The A-Team: My Top 10 Dishes of 2017

What a year it’s been! Here’s to all the incredible places I’ve visited, the countless number of ingenious, imaginative and mind-boggling dishes I’ve eaten, and the priceless experiences I’ve been fortunate enough in which to partake.

In the end, like everything in life, there is relativity. There is good, there is better, and there is best. Here is my round-up of the ten best dishes I’ve eaten in 2017!

A listicle? NO WAY. You’ll never guess #7!

There are no rules, no scoring rubric. Coming up with the top ten was totally unscientific, with entries making the list based on a simple test of ‘what immediately comes to mind / what do I want to eat again & again’. There are no exclusions – this is the one time where fine dining can go head to head with the cheapest of street food. You probably won’t be surprised at the results.

It is perhaps an overly heuristic process, so of course, this isn’t to say that any dish not on this list is unequivocally inferior; the post could easily have well been expanded to a top fifty, and I’d still struggle to enumerate.

Without further ado, let’s trot out the plates & bowls that truly earned the Caesars!

Mofongo – Rosa de Triana, Puerto Rico

Ah, mofongo, how I miss you so. With many thanks to Royal Caribbean, I was lucky enough to be ferried to the Caribbean Islands for some serious fooding. Puerto Rican in origin, plantains (cooking bananas) are deep fried, mashed in a mortar & pestle called a pilón with garlic & butter. The aroma and flavour is already a win, but it’s commonly served as the staple carbohydrate with a variety of other main dishes, such as chicken in creole sauce.

Royal Caribbean San Juan Puerto Rico-30

Mashing the plantains in a pilon

Royal Caribbean San Juan Puerto Rico-30

Our mofongo was served with a chicken in creole sauce (and a cheeky mojito in the background)

It’s not expensive, it’s not haute cuisine, and in Puerto Rico it’s as pedestrian as it gets. But it’s balanced, absolutely delicious, and an experience novel enough for it to be transformative. It’s up against stiff competition in this post, but I can confidently declare that it’s one of the most eye-opening eats of 2017.

Hirame no engawa nigirizushi – Minamishima, Melbourne

I like to think of all restaurants as being their own unique snowflakes, so it’s always troublesome when I get asked what my favourite X restaurant is.

When it comes to sushi however, there are two itamae (high-end Japanese chefs) that turn the question into a walk in the park: Takashi Sano of Sokyo, and Koichi Minamishima of Minamishima.

Nigirizushi - Minamishima - Melbourne-1

Torched flounder fin (aburi hirame no engawa)

But this post is about the best dish, not the best sushi omakase (oh, don’t give me any ideas readers…). While both chefs obviously – by definition – conjure nuptials of rice and seafood that elicit nothing short of ecstasy, the choice pick goes to Minamishima’s aburi hirame no engawa – torched fin of the flounder fish, served nigiri-style. The perfection that is this piece of flounder fin nigiri has remained unsurpassed ever since I first tried it in 2015.

That hasn’t changed.

Kuromitsu kinako kakigori – Kuriya Kashi Kurogi (廚 菓子 くろぎ), Tokyo

Those who were following me on social media in late-July/early-August know that I took an impromptu 4-day trip to Japan. Call me crazy, but Jiro Ono’s time on this earth is not infinite: when you get a reservation, you hustle.

That said, while I visited Tokyo for the legendary itamae’s sushi, I would stay for kakigori, Japan’s answer to shaved ice. Similar to how every Asian country has their own spin on this summer crusher, so too does Japan: and it’s quite an involved process. Ice is deposited layer by layer, over a long period of time to produce a pillowy texture resembling freshly-fallen snow. A liberal draping of some sweet condiment that defines the kakigori’s flavour literally caps off the dessert.

Kakigori - Kuriya Kashi Kurogi - Tokyo-1

The incredible black sugar & sesame powder kakigori

Kakigori is a far finer, far more delicate dessert than any other shaved ice. It kind of helps when my first time was at Kuriya Kashi Kurogi, an incredibly popular kakigori-ya renowned for its focus on quality. The operative dish? Its kuromitsu kinako kakigori (Japanese black sugar syrup & soybean powder kakigori). This was the best dessert of 2017 – nothing came close – and is perhaps one of the greatest desserts I’ve ever eaten. Yeah, I was hysterical. Still sort of am.

