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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

The 2021 Variant of the Big Drunk Gay Awards

Perhaps it was the sense of impending doom resulting from waking up every day in this pandemic, now again in a terrible phase, that encouraged me to engage is what is likely my very most gluttonous year of food and beverage so far. Yes, folks, this variant of the Big Drunk Gay awards is bringing us, much like the omicron variant, hard and fast into 2022––perhaps an even better, more prolific year of food, despite the endless tunnel of despair we all find ourselves in?

Well, what better tonic for our times?

There was so much food this year that I decided to go for an even-more-completely-meaningless top three in the "eating out" categories, including an honorable mention for several categories where there were so many things in the running, and I'll keep the descriptions brief so that you might feel compelled to go read the associated post.

You don't have anything better to do, right?

Best recipe

Mushroom larb. A Lao cuisine classic usually made with meat, this version subs pork or beef with sautéed mushrooms, and has become a new go-to––incredibly easy, healthy, and flavorful. Make it tonight!

best wine at home

Though I didn't blog about it, I will never get over the Vivanterre series of wines that have been curated by my local wine shop. From France, these natural, biodynamic, "living" wines are knockouts and highly allocated, and the folks at Mere's got their hands on a few cases. The orange wine was my favorite, but all of them were fantastic.

Best quarantini

It's the year of the paloma––I discovered that Fever Tree, my favorite tonic water producer, also makes a grapefruit mixer that is to die for on its own but also produces a delightful paloma. Tequila and the grapefruit soda can be combined in isolation or dressed up with a bit of lime juice and orange liqueur for a fancier tipple.

Best Wine out in the world

Bronze: Matt Luczy is, for my money, one of the best somms in the country, and the way he has guided the wine program at the new Mélisse in Los Angeles is rather extraordinary. With a given subset of courses, he pairs two contrasting wines––often a white and a red––to compare with each bite. I would be remiss not to give Matt credit for my favorite wine in that meal, and the Olga Raffault Chinon, which was selected, remarkably, to be a red wine pairing with a raw fish dish, was the standout pairing of the meal.

Silver: During Victoria Blamey’s residency at Stone Barns, the fabulous and brilliant co-wine director Hannah graced one of my favorite courses of the meal (and year––the gold medal winner of the seafood courses!) with an extra-special chardonnay pairing from the Atacama in northern Chile. The Tara chardonnay had a clean, gorgeously complex profile that paired so beautifully with the cholgas secas dish that a celebrity seated next to me noticed how much I was enjoying it and demanded a pairing of her own. Now, we are friends. The wine that binds!

Gold: Noma’s wine program, you should be unsurprised to learn, is among the best slate of pairings I’ve sampled, particularly given my new love affair with natural wines. The best wine of the year, one we begged our server to for-the-love-of-god let us take home, was the dessert wine pairing from Noma, Soleil de Samonios, a wine you can literally only enjoy at Noma. Oxidative, layered, but searingly clean, it’s an easy gold medalist.

Honorable mention: Bursting with essence of rhubarb pie, “Pet Garg” is among my favorite wines of the year, part of the very interesting, curated wine list at Lardon in Chicago. A brilliant beet-red natural sparkler, this wine is just goddamn delicious and was the ideal complement to the in-house charcuterie.

Best cocktail out in the world

Bronze: Best drink I had at The Clumsies in Athens, one of the best bars in the world––so good that I had a second one. Talisker whiskey was paired with a Greek conifer liqueur, bergamot, and peach brandy. Amazing.

Silver: The magnificent Macallan cask-smoked Japanese "whisky sour" at Zuma in Las Vegas. This thing was the best drink I had in 2021 at any bar except Kumiko, easily, and a big surprise of quality mixology in often-commercial Vegas.

Gold: There are too many drinks at Julia Momose's Kumiko in Chicago that transcend my capacity to understand the magnificence of a cocktail, and any of the six of them I was lucky enough to try this year could have found their way onto this list. Is her Manhattan a Manhattan? Yes, but with bespoke Japanese whisky and subtly-flavored, perfectly curated accoutrements, it's the best Manhattan of all time. Well, folks, Julia outdid herself with what is not just the best cocktail of the year, but likely the best I've ever had. Called "Up to her," Julia complements a peaty Hakushu 12 whisky with ingredients that result in a sensation "like taking a bite of a crisp apple while sitting by a campfire." Could not be more apt, nor more spectacular.

