I always intend to do a list of the best meals I have had each year. But so poor is my rapidly ageing memory that by the time I get around to actually writing the piece, I’ve usually forgotten what I ate and where.
So, thank God for Instagram. It not only preserves my food photos, but it also provides a date and location. So based on my posts, here is a list of my best meals of 2016 from around the world.
Soam: January 31, Mumbai
My favourite South Mumbai restaurant! There are many styles of bhelpuri in Mumbai. My favourite is the one that Gujaratis make at home with just the right balance of sweet and teekha chutneys. Soam does the best version of that style that you will get outside a private home. There is also a menu of great Gujarati food but it’s the chaat that does it for me, every time!
Noma-Australia: March 3, Sydney
Rene Redzepi took his famous and influential restaurant to Sydney for a pop-up and created a new menu based on local ingredients. The dishes I remember were a plate of local shellfish, covered with a thin solidified layer of chicken broth (brushed with crocodile fat) and fresh snow crab flavoured with egg yolk and a condiment (like the Thai nam pla) made from fermented kangaroo meat. The most famous dish was the abalone schnitzel but it’s the crab that lingers in my memory.
Bennelong: March 4, Sydney
The best meal I had in Australia was at the counter at this restaurant at the Sydney Opera House. The owner is Peter Gilmore, one of Australia’s most famous chefs and the food was sensational: Wagyu tartare, bresaola made specially for Gilmore and a take on the Lamington, Australia’s national dessert. There is a proper restaurant too, but I like the idea of sitting at the counter and watching the chefs at work.
Gaggan’s creative menu never ceases to surprise one
Firedoor: March 6, Sydney
Another of Peter Gilmore’s ventures. The chef, Lennox Hastie, uses specially bred Angus with a marbling of 5, ages it for 221 days and cooks it over an open fire to create one of the world’s best steaks. Once again, I sat at the counter, felt the heat from the fire and watched Lennox cook the meat.
Farzi Cafe: March 28, Dubai
This is the first Farzi outside India and I was startled by how different the food was. There are fewer gimmicks, the access to international ingredients means there are many new dishes and the ambience is reminiscent of a cafe in London.
Meatlicious: April 1, Bangkok
Gaggan Anand’s steak house does not have Firedoor’s ambition, but Gaggan sources the finest Miyazaki Wagyu from Japan and then sells it at ridiculously low prices. If you like steak, this is where you should go (also try the foie gras crème brûlée). Gaggan is hardly ever there himself but the kitchen team is young and enthusiastic.
Narisawa: April 7, Tokyo
Yoshihiro Narisawa is the best modern Japanese chef in the world and the French-Japanese food is mind-blowing. Simple dishes, such as a lobster tartare, are elevated to levels almost beyond perfection. It’s not traditional Japanese and the service style is European, but I don’t think that there is a single chef anywhere who can bring out the flavours of Japan with such international flair. The thinking man’s Nobu!
Gaggan: April 10, Bangkok
I’ve eaten at Gaggan’s main restaurant quite often now. But he never ceases to surprise me. On this occasion, I had his faux lamb chop (now called a shami kebab), his fish khichdi and the world’s lightest idli. (I went back several months later and over half the dishes on the tasting menu had changed; the mark of a creative chef!)
Tian: April 29, Delhi
Vikramjeet Roy’s skill with showy molecular techniques should not distract us from his brilliance as a chef. For this meal, the standout was a large chilli stuffed with ground lamb and served in a Thai sauce. Long after we have tired of his smoke and his spheres, we will remember that, even without the molecular trappings and the imported Japanese ingredients, he is among the best chefs of his generation.
La Colombe d’Or: May 11, St. Paul-de-Vence
This is one of the French Riviera’s most famous historic restaurants, so famous, in fact, that it is a bit of a tourist trap now. But there are still some things they do very well: fresh asparagus in a classic hollandaise and a heavenly hot Grand Marnier souffle. And the history makes it special.
Goila Butter Chicken: May 20, Delhi
I have still to go to one of Saransh Goila’s butter chicken places, but he organised a tasting in Delhi before he opened in Bombay and I thoroughly enjoyed early versions of the butter chicken that would make him famous later that year.
Shami kebab at the Delhi Pavilion
Delhi Pavilion: June 7, Delhi
The shami kebab is the humble kebab that most great chefs don’t bother with. Full marks then to the Delhi Pavilion at the Sheraton, New Delhi, for recreating the Delhi original and making it with chopped (rather than minced) meat along with other Delhi dishes, including a terrific butter chicken made with desi tamatar.
Bank: June 18, Vienna
Rare is the restaurant at a European hotel that is any good unless it has been outsourced to a famous chef. One exception is Bank, the huge brasserie at the Park Hyatt in Vienna. The room is stunning but the food, though simple and classic (think wild boar sausages with potatoes or roasted bone marrow), is the real star.