Ox tongue – Monkey’s Corner, Sydney

I’ve already waxed plenty lyrical about Monkey’s Corner. One of my favourite venue openings of the year, the Poernomo brothers’ latest venture is a small bar that’s making a big impact. That the cocktails are great is a given, but what truly shines for this blogger is the food: it’s incredible that their shoe box kitchen is able to produce what it does.

Monkey's Corner Chippendale

Ox tongue w/beef fat, chivas & lime

While I could go on and on about what to order off its menu (hint: it’s basically the everything), the ox tongue is what’s got my tongue. For someone who’s used to equating ox tongue with Korean BBQ, Monkey’s Corner’s version – slow-cooked over two days, doused in beef fat, lime, and chives – was a revelation. It’s only been two months since my first visit, and I’ve already eaten the dish three times. Will I get sick of it? Maybe. But I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Tonkatsu – Narikura (成蔵), Tokyo

My experience with breaded, deep fried pork prior to Narikura was just that: breaded, deep fried pork. It’s a quick, cheap, and dirty feed. Yes, the sauce is usually Dead Sea salty, the pork sometimes parchment dry, and the breading overdone. Despite these occasional regrets, the results – like much of comfort cuisine – are usually quite satisfying.

But then I decided to queue up for ninety minutes at Narikura, and everything changed.

Tonkatsu - Narikura - Tokyo-1

The perfect tonkatsu at Narikura

Tonkatsu - Narikura - Tokyo-1

This is what tonkatsu should be. The queues at Narikura build up well before opening. It was pouring buckets on the night I went, and the queue still spilled well onto the streets. Of course, I’m insane: so naturally I added to the problem by joining the queue. Was it the right decision?

What a moot question. This is tonkatsu perfected in the way that only Japanese chefs – working with the same cuisine day in and day out for years on end – can perfect. The panko crumb was light & airy, and like Japan’s excellent tempura, with nary an oil stain in sight. The pork – with plenty of choice priced depending on the breed & cut – is so tender, all future succulence measures of pork dishes will range from ‘1’ to ‘Narikura tonkatsu’.

Yet another eat ruined.

Pappardelle – LuMi Bar & Dining, Sydney

That a pasta making it into the top ten should be shocking. It wasn’t ramen, it wasn’t laksa. This year’s carb stakes was dominated by flour, water and eggs – nothing more. I’ve already primed my inbox to receive the hate mail; however, I stand by the call: Mr Federico Zanellato of LuMi Dining has absolutely nailed it. On a bad day, LuMi is vaunted as one of those rare fusion restaurants that gets the fusion: no adverse side effects. But I’m not here to talk about that. This time, it’s pure pappardelle pasta goodness. Specifically, the duck ragu pappardelle w/hazelnut.

Pappardelle - LuMi - Sydney-1

LuMi’s duck ragu pappardelle

It doesn’t need to be special, it doesn’t need to show off: it just has to be absolutely delicious. You only merely need the best pasta possible, and then show it off with a rich, nutty ragu. Easy right? Unfortunately, LuMi’s position as a fine diner means that this is one dish that may quite literally never grace my taste buds ever again.

That is depressing.

Potato & Parmesan risotto w/black truffle gelato – Gelato Messina Creative Department, Sydney

I had a long, hard thought about entering a dish from the Creative Department wing of Gelato Messina into this list.

Hah, kidding. It wasn’t difficult at all. While the masses know Messina as the gelato purveyor of leviathan proportions, it is sugar magician Remi Talbot & team’s efforts right next to the Darlinghurst gelateria that has my heart on a sugar-spun leash. Here is a kitchen that crafts haute desserts at the highest level, with only Koi Dessert Bar coming anywhere close in competition.

And boy, does the Creative Department live up to its namesake. They certainly haven’t made the job of choosing just one dish easy. In the end, it was this doozy that broke through the mould:

Potato Risotto - Gelato Messina - Sydney-1

Black truffle gelato, potato & parmesan risotto, yuzu kosho foam, accompanied by a mushroom dashi

I’ll gloss over the blindingly obvious: a perfect risotto with black truffle would be a winner at any dinner. That Messina has masterfully straddled the ambiguous boundary between sweet and savoury with its inclusion of a black truffle gelato was the true crowning achievement. Is it savoury? Is it sweet? I couldn’t say: that’s freaky, and freaking exciting.

