There is an inherent difficulty in accurately rating experiences which are subject to individual taste, such as art, movies, or music (see: Chuck Klostermann that). But having grown up as a college football nut (Roll Tide!) during the 1980s (i.e. back when Letterman was irreverent and on NBC and when the previous night’s Top Ten List was the subject of water-cooler chatter all over America), I have a natural predilection to rank things in relation to one another. Including, not surprisingly, food experiences.
And given the powerful connection between taste and memory, it is also unsurprising that most of the high-ranking meals on my list are tied to potent memories. Ribs at Dreamland* have never tasted better than when accompanied by the rapture my Yankee college buddies (and I mean real New England-style Yankees, not just people from north of Huntsville) being introduced to southern BBQ for the first time. Cassoulet at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville on the night I got engaged. December 10, 1999 (see, honey, I do remember). 3AM runs for Fried Egg and Cheese Sandwiches at Rosie’s Diner in Groton, CT. OK, maybe that one isn’t the most “potent” of memories. “Fuzzy” might be a better word (Hey, it was college.) But I do know that they were damn good at the time.
All of these and many more meals that reside at the intersection of quality and context comprise my personal rankings of best food experiences. Recently, though, I was served something so jaw-droppingly wonderful that it really doesn’t need any contextualization for me to declare it hands-down “the best plate of food in the world”: Meat/Fruit at Dinner By Heston, Chef/Mad-Scientist/Playful Genius Heston Blumenthal’s much-ballyhooed first London restaurant which draws on Britain’s culinary past for its inspiration.
Our meal opened with the waiter depositing in the middle of our table what looked to be the most perfect mandarin orange ever (seriously, it looked like it was plucked right out of a 17th-century Dutch master or the Garden of Eden). It was simply situated unadorned on a little wooden cutting board accompanied by a few pieces of grilled baguette. Of course, it’s not just an orange. It’s a rich, unctuous chicken liver parfait encapsulated in the thinnest of orange jelly membranes. And its executed to perfection. And I don’t just mean that it’s yummy (which, of course, it is). Meat/Fruit simultaneously evokes so much of what can transform food from “sustenance” into “experience.” It is at once elegant and simple, rooted in the past but inarguably modern. It’s obviously borne of a very sophisticated technique, but presented without any of the artifice or showiness that can accompany “molecular gastronomy.” Meat/Fruit is a whimsical, austere, delicious, and just flat-out perfect morsel. No matter the situation or context.
Now it probably doesn’t hurt if you work your way up to eating at Dinner By Heston by waxing rhapsodic with your dining-partner/wife about the previous night’s chicken parfait course at The Fat Duck (Blumenthal’s other restaurant in Bray), or spending a couple of hours at the National Gallery looking at actual Dutch still-lifes, or just being a fan in general of poultry liver. Or, heck, it also couldn’t hurt to be an unapologetic, anglophile fanboy of Heston Blumenthal and just about everything he does. But you don’t have to be. Meat/Fruit is, in point of fact, empirically the “best plate of food in the world.” In my opinion.
*Yes, I know that it is a badge-of-honor for Tuscaloosa “foodies” to declare the lesser-known Archibald’s to be far superior to the more renowned Dreamland. And while I might generally agree with that assertion, the ribs I had that night were my personal top BBQ experience.