good fortune of dining in the restaurant that had just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant. I'm talking about Blue Hill, Chef Dan Barber's farm-to-table establishment in Greenwich Village. I remember enjoying the atmosphere and the service. About the food, I said "it's the sort of thing you enjoy at the time but appreciate more as you reflect upon it later." This has proven to be true, as months later I still think about the various ways Chef Barber coaxed amazing flavors from simple sugar snap peas.

What makes a restaurant "outstanding" in the eyes of the James Beard Foundation? According to the award's criteria it's: "A restaurant in the United States that serves as a national standard bearer of consistent quality and excellence in food, atmosphere and service. Eligible restaurants must have been in operation 10 or more consecutive years. The owner of the restaurant receives the award." Most restaurants don't even qualify for the 10-year requirement, which is probably the easiest criterion. It's an impressive award for sure, and even being nominated is a tremendous honor.

This year's nominees are an amazing assortment of restaurants, each presenting a different experience. I love how the styles of food among these five restaurants range from the more traditional fare of Spiaggia (Italian fine dining) to the modernism of wd~50. There's also several restaurants that blend the "old world" with the new one, like the French-inspired Southern cuisine of Highlands Bar and Grill and Hearth's modern American cuisine with Italian influences. Even the dress codes range from casual wd~50 to "jackets are preferred" for men at Highlands.

I don't know if I'll get a chance to visit this year's winner or any of the other nominees, but that doesn't mean I'm not curious about them. Thinking you might be too, I created these profiles of this this year's five nominees. After reading all their menus, I'm also very hungry. Dig in!

Location: New York, N.Y. (East Village)
Description: Modern American with Italian influences
Opened: 2003
Chef: Marco Canora, whose prior experience includes working as a line cook at Gramercy Tavern in the mid '90s under Tom Colicchio and as Colicchio's executive chef at Craft.
Prior James Beard Award Nominations: Best New Restaurant (2004), Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional (Paul Greico, 2010 and 2011).
What I'd Order: Roasted Beet and Carrot Salad with Labneh, Apples, Granola, and Sunflower Sprouts; Smoked Chicken Breast - Braised Thigh, Chestnuts, Cabbage, Cranberry Beans, and Butternut Squash; Apple Cider Donuts with Apple Compote and Maple Cream.
What the Critics Say: "One night in June, when restaurants in the East Village had their doors thrown open and the neighborhood took on a relaxed, unhurried mood, I ate a salad that put me in the same kind of mood: sweet, firm, bright-green favas and bits of soft young pecorino, dressed with vinaigrette and chopped parsley," Pete Wells, New York Times (Oct. 10, 2013).

Highlands Baked Grits (photo by Christopher Hirsheimer, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, Artisan Books 2004)

Highlands Bar and Grill
Location: Birmingham, Ala.
Description: French-inspired Southern
Opened: 1982
Chef: Frank Stitt, who was inducted into the James Beard "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" in 2011 and once worked at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse.
Prior James Beard Award Nominations: Outstanding Restaurant (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013); Outstanding Chef (Frank Stitt, 2008), WINNER - Best Chef - Southeast (Frank Stitt, 2001).
What I'd Order: Stone Ground Baked Grits with Country Ham, Mushrooms, Fresh Thyme and Parmesan; Jamison Farm Braised Lamb with Ragoût of Rancho Gordo Beans, Artichokes and Red Wine Jus; Banana Chocolate Mousse Cake with peanut butter crunch, chocolate chai mousse, and salted caramel sauce.
What the Critics Say: "Bringing back childhood memories of fresh veggie plates at my grandparents’ farm are the golden, fried rounds of fresh okra
 atop a bed of pink-eye peas, butter beans, fresh basil, crisp bacon and corn vinaigrette," Jan Walsh, B-Metro (Nov. 1, 2012)