Truffle mac and cheese – Cavalier Specialty Coffee, Sydney

As my favourite cafe in Sydney, it would be remiss of me not to include at least one number from Cavalier Specialty Coffee. With a polished menu more fit for a fine diner than cafe, Cavalier has been operating on a level beyond most other cafes ever since its inception.

Case in point: their mac n cheese with truffle is almost an unfair hack in the game of flavour. But Cavalier doesn’t just lump the two together and call it a day: its truffle special is further umami-fied with duxelles, grana padano and #yolkporn.

Cavalier Specialty Coffee Truffle Macaroni & cheese: mushroom duxelles, snowy grana padano, organic egg yolk, shaved truffle

Macaroni & cheese: mushroom duxelles, snowy grana padano, organic egg yolk, shaved truffle $18 + $10

Cavalier Specialty Coffee Truffle

The mixed goodness

It’s the kind of dish in which you need to literally draw a line to ensure equal distribution, or else war will be waged to determine who gets the last spoonful.

Only available during truffle season, I’m afraid!

Lamb Pao Mo (羊肉泡馍) – Xi’An, China

As one of the middle kingdom’s oldest cities with cardinal influence on cuisine all over China, visiting my home city of Xi’An invariably results in a smorgasbord of overeating in an ultimately futile attempt to check off my always overly ambitious eat list. The result can usually be summed up in two numbers: +2 and -2. That is to say, +2kg, -2 years of my projected lifespan. Better to live short but well than long but regretful.

羊肉泡馍 (yang rou pao mo) Hui Min Jie Xi'an Muslim Street Food

羊肉泡馍 (yang rou pao mo)

羊肉泡馍 (yang rou pao mo) Hui Min Jie Xi'an Muslim Street Food

羊肉泡馍 (yang rou pao mo)

If you’ve already read my mega-post on fifty (yes, five-o!) of Xi’An’s street eats, it won’t come as a surprise that the veritable pao mo makes the list without challenge. Lamb soup can be confronting to those who’ve only ever had a chop off the barbie, I’ll never consider you to have visited Xi’An until you try this icon at least once.

Wagyu steak – Home cooked!

Something that was home-cooked, making the list? Why yes it’s entirely possible: especially when dishing out the cheat codes of wagyu, truffle, and a very hot pan.

Earlier this year, legendary breeder Blackmore Wagyu produced an incredible carcass called Aizakura K1015. It was a 100% pure-bred Tajima bull whose lineage can be traced back to the only full-bloods ever exported outside of Japan. Yes, get that straight: in Australia, if you are served any wagyu that’s not from Blackmore’s farm, know that it is a crossbreed. Nothing against crossbreeds; however, the name wagyu – like Kobe – gets bandied about a bit too loosely for my liking.

Aizakura Wagyu - Home - Sydney-1

Aizakura wagyu – this was a 250g scotch. I also ordered a 250g sirloin.

Aizakura Wagyu - Home - Sydney-2

This is one meal where home cooking certainly is not cheaper than eating out :’)

At $500 a kilo, Aizakura was expensive, even for Blackmore wagyu. While the value judgement can ultimately only be made in the eye of the beholder, my hesitation committing to take a part of this glorious cow home was like the contents of my wallet after the purchase: non-existent.

The wagyu was nothing short of pure beefiness just by itself, but as it was going to be the best thing I’ll ever make, sprinkling 10% truffle salt and slicing 20g of WA Perigord truffle on top seemed like a great idea.

Aizakura Wagyu - Home - Sydney-3

I certainly can’t think of a better food decision I’ve made this year.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: what a year 2017 has been in the world of food. Some exciting food trips are penned in for 2018, so I can’t wait for this year to be topped. What are your top ten dishes for 2017? Sound off in the comments below!

This post is completely based on independently-paid visits/products

4 comments on “The A-Team: My Top 10 Dishes of 2017”

  1. Anthony Reply

    The Wagyu looks awesome and it’s great for aspiring foodies like myself with the push towards home cooking. You should treat yourself with a store bought Japanese Hibachi (eBay sells them) and with some good quality Binchotan, take it up to 11!

    Very well rounded post by the way 🙂

    • Michael Shen Reply

      Thanks for the comments man! I still don’t consider myself as a ‘home cook’ – I find that the more expensive the ingredient, the less you have to actually do to it. But wow, I checked out your hibachi pictures – sweet setup!

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