In contrast to my recap of the most memorable dishes this year, it was surprisingly easy to pick my top three favorite restaurant experiences. 2016 was a weak year for new restaurants in the Bay Area, so the standouts were established, proven destinations. Excellent food was just the baseline, and what made them my favorite is a combination of uniqueness and personal significance.
Let’s get right to it!
Number Three – Benu, San Francisco, California
This was our second visit to Benu, 1.5 years after our first. The meal was actually the backup birthday dinner for Mr. A. My first pick, SingleThread Farms in Healdsburg, kept encountering opening delays. Luckily, I had the foresight to reserve a backup 60 days in advance!
I knew this would be a standout surprise dinner. We are big fans of Chef Corey Lee, and our first Benu meal was one of our favorite meals to date. Their xiao long bao (XLB) soup dumplings are literally perfection – the thinnest skin, millimeters from bursting, and the most amazing, rich broth center.
The first time we had the foie gras pork XLB, and the second meal was lobster coral XLB. I preferred the first, but both were leagues better than any other XLB I’ve experienced.
I was happy to see another repeat – Truffle Mantou with Black Truffle Spread. I grew up eating mantou, a steamed bun and Chinese breakfast staple. The simple mantou didn’t have much flavor, but it was comfort food. Benu’s elevated rendition was bursting with truffle flavor and touched a special place in my heart. I could eat these forever!
The entire prix fixe meal averaged just over three hours, with about 20 different courses. The flavors are heavily Korean, Japanese, and Chinese influenced. Benu excelled at keeping flavors authentic, yet elevated, with French technique. Textures were another element of fine dining that they did well – each dish had thoughtful contrast.
Service, though not as enthusiastic and welcoming as our first visit, was of three Michelin Star caliber, and the timing was spot on. Mr. A greatly enjoyed his surprise birthday meal, and Benu remains one of our favorite fine dining spots in the U.S.
Number Two – Totoraku, Los Angeles, California
Totoraku is an invite-only, secret Japanese yakiniku restaurant in LA. Yakiniku means “grilled meat,” and the meal centers around a charcoal grill on your table.
The only way to get a reservation is through someone else that has dined previously and/or is friends with Chef Kaz. You are expected to bring bottles of fine wine and share with the Chef. If Chef Kaz likes your party, he gives you his business card afterwards and welcomes you back.
The experience is highly interactive, as you do your own grilling, and the emphasis on fine wine make for a very celebratory atmosphere.
Our meal kicked off with a few raw dishes – amuse bouche platter, beef tataki, beef throat sashimi, and yuk hoe (Korean beef tartare)
After the raw dishes, the grill is lit and many rounds of glorious, quality beef follow. We started with beef tongue. The cut was much thicker than I’ve had before, and I’m still a bit squeamish about tongue, but the flavor and tenderness won me over. Some of the meats came with dipping sauces, and the servers instruct you when and which sauce is appropriate to use.
After six or so rounds, we were stuffed but asked for one more surprise course. The surprise was lamb! The server grilled this one himself and instructed us to eat with our hands holding the bone.
Totoraku was truly the most unique and fun meal of the year. It was shockingly pricey for what you get (on par with three Michelin star establishments) but the atmosphere and Chef Kaz’s personality made for an unforgettable experience.
Number One – Alinea, Chicago, Illinois
My favorite restaurant experience of 2016 was my surprise birthday dinner at Alinea! They had recently undergone a transformation and launched their “2.0” menu. It was my first time here, and the experience exceeded my already lofty expectations.
The meal was highly interactive and memory evoking. From the intriging flavors of the Ice starter, to the heavenly truffle finger sandwich, to the iconic Paint dessert, Alinea provided the most memorable of the year. My detailed blog entry of the Alinea dinner is here.
Happy New Year! I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings!