What chefs Grant Achatz and Dave Beran are doing at Next is the result of great sourcing, great ingredients and great inspiration of their environment. Every few months the restaurant changes its entire concept in an attempt to transport diners to another land, time or even an alternate state of mind. Past themes have included "Paris: 1906," "Childhood" and "Autumn in Kyoto." Not only did I get to see the team experiment with upcoming dishes, I had the pleasure of sampling 3 previous menus, including "Sicily." The level of cookery and creativity here is extraordinary.
Chef Sean Brock's ingredient-driven cuisine is composed entirely of products that are indigenous to the South -- some from a farm he established right outside of the city. Every ingredient has a story in what may deservedly be the most talked-about restaurant in all the South. For starters, the crispy pork ear lettuce wraps and fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese are to die for. The rest of the menu is sheer farmhouse perfection -- think cornmeal dusted catfish in a tomato gravy, duck with foie gras butter-glazed beers and real skillet cornbread.
Shaanxi Gourmet & Hunan Mao
You'll find some of the best Chinese food east of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. My top 2 picks would have to be Hunan Mao for the fish head soup (a phenomenal steamed whole carp head in hot chile oil) and Shaanxi Gourmet for the cuisine of Xi’an, one of the oldest cities in China. Shaanxi’s dishes are pungently spicy and salty; they are serving a truly authentic version of regional Chinese specialties you won’t find in many other places in the US.
Located at the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Los Gatos, CA, Manresa is easily one of the most impressive restaurants I’ve been to in a long time. David Kinch is one of the most innovative chefs in the country, cooking some of the most exciting food in America.
The individually-sized, handmade, hand-tossed pizzas at Punch are topped with artisanal ingredients (house-made salamis, San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala) and put into an 800-degree wood-burning oven for only 90 seconds -- the perfect amount of time to get that great blistery crust. One of my most memorable meals last year was chowing down on these authentic Neapolitan pies for my son's 7th birthday. Eating at this kid-friendly spot is my idea of family dinner.