Here’s something to whet your appetite: my list of the best appetizers I’ve enjoyed over the years. One caveat, though: There are so many ways to categorize “best” that this is inevitably more an impressionistic jumble than an authoritative list. After all, on some outings the best appetizer will be the one that provides the greatest culinary “wow.” Other times, it’s homespun comfort food that satisfies, while on occasion it’s the wit of the dish that makes an impression.
Nevertheless, here’s my list of starters that are outstanding for all manner of reasons….
Number 10: Alan Wong’s – Honolulu
DUCK NACHOS: a combination of Chinese, Hawaiian and Mexican influences….Crispy duck cracklings, jalapenos, braised pulled duck, duck confit, cilantro and lime. Wong, along with Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s restaurants, is considered the father of Pacific Rim fusion cuisine. This dish captures the essence of his philosophy. It’s the best bar food, bar none. Oh … by the way … Alan Wong’s has a Michelin Star.
Number 9: Ye Shanghai – Shanghai, China
BRAISED WHEAT GLUTEN: chewy, caramel-y, with roasted peanuts. A close second at this restaurant is the SESAME PASTRY POCKETS, with minced chicken and toasted pine nuts. Both dishes are powerfully flavored, yet multi-layered, and they’re served in a setting that’s both foreigner-friendly and totally authentic.
Number 8: St. John – London, England
BEEF MARROW BONES. This is the original snout-to-tail restaurant, created by Fergus Henderson, the man Anthony Bourdain said he’d pick to prepare his last meal……roasted veal bones, parsley salad and day-old toasted white sourdough bread. You should add a crunchy “kick” of salt at the table. Long before U.S. chefs had discovered the joys of entrails and glands, Henderson was serving them to packed houses in his impossibly chic yet down-market restaurant in the Smithfield Market neighborhood. If St. John’s is out of the marrow bones the night you go, get the VEAL HEAD SALAD with radish and kale. It’s Joanne’s favorite.
Number 7: Sweetings – London, England
WELSH RAREBIT….at the oldest fish and oyster restaurant in London…..over 100 years old and surviving two world wars. Open for lunch only, near St. Paul’s Cathedral, this unassuming restaurant sets the standard for rarebit. Most versions of this classic dish adhere to a mother recipe of wholemeal toast, cheddar cheese, Worcestershire sauce and English mustard powder, cut with a touch of stout, but Sweeting’s “dresses the monkey” by topping the dish with a soft poached egg. It’s called Buck Rarebit, and I friggin’ love it! And go early, 11:30 or so … otherwise you’ll wait.
Number 6: Pittsburgh Blue – Edina and Maple Grove
BRAISED PORK BELLY ON SWEET CORN SPOON BREAD. Okay, cut me a little slack here. But you know what? This really is a rock star of an appetizer.
Number 5: Les Ombres – Paris, France
AUTUMN SQUASH SOUP. Okay, sounds pedestrian, but this deceptively simple starter is served on an underlying base of FOIE GRAS MOUSSE…..and did I detect a hint of truffle oil ? Oh no, not that again!
Number 4: Upton 43 – Right here in Minneapolis
CHICKEN LIVER WITH BLUEBERRIES AND GRANOLA CRISP. Excellent flavor, beautiful presentation, gorgeous setting – they add up to a world-class appetizer.
Number 3: Los Fuegos – Miami Beach
SWEETBREADS A LA PLANCHA. At this Argentinian restaurant popular with discriminating Argentines, Francis Mallman serves probably the best sweetbreads I’ve ever had – creamy and buttery, yet not at all cloying. Called MOLLEJAS in Argentina, these crispy crust beauties are best with a squeeze of lemon and a shot of Maldon salt. If you’re not a sweetbread fan, order them. The first bite will convert you.
Number 2: The Optimist – Atlanta
SHRIMP A LA PLANCHA. Rich with deep-fried garlic, chili butter, lime and “sopping toast.” Messy, messy, marvelous.
Number 1: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – London, England
MEAT FRUIT. This two star Michelin restaurant, located at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel near Hyde Park, consistently ranks among the best in the world, and this dish captures the essence of Blumenthal’s approach to fine dining: sophisticated, witty, unexpected, and monstrously flavorful. Our server insisted that we order this appetizer, and boy am I glad I took his advice….It’s a multi-day, multi-step recipe involving three cooks laboring five hours a day. It’s the best chicken and foie gras mousse on the planet – masquerading as a…tangerine. Spread it on grilled toast and YIKES!
Wait a minute!! I have another Number 1:
Number 1: Club Gascon – London, England
FOIE GRAS WITH BABY CORN and POPCORN This jewel box of a restaurant located in the Smithfield Market neighborhood (not far from St. John) is a simply exquisite environment staffed by utter pros. The flavors, the plating…it’s all top tier. My favorite menu item, among a sea of them, is the foie gras with truffled popcorn which not only tastes great but is served with a tableside “whoof” of….POPCORN DUST. P.T. Barnum would have loved it.
I have to apologize; this post really is pathetic. There are too many things that I love, it’s just impossible to distill them into a credible Top 10 (or Top 11). Like I said above, some I love for the flavor, others for the theater and the whimsy. Moreover, the more I think about it, the more dishes I want to add.
Looking over this list, I see that a lot of my choices lean “fancy.” But as most of my readers know, Joanne and I are not slaves to high-end dining. We love dives and were raised on supper club fare. (Really, how can you improve on fresh cheese curds or deep-fried shrimp?) We’re just restaurant sluts, I guess.