Thirteen must be my lucky number. That's how many Bon Appetit restaurant issues I've worked on. My role has changed over the years, from spell-checking Kokkari Estiatorio in 2001 to choosing the Hot 10 in 2009, the first time we made such a list. But I've got to admit: This is the issue I'm most proud of. I've traveled more, eaten more, spent more, and endured more sleepless nights deciding whom to include than any year prior. I think you'll be able to see (or is it taste?) the passion for all things food that went into this issue.
Alma: Best New Restaurant in AmericaAlma: Best New Restaurant in America 2013
Ari Taymor has a knack for knocking on doors, and a talent for showing up unannounced at a restaurant's service entrance. He's not afraid to call a chef every day for a month to ask if he can come work for free. In other words, he can be a royal pain in the butt. But it's that won't-take-no-for-an-answer attitude that led him, at just 26 years old, to open Alma. The story of how this unassuming, 39-seat restaurant in Los Angeles became the restaurant of the year is, to put it in sports terms, like that of a minor league baseball player who goes from batting .200 one year to hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth with two outs to win the World Series the next. Yes, it's that unexpected. Taymor grew up in Palo Alto, California, on a steady suburban diet of Food Network (he was partial to Good Eats and Iron Chef) and Taco Bell (his go-to order: two chalupas and a Crunchwrap Supreme). But it wasn't until 2007, when he had a monumental, eye-opening meal of lamb leg à la ficelle at the legendary Chez Panisse, that food became more than entertainment and cheap fuel. From that point forward, Taymor wanted to cook.
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That's not to say that the road to Alma was linear. Along the way, he was fired from an externship at Lucques in Los Angeles, honed basic culinary skills at a community kitchen in Berkeley, and hunkered down at San Francisco's Flour + Water, where he spent six months only making pasta. I've seen better résumés on The Hot 10. It was while working as an unpaid stagiaire at La Chassagnette, a country restaurant with its own garden in Arles, France, that Taymor adopted the techniques that became the foundation of his cooking style (not to mention where he became enamored with the idea of having a farm). These varied experiences gave Taymor a vision for his own concept-and bolstered the tenacity required to pull it off. In February 2012, less than five years after that pivotal meal at Chez Panisse, he launched Alma as a pop-up in Venice, California. What would soon become his trademarks-almost no butter, lots of vegetable stocks, and selections that changed nightly-shined in the three- and five-course tasting menus. It was an overnight success, but seeing as it was a pop-up, his success was over almost as soon. Taymor was about to take a job opening up someone else's restaurant when he got a call about a permanent space in downtown L.A. He had 24 hours to decide his future. Taymor and his business partner, Ashleigh Parsons, signed the lease and opened Alma an unheard-of two weeks later. The restaurant nearly failed. Some nights, no one came in. "I was terrified," says Taymor. "I kept running out of money."
To be completely honest, the first time I ate there, I had my own doubts about the place. Alma is situated in an area undergoing a cultural and culinary renaissance, but there are still pockets of seediness, like the bubble gum-stained block on which Alma's modern, wood-paneled facade stands out. Inside, you can feel its makeshift roots. It resembles a temporary gallery space more than a bona fide eating establishment (chalkboard wall; simple wood finishes; a long open kitchen where, behind bouquets of flowering herbs and tiles doubling as plates, Taymor and his merry band of cooks work all night, barely stopping to look up). Could a restaurant stuck between a hostess bar and a former marijuana dispensary steal the top spot on this year's list? By the time the seven-course, $90 tasting menu began, I looked at my wife and said, "This place has a chance." My change in attitude was thanks in part to the number of "snacks" diners received before the meal officially began. One after another they appeared: airy seaweed and tofu beignets, smoked salmon with house-made English muffins, sea urchin toast with burrata and caviar, crispy pig ears with celery mayonnaise. With every bite, Alma was making me a believer. If Taymor could do that with finger food, I was happy to imagine what lay ahead.
