I always like to try something new and believe that to have old favourites is to deny yourself the pleasures of something new. So here are some of the meals and dishes that I remember with affection from last year.
People always say to me: “You are a food writer. You must get to eat some great meals.” Or, they will say “What is your favourite cuisine?” Or even, “You must eat a lot.” And yes it is true, I do eat a lot which may explain my size. And I do travel a fair bit so I get to eat in many different places. But no, I don’t have a favourite cuisine or a favourite restaurant or a favourite dish. I eat everything, always like to try something new and believe that to have too many old favourites is to deny yourself the pleasures of something new.
So, did I get to eat some great meals last year? Yes, I did. And here, in no particular order, are some of the meals and dishes that I remember with affection from 2008. <b1>
Rochat: There was a time when this restaurant, in Switzerland, was regarded as the best in the world. In those days, Fredy Girardet was the chef. Then Girardet retired and his sous chef Philippe Rochat took over. And the world moved on.
Rochat still has Girardet’s three Michelin stars and I reckon his food is brilliant, lighter and more adventurous than Girardet’s but he has no media skills at all and the action has shifted away from Switzerland to such countries as Spain and Japan.
Even so, I reckon he’s up there with the best three star chefs. I ate at Rochat a month after I’d eaten at Alain Ducasse’s Paris restaurant. And Rochat’s food blew Ducasse out of the water.
I remember a fish carpaccio, mushrooms stuffed with other mushrooms and amazing veal. It was light, ethereal food.
Gajalee: The best crab I’ve ever eaten was at this restaurant in Bombay’s Vile Parle that serves coastal Malvani food. The crab was enormous, the meat fell out in my fingers and the spicing was amazing.
In the week that my original article about Gajalee appeared, I bumped into Ajit Kerkar, the man who more or less invented the modern Indian hotel industry. Ajit and I go back a very long way and we first went to Trishna (another Bombay crab place) together over a decade ago. Ajit knows Gajalee but he asked if they really put the spices in the crab before steaming. I said that I had no way of knowing for sure but that was certainly what they had told me. “That is wrong,” said Ajit with great finality. Well maybe it is. But Ajit and the Gajalee chefs can work that out between themselves. Speaking for myself, I loved it anyway.
Din Tai Fung: I first went to the original Taipei branch of this massively successful Taiwanese chain many, many years ago and fell in love with the delicate dim sum. The signature dumpling is filled with warm broth and explodes in your mouth.
There are Din Tai Fung branches all over Asia now. And a few months ago, I ate at the one in the basement of the Paragon Mall on Singapore’s Orchard Road, and thought the dumplings were easily the equal of the Taipei original.
Rostang/Santi: The huge new Atlantis resort in Dubai is part theme park and part Las Vegas-style hotel. But it does have restaurants run by some of the world’s great chefs.
I remember the food of Santi Santamaria, the Spanish chef (Michelin three stars) with great admiration. All of it was good but my favourite was a light ravioli of porcini mushrooms and brown onions.
I also ate at Michel Rostang’s (French; Michelin two stars) brasserie and I have fond memories of his duck sandwich: duck breast and duck foie gras in a baguette.
Ballymaloe House: Darina Allen is one of Ireland’s best known food personalities. She runs this amazing country house hotel near Cork where all of the food is sourced from local producers and every ingredient bursts with flavour. <b2>
I had a great dinner when I stayed there and a bonus was that Frank Hederman was at my table. Frank smokes wild salmon and he was kind enough to give me two packets. I ate the fish when I came back to India. It bore no resemblance to any smoked salmon I had eaten and was so good that I find I’m unable to eat the nasty farmed Norwegian variety now.
Thai Pavilion: My friend Ananda Solomon is a brilliant Thai chef – his food is so authentic that it rates up there with the best of Bangkok. Ananda has strong views on fusion cuisine (basically, he doesn’t like it). So imagine my surprise then when I found that his new menu at Bombay’s Thai Pavilion included foie gras which is a Thai Gerard Depardieu and scallops, a cold water fish that finds no place in Thai cuisine.
Ananda bravely insists that both dishes are original on the grounds that the king of Thailand eats foie gras (yes, but he was brought up in Switzerland) and that all Thai restaurants now serve scallops (as all Indian restaurants now serve Norwegian salmon: so what?).
I give him a hard time about both dishes because they are so good. His foie gras with Thai spices is amazing – and even better if you add a little sweet chilli dipping sauce and some chopped sweet basil and coriander. His scallops with yellow chilli are also an instant classic.
Club Chinois: I bumped into Andrew Tjioe, owner of the My Humble House chain at the dinner at the launch of Miele Guide in Singapore. Andrew is a Singapore-Chinese who has now conquered the mainland with the success of My Humble House in Beijing.
Andrew asked me to try another of his restaurants, Club Chinois, at the end of Orchard Road. So, the next day, Rahul Verma, The Telegraph’s food critic and myself went off to have lunch with Woody, one of Andrew’s lieutenants at Club Chinois.
They had organised a set lunch for us in a private room and though it included such peculiarly Chinese delicacies as Shark’s Fin and fish maw, it was absolutely amazing.
Channa Tikki/AC Market: Whenever I go to Calcutta, I seek out my favourite pair of street vendors near AC Market. One does wonderful Calcutta-style puchkas and the other does the best tikki-channa I have ever eaten.
This year, it took a little longer to find them because they had been moved by the police to another corner of the road. But I found them all right.
You can keep your Delhi golgappas and all your chaat, actually. There are only three cities in India where you get great chaat: Calcutta, Bombay and Lucknow.
