Picking my favourite 10 is actually not easy with all the meals I’ve had in the past year (spoiling my tastebuds way too much!). These 10 places are not where I could go often, but they made it to my Top 10 Most Memorable for a reason! Creative innovations, fresh ingredients, unforgettable taste, beautiful presentations – each of them is worth a detour if you are ever in the area!
1) Noma Copenhagen, Denmark
My number 1 restaurant experience. Most innovative, every dish is a surprise in itself; but most importantly, unusual concepts do not just exist for the sake of innovation, they actually taste great! Indulged in dishes after dishes of good food, it was the Noma Team’s enthusiasm and passion for innovation which impressed me the most. Humility and passion are what keep the top the top! Read my full review here.
Noma | Strandgade 93, 1401 København K, Denmark// +45 32 96 32 97// 12pm – 12am, Tue – Sun // noma.dk/
2) Asador Extebarri Bizkaia (near San Sebastian), Spain
The definition of “Less is More” over a firewood grill. Every dish was made from local ingredients, grilled using an ancient technique over firewood of different trees. The result? Very fresh tastes, simply accentuated with salt and olive oil, and the trademark smoky smell from the grill. My favourite was the Prawns of Palamos. I used to think cooked prawns can never taste as good as raw sashimi – Asador Extebarri proved me wrong. So juicy and fresh, you would realize what true prawns are meant to taste like!
p.s. I drove (oh yes – I MYSELF drove) 2 hours into the countryside from San Sebastian to get there. It really was in the middle of nowhere in a valley. But the food was well worth the risk I (and my passenger) took from my dangerous and bad driving ;P
Asador Extebarri | Plaza de San Juan 1, 48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia // +34 946 58 30 42 // 1pm – 3:30pm, Tue – Sun. 8:30pm – 10:30pm on Sat // http://asadoretxebarri.com/
3) Ristorante Reale Castel di Sangro, Italy
“Worth the 7-hour drive” sums it up – Italian at its finest. Whether it was vegetable, seafood or meat, the core principle of Niko Romito’s cooking was consistent – the focus is always on the ingredient itself, the presentation is on the flavour, not the look. Nothing frilly or overly fancy, but each dish is cooked to bring out the best flavor of the ingredients. Located in the Abruzzo region, the mountains and gardens view from the restaurant table is spectacular. So impressive I was excited to taste his food again at Tosca earlier this year when the Chef came to Hong Kong. Read my full review here.
Ristorane Reale | Piana Santa Liberata, Castel di Sangro AQ, Italy // +39 0864 69382 // 12:30pm – 10pm, Wed – Sun // http://www.ristorantereale.com/
4) Sushi Gin 鮨吟 Hong Kong
Favourite sushi shop at home. Sushi Gin offers quality sashimi and sushi with a contemporary twist on the flavorings and sauces. Chef Do has kept most of my old favourites from Kishoku but he has also taken inspirations from his long holiday in Japan to bring new elements to keep the meal interesting. One of the key highlights from the omakase menu was the sake-paired hot dishes. And as usual, if you get seats at the sushi bar for lunch, order the sushi set and they serve you piece by piece just like omakase, but at one-third of the dinner price. I’m loving Sushi Gin even better than the old shop! Read my full review here.
Sushi Gin | 27/F, Zing!, 38 Yiu Wah Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong // +852 2151 1888 // 12pm – 2:30pm, 6:30pm – 10:30pm Mon – Sun
5) Ifuki 炭火割烹 いふき Kyoto, Japan
Unpretentious kaiseki on charcoal-grill. Ifuki was one of the few kaiseki places I visited in Kyoto, but also my favourite one. While dishes were still delicate, the attention given to the details was not excessively overdone like some other highly acclaimed kaiseki places. But the taste of each dish was exceptional! Rather unique to Ifuki is the use of live fire, after the many preparation steps ahead, most of the hot dishes would be charcoal-grilled before served. My favourite was perhaps not the most photogenic dish – the suppon (Japanese soft shell turtle) which was cooked in 2 ways – deep fried and braised. If you want to stick to something less exotic, I would recommend the grilled fish – we tried both the kinki and the amadei and they were equally good!
