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The best meals I had in 2016: Part II

Restaurants that made it to the list in the second half of the year

brunch Updated: Dec 24, 2016 19:59 IST
Vir Sanghvi
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
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

Eggs with potatoes at Stones Throw in 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!

From HT Brunch, December 25, 2016

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