Honorable mention: The oh-so-autumnal "Golden Delicious" cocktail to welcome me on my little autumn trip to New England at Pammy's in Cambridge, MA. Beautifully presented and a wonderful way to start a stellar meal.

Best "cheap" meal

Bronze: Finding myself feeling clumsy after several drinks at The Clumsies in Athens, I made my way to Hoocut to enjoy some midnight lamb souvlaki. Maybe it was the drinks talking, but goddamn did that souvlaki hit the spot.

Silver: Muscongus Bay Lobster, perched on the shore of one of the various inlets of midcoast Maine, was one of the most enjoyable casual meals of the year, with fantastic steamers fresh from the bay and an elegant, beautifully prepared lobster roll on a locally made bun, and what a location!

Gold: Taste of Shu in Charlotte. Not just one meal, but about a dozen this year. I can't think of anything more delicious in the Charlotte metro area than their spicy fish. I will be going back many times next year. MANY times.

Honorable mention: Maketto in Lima, with its street-food-in-Osaka vibe, produced one of the greatest bites I've had all year with their torched scallop nigiri with parmesan, Maldon salt, and truffle oil. I even went back for seconds a couple days later. Also of note was their inexpensive selection of specialty nigiri and their wonderful mushroom bao.

Best Dessert

Bronze: Juan Contreras, the pastry chef at San Francisco institution Atelier Crenn, is as much of an artist as Dominque Crenn is, and this "avocado toast" meringue dish with passionfruit was among the best desserts of the year.

Silver: Cobble Hill in Cedar Rapids, my most consistently good regular restaurant, blew us away with the dessert on their German-focused menu in the spring. A fried donut-style German pastry made from brioche dough, stuffed with cassis cream, was served with an incredible Chantilly cream and a German honey liqueur. Add an inextiguishable birthday candle and you have easily one of the best bites of the year.

Gold: The combination of the baked-to-order Madeleines and lemon curd ice cream at St. John Bread and Wine in London is really the only reason I made this category. Culinary nirvana in every bite.

Honorable mention: A cheesecake for the ages at Mercado in Lima, one of the best things we ate on an already spectacular trip for food. Made with passionfruit-flavored marscapone, we devoured it and heavily considered returning for more. Apologies for no photo––it was conquered too quickly.

Best vegetarian dish

Bronze: Jonathan Tam and Blue Hill Stone Barns' fermentation department managed to create a Cantonese fish fragrant sauce in mere weeks using only plant-based ingredients. The main component, a slice of Stone Barns eggplant turned "inside-out" and fried in the style of squirrel fried fish was a masterful complement to the sauce, but the sauce itself was a work of art.

Silver: The only winning dish I don't have a photo of, but a dish that really represents a great deal of what Noma is all about. Braised pumpkin wrapped in cabbage leaves with fermented strawberry served in an impossibly complex foam of tomato water, fermented barley, and shio koji. Insane.

Gold: Little contest here––the best vegetable-based dish I had all year was Chef Dominique's miraculous take on French onion soup at Atelier Crenn. Temperature, texture, and flavor contrasts, and the most beautiful presentation of the year by far. Sure, there were a few little pearls of snail caviar, but the core was vegetarian! I mean, a cheese fat tea? Jesus.

Honorable mention: The Mil Moray corn dish at Central in Lima was among the most delicious things I have ever had, particularly the traditional cornbread with fried corn tassel and fermented corn butter.

Best seafood dish

Bronze: The year of the shellfish! The course of the night at Central was Virgilio's incredible "Lima Desert" dish with scallops, tumbo, and sweet potato leaf. Peruvian scallops are magnificent, and this preparation highlighted their sweet, saline purity while capturing the culinary ecosystem of the coastal Peruvian desert. A hallmark dish for that meal.

