PW's 10 Best Dishes of 2009

Adam Erace ranks the best and worst dishes of 2009.

By Adam Erace
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 11 | Posted Dec. 29, 2009

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2000 and dine: Village Whiskey’s Village Burger is the yummiest dish of the year.

Photo by Michael Persico

From the restaurants I’ve reviewed this year, I’ve culled my favorites for PW ’s first-ever list of the 10 best (and five worst) dishes of the year. I brainstormed, narrowed it down, then stepped back. Even Mr. Magoo could see the pattern: Of the top 10, you eat half with your hands. Two dishes feature sausage, two more have oysters—though not the fancy kind.

This clues you into my preferences, but also to the economic year we’ve had. Of the 50 restaurants I visited, only six cost more than $50 per person—a conscious editorial decision that was easy to stand by as most new restaurants geared their menus toward shrinking budgets. As we enter 2010, some gloom has lifted, but here’s hoping chefs continue to think of our wallets as we dream of their food.

10: Wurstplatte With Spaetzle and Red Cabbage, Brauhaus Schmitz Sausage parties were never this fun. Though Brauhaus Schmitz is responsible for one of the worst dishes of 2009 (see end of article), the German bierhall kills it in the wurst department. Chef Jeremy Nolan handcrafts brats Nuremberg-style—ginger, mace, caraway and clove in each bite—and imports other links from Reiker’s in Fox Chase. The hearty wurstplatte (2 sausages + 2 sides) is a deal at $16. Get the spaetzle and sweet-and-sour red cabbage. You won’t be disappointed.

Still Available: Yes.

9 Carrot Confit, Bocca This spring, Chris D’Ambro was the chef at Bocca, a restolounge as oily as Snooki’s hair with food far better than I expected. His carrots, confit-ed and carved into whimsical shapes, featured both powder (fruity olive oil) and foam (hibiscus)—but those tricks weren’t what made this plate impressive. It had the vivaciousness of a 24-year-old but the balance of flavors you’d expect from an older chef. The tart hibiscus bubbles and funky fermented garlic lent the sweet carrots and pureed English peas a welcome gravity, while the playful composition—baby beet greens leapfrogging through the donut-cut carrots—showed D’Ambro’s sense of humor. Hope he’s the one laughing now.

Still Available: No. Despite a positive reception by critics, D’Ambro was sacked in September.

8: Roasted Oysters Español, Oyster House Oyster House’s oysters don’t rub shoulders with lobster and caviar. These roasted Delaware Bays cradle red tide pools of liquid cilantro-lime butter and fiery chorizo I found addicting. Mingled with the oysters’ natural liquors, they created a bloody (and bloody good) grease that trailed down the corners of my mouth vampire-style. You shoulda seen the tweens fainting.

Still Available: Yes.

7: Pulled Pork Sandwich, Bebe’s BBQ When it comes to barbecue, Southerners do it better. Enter Mississippian Mark Coates, whose pulled pork is not pulled, but chopped to order, creating texturally dynamic hunks including both succulent fat-laced meat and the crusty spice-rubbed layer known as bark. At Bebe’s, I housed the sandwich, anticipating sticky fingers and stained clothing. But no mess materialized, thanks to a sparing application of vinegary Carolina sauce and a sesame-seed bun that kept the pig exactly where it needed to be: between the bread and still on my mind.

Still Available: Yes. Bebe’s delivers now, too.

6: Kobe Beef Sliders, Varga Bar That Chef R. Evan Turney uses the same beef—Australian Tajima Kobe—that gets preferential treatment at Barclay Prime should be the first indication just how delicious his sliders are. Boursin. Bacon. Le Bus brioche. And caramelized shallots for sweetness.

Still Available: Yes.

5: Coconut Apple Bread Pudding, Meritage Not only does Chef Anne Coll roll her own dumpling dough, toast her own spice blends and execute a menu of bites at Meritage, but she also does all the desserts. That includes the apple-studded toque of coconut custard bread pudding Coll fashions from Les Bus brioche. When I savored it, its elegance blew me away. Humble bread pudding never gets treated this well, draped with apple-cinnamon bubbles, anointed with house-mulled cider. We’ll forgive Coll for outsourcing the ice cream to Häagen-Daaz.

Still Available: Yes.

