My Top Ten Restaurant Meals of 2021
Hey Thursday friends,
I just had an interesting time scrolling through my phone to choose my Top Ten Restaurant Meals of 2021. January 2021 was bleak: most of my time was spent on the couch playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch Craig got me for Christmas. There was endless home cooking through February and March and April and then, finally, the vaccine came and out we went into the world.
Our first official restaurant meal post-vaccine was for our fifteenth anniversary at Republique, where everything was pitch perfect, especially the salted caramel chocolate cake for dessert. (If it didn’t make my Top Ten list, it’s only because Republique is such an obvious pick and it’s been on so many top ten lists, I wanted to go with mostly new experiences — or at least new to me.)
That meal kicked us into high gear: for the next several months we ate out here in L.A., in Pasadena, in New York (where Craig directed an episode of Gossip Girl that you can now watch), in Miami, and Provincetown (which didn’t make my list, though the dinner we had at Sal’s Place on the beach, with our table half sinking into the ocean, was definitely the most memorable meal of the year.)
So, without further ado, here’s my year-end list in reverse order.
Note: Only paid subscribers get to see the whole list! If you’d like to become a paid subscriber, here’s a discount code which will get you access to the reset of this post, plus an extra newsletter every Thursday, and access to my full archives:
My Top Ten Restaurant Meals of 2021
10. Bicyclette (Los Angeles)
When my friend Ryan read my newsletter about Biyclette he accused me of not really liking it. “I read between the lines,” he said. “You said the bread was the best part.” That isn’t really fair, though, when you’re talking about a Walter and Margarita Manzke restaurant. Their bread — which is the same warm baguette that they serve at Republique — is the stuff of legend, especially when spread with their incredible salted French butter.
Combine that with a vibrant atmosphere in what feels like a real Paris bistro, and you’ll understand why I’m starting the list with this chic new L.A. spot.
The cocktails were both elegant and casual, the salad had all of the fresh farmer’s market ingredients you’d expect from such a top-tier operation, and the onion tarte tatin which leads this entry, looks both incredibly cheffy and also like something a French grandmother might make.
For our entrees, we filled our bellies with steak au poivre, sauced table side, supplemented with French fries and mashed potatoes, and washed down with a bottle of red. Throw in Margarita Manzke’s plum tart with almond cream for dessert and I felt like a west coast modern day version of A.J. Libeling.
9. Miss Ada (New York)
When Noah Galvin came on Lunch Therapy, he told me that I had to go to Miss Ada in Brooklyn when I went to visit Craig. Not really knowing anything about it, I made a mental note, and then we had some time to kill on a Saturday, Craig and I rode out to Ft. Greene on the train and found ourselves on a busy street, right near a park, everywhere packed with young, attractive Brooklynites. We grabbed a table outside at Miss Ada and ordered up a bunch of Mediterranean brunch items, including the Malawich that you see above — a crispy, savory pancake topped with a soft-cooked egg, tomato, and schug. It was incredible. As was the hummus with an Israeli salad on top and the chocolate babka that we ate for dessert.
We took a walk around Ft. Greene park afterwards, then visited the Greenlight Bookstore, and imagined that if we ever returned to New York, it might be nice to live around here. That might’ve been Miss Ada, still working her spell.
8. Courage Bagels (Los Angeles)
As if we didn’t have enough to argue about in society these days, there was a lot of bagel discourse going on this year when Tejal Rao published her NYT article: “The Best Bagels Are in California (Sorry New York.)”
It was a perfect headline to get people riled up (I’m sure she’s still getting hate mail) and I might’ve taken the bait and pushed back, but then I ate at Courage Bagels. I’d been told by Ed Levine on my podcast that Courage was the best bagel of his life, and Ed literally wrote the book New York Eats.
I’ll never forget that first bite of a Courage Bagel: I was in my car, I’d waited in the very long line, I was hungry. I ordered two bagel halves: one with smoked salmon, onions, and capers; one “run through the garden” with lots of veggies and dill. They were both out-of-this-world transcendent on that light-as-air, but deeply-caramelized bagel.
I know these bagels have their detractors (I’m friends with a few of them), but as the kids say: I Stan Courage Bagels. Not moving back to New York after all.
7. Agnes (Pasadena)
How do you elevate midwestern cuisine? And does midwestern cuisine even need to be elevated? Will people pay big bucks for fried cheese curds on fancy china?
These questions are all answered at the brand new institution Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery in Pasadena. I first heard about it when Bill Addison wrote about it in The L.A. Times, and then my friend Chelsea went there and raved about it. I simply had to go!
Everything there was surprising and exciting in how it mashed up “high” and “low” culture. For example, the dish above: chicken liver mousse on a fresh cornbread “eclair” with cherries. You get two refined concepts — an eclair and a chicken liver mousse — but then you get humble, country food like cornbread.
If that’s too academic for you, don’t worry about it: order the honey nut squash cavatelli with sage sausage, king trumpet mushrooms, spiced ricotta, red walnut crunch, and fried sage and you’ll stop thinking completely.
That was wildly delicious, as was everything else we ate at Agnes. It was unlike anywhere else that we ate this year.
6. Thai Diner (New York)
This was another meal full of surprises: I never expected to see Thai food combined with traditional Jewish food so effortlessly, but it was bashert. I’m still obsessed with this spicy chopped chicken liver with pineapple, Thai herbs, and roti.
The idea of making chopped liver light is almost impossible to conceive (my grandmother used to warm me not to eat it because it was “an organ meat,” whatever that meant) but this liver almost floated off the plate. And then the stuffed cabbage, another traditional Jewish dish given a Thai spin, was also light and lovely.
If you’re considering throwing your kid’s Bar Mitzvah in Israel, this meal will convince you to throw it in Thailand instead.
Uh oh… you’ve reached the end of the free portion! To read the rest of My Top Ten Restaurant Meals of 2021 here’s that discount code again. It’s a bargain!
Now on to MY TOP FIVE RESTAURANT MEALS OF 2021…