In reflection of the 2014 Forbes Travel Guide Star Ratings announcement on Jan. 22, we thought back to some of the best things we tasted over the past year. Our professional team of incognito inspectors travels the globe in search of the best hotels, spas and, of course, restaurants.
This year, we revealed our first-ever group of star-rated eateries in Asia, comprised of 11 Five-Stars (Golden Flower at Encore Macau included), 17 Four-Stars (such as Belon in Macau and Jean Georges Shanghai) and seven Recommended restaurants (Mr & Mrs Bund in Shanghai, for one). In total, 16 restaurants make their Five-Star debut on our 2014 list (TÈ Restaurant near Lancaster, Pa. and Grace in Chicago, to name a couple), while 37 earned Four-Stars for the first time (Green Room in Wilmington, Del., for example) and 16 were introduced as Recommended (including Veladora near San Diego).
After countless meals, we asked our inspectors which dishes in particular stood out to them within the past 12 months. With items ranging from creative amuse-bouches to decadent desserts, here are Forbes Travel Guide’s best dishes of 2013.
Dish: Italian Grilled cheese
Where to get it: TÈ Restaurant, Leola, Pa.
What’s in it: Housemade focaccia, Italian cheese, pistachio-infused mortadella bologna, fontina fondue and raspberry marmalade
Why we loved it: Chef John Calabrese welcomes guests to TÈ with a playful and delicious amuse-bouche. The presentation is so much fun. The petite sandwiches are presented wrapped in newsprint parchment paper and tied with a black ribbon to look like small presents. They are served on a pedestal plate on which the server pours two dips: a fontina fondue and a raspberry marmalade for a touch of sweetness.
Where to get it: Grace, Chicago
What’s in it: Miyazaki beef, mashua leaf purée, chanterelle mushrooms and pickled watermelon
Why we loved it: Miyazaki beef is a type of Wagyu beef (similar to Kobe) that has an incredible amount of fat content in it due to its extensive marbling. Because of your body temperature, the beef quite literally begins to melt in your mouth upon the first bite. The combination of the ingredients—such as the comparison between the meaty chanterelles and the beef, and the contrast of the dehydrated watermelon skin and pieces of pickled watermelon to the richness of the beef—was outstanding and perfectly balanced. You were able to taste each individual element of the dish, and each item, though quite unusual, worked perfectly with the others.
Dish: Amaretto white chocolate raspberry Napoleon
Where to get it: Green Room, Wilmington, Del.
What’s in it: Layers of dark chocolate between white chocolate-amaretto mousse with fresh raspberries and berry coulis
Why we loved it: The dessert is presented in a beautifully stacked tower that’s easy to eat, thanks to the lightness of the mousse and thin wafers. Heads will turn as this decadent sweet and chocolate dessert is paraded through the dining room on the way to your table.
Dish: Seared diver scallops
Where to get it: Prime 108, Nashville
What’s in it: Diver scallops, sweet potato soufflé, caramelized figs and Brussels sprouts
Why we loved it: The best thing about it was the presentation, as well as the flavor. The dish was very carefully plated and the presentation almost looked like a smile. The caramelized figs were placed in between the seared diver scallops along the bottom (the lower lip of the smile, if you will) and the Brussels sprouts, which alternated cut side up, cut side down, lined the top of the plate (like a stretched upper lip). The creamy sweet potato soufflé was in a perfect round in the middle. Also, the flavor was fantastic. The scallops were perfectly seared, and the Brussels sprouts were expertly sautéed.
Dish: Lowcountry carbonara
Where to get it: Tristan, Charleston, S.C.
What’s in it: Bacon crème fraîche, onions, sunny side up egg and Carolina quail
Why we loved it: It’s a low-carb dieter’s dream dish, with sweated onions in noodle-like strings as a substitute for pasta and a rich, bacon-soaked quail. The onions are stacked in a little tiered heap on the plate for interest, and it is über savory. It’s the perfect portion for a first course.
Where to get it: The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, Calif.
