Ten favorites among the year’s top dishes

How do I look back at all the great dishes I’ve discovered over the past year and narrow the list to 10? Like this:

First, I spend the better part of a day rereading everything I’ve written since January. Every time I describe a dish, I try to visualize it. Then I try to taste it in my mind. The very best ones leap right back to total recall.


• Because they startled me into mindfulness: I slowed down to experience the food. The act of eating became a kind of sensual contemplation. This happens with particularly fine pieces of sushi and small chef masterpieces.

• Because they released a sudden surge of endorphins — that feeling of pure, eye-rolling pleasure. This happens with rich meat dishes and desserts.

• Because they lingered in my thoughts after the meal. Salads, deceptively simple preparations and lighter dishes with layered flavors do this.

In no particular order, here are my top 10:

1. Special nigiri sushi with shiso and kanzuri at Umi

Chef Fuyuhiko Ito lays a piece of white-fleshed fish (madai snapper on the night we visited) with a minty shiso leaf on the rice, then daubs the top with the citrus chile paste called kanzuri and squeezes a drop or two of fresh yuzu juice for a finishing touch. After eating her piece, my daughter remained silent for 10 seconds before saying, “That’s the best piece of sushi I’ve ever had.” Farshid Arshid, the restaurant’s co-owner, admits that it was this piece of sushi that made him want to invest in Ito’s future. It stops you in your tracks.

3050 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-841-0040, umiatlanta.com.

2. Chicken wings at Nam Phuong

Among the Vietnamese street food appetizers at this great pho parlor, look for canh ga chien nuoc mam — chicken wings glazed in fish sauce. More of a full meal than an appetizer, this huge portion of crispy wings is flavored to the bone with the salty-sweet marinade, tossed in a sticky and tangy sauce with cooked scallions and red chiles, then showered with crunchy fried shallots. A salad of cukes, tomatoes and lettuce comes on the side, along with a scoop of rice. It is the stuff of obsession.

4051 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 404-633-2400, namphuongatlanta.com.

3. Whole Gulf snapper at Ink & Elm

How nice to see Gulf red snapper — one of the best mild, white-fleshed fish out there — on restaurant menus again after a years-long moratorium. At this Emory Village newcomer, chef Stephen Sharp’s whole snapper for two looks like a headless beast that swam into a fryer vat. But when you cut into it, you discover the backbone has been removed for your eating pleasure. A vibrant green herb salsa and a side of deeply flavored fennel confit make this dish great.

1577 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta. 678-244-7050, inkandelmatlanta.com.

4. Bingsu at Sobban

Do not even think about skipping dessert at this Korean-Southern diner that has the whole city talking. Specifically, you want bingsu — a kind of sweet and salty Korean sundae served on a base of freshly shaved ice. Puffed grains, fried lotus chips, berries, shredded basil and homemade rice-taffy nubbins all figure in. The three varieties of bingsu served here all have more stuff and less ice than you’d get with a more traditional version on Buford Highway. But they’re dynamic. The signature version — with green tea ice cream, sweet azuki beans and Korean pear compote — is everyone’s favorite.

1788 Clairmont Road, Decatur. 678-705-4233, sobban.com.

5. Sorrento lemon chicken at Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano

The chickens here cook in a roasting oven set at a slow, low temperature for a little more than an hour. Afterward, the cooks chop the chicken through the bone into chunky pieces, then charbroil it in sauté pans with flavor-infused olive oil and seasonings until the skin crisps. Gio’s serves several flavors of roasted chicken, including one with sliced blood oranges and rosemary. But the Sorrento lemon chicken — with its rush of lemon, oregano and garlic – was my runaway favorite.

1099 Hemphill Ave., Atlanta. 404-347-3874, gioschicken.com.

6. Sauteed green peppers with black vinegar at Gu’s Bistro

This dish sounds benign, if not a total waste of stomach space when there’s stir-fried smoked pork belly with leeks, Zhong-style dumplings and a zillion other must-have dishes at this Sichuan flavor factory. But those peppers with their wok-blistered skins and slippery flesh are the star of the evening. Each one you pop in your mouth — oily, tangy, sweet — brings a moment of pure pleasure.

5750 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-451-8118, gusbistro.com.

7. Lobster congee at Bo Bo Garden

Wow, wow, a million wows. This dish, which occupies a perpetual berth on the specials list, features a whole lobster hacked into chunks and thrown into a vat of rice soup. Tagging along for the ride are a hundred fresh ginger needles, ringlets of scallion green and a pinch of salt. That’s it. The carapace bled a bit of pale green tomalley and sea funk into the white soup. The hefty chunks of tail and claw meat are easy enough to extract with chopsticks, and they are both sweet and silky.

5181 Buford Highway, Doraville. 678-547-1881.

8. Reuben sandwich at the General Muir

Chef Todd Ginsberg proved himself a master of the indulgent sandwich at Bocado, where he could make cauliflower the star ingredient in a drippy, warm, crusty offering that you wanted to inhale. And let’s not forget his hamburger. But this reuben, holy cow, this reuben. He corns his own beef and ferments his own sauerkraut. But, unlike other chefs with the DIY bug, nothing tastes off or unusual about his efforts. It tastes exactly how it should, and yet somehow better. It doesn’t taste like that first reuben you fell in love with; it tastes like your idealized mental image of that reuben.

1540 Avenue Place B-230, Atlanta. 678-927-9131, thegeneralmuir.com.

9. Goat taco at Taqueria La Oaxaquena

I hesitated about adding this simple taco to the list because it’s really little more than shredded meat on a tortilla with a bit on onion and cilantro. But I keep thinking about it and retasting it in my mind. So often goat meat is stewed and covered in sauce. Here, it is lean and pure, with the unctuousness you look for in pork, the gamey twang you might want from lamb, and a flavor all its own.

605 Mount Zion Road, Jonesboro. 770-960-3010, taquerialaoaxaquena.com.

10. Railroad beef curry at Cardamom Hill

Chef Asha Gomez began offering this dish as a special, but it has since moved to the standing menu. Inspired by the food sold in train stations, this banana-leaf package offers a hot, gingery beef curry over cold, creamy yogurt rice. A vegetable thoren with shredded coconut comes alongside.When your spoon digs deep enough into the tidy packet to unearth the layer of rice, you will be struck by the beguiling contrasts in temperature, texture and spice level. It’s one of the reasons this upmarket Indian restaurant counts among Atlanta’s most exciting dining destinations.

1700 Northside Drive, Atlanta. 404-549-7012, cardamomhill.net.