photos courtesy of Spice Temple
As we start the new year, I’ve been looking back at 2009. It was a crazy year, one filled with tough challenges, new opportunities, lots of travel, and, of course, many exceptional meals. Which makes it hard to pick my ten favourite dining experiences of the year. Some fabulous meals, I should say, were had at home (yes, my darling wife S is that good a cook) and at the homes of friends. But for this post, I have decided to limit myself to restaurant experiences. So, what makes a great, truly memorable meal? Well, the food, naturally. But as I reflected back over the last 12 months, many of the meals that really stood out were because of the company at the table. Eating with good friends that also love food surely enhances any gustatory experience. Similarly, decor and good design goes a long way to enhancing the dining experience. And lastly, the uniqueness of the meal definitely played a part — some of my best meals of 2009 were great not just because of the food or the friends dining with us or the restaurant’s interiors, but because they were so different or novel or just plain fun.
So here are the ten best meals I had in 2009.
Chef Hadleigh Troy
10. Restaurant Amuse, Perth, Western Australia
Who would have thought that Perth could sustain a chic, degustation-menu-only, fine dining restaurant? If you had asked me that a few years ago, I would probably have burst out laughing. But not only have Chef Hadleigh Troy and his super-sweet wife Carolynne have been able to do it, they’ve done it riduculously well. And have earned every possible accolade along the way. Restaurant Amuse has been acknowledged by every possible guide, publication, and local foodie as, hands-down, the best high-end restaurant in Perth. The recognition is very well-deserved. Every dish we tasted from Chef Troy’s nine-course tasting menu was exquisitely prepared, very well-thought out, superbly well-seasoned, and full of life, flavour and wit. We found ourselves continuously surprised and thrilled by the food that was served to us, each plate paired perfectly with a different wine, as expertly chosen by Carolynne. Despite the boldness and sophistication of the food, Amuse is set in a welcoming and somewhat modest space. Diners are made to feel at home by the cool, relaxed and very polite staff. This was a really great meal in a really unique restaurant. And one which Perth has needed for a long time.
9. Bistro Filipino, Manila, The Philippines
S and I were an hour and a half late to dinner… not because of the traffic or any other excusable reason, but because S was caught up in the frenzy of exploring all the great local designers in Greenbelt 5. We had SMS’d our friend apologizing. She said not to worry. No one was ever on time in Manila anyway, she told us. By the time we arrived, we were starving and apologetic (S was also laden down with new purchases). Chef Roland Laudico, a friend of our friend, arranged for us to try what felt like a parade of his most exciting and popular dishes. The food, Modern Filipino is the only real way to describe it, was amazing. If I close my eyes, I can still almost taste the sinfully rich but oh so good Adobo Overload he made for us. For a full run-down of the meal, you can read about it here. I’m dying to revisit this very special restaurant. Or better yet, convince someone to open a branch here.
My all-time favourite pasta dish from Harry’s
8. Harry’s Bar, Venice, Italy
I know naysayers love bashing Arrigo Cirpriani’s restaurant. But I’m a fan and probably always will be. I’ve always had great meals at Harry’s Bar. And yes, it’s crazy-expensive, but so long as you know that before actually deciding to go, then that’s fine. I love the history of the place. Love the old-world mannerisms of the staff and that year after year, no matter how much the world may change, inside Harry’s, things have remained as they’ve been since I started going there almost two decades ago. I love how Arrigo will stop at every table in the upstairs dining room and actually say hello and, if you can engage him in something interesting, he’ll actually have a conversation with you. And I love the simple but refined Venetian food (despite the steep prices) and, of course, the bellinis. During our December 09 trip to Venice, we had a fabulous Sunday lunch with two close friends. We were given a magnificent table, right by the window in the main dining room upstairs. The service, food, drinks, and conversation were all perfect.
7. Spice Temple, Sydney, Australia
It’s funny. A couple days before I went to check out Neil Perry’s sexy Northern Chinese restaurant, two food writers I know, one Chinese-Singaporean and one Vietnamese-American, were poo-pooing it. They went on and on about how the food wasn’t authentic enough for them. Thing is, I think these two completely missed the point of this very cool, very urban, very special restaurant. To them (and other foodies like them), if anyone wants to say that his or her food is Asian or Asian-inspired, unless it is anything but super-authentic, they only see faults. They didn’t consider that truely authentic Northern Chinese flavours might not go over all that well with a Sydneysider audience. Nor did they give Perry or his team any credit for creating a dining room that is so cool and chic that even the most conservative bankers feel comfortable having their power lunches there. Nor did they care that the food actually tastes really, really good. I like Spice Temple tremendously. S and I had a fun, spicy meal there with a friend from the publishing world in October. All three of us were blown away by the quality of what we tried; both the quality of the ingredients and the flavours of the finished dishes were lovely. My favourites that day were the tingling Crystal Bay prawns; the steamed eggplant with garlic, coriander and sweet pork; and the dry fried spiced lamb ribs. And I really loved the room. Honestly, I wish we had a restaurant like Spice Temple in Singapore, a place that serves good Northern Chinese fare in a really sexy and urban setting. Sadly, while we can get good Chinese food here, since Hu Cui closed down, there isn’t anywhere truly cool to eat it in.