What’s in it: Whipped fromage blanc, garden herbs and Meyer lemon all in a tiny, crispy beignet-like pastry
Why we loved it: This amuse-bouche was actually presented on a real pillow—probably one of the best amuse-bouche/canapé items we’ve ever had. It was light yet flavorful and had a touch of richness all at the same time.
Dish: Sweet-and-sour cabbage and Mandarin fish
Where to get it: Golden Flower at Encore Macau
What’s in it: When I dined at the restaurant, the staff offered me half-portions of two appetizers to make a balanced starter to my meal since I was dining alone. The sweet-and-sour cabbage featured pickled cabbage that was tightly rolled around a thin slice of mango. It was dressed with a very faint chili sauce and topped with a goji berry. The Mandarin fish is a freshwater fish that’s akin to perch and it was served cold, having been poached in stock, which made the flesh quite firm. It was dressed with a light ginger sauce.
Why we loved it: The sweet-and-sour cabbage with chili vinaigrette was a specialty from the Tan Cuisine section of the menu, while the stock-boiled cold Mandarin fish filet with ginger came from the Lu Cuisine section of the menu. These were both really unique dishes that were unlike any Chinese food I’ve had in the United States, and they were both characterized by a lovely lightness and freshness, which made a great start to the meal. You could really taste the cabbage and the fish, and neither was burdened by sauce or excess flavorings. The purity of the ingredient really shone through.
Dish: Green garlic agnolotti
Where to get it: Marinus, Carmel Valley, Calif.
What’s in it: Stuffed with puréed green garlic and sheep’s milk ricotta and tossed with blonde morel mushrooms and baby artichokes, with shaved moliterno al tartufo (a truffle-accented sheep’s milk cheese) on top
Why we loved it: This pasta course (available either as an appetizer or main course) came from the Farmed & Foraged section of the menu, which showcases local and seasonal ingredients. This was a seasonal dish par excellence and tasted like the epitome of spring, thanks to the green garlic, morels and artichokes. It took the best ingredients of the season and showed how things that grow together really do complement each other taste-wise.
Dish: Carrot “tartare”
Where to get it: Eleven Madison Park, New York
What’s in it: Carrots with condiments including pickled quail egg yolk, peas, smoked blue fish, Amagansett sea salt, mustard oil and spicy carrot vinaigrette
Why we loved it: The seventh dish in the lengthy tasting menu, the course begins when a server attaches an old-fashioned meat grinder to the table without a word. A staff member then arrives not only to explain about the farm where the carrots come from but also to grind the carrots in the meat grinder to produce a meat-like texture. The bright orange result is then placed on a square wooden serving plate in a small circular groove along with nine thumb-sized bowls and it’s explained to guests that all of the ingredients, including a quail egg, peas, smoked blue fish and Amagansett sea salt along with two mini squeeze bottles of a mustard oil and spicy carrot vinaigrette, have been perfectly portioned out so all you have to do is combine them together with the carrot meat using the two small wooden spoons provided and then add the oil and vinaigrette as you see fit. This makes the diner an active participant in the meal instead of just a recipient of the end result. The accompaniments are seasonal but the overall dish typically tends to remain on the menu because of the high interest in it.
Dish: Lemon & Lemon Tart
Where to get it: Mr & Mrs Bund, Shanghai
What’s in it: A lemon that’s been poached for three days in a “special liquid” and then emptied and filled with sorbet, vanilla Chantilly, diced pineapple and segments of citrus such as grapefruit, and served with a biscuit.
Why we loved it: The open end of the lemon is placed facedown on the plate, so it appears as a whole lemon with a lightly softened color for the exterior and a biscuit resting on top to create a triangular shape with the plate. Guests are told to eat it with a fork and knife to try and get all of the flavors in one bite, which leads to a tender skin with a firm bite and then a sweet, tart and creamy interior. This beautiful and exciting dessert is a signature of the restaurant.
Photos Courtesy of Russell MacMaster, Grace and The Restaurant At Meadowood-Meadowood Napa Valley