New Orleans newcomer Meauxbar has garnered enough buzz in its first year to keep its 42-seat dining room packed every night. Chef Kristen Essig serves up classic French dishes comfort-food style (a French onion–and–braised beef grilled cheese comes happily to mind) and takes advantage of readily abundant Gulf Coast seafood.
3 of 17Photo: Rush Jagoe
Kristen Essig: The Food
Essig grew up in Seminole, a small beach town on Florida's west coast, where "seafood was just right there at your fingertips," she says. After attending culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, Essig went on to work in top-notch New Orleans restaurants like Emeril's and Peristyle, and enjoyed a brief stint running a farmers' market, which shaped her reverence for her produce providers. "We know our farmers' pets' names, whose kids need braces," she says.
4 of 17Photo: Rush Jagoe
Kristen Essig: Local Flavor
"Those relationships are so important, because they have their hands in the dirt every day and they know what's best to eat." Essig is also a member of the Chef's Council for the Gulf Restoration Network. Right now, diners can't get enough of her sautéed wild redfish in a brown butter sauce with lemon, toasted almonds, spinach, and parsley. "It's just so aromatic," she says. "The butter is still foaming when it gets to your table."
The eight years since Sam Talbot brought his culinary expertise to season two of Top Chef, he's worn many different chef's hats, from master of casual beach fare at Montauk's The Surf Lodge to champion of sustainable seafood at the posh New York City outpost Imperial No. 9. If there's one word that sums up his newest venture, the Pig + Poet in Camden, Maine, it's "community." Says Talbot, "This is a very friendly atmosphere; we're all about knowing our customers by name."
7 of 17Photo: Courtesy of Pig + Poet
Sam Talbot: From the Farm
He's also a believer in knowing the name of each farmer and fisherman who provides his ingredients. Nearly 90 percent of Pig + Poet's menu is locally sourced, including the mussels served in a coconut-lobster broth with pickled vegetables, yuzu, and Thai basil. "Maine is filled with small-batch, artisanal producers," he says. "It's exciting to have such a variety of seafood and produce." What's even more enticing for Talbot is that all that culinary goodness is just steps from the one place he feels most at home. "I grew up in the coastal Carolinas, so salt water is in my DNA," he says. "I love that, in Maine, I can go to the farm and then be out on a surfboard in 15 minutes."
From the adirondack chairs on Westward restaurant's waterfront patio, the view of the Seattle skyline across Lake Union is the only reminder of city life. If it weren't for that, diners might believe they were feasting on whole branzino with eggplant caponata or radishes cooked in goat butter somewhere in the Greek isles. "You can take a bite, close your eyes, and imagine being somewhere else," says chef Zoi Antonitsas of the "water-inspired" restaurant.
10 of 17Photo: Sarah Flotard
Zoi Antonitsas: Inventive Dishes
With deep family roots in Greece (her father is the oldest of 10 children and the only one to have moved away from the island where they grew up) and a childhood spent in the Pacific Northwest, Antonitsas combines fresh local catch and produce with the Mediterranean flavors she grew up loving. "I come from a family of food fanatics," she says. "As you're eating lunch you're talking about what you're going to make for dinner." Each of her inventive creations, from the grilled halloumi starter to the sweet butterscotch pot de crème with scotch whipped cream, embraces elements of favorite dishes from her past and inspired new ideas. Her savory faro, pictured, is made with stinging nettles, currants, ricotta salata, and a fried egg. "Great food is about creating new memories for people with dishes that remind them of a happy time," says Antonitsas.
Cooking Style: "Experimental, based on the bounty of Southern California."
How He Spends His Downtime: "Outside, usually at the beach, trying to find inspiration for my next dish."
Signature Dish: "The Central Coast. It shows up a lot on the menu, but it's never the same. Sometimes it's oysters steamed over seaweed, others it's Dungeness crab."
12 of 17Photo: Darin Dines
Ari Taymor: The Restaurant
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Ari Taymor spent many summers playing on the mountainous, salt-sprayed coastline of Santa Cruz. Today, as the chef of Los Angeles's Alma, Taymor's distinct memories of that time fuel many ideas for his menu. "Nostalgia is my biggest inspiration," he says. "I try to evoke a feeling from a particular moment in time, like the scent of the wind coming off the sea." The Central Coast—a staple dish on Taymor's ever-changing menu, which evolves based on what he finds on the beach that day—is just one of the many reasons the 29-year-old chef has joined the ranks of James Beard finalists and garnered a cult-like following among SoCal foodies.
13 of 17Photo: Lani Trock
Ari Taymor: Artfully Arranged Flavors
The nine-course tasting menus he dishes out at Alma are a fine balance between simple and complex, with artfully arranged ingredients like fresh cod topped with verbena purée, sea radish, and coastal herbs. His dish of Jidori chicken, corn, miso, and fermented plum is pictured. (All of Taymor's dishes are made with ingredients sourced from farmers' markets or foraged from as far north as Santa Barbara.) It's fitting that Taymor's approach is hyper-local; his community of believers is partly responsible for making Alma a reality, thanks to crowdfunding campaigns that helped finance (and refinance) its existence. Now, Taymor and his partner, Ashleigh Parsons, are showing their appreciation: "We have an outreach program that offers cooking and gardening classes to youth in L.A.," he says. "It's just our small way of giving back and getting kids excited about food."
With dishes like a 14- to 18-hour cured smoked salmon "candy" served with smoked trout, roasted red curry squash, popped sorghum, and Asian pear, no flavor is sacrificed in the name of sustainability. It seems fitting, then, that a love of water is what first led to Ruiz's love of food. He grew up in San Diego in a family of surfers, and his surfing talents took him to competitions in Hawaii, where he fell in love with the culture and ended up staying through college. He took a job on the line at Kona Inn and then at Hualalai, where the team's extensive focus on sustainability hit home with him.
17 of 17Photo: Carolyn Himes
Robert Ruiz: Sustainable Beginnings
He saw the effects of poor environmental practices while surfing "every nook and cranny of the Big Island. It became really heartbreaking to watch this paradise being poisoned," Ruiz says. "When I came back to my family in California I saw the same thing turn into a global scale." Living in the San Diego area allows him access to groups at the forefront of sustainability, like the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the NOAA. "I'm just a surfer who fell in love with the ocean," says Ruiz. "That's what makes me want to stick to my guns and share what I've learned."
Pictured: Ruiz's Pork Belly Bacon on Jalapeno Cornbread