4: Fried Oysters, Smitty’s As the drifts of snow collect, it’s hard not to daydream of summer. And when I do, I hear seashells crunching as I cross the parking lot at the Clam Bar at Smith’s Marina, an icon the Somers Point locals call Smitty’s. What I taste are fat-fried Maryland oysters, unfussy and unadorned save for cascades of cocktail sauce poured from syrup-style pitchers.

Still Available: Yes, though you’ll have to wait until May, when Smitty’s opens for the season.

3: Foie Gras With Pumpkin Pain Perdu and Plum Chutney, Bibou Pumpkin bread doesn’t scream July, the month I reviewed Bibou, or France, whose cuisine chef/owner Pierre Calmels interprets with grace. Still, the bar of spiced pain perdu alongside pan-seared foie gras and exotic, exciting clove-and-pink-plum chutney spritzed with lime is one of summer 2009’s most enduring memories.

Still Available: Yes. Lately, the chutney has been replaced with candied kumquats.

2: Sai Auh, Mango Moon I’d been home from a vacation in Thailand for two weeks when I dined at Manayunk’s Mango Moon, but chef/ owner Moon Krapugthong’s aromatic sai auh (a North Thailand pork-and-rice sausage) propelled me right back to Bangkok. The link’s grill-blistered casing shattered, releasing intoxicating Southeast Asian incense of lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime.

Still Available: Yes.

1: Village Burger, Village Whiskey Writing about the Village Burger at Village Whiskey makes me hungry. Of the 16 burgers I reviewed this year, only the one conceived by Iron Chef Jose Garces and executed by chef Dave Conn haunts me. Coarsely ground, loosely packed grass-fed Angus beef forms the formidable patty gracing a house-baked sesame bun. The servers might spout Beyoncé, “let me upgrade you” to the foie-gras-topped Whiskey King. Ignore them. This is one burger that needs only your attention.

Still Available: Yes. Don’t think I won’t hockey-check you for a table.

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Comments 1 - 11 of 11
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1. Ben Kessler said... on Dec 30, 2009 at 09:35AM

“Ahhh the Village Burger. Twinsies!”

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2. Michelle said... on Dec 30, 2009 at 07:26PM

“Those roasted oysters espanol sound fantastic. Glad the sliders at Varga got a mention. They rock as does their mac 'n cheese and cheese fries with crab meat. I have much love for Jose Garces but I hope they wised up on the buns they use for their burgers. I've had two burgers there so far and the buns just fell apart. Ruins the whole package in my mind so hope they've improved in that area. Guessing they have since they got a mention here. Happy New Year all!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Dec 30, 2009 at 08:19PM

“what about Kanella my dearest non knowledgable foodie friend......

What about Bibou

Those are places that there cooking is based in real food(u dont understand).

Obvious u like trendy flaky restaurants,that they come and go.”

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4. Roland said... on Dec 31, 2009 at 11:59AM

“Anonymous - Bibou is #3.

It's amazing what a lack of grammar can do to undermine your argument.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Jan 1, 2010 at 11:02PM

“To my friend Ronald(31st of dec)
Have I wounded ur feelings?

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6. Adam said... on Jan 6, 2010 at 08:57AM

“Anonymous, see below:

"From the restaurants I’ve reviewed this year, I’ve culled my favorites for PW ’s first-ever list of the 10 best (and five worst) dishes of the year. "

I did not review Kanella this year, though if I did I wouldn't be surprised if one of their dishes made the top 10.

Roland, thanks for pointing out that Bibou is #3.”

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7. Marybeth said... on Jan 6, 2010 at 12:34PM

“You should give La Fusion Cafe in Willow Grove a shot. They have an amazing menu.”

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8. Straight Shooter said... on Jan 10, 2010 at 06:22AM

“............and you believe this from a guy who things Wawa strawberry milk is to die for?????????”

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9. BStone said... on Jan 11, 2010 at 12:51AM

“Something from Max Brenner's should have made the list. I live across the street from the chocolate man and I swear to god I've gained 20 pounds since I've moved in.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Jan 13, 2010 at 12:58AM

“to ronald why dont you get a life instead..........

To adam...a rumour about kanella....they are gonna appear on food network,I believe on the 22nd of Jan.(The best thing I ever ate)at 10pm.

I also believe that gordon ramsay is interested to open up a restaurant with the chef owner of kanella(belong to the same school) in philly.........!!!!!!!”

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11. Anonymous said... on Feb 4, 2010 at 11:07PM

“To Adam Erace

What do you thing about Gordon teaming up with The chef owner of Kanella!Truth?”


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