Silver: Atelier Crenn takes second for one of the best seafood dishes of the year, though that should hardly be surprising on her seafood-dominant menu. This abalone, the most tender I've had, shone with the magnificent, intense mussel reduction that accompanied it. Spectacular.

Gold: I was lucky enough to enjoy the gold medal winner of the Maestro’s seafood Olympics, the brainchild of the brilliant Victoria Blamey, twice––once at her residency at Stone Barns and once at her residency at Fulgurances Laundromat. Cholgas secas, or “dried mussels,” is a Chilean tradition of dehydrating mussels over earthen pits. Chef Victoria reconstitutes these mussels, creating an insanely delicious broth in the process, and serves them with grilled cabbage. I liked the Stone Barns version better, but even with some necessary shortcuts at Laundromat, I was thrilled I got to taste the dish again. And the pairing with a Chilean chardonnay at Stone Barns was the absolute best of the year!

Honorable mention: As compelled as I am to commend Sushi Nakazawa for their ultra-rare Hokkaido uni––the best sea urchin I have had, bar none––it's not really a dish as much as an ingredient. So, the runner-up goes to Chef Shola Olunloyo, who blew me out of the water at his Stone Barns residency with his scallop dish flavored with iru, a fermented locust bean condiment that's traditional in Nigeria. One of the most delicious things I've ever had.

Best Meat dish

Bronze: Pammy's gochujang bolognese is the best pasta I've had in years and definitely deserves a spot among the top three meat dishes this year, though I could also place their oregano-laced pork chop, one of the simplest, most magnificent meat courses I've had, on this last. Ah hell––let's give them both the bronze.

Silver: Wild duck at Noma, and I'll include both "presentations" of the bird for a complete picture. This is another great example of Noma's desire to use the whole animal. In the first presentation, the head of the duck was cooked and we were instructed to eat the brains, as well as a lovely chicharron of the belly skin attached to the leg. Then, the main course, with berry-coated duck breast and fallen things from the forest, capped off an immensely successful procession of savory game-and-forest courses.

Gold: I have never had a sauce quite like the duck Rouennaise at my first crack at the new Mélisse in Santa Monica, which used to be my old standby when I lived in Los Angeles. As difficult as it is to beat the duck at Noma, this sauce... a product of all the remaining cooked duck "bits," like bones, fat, and liver, pressed in a specialty silver device, it's maybe the most perfect, decadent sauce I've ever enjoyed, and of course the duck itself wasn't bad either!

Honorable mention: Johnny Ortiz produced the finest tartare I've had at his Stone Barns residency, in addition to a strip of carne seca, born of his tremendous admiration for the cows raised on the property. He also made the best taco I've had out of the short ribs of the same cows. I can't choose, but since they come from the literal same animal, I'll give both a shoutout.

Best meal

Bronze: One of the top ten restaurants in the world, and an experience I was looking forward to more than just about any this year, Chef Virgilio's cooking at Central in Lima delivered everything I expected and more.

Silver: Atelier Crenn once again blew me away with Chef Crenn's spectacular poetic culinaria. A true artist.

Gold: There is no contest, and nobody should be surprised––this year, Noma unseated SingleThread as the greatest meal I've had.

Honorable mention: I can't leave the Big Drunk Gay Awards without mentioning how important Blue Hill Stone Barns has been to me over the past year. I've eaten with them six times this year as part of their Chef in Residence series, and was blown away by every one. They overhauled the way I think about food just under two years ago, and they have welcomed me as a regular and friend every time I visit. I can't think of a more important center for food in my life these days.

And last but not least, I have to give a shoutout to the amazing people that joined me for these culinary adventures. First up, my dining companions, like my mom and sister, my buddy Jared, my girls Jo and Kayleigh, and many others! While I never mind dining alone, I am so lucky to have friends and family who will share these experiences. And followers to experience them on this blog!

Finally, cheers to all the amazing folks I've met in the industry along the way––chefs, sommeliers, farmers, shopkeepers, new friends, servers, and bartenders. Your tenacity and commitment during this hard time for us all is the precondition for any of this happening in the first place.

I hope you enjoyed this year's variant of these completely meaningless awards!

Happy New Year to all!

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