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The Maestro's Big Drunk Gay Awards – 2020 Dumpster Fire Edition!

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

I really enjoyed issuing a series of absolutely meaningless "Big Drunk Gay" awards last year, highlighting the very best things I ate, drank, and did all year. It was a fun way for me to go back through the memories of the year and look fondly upon the stuff of life.

Well, given the mess that this past year has been, it seems sort of gross to attempt to "remember" much of 2020 fondly! Despite it all, however, I did manage to squeeze in some excellent experiences. So, this year's Big Drunk Gay Awards will celebrate the culinary wonders (and expanding waistlines) of quarantine and also the few bright stars of dining out, to both give you some ideas of things to try in the remaining months of quarantine and also things to look forward to when it's all over!

Best quarantini

Ok so I technically didn't write this up, BUT... I discovered a variation to a French 75, which I DID write up in the Quarantini Series, that may be the best cocktail I have ever made. Replace the gin with Calvados, a French apple brandy, the lemon juice with lime juice, and the dry bubbly with a funky Cerdon de Bugey, and you've got one of the most spectacular, complex, refreshing cocktails imaginable. Everyone for whom I've made this drink absolutely raves about it. If you can find Calvados and Cerdon (or another semi-sweet rosé bubbly), go for it!

Best wine enjoyed in quarantine

Alquimista Cellars is making, dare I say it, probably the best single-vineyard pinot noir in the country right now, and their van der Kamp vineyard pinot is probably my favorite. I prefer the softer, more "feminine," Burgundian-style cool climate pinots, but this wine I think strikes the perfect balance between this more delicate style and California muscle. It's just velvet, but dances on the palate with red fruit and acidity. It's the most perfect pinot I've had in a long time. If you haven't tried Greg's stuff yet, you absolutely must! They do regular sales and their wines are already priced really well for the quality.

I don't have a photo of the van der Kamp pinot but here's a bottle of their (also ridiculously good) old vines zin!

Best quarantine cuisine installment

Looking back, while I enjoyed most everything I made (and posted about), one thing really stands out, and that is my "invention" (I think??) of avocado toast over eggs in a frame for breakfast/brunch. So wonderfully versatile and a perfect breakfast, with a runny yolk that can surprise anyone who thinks they're only about to eat avocado toast! Get some of the best bread you can, play with ways to make the avocado topping meet your specific tastes, and maybe try a duck egg in the frame!

Best cheap meal

A shoutout to Charlotte, here! The Dumpling Lady, with her brick-and-mortar outpost at Optimist Hall, has swiftly become my go-to for pre-campus lunch in my new city. Be it the flagship pork and chive dumplings, the toothsome sweet pork belly and mushroom dumplings, or the absolutely mouthwatering nei jiang spicy beef noodles, The Dumpling Lady is home to the best casual food this year, and I am sure I will visit it at least one weekly during the spring semester as well!

Best wine out-in-the-world

I would say a good two-thirds of every two- or three-Michelin-star restaurant I have visited in the last ten years has this winemaker on their tasting menu pairings, which should tell you a lot about how good the wine is. From Austria, Pichler produces the most exquisite bottles of Austro-German varietals out there. I haven't posted the review (yet) of this meal (will be forthcoming in a #TBT post), but at Oriole in Chicago back in February, they paired one of my courses with a glorious Pichler Grüner Veltiner that was so magnificently complex and wonderful, and even tasted a bit of coconut. So great for a varietal that can just go hard green apple and lime.

Best cocktail out-in-the-world

Simple, yes. Basic, yes. Even crude, maybe. But the goddamn frozen guava pisco sour I enjoyed at Cabra after a sweaty, humid summer walk around the city? The ideal cocktail for the moment, and I think the thing I would drink over and over again of all the cocktails I enjoyed out in the world this year. Cabra should be on everyone's list in Chicago.

Biggest surprise

Salt Lake City once again takes the biggest surprise prize. I knew Franck's would have a great Thanksgiving prix fixe. But I also don't really care for turkey, and had never had turkey I enjoyed UNTIL this meal. So the surprise of the year was the absolutely magnificent turkey dish at Franck's Thanksgiving Dinner, which was not just the most flavorful, moist, succulent turkey dishes I've had, but maybe one of the most flavorful poultry dishes ever.

Best vegetarian dish

This one was tough this year! As much as I relished and devoured the unexpectedly magnificent salad course at Cabra (complete with hot cheese), there was just too much that was special in my meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County in February. There were so many standout veggie courses it seems almost perverse to try to rank them, but I think the thing that stands out the most was the stalk of kale that they wiped in brown butter, where they gave me scissors to cut off the leaves, and had me drag through three different, magnificent types of apple butter from their orchards. Wowza, this was a spectacular course.

Best seafood dish

This is so tough that it might be a four-way tie. But I'll settle on a two-way tie. Hokkaido uni ceviche at the Surf Club in Miami Beach wins the first half of the award. Tender morsels of perfect, sweet, rich urchin atop thin avocado slices and leche de tigre. Scrumptious and absolutely special. I loved it so much I ordered two, and then went back again two days later to get another one.

New York holds the other award for best seafood dish this year with the warm scallop appetizer with lime and lemongrass broth at Le Bernardin. Good lord, Eric Ripert knows his seafood, and his veteran saucier has to be the best in the country. Just ridiculous.

Close runners-up include the Faroe Islands salmon from the same lunch at Bernardin, as well as the fugu course at Sushi Noz. In fact, ANY of the appetizer courses at Noz could be contenders. But these morsels of scallop, with perhaps the most perfect sauce the world will ever know... I still dream about this dish.

Best meat dish

Chicago, meanwhile, holds the top two spots for the nearly tied best meat dish category. At Oriole, the A5 wagyu with shio koji, white asparagus, and madeira sauce has to take some sort of prize, but it almost feels crass to award a best meat dish with a protein that is just so hard to mess up in the first place (I mean, do anything with A5 wagyu and it will be magnificent). So, I have to give the crown to Cabra's absolutely ridiculously good chicken thigh skewers with a peanut-based chimichurri, yuzu, peanuts, and cilantro. Capturing my increasing love of both chicken thighs and Peruvian cuisine, it was the most perfect meat dish of the year. The A5 at Oriole will have to settle for a consolation runner up prize. How sad for them.

Best restaurant

While the pool was not too broad this year, the quality level was deep. But, all things considered, the dinner I had at Sushi Noz in New York City is probably the cream of the crop. I still marvel that even for a storied foodie like me, all five of the appetizers I enjoyed in Abe-san's sprawling yet intimate omakase featured a primary ingredient I'd not yet encountered, and the spectacular Edomae-style aging and expert cuts, combined with the wonderful sommelier peddling some of the best pairings (and free pours of premium sochu) in the country, rounded out what is probably the most perfect, complete meal of the year.

A close runner-up might be Blue Hill at Stone Barns, given the completely new perspective (or rather series of perspectives!) they gave me on what food can and should be, but there were a handful of misses in execution that needed to be ironed out before earning the jewel in the Maestro's Big Drunk Gay Award crown!

I am so looking forward to when I can go out in the world and dine without worry again! To 2021!

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