This past year confounded all my expectations. As a critic, my core belief is that the restaurant bubble will burst any month now. I keep trying to puncture the mystique, and some of the hot places are, well, kinda, mostly mystique. But I predicted the end of the food mania so many times in the 1990s that I finally switched from New Yearís predictions to year-end awards. Itís a lot easier to shoot the wounded and pin medals on the survivors after the battle; before it, everyone is going to be a hero, and only a statistician or a Democrat would point out that battles often result in casualties. You may ask: why would a critic too mean to give stars bestow year-end awards? Because I donít have to give everyone an award, thatís why.
The dirty secret of this column is that Iím not a foodie. Iím not entranced by the phantasmagoria of food trends and novelties. I only like the good stuff, and quite a lot of that is too old-fashioned or too tricky or too ephemeral or too ethnic to serve in fancy restaurants. Real foodies canít understand how I can go into some of the places I want to review. I canít understand how they can sit through four-hour, $300 dinners waiting for the one transcendent moment they can talk about for years to come. Real foodies canít understand why I keep ordering pigís ear as a measure of Taiwanese restaurants, and I canít figure out how they maintain their appetites in loud, dizzying spaces.
The other advantage of giving awards is that in general there are no great restaurants, only great dishes. One of the really surprising things about 2002 was that I had so many whole-meal satisfactions. My whole table really had soup-to-nuts good meals at Le Soir, Sabur, the Nightingale, and Troquet, and overall excellent experiences at Oishi and Cambridge 1.
Each year, I struggle with maintaining separate award categories for Asian restaurants. It sometimes feels like the 1950s record charts, in which the separate categories for African-American artists featured much better music than the charts based on mainstream sales. This year, letís try a consolidated ranking system where either Asian or non-Asian restaurants can win, and the runner-up will get an award denominated as Asian or non-Asian.
Restaurant of the year: Troquet. It opened in 2001, but my review did not appear until after last yearís awards column. It would be easy to cop out and give this restaurant the award for best wine list or best cheeses, but I also loved the rolls, the steak, the salad, the leek-fennel soup, and the desserts, and the overall impression lingered over my entire reviewing year of rather good restaurants.
Restaurant of the moment: the Nightingale. So perfectly attuned to misty evenings, you could take Miles Davis there; so perfect, you could propose marriage to your ex-wife and be taken seriously; so perfect ... I actually wonder how it will be next July.
Place Iíve actually gone back to: Oishi. Iím always telling readers not to eat as restaurant columnists do. Rather, you should find a good restaurant near you and cultivate the staff. I canít do this, but if I could, Iíd start at Oishi, a tiny sushi bar with top skills and a menu of customer-driven sushi like " Jeffís Maki, " delectable rolls made into comfort food with spicy mayonnaise.
Décor prize-for-the-eyes: the bar with low tables at Argana, especially in warm weather with the windows open. Runner-up: Sabur, with just enough exotica to carry you off to an imaginary idyllic Bosnia.
Worst décor/best food: 33, where the fun-house lines and flashing lights do not exactly help your appetite, but brilliant cheffery revives it.
Best single décor object: the fake van Gogh at Lucyís. Runners up: the fake Miró at the Nightingale. Whatever is now on the walls at ZuZu.
Godís pizza parlor: Cambridge 1.
Best pizza: the Evergreen at the Dogwood Café. Runners-up: Number Five (with the sagey potatoes) at Cambridge 1; the Constantinople (chicken, pine nuts, potatoes) at Kouzina; and the shrimp-and-pesto-sauce pie at Via Via (which also has great Middle Eastern food). A remarkably good year for unconventional pizza, and you can always stop in at Santarpioís for my all-time-favorite red-sauce version.
Best retro dish: iceberg salad at Cambridge 1. A big wedge of Americaís most despised lettuce with a fabulous shallot dressing.
Dumbest retro dish: (tie) chocolate doughnuts at Le Soir; gingerbread doughnut and warm pear soup at Azure.
Bread of the year: the onion focaccia at Sister Sorel (and Tremont 647), and I donít usually like focaccia.
Asian bread of the year: Bhindi Bazaarís Peshawari naan, a buttery flatbread with raisins and nuts that challenges the ubiquitous Iggyís raisin-walnut bread.