Sacher: June 19, Vienna
Opinions differ on the best Sacher torte in Vienna. Most foodies prefer Demel’s version. But I stick to the original at the hotel that invented it: delicious chocolate, cherry and unsweetened cream.
Silvio Nickol: June 22, Vienna
The consensus is that Steirereck is Vienna’s greatest restaurant. But I prefer the lesser known Silvio Nickol, which is smaller, classier and does complex food i.e. foie gras with chocolate, cherry, milk crisps and God alone knows what else! Like Steirereck, Nickol has two Michelin stars. Unlike Steirereck, he deserves three.
The Clove Club: July 3, London
For my money, the most exciting London restaurant at the moment. It only has a tasting menu at a Shoreditch location and you have to pay in advance. It serves superb European-style food which defies description. Eat it and see. This is the next generation of great British restaurants. You will hear more of the chef, Isaac McHale. (The restaurant can be hard to get into, but the bar does food from the same kitchen.)
Masala Library: July 10, Delhi
Among the chefs of his generation, Saurabh Udinia (who is only 28) is the man to watch. His food at Masala Library is breaking free of his old influences (Indian Accent, Gaggan, etc) and with the encouragement and support of a foodie boss (Zorawar Kalra), Saurabh is finding an original voice. I loved the Mizo and Naga-influenced dishes and a south Indian prawn with curd rice puree was a triumph of spicing. The tasting menu is full of tricks and surprises but I prefer to go a la carte.
Wild boar sausage at Bank in Vienna
Social Eating House: Aug 1, Hong Kong
You won’t find this unless you know where to go. I only went because the HT’s editor Bobby Ghosh, who has lived in Hong Kong, sent me. It is a vast, reasonably priced restaurant with amazing food. The standout dishes, for me, were the Sichuan fish in chilli oil and the beef with cucumber and wasabi peas in a mustard sauce. The pigeon – its most famous dish – had finished on the day I went, alas.
8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana: Aug 2, Hong Kong
This is the only Italian restaurant outside of Italy to get three Michelin stars and it is easy to see why. Superlative cooking, no poncy presentation, and no Frenchified touches. The chef Umberto Bombana is the truffle king of the east, but I also had his wonderful beef cooked two ways (sirloin and short rib) and his world famous Limoncello soufflé. Easily the best European restaurant in Hong Kong, way ahead of Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier and the more hyped Amber.
The best meals I had in 2016
Gajalee is famous for its large crabs, which are brought to the table while they are alive and then cooked in the masala of your choice
This is the second part of my series on the best meals I have had this year. As you will see, the list comprises restaurants from all over the world, but there are some surprising omissions. I was in London for only three days this year, so only one restaurant (The Clove Club, which was in the first part of this series) is included. I would have liked to have named restaurants in the food cities of Singapore, Paris and New York. But despite my crazy travelling schedule over the last 12 months, I was not able to visit any of those cities.
We covered the first half of the year last week. This list begins in August and covers the meals I had in the months that followed.
The China Kitchen: August 19, Delhi
The Peking Duck at The China Kitchen in Delhi
If you eat Chinese food abroad, then it is always a little difficult to reconcile the Indian version with the real thing. The only restaurant where I have no problem enjoying authentic Chinese in Delhi is the The China Kitchen at the Hyatt. These days, I don’t order from the menu but leave it to the chef. The famous Peking Duck is always perfect but the chef’s dishes never disappoint. And this option is open to everyone who likes authentic Hunan or Sichuan food. Just tell your server that you leave it to the chef.
Kyung Bok Kung: September 4, Seoul
South Korea has an amazing cuisine and some fancy restaurants, which I have always enjoyed. But I loved this barbecue place because of the quality of Korea’s Hanwoo beef. The Koreans are justifiably proud of its well-marbled quality but nobody else seems to give the beef its due. I thought it was amazing: upto Japanese Wagyu quality.
Albora: October 1, Madrid
Caramelised bread pudding at Albora in Madrid
This is a wonderful lunch place with a wine bar downstairs and a more formal restaurant upstairs. The food is Spanish but modern and simple. I had a silky tartare followed by freshwater crayfish with green beans. The best dish, however, was the dessert: a juicy chunk of caramelised bread pudding with cinnamon ice cream. The Spanish don’t always get haute cuisine or serious food right. They are at their best with this kind of casual place.
Los Asturianos: October 4, Madrid
There are many famous Michelin-starred restaurants in Madrid but frankly, they bored me. As I wrote at the time, the legacies of Ferran Adria and Santi Santamaria have begun to get tiresome. My best meal was at this little dive in a downmarket area where I had meaty fava bean stew, prawns fried with garlic, chorizo and a killer creme caramel filled with cheese.