Ifuki 炭火割烹 いふき | 570-8 Gionmachi Minamigawa Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan //+81-75-525-6665 // 5pm – 12pm, Wed – Mon
6) VEA Restaurant & Lounge Hong Kong
Most highly anticipated restaurant opening in Hong Kong last year. And it has not disappointed! Traces of old elements from Chef Vicky’s dishes at Liberty Private Works are still there: seats around open kitchen, innovative Asian fusion elements, fresh seasonal ingredients. But I’d say both presentation and taste have upgraded a notch in their sophistication. While still in an open kitchen setting with bar-table seats, the seats are grouped so you can form your own corner with more privacy. There is evidently quite a bit of thought given to the cocktail menu too. The lounge on the lower floor also serves amazing cocktails. Don’t miss out on the bar snacks such as the truffle fries and the salted caramel ice-cream sandwiched between choc chip cookies.
VEA Restaurante & Lounge | 29-30/F, The Wellington, 198 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong // +852 2711 8639 // 6:45pm -midnight Mon – Sat // http://www.vea.hk/
7) Passage 53 Paris, France
French dishes executed in zero error-margin Japanese way. Tucked away discreetly in the beautiful 19th century Parisian arcade, Passage des Panoramas, this place is a true gem. Only opened in 2009, Passage 53 has quickly gained recognition by winning two Michelin stars in 2 years’ time. While dishes are clearly French, you will find traces of Japanese and Spanish elements because of Chef Shinichi Sato’s background from Japan and his training at L’Astrance in France and Mugaritz in Spain. His dishes are perfectly executed, flavors are delicate and precise. There is no menu, and I was told menu switches up according to seasonal ingredients, so expect to be surprised!
8) Godenya Hong Kong
Temperature-precise sake-pairing kaiseki. Finding this restaurant was memorable enough, even with the help of Google map! The entrance is very discreet without the restaurant name – it is quite literally a speakeasy restaurant. With only 8 seats, Goshima Shinya, the sake master and owner of Godenya, measures each guest’s sake with a thermometer to the exact precise temperature and explains how each sake matches with each dish. Having published a thesis on sake globalization, Goshi-san’s vision is to elevate appreciation of sake outside of Japan, and Hong Kong is his first stop. Success is not far when lightweights like me start asking for refills in the empty glasses!
p.s. The website asks you for a PIN before you could access the reservations page. Yes… that is how low-key and exclusive it is.
Godenya | 182 Wellington Street, (upper G/F), Central, Hong Kong // 7pm – 11pm // www.godenya.com
9) Don Alfonso 1890 Sorrento (Amalfi Coast), Italy
Innovative Italian with 3 generations of tradition as its springboard. The dining experience at this
restaurant estate completely blew away any preconception I had from my (not too impressive) experience in Don Alfonso Macau years back. It is difficult not to be impressed by the great lengths they go to ensure the high quality of the food. Starting from the ingredients, the Iaccarino family grows and rears most of the ingredients they use in an organic farm just opposite the Isle of Capri. Their wines and cheeses are stored in an underground tunnel which dates back to 6th century pre-Roman times. We were lucky enough to be served and toured around the estate by Livia Iaccarino (Chef Ernesto Iaccarino’s mother) and her warm hospitality made us appreciate their family’s vision and traditions even more. Out of the whole menu, I particularly enjoyed the pasta dishes, especially the Cappelli filled with Free Range Chicken, with Parmesan and Black Truffle. When you are done with the meal, remember to check out the souvenir shop and take home with you their homemade olive oil and marmalade; or stay a night at their exclusive boutique hotel on site and take one of their cooking lessons the next morning!
Don Alfonso 1890 | Corso Sant’Agata, 11/13 80064 Sant’Agata Sui Due Golfi NA, Italy //+39 081 878 0026 // 12:30pm – 3pm, 8pm – midnight, Wed – Sun // http://www.donalfonso.com/
10) 金門莊 Hong Kong
Home-cooked Cantonese food executed flawlessly by a professional. 金門莊, better known as 娥姐私房菜, is a private kitchen which serves 2 tables of 12-15 guests every evening. Think traditional Cantonese home-cooked food, but food which our generation (i.e. the Fast Food Generation) would not take the time and effort to make at home. My favourites of the night were the smoked sweet soy-sauce chicken (煙燻豉油雞), braised pomelo peel with shrimp roes (蝦子柚皮) and steamed crab in Chinese HuaDiao wine (花雕蒸蟹). The menu changes with seasonal ingredients but can be tailored upon special request. Portions are generous so if you do fill up the whole table, prices per person are reasonable. I heard the next available table would be late 2017 so my advice is… just book ahead and gather the crowd when the date draws near!
金門莊 | Room 01, 3/F, Des Voeux Building, 25 Des Voeux Road West, Hong Kong // +852 2543 2202 // 7pm – 11pm