Photo by Aya Brackett for The Slanted Door

The Slanted Door
Location: San Francisco, Calif.
Description: Modern Vietnamese
Opened: 1995 (current location since 2004)
Chef: Charles Phan, who was also inducted into the James Beard "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" in 2011.
Prior James Beard Award Nominations: Outstanding Restaurant (2008 and 2013), Outstanding Chef (Charles Phan, 2010 and 2011), WINNER - Best Chef Pacific (2004).
What I'd Order: Jasmine Tea-Smoked Prather Ranch Pork Belly with Roasted Red Grapes, Balsamic Vinegar; Oven Roasted Boneless Niman Ranch Short Ribs, Madras Curry, Baby Carrots, Butternut Squash, Celery Root; Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp with Candied Ginger Ice Cream.
What the Critics Say: "I had a Chez Panisse moment with the asparagus. The stalks are sliced on the bias and tossed in the hot wok with morels; the smoky juices tame the vegetable aspects and bring out sweetness, making the morels even more intense. 'Wow, this is the way these ingredients are supposed to taste,' I thought," Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle (June 20, 2004).

Spiaggia Pumpernickel crusted Yakutat king salmon with fennel kraut puree, pickled cucumber, caraway seed and grad pista (photo by Galdones Photography)
Location: Chicago, Ill.
Description: Italian fine dining
Opened: 1984
Chef: Tony Mantuano, who appeared in season 2 of Top Chef Masters.
Prior James Beard Award Nominations: Outstanding Restaurant (2006, 2007, 2010 and 2013), Outstanding Service (2008, 2009 and 2012), WINNER - Best Chef Midwest (Tony Mantuano, 2005).
What I'd Order: (note: I found these selections from Spiaggia's private events menu, as the restaurant itself is currently closed for renovation) Burrata Pugliese con Sardine (Pugliese Burrata with House-Cured Sardine, Puntarelle and Heirloom Radishes); Agnolotti del Plin con Polline di Finocchio (Veal-Filled Pasta with Fennel Pollen and Crispy Veal Breast); Trota al Forno con Lumache e Funghi (Wood-Roasted Quinault River Steelhead Trout with Abalone Mushrooms, Basil-Fed Snails, Creamy White Polenta, Fresh Herbs and Bottarga); Torta di Limone con Olio di Oliva e Piselli (Lemon and Olive Oil Cake with Lavender Blossoms, Lemon Curd Sweet Peas and Spiaggia Extra Virgin Olive Oil Gelato)
What the Critics Say: "A wondrous truffle-tinged raw lamb loin sandwiched with deep-fried focaccia and slices of grappa-poached pears is a miracle that stays crunchy in spite of wet Castelmagno fonduta and light despite the truffle decadence," Jeff Ruby, Chicago Magazine (May 22, 2013).

Location: New York, N.Y. (Lower East Side)
Description: American, molecular gastronomy
Opened: 2003
Chef: Wylie Dufrense, who was once a sous chef at Jean Georges and is considered a leading American voice in molecular gastronomy.
Prior James Beard Award Nominations: Best New Restaurant (2004), Outstanding Pastry Chef (Sam Mason, 2006), Best Chef New York City (Wylie Durfrense, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and WINNER - 2013)
What I'd Order: (you don't really "order" at wd~50, since it's tasting menus unless you're in the bar) Squash-Roasted Peanut Soup, Cockscomb, Fig Tobacco; Mediterranean Bass, Celery, Macadamia, Grapefruit; Milk Braised Pork Collar, Sunchoke, Black Sesame, Kaffir; Apple Tart, Pomegranate, Swiss Chard, Pistachio.
What the Critics Say: "My favorite among the appetizers was a small tile of foie gras terrine...It was covered with a row of silver cocoa-dusted anchovies, and when the sweet foie gras evaporated in your mouth, you were left with a chewy, faintly crackly taste of the sea," Adam Platt, New York Magazine

1 comment:

  1. This is terrific! You've provided us with a taste of what it must be like to eat from the nation's best restaurants. Nice descriptions and wonderful imagery. Spiaggia's salmon looks like a work of art.

    You put a lot of time and effort into this and it shows. Kudos!