View photographs in the "10 Best Dishes of 2008" slideshow.
There is an exquisite rite built around the eating of fugu in Japan, heightened by danger and flavored with death, although restaurant blowfish may be safer than restaurant steak. But whatever Japanese blowfish may be, Korean blowfish is the opposite: abundant, hearty and fairly reasonably priced, and served as the centerpiece of an evening’s drinking rather than as a refined, somewhat boring plate of what might as well be a mild sort of flounder. It is a pleasant thing, to sit around a seething tabletop cauldron of bok jiri at the Korean blowfish-specialty restaurant Dae Bok, sipping black-raspberry wine, spooning brick-red broth and vegetables into your bowl, fishing out meaty pieces of blowfish that slip right off the curious V-shaped bones. Cooked as a jiri — soupy stew — blowfish is a meaty, slippery fish that may remind you of succulent frog’s legs. When you’re almost finished with the pot of jiri, the waitress reappears to mix the dregs with rice, chopped vegetables and a little oil, and leaves it to fry into a crisp-bottomed porridge of joy. 2010 James M. Wood Blvd., L.A., (213) 386-6660.
Duck à l’orange
Anisette may be almost too perfect, absinthe bottles rising to heaven behind the zinc bar, upper walls tinted nicotine yellow, all worn tile floors, dented tin ceilings, imperfect mirrors — like an awkwardly narrow space in a distant arrondissement. Anisette is the demesne of Alain Giraud, a shaggy, bearish Frenchman who would probably look like a chef even if he were wearing a hockey jersey. And at Anisette, Giraud isn’t presenting a modern interpretation of French cooking, a fantasy of French cooking, or riffs on the theme of French cooking — this is regular French cooking as designed by an amazingly skilled French chef. When you see something on the menu you think your grandmother might have enjoyed, whether it be pâté with a red-wine aspic, onion soup or floating island, this is probably the place to try it. And then there’s the Wednesday-night duck à l’orange, a crackly-skinned bird whose powerfully scented sauce, amplified with dark caramel, may lead you to wonder why this dish has been out of fashion for the past 30 years. 225 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-3200 or www.anisettebrasserie.com.
Eva Solo–Brewed Coffee
In certain circles, it was hard to avoid the topic of Third Wave coffee this year, coffee sold not just by brand name (Yuban) or national origin (Starbucks Guatemalan) but like wine as the produce of specific farmers: organic and shade-grown and Fair Trade sure, but from estates like El Socorro in Guatemala and La Lainez in El Salvador, as distinct from one another as Burgundy is from Rioja. But to actually taste the differences between these artisanal coffees, you need a careful roast and an extraction method that respects the winy acidity of the beans. La Mill, the high-end coffeehouse that put a wicked spin onto the subject of Silver Lake gentrification, may serve a menu of Michael Cimarusti–designed sandwiches and salads, Adrian Vazquez’s molecular gastronomy–inspired desserts and Eton Tsuno’s baroque espresso drinks, but the heart of the operation is the careful brewing of its exquisit light-roast coffees. When you order that aged Sumatran peaberry brewed in an Eva Solo, a willowy carafe encased in tight, zippered neoprene, like a fitted wetsuit on a supermodel, there is clear, limpid coffee in your cup, tart, smelling rather more of fruits and flowers than of whatever it is you are drinking at Peet’s. 1636 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 663-4441 or www.lamillcoffee.com.
Animal is probably the first restaurant to raise Boy Food to the level of a genuine cuisine — a farmers market–intensive version of Boy Food, but animated by the hardcore personal vision of chefs Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook. The operating principle at Animal is neither the aggressive clams-in-ham philosophy of so much avant-garde cooking nor the Rabelaisian head-to-tail approach, but pleasure — not least of which is a simple, howlingly good plate of crisp, assertively salted fried hominy, chewy beneath its crunch, seasoned simply with a squirt of lime, with the hot-corn smack of fresh tortillas, hot grits or posole, like a plate of CornNuts that has gone through media training. 435 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (323) 782-9225 or www.animalrestaurant.com.
Vegetables en Papillote
The problem with getting attached to a dish at Palate Food + Wine, Octavio Becerra’s sprawling restaurant/wine bar, is that it is unlikely to be on the menu the next time you come in, plums replaced with dates, shell beans replaced with string beans, the grand cycle of seasons rotating through plates of mackerel, pork belly and free-range veal. He lives and dies with the farmers market, that guy. But whatever the time of year, there is always the papillote — vegetables roasted with herbs and olive oil in a bag, which brings out the sweet freshness of baby carrots, asparagus, onions, peppers, whatever’s in season, in a straightforward, spectacular way. 933 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 662-9463 or www.palatefoodwine.com.