For 10 years, Restaurant Business has asked industry professionals around the country to name the best meals they’ve had all year. Throughout the awards, judges have shared their insights on what makes a particular dish great. Trends may come and go, but these five standouts continue to influence the industry today, and could have an impact for years to come.
Whether a matter of preparation, ingredients or cooking method, simplicity stood out to many judges, who mentioned that the simple nature of many winning dishes allowed their flavors to shine through. Others commented that simple, fresh flavors from locally sourced ingredients were what made a dish so memorable. Straightforward pasta dishes were a particular favorite, such as the potato gnocchi with ricotta sauce and truffles from Spiaggia in Chicago, chosen by Mike Isabella of Graffiato in 2011. Isabella called it the “simplest but most memorable dish,” with some of the best gnocchi he’d ever had in his life.
Judge: Susan Feniger
Dish: Hearts of lettuce salad
Restaurant: Brentwood Restaurant & Lounge, Los Angeles
Judge: Frank Klein
Dish: Spaghetti and meatballs
Restaurant: Mayfield Bakery & Cafe; Palo Alto, Calif.
Judge: Thomas Connell
Dish: Arugula pizza
Restaurant: Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
2. Arresting texture combos
Contrasting textures have long played a part in making dishes more interesting, but a prevalent trend amongst Clean Plate winners was the contrast between crispy and tender, especially when it came to dishes with meat, fish and chicken as the stars. A standout dish for chef John Besh during 2010 was the roast suckling pig from Maialino in New York City. Besh said the restaurant slow roasts the pig “with just the right mixture of dry heat and steam to create the most succulent juicy pig with perfectly crisp cracklin’ skin.”
Judge: Jimmy Bannos
Dish: Roast duck with sweet potato dirty rice
Restaurant: Brigtsen’s, New Orleans
Judge: Drew Nieporent
Dish: Crispy chicken ‘Under a Brick’
Restaurant: Montagna; Aspen, Colo.
Judge: Brad Kent
Dish: Fried chicken
Restaurant: Willie Mae’s Scotch House, New Orleans
3. Comfort foods
They say home is where the heart is, so it’s no surprise that many judges picked dishes that reminded them of meals prepared by their own families. Hearty dishes such as cobblers were often favorites, as well as Southern comfort selections like gumbo. For the 2011 awards, chef Art Smith chose the Five Sides Vegetable Plate from Empire State South in Atlanta as a favorite: “It tasted like home, but the presentation and quality was definitely five-star.”
Judge: Joel Dondis
Restaurant: Seafood Palace; Lake Charles, La.
Judge: Lynette McKee
Dish: Blackberry cobbler
Restaurant: Cracker Barrel
Judge: Hattie Hill
Dish: Calves’ liver with sauteed onions
Restaurant: Al Biernat’s, Dallas
4. Pleasant surprises
Even industry professionals have foods they wouldn’t normally gravitate to, and many chose dishes that took them out of their comfort zone. Matthew Mabel, founder of restaurant consultancy Surrender, named the fried bologna sandwich from Maple & Motor in Dallas one of his picks in 2010, even though he said the sandwich “is mostly comprised of things I don’t eat.” The sandwich of fried bologna piled on Texas toast and topped with chili, onions and a fried egg was “a fantastic reminder of the joys of breaking your own rules,” Mabel said.
Judge: Gerry Fernandez
Dish: Baby eggplant Szechuan-style
Restaurant: Shun Lee Place, New York City
Judge: Alex Askew
Dish: Steamed salmon
Restaurant: Talay, New York City
Judge: Marc Gunn
Dish: Pan-seared day boat scallops
Restaurant: The Slanted Door, San Francisco
5. Signature dishes
Quite a few dishes throughout Clean Plate history are ones that judges couldn’t help but order every time they visited a particular restaurant. Such was the case for Ashley Morris, CEO of Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop in Las Vegas, who picked the miso black cod from Nobu in 2011. Morris said the cod is cooked to “melt-in-your-mouth perfection,” and that every time he eats at Nobu, he can’t “bring himself to order anything else.”
Judge: Juliette Pope
Dish: Oyster pan roast
Restaurant: The John Dory, New York City
Judge: Jose Garces
Dish: Patty melt
Restaurant: Bell Book & Candle, New York City
Judge: Charlie Palmer
Dish: Akamaru Modern Ramen
Restaurant: Ippudo, New York City