Portland Steakhouse & Cafe: November 12, Bangalore
Steak is a difficult business in India. Even if you are in a state that allows you to serve beef, the Indian cow is not perfect for steak. The meat has very little fat and so no marbling, and dry-ageing does not improve it. But this owner-run restaurant gets around all those obstacles and apart from the steaks it is famous for, it also manages some of the best baking in India. I put it on this list because of its apple pie, a miracle of air-light baking technique.
Atelier Crenn: November 24, San Francisco
Chestnut eggs at chef Dominique Crenn’s restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco
Dominique Crenn is a French chef who has lived in California for years and has suddenly become a media star. Despite her PR-friendly nature, the food at her two Michelin-star restaurant was outstanding. All of it was precise, with complex flavours perfectly managed. I won’t recommend anything because the tasting menu is the only option offered. I found Crenn’s decision to offer a poem rather than a list of dishes a little too precious but everyone else seemed to rave about her poetry. A third star must surely be on its way.
Taj Campton Place: November 23, San Francisco
I’ve written about Srijith Gopinath at length recently so I won’t repeat myself. This is the world’s only two Michelin-star Indian restaurant and the food is a giant leap for Indian cuisine. The Taj is finally bringing Srijith to India next year (but only for pop-ups), so more people will get a chance to enjoy his extraordinary food.
Stones Throw: November 27, San Francisco
This is not a Michelin-starred restaurant or anything. In fact, it is determinedly unfancy. But I had one of the best meals of my trip to San Francisco here. It is deceptively simple food (eggs with potatoes, a burger) put together with flair and skill and flawlessly executed. There’s a great wine list with minimal markup. A real gem.
Sühring: December 3, Bangkok
The Sühring brothers (identical twins actually) made their reputation at Mezzaluna before breaking away to start this, their own restaurant in a cosy bungalow hidden away in the backstreets of the residential part of the upmarket Sathorn area. This is a secret destination; you won’t stumble on it. But because the restaurant is so lovely and the food is so good, it fills up anyway.
The twins attempt fine German cuisine which sounds like an oxymoron. But they pull it off, taking the simple food of their country to a refined level I have rarely encountered.
Gajalee: December 12, Mumbai
Gajalee is my favourite restaurant in suburban Mumbai (defined, in food terms, as anything north of Worli). I’ve been going there for years and though it is now a chain with six different restaurants, I like the original in Vile Parle best. It is a simple restaurant with an air-conditioned and a non-air-conditioned area, packed out with couples and families who regard it as their weekly treat. There are always people waiting for tables outside and though the Juhu branch has an extensive bar menu, I still prefer the no-alcohol policy of the original. (Drink sole kadi instead.)
Gajalee is famous for its large crabs which are brought to the table, while they are still alive and then cooked in the masala of your choice. This time I looked around the restaurant and was intrigued to see that only a tiny proportion of the diners had ordered the (relatively expensive) shellfish options. Most stuck to the simpler and cheaper dishes. In a sense, this is to Gajalee’s credit. Rare is the restaurant where people are prepared to queue up for hours to eat a fish curry or a mutton sukka.
Just Missed The List:
There are some notable omissions here. I thought of including Mumbai’s Vetro, which is easily India’s best Italian restaurant. But then, I thought to myself, “Does it really belong on a list where the only other Italian restaurant is the three-star 81/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana?” Reluctantly, I decided that it did not.
The same is true of Delhi’s Megu, in my view, India’s best modern Japanese restaurant. I like it a lot but you can’t put it on a list that includes Narisawa as the only other modern Japanese place.
I should have included Dum Pukht (the Delhi original), but while going through my pictures I discovered that the last time I had been there was late last year.
The other glaring omission is Indian Accent, but once again, I realised that I haven’t actually been there for the entire year. But that’s my loss. Chef Shantanu, who mans the pass when Manish Mehrotra is at the New York outpost, has kept the flag flying.
I last ate at Amaranta 13 months ago and I thought that this modern Indian restaurant at the Gurgaon Oberoi had really hit its stride. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back this year, but everyone tells me that the food is spectacular.
There are other restaurants that could well count on any list of great places to eat but did not make this cut. My local is the excellent Swagath in Defence Colony and I eat at its sister restaurant, Sagar, nearly every week. But there was no single meal that stood out in my memory so sadly,
I was unable to include either.
This is an entirely subjective list. In the course of the year, I ate at many of the world’s more famous restaurants with their Michelin stars and their places in the world’s top 100 restaurant list. A surprisingly large number turned out to be disappointments.
This means one of two things. Either I am a man with a very limited palate. Or, many great restaurants don’t really live up to the hype.
I’ll stick with the latter explanation!