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Having eaten at over 100 restaurants in 2015 in 16 countries this past year, it’s hard to narrow down the top 10 dining experiences. This is a list of the 10 best overall experience. Sure, there were stunning dishes juxtaposed by huge fails or amazing dishes in bare-bones joints, which is why I will follow on with a list of the best dishes. But this is about the overall experience.
10) Belcanto, Lisboa, Portugal (7 April 2015): This was an fantastic meal in a town I really grew to love, a well-planned tasting menu and innovative take on traditional Portuguese cooking — far better than at its peers. Honestly it deserves better than #91 on the Best Restaurants list. Aside from the stupid tourists on the next table, this was nearly a perfect night of dining.
9) Sushi Masuda, Tokyo, Japan (1 December 2015): This is the only lunch on this list. The fish here, from the tuna to yellowtail, was fabulous but did not stand out from other top sushi-ya in Tokyo (such as the excellent Iwa, Harutaka & Taku). However, it was how Chef Masuda took care of me at this 1-Michelin place, him watching my reaction to each piece and using that as a guide to texture and sauce follow-up items. Perhaps I was lucky being a lone diner that session, but this made for an amazing experience.
8) Den, Tokyo, Japan (15 January 2015): This was the first big meal of the year as I got to Tokyo, and it was something special. The joy of Den is not just the fabulous cooking (and the flawless movement in the kitchen, which was almost hypnotising), but the convivial atmosphere thanks to Chef Hasegawa. Inject some humour alongside innovative cuisine and you got more than a winner. No better way to (re-)acquaint oneself with Tokyo than dinner at this gem. Oh, that salad…
7) Il Grano, Los Angeles, California (1 June 2015): As my readers know Il Grano is my favourite restaurant in the world. At some point I decided to stop reviewing it as people know what I think, and I just want to fully enjoy myself without taking notes. This was the meal of the year, with some amazing crudo (scallops with varieties of cherries) to excellent pasta (with many rarer varieties of peas in an unforgettable gnocchi dish). And the giant abalone Chef Marino had saved for me… So sad I had to say goodbye to this home-away-from-home this past December as Il Grano says goodbye after 18 years…
6) Sanda, Tokyo, Japan (18 January 2015): When I heard about this restaurant I was beyond excited. A place focused on wagyu offal? I couldn’t believe it. And yet here it was, and a mind-blowing tasting menu that brought you to the amazing (cheeks) to the bizarre (uterus). Starting with the Achilles Tendon you know they were serious. Now you know why some of the world’s best chef hide here, not letting the secret out. I made my way back at the end of the year and had a fantastic repeat too… Oh, those cheeks…
5) Palazzo Petrucci, Napoli, Italia (14 April 2015): My trip to Naples brought amazing food, but fine dining was a disaster until I stepped foot into Palazzo Petrucci. In the heart of the old city, this was a total gem, an oasis from the chaos that is the joy of Napoli. This place all but affirmed food for me. The perfect pasta was one thing, but that crudo plate will live on in my mind forever… This is joy.
Now for the top 4 I will not rank, so this will be by chronological order. They are all special and magical in their own way, and they are the 4 best dining experiences I’ve had in 2015. All tied at #1…
1*) Ichi, Tokyo, Japan (1 December 2015): This was the blow-my-mind dinner this late trip to Tokyo. This humble kaiseki rises far beyond its 1 Michelin, with amazing care in service and spectacular ingredients. Chef Tanaka creates a menu near perfection utilising seasonal ingredients fully, from the humble parsley to the exotic shirako, from the beautiful mantis prawn to the gleeful excess of the roe-busting sandfish. And that beef… This became my favourite place in Japan, and you really need to check this place out. A total gem.
1*) Joe Beef, Montréal, Québec (18 September 2015): This was my birthday dinner, and the entire team there welcomed me like family. A 8+ hour eating and drinking experience, with so much amazing cooking you won’t believe it. The food is always amazing, but it’s the atmosphere — one that celebrates fresh produce, especially local ones. There is truly joie de vivre here. The most beautiful part was how the staff treated me like family, like one of their own, all night — especially as we also celebrated the restaurant’s anniversary. This was a special night. Some argue whether Joe Beef should be #81 on the Best Restaurants list, but for me it will always be near the very top and close to my heart.
1*) Senses, Warszawa, Polska (2 October 2015): I made my way back to Chef Camastra’s awesome restaurant after a year, and my goodness, if it was awesome back in 2014, it is now mind-blowing. He now sources most of the ingredients from his own farm outside of town, and it was magnificent — from the spinach to the mind-blowing pigeon. If there is one chef to watch in all of Central Europe, it is Andrea Camastra. He is a genius who really suffers for his craft, aiming at perfection at every stage, always asking for feedback, advice, etc. If this place doesn’t get 2 Michelin next guide, then the whole system is f’d up. He will challenge you, and sometimes that makes for a truly unforgettable meal.
1*) Stages at One Washington, Dover, New Hampshire (24 July 2015): I found this place by accident and I don’t think I’ve ever had such an amazing accident. By strange luck that night Chef Evan Hennessey was in the place alone. No staff, all out on catering duty. So he prepped, cooked, served, bussed, poured, etc… And watching this genius run multiple different tasting menus on his own without a hiccup while pouring wine and water and bussing empty dishes was quite amazing. The food was beyond fine, utilising the best local ingredients. Dover is a bit of a drive from Boston, but it’s beyond worth it. His tasting menus have an imagination that would have him besting Per Se and (especially) 11 Madison Park in NYC. I cannot wait to return!
Anyway, here they are, the 10 best dining experiences of 2015. Soon I’ll have the dishes of the year. I hope you enjoyed this wee trip down memory lane — my stomach sure has!