The menu changes weekly, if not nightly, partly because of Taymor's constant need to keep things fresh and seasonal, and partly because he never knows exactly what the restaurant's half-acre garden, located near the beach in Venice, will yield that day. His food isn't easy or expected. There's no script or formula: His plating is refreshingly free-form, and he excels at pairing seemingly opposing flavors with stunning results. On paper, chilled artichoke soup with burnt avocado and succulents didn't strike me as genius. It just sounded like cold soup. But after a few spoonfuls, all those ingredients-the grassy artichoke, charred avocado, and salty sea beans-became something way more than the sum of their parts. Every odd-sounding dish I tried-uni and cauliflower, crab with turnip and sea lettuces, ten-day dry-aged pigeon-initially had me scratching my head. But, like a song whose discordant chords flow into a harmonious chorus, the flavors united, almost by magic. By the end of my meal, I was an Ari Taymor apostle. Despite his age and relative inexperience, this guy is cooking on a level I rarely see or taste. I eat out almost every night, so it takes a lot for me to get overly excited about a meal. But there I was, like a teenage boy on his first real date. At Alma, I'd experienced something special-that unique moment when potential meets skill and anything seems possible. I saw a star born.
Saison - #2 Best New Restaurant in America 2013
Dinner for two at Joshua Skenes's stunner will set you back--gulp!--$1,000 (the real surprise is, it's worth it!). Let's run the numbers.
Rolf & DaughtersRolf & Daughters - #3 Best New Restaurant in America 2013
House-made pasta is the heart and soul of Nashville's newest, coolest neighborhood joint.
I'm starting to think that chef Philip Krajeck was put on earth to make pasta. Let's look at the evidence: He happened to live between two Italian families while growing up in Brussels, Belgium. One night he'd be eating gnocchi with fresh porcini with one family, cacio e pepe with the other the next. Later, he worked in a Swiss kitchen surrounded by Italian cooks. That's where he learned how to form the twisted pasta called strozzapreti ("priest strangler"), among other shapes. Lord knows I've eaten my fair share of pasta dishes around the country this year (it seems that tough economic times call for a big, comforting bowl of noodles). But when I tried Krajeck's takes, like the earthy hand-cut farro gemelli with mushrooms, kale, and Parmesan that he serves at Rolf and Daughters, his rowdy neighborhood restaurant in Nashville's up-and-coming Germantown area, I was mesmerized. His rustic sauces and house-made doughs-some flavored with whole grain flours, others, like the garganelli verde, green from fresh spinach-are standouts in a crowded field. How do I express how good they were? Let's just say my friend had to tell me about all the Nashville music celebrities I didn't notice the night we were there. Apparently, my eyes were on the real stars.
Fat RiceFat Rice - #4 Best New Restaurant in America 2013
The cuisine of Macau is having a moment in the Windy City thanks to this space.
A year ago, I would have had a hard time describing Macanese food, let alone finding a restaurant serving it that belonged on this list. That all changed when I ate at Chicago's Fat Rice. As it turns out, the food of Macau is a culinary mutt, mingling ingredients and influences from Portugal, China, India, and Southeast Asia. Owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo describe it as "Euro-Asian comfort food." On the plate, that translates to dishes like ginger-lime cauliflower pickles, fried smelts with tongue-searing Sichuan peppercorns, and rustic clay pots overflowing with everything from caramel catfish to piri piri chicken. It's like a far-flung episode of The Amazing Race, except here all the players go home happy. The line to get a seat at the lively communal tables often spills out the door and over to the adjacent waiting room. Insist on a seat at the L-shaped bar surrounding the open kitchen so you can watch Conlon preparing arroz gordo (fat rice), his signature dish. It's packed into a clay pot that can barely contain its riches: a crisp-bottomed layer of jasmine rice topped with head-on prawns, tender clams, Chinese and Portuguese sausages, marinated chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and sweet and spicy peppers. Imagine a love triangle between paella, bouillabaisse, and bibimbap and you get the idea. According to Conlon, it's a dish rarely prepared outside the home kitchen. That may have been true before Fat Rice brought it-and Macanese cuisine-to America. But now the secret of the world's ultimate fusion cuisine is officially out.
Ava Gene's - #5 Best New Restaurant in America 2013
At the trattoria-inspired Ava Gene's, the second restaurant from Stumptown Coffee Roasters founder and budding restaurateur Duane Sorenson, green-thumb cuisine becomes masterful.
The Pass & Provisions - #6 Best New Restaurants in America 2013
One building, two restaurants and a pair of chefs who deliver very different-but equally delicious-menus in Houston, Texas.
The OptimistThe Optimist - #7 Best New Restaurants in America 2013
Named for a kid's sailing dinghy, The Optimist is the creation of Atlanta chef and managing partner Ford Fry, who clearly knows how to navigate a winner: It is without a doubt the best of a growing number of big-name fish houses that have opened this year.
