The Top 10 Dishes of 2008

Recession be damned: High-end fare reigned supreme this year.

Should auld entrées be forgot, and never brought to mind? No, say the bards. Ergo, here is my annual list of the 10 most memorable dishes I ate in Seattle restaurants this year--the dishes I pimp to friends when they tell me they're checking out a place, the flavors that come to me the instant I spot the chef's name.Compared to 2007, this year's top 10 is skewed toward high-end restaurants. That's because 2008 brought an amazing crop of new bistros, many of which merit national attention. "The Pacific Northwest is hot," an editor at Gourmet recently told me. I could only agree.Not listed in any particular order:1. Cauliflower agnolotti at How to Cook a Wolf. Who knows when this pasta dish will reappear at Ethan Stowell's tiniest restaurant, where the menu changes every few days? The pureed cauliflower that filled each bite of the ravioli, spiked only with a few drops of aged balsamic vinegar, had transcended the vegetal, as if the chefs had managed to force-feed a cabbage plant and then extract its foie gras. 2208 Queen Anne Ave. N., 838-8090, Acuka at Bistro Turkuaz. Ugur Oskay's lamb kebabs and roasted eggplant dishes are masterful, but it's this spread—eaten either as an appetizer or as part of a meal of meze (Turkish small plates)—that best shows off the chef's finesse. To make the creamy, faintly sweet, nutty acuka (ah-djoo-kah), she purees roasted walnuts with red peppers, oil, garlic, and lemon juice; the blend of flavors is so skillful you can barely discern one ingredient from the other. 1114 34th Ave., 324-3039, Grits with grilled prawns and morels at Spring Hill. The culinary equivalent of softcore porn, only with a payoff. There's something sultry and even indecent about this appetizer, whose prawns are seasoned with applewood smoke, whose cream-enriched grits are ringed with a shrimp-and-mushroom sauce and morel slices, and whose center—a fat poached egg—spews its luscious yolk over everything, coating the dish in molten gold. You'll likely find yourself mopping up the last drops with your fingers. 4437 California Ave. S.W., 935-1075, Banchan at Chang Ahn Jung. Banchan isn't one dish, but a swarm of pickles, fritters, and salads that take over the table at this tiny Korean restaurant. The servers eventually squeeze in some barbecued meats or a stew pot, but by then you may have filled up on the real main course: everything from pickled bean-thread noodles and gut-blazing cabbage kimchi to tiny candied dried fish and (no kidding) hot dogs dipped in egg and pan-fried. 33100 Pacific Hwy S. # 5, Federal Way, 253-838-8555.5. Pork belly sliders at Spur. Reading "slider," half of you just yawned. The miniburger is the Brangelina of Seattle menus: impossible to escape yet unflaggingly popular. The sliders are far from the most adventurous dish at Spur, which dabbles in sous-vide cooking and reverse spherification. But Brian McCracken and Dana Tough's take, with fat-riddled meat, a smoked orange marmalade, and ethereally light brioche buns, has renewed my faith in the franchise. 113 Blanchard St., 728-6706, Banh uot nem nuong at Huong Binh. I confess: I can't pronounce most of the words I just typed out, including the name of this Vietnamese restaurant in the ID. But I'm getting good at pointing at them on the menu. Banh uot are squirmy, meltingly tender rice-flour crepes that you wrap up with grilled pork meatballs and Vietnamese herbs in curly-edged lettuce leaves and dip in sweet-sour, chile-flecked fish sauce. Each bite contains more flavors and textures than your mouth should be allowed to hold at one time. 1207 S. Jackson St., 720-4907.7. Tajarin with ragù at Cascina Spinasse. Truth be told, any of Justin Neidermeyer's pastas could make this list. The tajarin is just the most improbable. The frail, hair-thin egg noodles appear to be sauceless, until you spin a forkful out of the tangled mound and slip it into your mouth. That's when you discover the meat ragù coating the elastic tajarin, which is braised down so far that it's an echo of the beast it came from, formless but haunting. 1531 14th Ave., 251-7673, Chorizo and chocolate pintxo at Txori. Not that I don't also have fond memories of Txori's braised octopus or the blood sausage with piquillo pepper, but the pintxo (Basque tapa) that haunts my memories of Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez's dainty Belltown bar was one of the simplest: a slice of a baguette tiled in a few slices of funky, paprika-red Spanish chorizo and a dusting of the darkest, bitterest chocolate. The combination was like a square-jawed model with a broken nose: brutally ravishing. 2207 Second Ave., 204-9771, Crab and shrimp gumbo at King Creole. Kinzie Saulk suspended his mail-order gumbo business for a spell when he opened up this Madrona takeout restaurant (you can sit at the window counter, though you'll be eating out of paper and styrofoam). A bowl of his shrimp and crab gumbo will show you why out-of-state customers were willing to order the stew: Underneath the sweet succulence of the shellfish comes the chile spike of the beef sausage and the nutty dark-brown roux, while the filé powder brings the occasional waft of clove and sassafras. 2908 E Cherry St., 420-5584.10. Soy custard at Joy Palace. If you thought tofu was bland, you should taste soy custard, which is basically tofu that sets before all the water can be pressed out of it. The fresh, warm custard that this Rainier Valley dim sum restaurant serves out of a wooden vat is no exception. Except for the ginger syrup that the server squirts into the bowl, there's almost nothing to taste—a faint beany aroma, perhaps—as the custard slips and melts across your tongue, the most exquisite texture imaginable. 6030 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., 723-4066.Runners-Up: Grilled poussin at Joule; entomatadas at Senor Moose; poutine at Skillet Street Food; clams with basil at Yea's Wok; goat curry at Curry Leaf; and halibut cheek with chickpeas and saffron aioli at the Corson

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