Barrafina: I first went to this little restaurant in London’s Soho district shortly after it had opened a couple of years ago. It is run by the Hart brothers who also run the excellent Fino and seats just over 20 people at a counter.
The food is Spanish, tapas-style and the key to its success is the quality of the ingredients: chorizo, tomatoes, bread, jambon, iberico, clams, mussels, prawns etc. It’s now vastly trendy so there’s a long queue most days. (You cannot book.) The trick is to go very early before the queue forms.
Dhaba/Chiang Mai: I am embarrassed to say that I’ve forgotten the Thai name of the dhaba-type restaurant on the outskirts of Chiang Mai to which I was taken by the wonderful Khun Charlie of the Dhara Devi hotel.
Northern Thai food is significantly different from the Royal Thai cuisine that the fancy restaurants of Bangkok serve. It is simpler, can be hotter and the flavours are more pronounced.
My favourites are the fermented Northern sausages and laab, a sort of salad, made with minced chicken, beef, pork etc. At this dhaba, they make their laab with raw meat and it resembles nothing as much as a Thai steak tartare. Just writing about it makes me hungry again.
Dum Pukht: If there is a better and more consistent north Indian chef than Ghulam Qureshi of Delhi’s Dum Pukht, then I have yet to meet him. Ghulam’s food is haute cuisine at its most refined. His biryanis and his gravies touch heights that few others can manage (mainly because he lies about his recipes when you ask him how a dish is made). Even those dishes that predated him in the Dum Pukht menu – the naan and the kakori kabab for instance – come truly alive in his hands.
Rohit Sangwan: I am always being told that it is too early in his career for me to say this but I’ll say it anyway: Rohit Sangwan is India’s best patissier.
One good reason to stay at Bombay’s Lands End is to eat Rohit’s desserts. His souffles are made of air; his sorbets capture the essence of the fruit; and his Floating Island is so light that you wonder if it will fly away.
His greatest achievement though is his vanilla ice-cream, so rich it coats your tongue and made with a deep vanilla-bean flavour. He has told me the secret. But I’m not revealing it.
Wasabi: It’ll take a little while for the Bombay Wasabi to get back on its feet but the Delhi outpost is reaching new standards of excellence. With the exception of the teppanyaki which is rubbish, the food is even better than the Bombay original.
My favourite dish there is the scallop sashimi. It’s made with Hokkaido scallops (I think, though nobody has confirmed that) so it has a nice oceanic sweatiness to it though I sometimes miss the codeine flavour of hard-dived North Atlantic scallops.
Sakura: Delhi’s Sakura continues to serve top quality trad-Jap food despite the Wasabi-isation of the upmarket Indian palate. I’ve had many memorable meals there this year but none so memorable as the one when a party of four (including Gautam Anand whose professional opinion I respect) of us sat down in a private room, ate Wagyu, blow-torched at our tables, fresh cod flown in from Tokyo and great sushi, washed downed with Puligny Montrachet and Pichon Comtesse. <b3>
Campton Place: San Francisco is pretty much the place where modern American cuisine was created. It’s also one of the most Oriental of American cities. And so I ate (and drank – it is next to wine country) extremely well in the week I spent there.
What a surprise therefore to record that the best meal I had there was modern European / American food cooked by an Indian chef at a hotel owned by the Taj group.
I’ve never had as good a Western meal at a Taj hotel anywhere in the world and it completely blew me away.
San-Qi: When the Four Seasons opened in Bombay, I told Armando Kraenzlin, its Vice President (and my partner in food exploration) that while he ran a great hotel, I was dubious about the commercial prospects of his Chinese restaurant.
It wasn’t that the food was bad – quite the opposite. It was just that it seemed too daring to open a Cantonese restaurant in a city that loved Sichuan food.
I was wrong of course and Armando was right. The restaurant is a grand success and while the Four Seasons has outstanding food at all its outlets, the Chinese is my favourite.
I go back for two dishes in particular. One is the roast chicken, a moist bird with crispy skin. And the other is the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly (drink a Riesling with it).
I told Shiv Jatia, who owns the Four Seasons, that while I liked his Delhi Hyatt, the Four Seasons is in a whole new league. I’m a great fan of the Chinese restaurant at the Delhi Hyatt but this food belongs to a whole new dimension. The chef is Then Kok Leong and he is an absolute genius.
Guido: You’ve probably been told that pasta, like pizza, in Italy can be very different from what passes for pasta in the rest of the world. In Italy, the point of pasta dish is the pasta itself, not the sauce.
Keeping that in mind, one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever eaten was at Guido’s restaurant near Alba in Piedmont in north Italy. The restaurant now located at the Relais San Maurizio Hotel – is famous for the angnolotti (a ravioli-like parcel) of three different meats made by Lidia, Guido’s wife. A once in a lifetime experience.
Shiraz: I’m a fan of the classic Lucknowi biryani. But I also like junk biryani, that is to say biryani made for ordinary people not kings and noblemen. I love Bombay biryanis and after years in Calcutta have become a fan of that city’s version made with eggs and potatoes to stretch the meat.
There are many claimants to the title of best biryani in Calcutta and I play no favourites. But this year I ate at Shiraz on Park Street and the biryani was just as I remembered it.
Bar Shu: A couple of years ago I wrote that this was my favourite Chinese restaurant in London and there were howls of protest from rich Indians. What, no Kai? How about China Tang? (Absolutely not.) How could I forget Hakkasan or Royal China. And so on.
Most of these restaurants are excellent enough but none of them serves the entirely authentic fiery flavour of Sichuan as does this wonderful restaurant at the end of Frith Street. If you like hot food, go there. I did once. And I go back at least six times a year.