Soup of the year: chicken soup at Royal India. Mild spicy enhancement of major chicken flavor, with egg and lemon as in avgolemono. Sure to cure colds and make you homesick for Bangladesh, a place Iíve never been.
Best appetizer: " soft-shell crab watermelon sea beans avocado lemon vinaigrette " at Gallia. I hate these train-wreck lists of ingredients, but this one has a magic combination of fried crab, lemon, ripe watermelon, and jade-green beans. Watch for it on the spring menu, when the soft-shell crabs are at their best. Runner-up: tonno piemontese at 33, a tuna-based slab of stuff that really seems like French pâté.
Best Asian appetizer: " Miang Kum (a native dish) " at Khao Sarn. Roll your own in spinach leaves, and you have quite a medley of contrasting flavors, textures, and excitements.
Best entrée: pan-roasted monkfish at Le Soir. Chef Mark Allen works with a bone-in tail section that he cuts like a T-bone chop, but he has some technique to roast up the meat with as delicate a texture as halibut or hake, unlike many kitchens that stress a tougher, lobster-like texture in monkfish. Backing up the delicate texture is a reinforced savory flavor that draws on bacon lardons, nuggets of carrot that taste as rich as bacon, and whole cloves of roasted garlic with a terrific burst of flavor.
Best vegan entrée: creamy polenta with wild-mushroom ragout and butternut squash at the Nightingale. Why shouldnít vegans have comfort food?
Best weird thing I ate in 2002: sweetbreads Eugénie under glass at Locke-Ober. Lydia Shire is known to love organ meats, and she upgraded this classic with wild mushrooms and better ham.
Best eponymous entrée: Bhindi aachari at Bhindi Bazaar. Bhindi means " okra, " and this dish is like a dry gumbo with Indian pickling spices, plus some of the yearís best rice and a fine, cumin-esque dal.
Best meat entrée: braised veal cheeks at Rouge. The meat has the texture of beef brisket, but a distinctively veal flavor. Runner-up: duck duo at Rouge. This cliché is made new by a cylinder of duck-confit hash.
Best wines by the glass: the Nightingale. The restaurantís list is one of the shorter ones, but it leans French.
Beer of the year: Harpoonís cask-conditioned bitter at Doyleís. Harpoon finally delivered on its promise to out-fresh and out-local Samuel Adams, and how!
Chocolate dessert of the year: El Rey milk-chocolate brûlée at Todd Englishís Bonfire.
Best $5 desserts: the Elbow Room, scoring consistently with crème brûlée, apple crisp, and a quality brownie sundae.
Scallion pancake of the year: Yeah Taipei. Part of the secret is getting it to the table hot, but Yeah Taipei also has the best dipping sauce, which is sweet-salty and thick.
Burger of the year: the " burger daddy " at Sister Sorel. This is a perfect hometown burger. Only our hometown is into a little smoke and jalapeño cheese, and garlic steak fries on the side.
Ribs of the year: Uncle Peteís in East Boston. Subtle smoke but very satisfying.
Salmon of the year: pommery salmon at Bakerís Best (at night). Not an easy category, since almost every menu now has a perfunctory salmon dish. The prize goes to Michael Baker, who has served more salmon at more functions than anyone. If you slap some pommery mustard on, it cuts the fatty flavor of hatchery salmon, and bastes with vinegar at the same time. This dish is a cousin to the mustard-mayonnaise bluefish at Legal Sea Foods, and Iím going to try pommery mustard at home with bluefish.
Ready for retirement: the term " bistro, " now as watered-down as a dating-bar margarita and nearly as meaningless as the word " martini " in " blueberry martini. "
Trend Iíd like to see: poached salmon instead of grilled.
Trend I predict: linen-tablecloth Indian food.
The sixth annual Howard Mitchum Memorial Medal for Innovation in Seafood Cookery (no award given in 2000; the 2001 award went to Big Fish Seafood): Laura Brennan. Sometimes innovation occurs in a classic context, and Brennanís training under Madeleine Kamman and alongside Todd English, Steve Johnson, and Rene Michelena came to fruition with seafood entrées at her opening menu at Caffe Umbra: boned skate wings on a purée of cauliflower and potato; swordfish in a saffron-cinnamon broth; goujonettes of sole on a lightened " brandade soufflé " ó all great seafood with modern-classic-French treatments.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com