On paper, I shouldn't like The Optimist. The seafood-centric menu is as big as the Atlantic, and the dining room is similarly vast-180 seats huge. Out front, there's a putting green where you can practice your golf game until your table is called. This high-volume playland is the exact opposite of the small and quirky places I'm usually drawn to. And yet…I love it. Named for a kid's sailing dinghy, The Optimist is the creation of Atlanta chef and managing partner Ford Fry, who clearly knows how to navigate a winner: It is without a doubt the best of a growing number of big-name fish houses that have opened this year. (You read me right: Fish is the new steak.) The space, a former ham-aging warehouse, is a beauty, thanks to the vaulted ceiling, the movie- perfect lighting, and a nautical vibe that skips plastic-fish kitsch for sleek seaside sophistication. As for the food, they've got expertly shucked oysters, which, as far as I can tell, are the way to begin a meal in 2013. Start with a dozen, followed by comforting Southern hits like frothy she-crab soup with homemade shrimp toast, and plump, head-on Georgia shrimp in a buttery chile-lime sauce that you'll want to drink. Heck, the clam and lobster rolls would make even a New Englander proud. Chef Adam Evans has a knack for rich, deeply flavored dishes that will convert the most ardent steak lover. Whatever you do, don't skip the sides, especially the corn-milk hush puppies and basmati "fried rice." Sometimes the best meals happen when you least expect them to. It helps to be an optimist.
Jeffrey's & Josephine HouseJeffrey's & Josephine House - #8 Best New Restaurants in America 2013
Details make the difference at the country's most stylish pair of restaurants.
It's the little things that define a great restaurant. Monogrammed cocktail napkins. Warm bread and soft butter. A hostess's simple "Good night," as a guest exits. Thanks to 31-year-old Austin empire-builder Larry McGuire, there are few places that nail those details better than his reinvigoration of local institution Jeffrey's and its sister spot, Josephine House. In an era of restaurants known for an off-the-cuff approach, these destinations are sophisticated fine-dining throwbacks where the flower arrangements matter, the comfort of the chairs matters, and, refreshingly, the customer matters. Of course, the food matters, too. I could spend hours lunching at the whitewashed space that is Josephine House, sipping Palomas (tequila, grapefruit, lime, salt, and sparkling water) and eating quinoa and carrots in an apple cider vinaigrette, and toasts with strawberries and house-made burrata. Same goes for dinner, when the laid-back modern country-club vibe continues at Jeffrey's, with its walnut bar, leather-bound menus, Martini cart, and food that runs to a wedge salad smothered in goat-cheese dressing and a 35-day dry-aged Texas porterhouse that's seared to perfection in the wood-burning oven. If this all sounds glamorous and special, it is. Welcome back to fine dining.
The Whale Wins & Joule - #9 Best New Restaurants in America 2013
The Whale Wins & Joule may not be related, but they do share much in common.
AskaAska - #10 Best New Restaurant in America 2013
At this Scandinavian-by-way-of-Brooklyn spot, chef Fredrik Berselius is as opinionated as he is gifted.
There's a part of me that thinks I'll look back on a meal at Aska years from now and wonder, "Did I eat a dish of salsify, lichen, and autumn leaves, and like it?" There's another part of me that thinks the New Nordic movement, of which Aska is a card-carrying member, is the most influential culinary philosophy since nouvelle cuisine of the 1960s. This cooking style-defined by hyperlocal, often foraged ingredients, earthy flavors, rustic techniques, and a penchant for the cerebral-has found one of its most talented disciples in Aska's Swedish-born chef, Fredrik Berselius. At his 24-seat restaurant in the back of an art gallery in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, there's a good chance you may eat something that he found growing around the corner. You'll probably have a course made with pig's blood, an ingredient he refuses to abandon. Whether you like it or not, his food makes you think, not just about your own dining habits, but also about flavor combinations, textures, and, most important, the act of eating. Don't worry: A meal at Aska isn't some sort of weird food experiment. It's delicious, whether Berselius is offering dry-aged duck breast with thick shavings of raw rhubarb, or a single spear of roasted broccoli upended in a mussel-and-seaweed emulsion. Given the choice between a cheeseburger or dinner here, I know for sure which one I'll remember.
For full reviews, exclusive videos, photos and recipes from the 10 best new restaurants in America, head over to BonAppetit.com.