I’ve been traveling a lot — in and out of New England — to taste the dishes that everyone is talking about, and I’ve come across a few dishes that I just haven’t been able to get out of my head. When I think about them, I can still taste them, and instantly wish these restaurants, clam shacks, or even pop-ups were closer than my memories.
Here are a few of the best things I ate in 2023, and some of the places you should seek out if you’re in the area.
Molé sauce at Dolores, Providence
The molé that chef Maria Meza makes at Dolores on Providence’s East Side is easily the best in the state. It’s Meza’s family recipe that derives from Oaxaca, and is light in comparison to the thick (and, often, lumpy) consistencies that many places get all wrong. I’m writing this newsletter from Houston, Texas, sitting at a chef’s counter drinking a zero-proof cocktail with molé and salt lining the rim, but the taste takes me right back to Dolores.
Poppy seed mousse with rhubarb at Elske, Chicago
In Chicago’s up-and-coming West Loop neighborhood, chefs David and Anna Posey are pushing the envelope at Elske, a modern American restaurant that borrows its name from the Danish word “to love.” In June I tried their tasting menu. Their last course was a bright and inventive, fluffy, pink poppy seed mousse with rhubarb. I can see why it earned the attention of both the James Beard and Michelin award folks.
Gnocchi at Bar Futo, Portland, Maine
From the team behind Mr. Tuna and Crispy Gai, Bar Futo is a Binchotan-fired kitchen, where Japanese ingredients and charcoal combine elegantly for bite-sized skewers like grilled shiitake with a pickled shiitake puree, or grilled fish with Tokyo onions and ginger rayu. But their ricotta gnocchi tasted like a beautiful summer succotash, with corn, maitake, peas and smoked spinach drenched in a potato cream that enveloped the gorgeous pillowy dumplings.
Apple babka at NAVAD Bakers, East Providence, R.I.
It was a very dreary fall day when I attended one of my local farmer’s markets, going from one booth to the next to grab my week’s groceries. The folks from NAVAD Bakers, formerly Buns Bakery, were there selling their ever-popular babka. I saw a seasonal apple, and I knew I needed a loaf. When I brought that beautiful apple babka home, it sure didn’t last long. From my kitchen, I copied what Palo’s does for dessert: I warmed up a slice and added a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on top. It was heavenly.
Everything brioche at Red Paper Clip, New York City
Think of everything you like about bagels and lox. And now elevate it. That’s the “Everything Brioche” dish at Red Paper Clip, which has triangle slices of cured trout, miso yolk, and trout roe instead of smoked salmon and traditional toppings.
Raw scallops with shio kombu at Gift Horse, Providence
Sky Hanuel Kim is the chef de cuisine at Gift Horse, where she lets her South Korean roots shine in ways that flip classic New England seafood dishes on their head. She mixes kimchi with the mignonette served with raw Rhode Island oysters, and it makes you question why this wasn’t always a thing. The Japanese shio kombu in her raw scallop dish is another one that makes me think these things should always be eaten together.
Short rib with peanut curry at Jūn, Houston
Jūn opened in February, and food critics are calling it one of the most exciting new restaurants of the year. Their co-owners — who were born to Salvadoran and Chinese immigrants — highlight each of their cultures in more modern ways. When I enjoyed their eight-course tasting menu at the chef’s counter, they were testing out their peanut curry, pouring it onto a plate of short rib with tomato jam and celery root. It was unexpectedly spicy, yet light enough to contrast with the meatiness and fat of the short rib.
Pumpkin pecan blondies at Little City Coffee & Kitchen, Providence
I think I told pastry chef Kelsey Garvin once that I was “not a sweets person,” and she must have thought to herself: “challenge accepted.” The number of times I ate her pumpkin pecan blondies for breakfast this past fall is something I will never admit to my doctor. But how could I resist? Brown butter? Caramelized white chocolate? A layer of pecan pie filling? Forget it. I have zero regrets.
Spicy beef salad at Central Provisions, Portland, Maine
This is a dish that I dreamt about for a year until I was able to actually taste it for a second time in September. A beef carpaccio that packs serious heat, this dish is elevated by bits of crushed peanuts and brightened by cilantro and onions.
Truffle ravioli at Maestro, New York City
For me, fresh noodles al denté instantly puts me in a better mood. At Maestro in Greenwich Village, a sign above the open kitchen says “Believe in Pastabilities” — and it’s good advice. After chowing down some truffle ravioli, I’m nothing but a believer. While eating, I watched chefs hand roll their sheets of pasta dough for the ravioli before lumping small balls of cheese and mushrooms into tiny circles, spacing them out only inches apart. Watching the process in their open-air kitchen added to the special nature of this dish.
Torta at Tuxpan Taqueria, Central Falls, R.I.
After opening his family-run taqueria in an old Honey Dew outpost in Central Falls this past year, Diego Alcantar is someone to watch in 2024. One of his bestsellers at Tuxpan Taqueria is the Torta ($12), where they use Portuguese rolls from the Colonial Bakery in Cumberland — combining two cuisines to make this signature sandwich.
This story first appeared in Globe Rhode Island’s Food & Dining newsletter, a free weekly email about Rhode Island’s restaurant industry that also contains information about local events, Q&As with chefs, dining guides, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail each Thursday, you can sign up here.