6. Bo.lan, Bangkok, Thailand
Ever since S and I had dinner at Bo.lan in June last year, we’ve been telling every foodie we know that they have to try it, and been itching to head back. We first heard about the restaurant from friends within months of its opening. They raved about the really sensational Thai food being prepared by chefs Duanporn Songvisava (bo) and Dylan Jones. Both trained under the amazing David Thompson. While still a newbie, Bo.lan has nonetheless made its mark, earning top honors when we compiled last year’s Miele Guide rankings–it came out as the 2nd best restaurant in Thailand and 22nd best in Asia. The food is exquisite. The ever-changing menu celebrates lesser-known regional Thai dishes. No green curry chicken or chicken and cashew nuts here! When we visited, S and I had the tasting menu, which was a 9-course extravaganza. What was amazing was that we didn’t recognize many of the dishes we were served. But everything we tried was amazing. The meal was nothing short of an edible education in Thai food. This is a restaurant that, quite simply, gave me renewed confidence in the Thai restaurant scene.
5. Iggy’s, Singapore
What can I say about Iggy’s that hasn’t already been said? Iggy’s is not just one of the best restaurants in the world (hey, I’m not just saying that, these guys think so too), it’s also one of my favourite places in which to indulge or celebrate a special occasion. You’ll always have a great meal at Iggy’s. The very best of these (for me at least) last year was in October. We attended a lunch to celebrate a good friend’s 40th birthday. The gent in question is a true gourmand and a good friend of Ignatius’. The meal was stunning, each course better than the next, with great wines to wash down all the yummy food we were inhaling. After the meal, S turned to me and said, “wow, they’ve really gone up a notch!” She was right. And that’s what makes Ignatius such a good restaurateur, that he’s constantly pushing to make his restaurant and the food he’s sending out better and better. I can’t wait to see what he does in 2010.
4. L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris, France
This meal was just a few weeks ago (I wrote about it here). I think what made it one of the most memorable and special meals of the year for me was the combination of occasion, the friends we shared it with, and, of course, the food, wine and service. Those latter three things have always been perfect at every L’Atelier we’ve eaten at, but S contends that the L’Atelier in Paris is hands-down her personal favourite. The fact that we were stranded in Paris for the day and were able to get reservations turned what could have been a crazy, miserable day into a fabulously decadent mini-vacation. And that we could share it with two good friends made it even more special.
3. Gyu Ho, Kyoto, Japan
Okay, so the food at Gyu Ho may not be the best I have ever eaten in Japan, but the experience of eating there was certainly one of the best I’ve had and easily one of the most fun, memorable meals of my life. S and I visited Gyu Ho in September during a really well-deserved vacation in Kyoto. This crazy, tiny beef specialist is one very special restaurant. The food is fabulous. The chef is chatty and completely kooky. And the space is charming, in all the right ways. And here’s something I realized. There are some restaurants that you go to once, and cross off your list of (culinary) must-do’s. A lot of fine-dining restaurants fall into this category. They might have been great and the food might have been super refined, but in retrospect, you say to yourself, “okay, been there, what’s next?” Then there are places that you put on your “must visit every time I am in town” list. Often these are cooler, more casual places. And the choices we make are highly personal. Gyu Ho is definitely on this latter list for me. I know that every time we visit Kyoto from now on, we’re definitely stopping there for a meal. And that’s why our first meal there was my third favourite meal of last year.
Chef Andre Chiang
2. Jaan par Andre, Singapore
Last year, during Chefs with Altitude, Swissotel Singapore did something it has never done before. Instead of flying in a guest chef to take over the kitchens at Jaan, its signature fine-dining restaurant, it invested in promoting Jaan’s (relatively) new, resident chef de cuisine, Andre Chiang. This was a smart and appropriate move by the hotel. Chef Andre, since taking over Jaan (and turning into Jaan par Andre, or JPA as I like to refer to it), has turned what was a horrendously ill-reputed tourist trap and transformed it into Singapore’s premier fine-dining restaurant. For Chefs with Altitude, Andre decided to build a special menu around seasonal Japanese produce–which meant (lucky him) that he had to fly up to Japan and spend a week scouring the country for the very best ingredients. I was fortunate enough to be invited by a friend to experience this special menu. It was amazing. Andre has since tried to play down the menu, saying to me, “Oh, but I just did really simple things with the products.” (Of course, what Andre consider simple in cooking are things I probably wouldn’t even try to attempt.) What I loved the most about that menu was that it demonstrated the perfect marriage of Andre’s very Asian roots, his French training, and the very best Asian ingredients. It was a really special menu and it is a direction that I hope Andre continues to move in as he brings JPA from strength to strength over the next year.
Antonio’s is well worth the trip
1. Antonio’s, Tagaytay, The Philippines
My favourite meal of 2009 took place in a charming, manor home 90 minutes south of Manila. Antonio’s is, to me, the French Laundry of The Philippines, a beautiful, culinary gem set in a charming rural environment that foodies flock to for long lunches, romantic dinners, and special occasions. S and I visited Antonio’s in August last year (read about the trip here) and we’ve been dying to return ever since. I just need to go on a diet first in order to prepare for my next meal there. Because while the food is fabulous and some dishes are charmingly sophisticated, it’s also heart-stoppingly rich. Antonio’s is one restaurant I’d be happy to travel to The Philippines to eat at every single year.