Marisqueria Ribeira do Miño, Madrid
I never miss a meal. But I’m the king of inconsistency when it comes to this blog. Fortunately, the best part of writing your own blog is that when you’re six months late, as this Best Restaurants of 2013 piece is, there’s no punishment. Annual “Best Of” lists are usually written and published in the winter months, when the year is winding down and folks are reflecting on memories of the last 12-months. These lists are also often filled with bullshit, such as newly opened restaurants and hotels that haven’t worked out their kinks yet, but that newspapers and magazines feel obliged to cover in the spirit of reporting on “travel news.” The best thing about putting a list like this out now, on the 4th of July weekend in 2014, is that I’ve had six months to digest (pun intended) the 1,095 meals I ate in 2013. I’ve thought hard about which meals I liked the best, and which challenged me and changed me. The restaurants that I long to go back to, and whose dishes I still crave now, a full six months later, are my obvious favorites. Often, we need a little perspective to sort out our favorites.
What makes a restaurant a favorite for me? It’s usually not a new restaurant. It’s also not typically a glassy modernist Michelin three-starred restaurant where people are splurging on 22-courses of foraged sea kelp and deconstructed gastro-molecular fare that’s been infused, macerated, reduced, and re-and-or-de-hydrated. Yet these menus predictably feature the obligatory foie gras, lobster, truffles, and chocolate, usually in a form that’s as tarted up as the runner up from last season’s Ru Paul Drag Race to prove to the diner that while the seared hay and sea buckthorn might be from a chef’s pathetic patch of green out back, the lobster came from Castine and the cacao from Ecuador, meriting the meal’s costliness. There’s nothing wrong with all that. I respect Michelin’s methodology and support all good food and hardworking chefs trying new things. But I’m usually drawn to simpler cuisines and locally-loved atmospheres with limited tourists and a menu that adds a knock or two of creativity while still executing simplicity. In the words of my good friend Dianne, “I don’t fetishisize food.”
I’m also drawn to value. So many of us expect that good food has to cost a lot of money. That’s just not true. The most expensive food is never never never the best. OK, sometimes it’s the best. But very rarely. As an example, on a trip to Italy Amalfi’s Coast in September 2013, I had many great meals. As my husband Ralph and I often do, we ranked our 25 meals from the trip very carefully and methodically. Of those 25 meals, the three best ranged from $5 to $270. (All three are included in the list below.) A Michelin one-starred seafood meal at Il Riccio, that cost around $250 for two, was number three. The simple and affordably-priced $75 meal for two at cozy dockside restaurant Lo Scoglio—far from the tourist hustle of Positano—was number two. But the cheapest meal—a $5 pizza at Napoli’s Pizzeria da Michele—was hands down the number one meal. All three meals were excellent, but the pizza was simple and delicious. Six months later, I still think about. Longingly. Lovingly. Pavlov-like. And well, maybe nothing taste as good as value feels!
Lastly, I feel obliged to mention a few things about 2013. First, I should acknowledge two homemade dishes that really deserve attention. My American friend Landis’ awesome “all-day fried chicken” (which literally took him all day to prepare). He cooked it for us in our kitchen on his visit here in July 2013. It was so good it made me homesick. I didn’t think Swiss grocery stores stocked the spices to make such flavorful American soul food. “Grill Mix” from Denner? Who knew? Also, my mother-in-law Marthe’s vittelo tonnato, a popular Italian dish made with cold thin slivers of veal draped in a velvety creamy tuna sauce. She’s made this for me a few times at her lakehouse in Bäch, and it’s absolutely delicious. I also wanted to mention the 2013 destinations I ate in that didn’t make the cut, so that readers are aware of what my parameters were. I traveled to Paris three times in 2013, and had great meals each time, but nothing as good as anything on the list below. Other notable 2013 destination candidates that failed make the grade were Greece, Ecuador, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Amsterdam, Munich, Germany’s Black Forest, Italy’s Dolomites, Milano, Oman, Norway, Florida, Los Angeles, Portugal’s Sagres, Mallorca, London, Shetland, Gstaad, Basel, Engadin, Geneva, and a few more.
The following restaurants are not listed in any particular order. This is not a ranking, just a list. All meals were eaten between Jan 1, 2013 and Dec 31, 2013. Prices shown below are just a rough estimate of two main course, starters, and wine.
Happy reading, and as we say in Zürich, en guete!
1. L’Auberge du Raisin, Cully, Canton Vaud, Lavaux, Switzerland
Some of Switzerland’s best food can be found in the Lavaux, where old world auberges beg to be splurged at. This one, in “chocolate box charming” Cully, is a regional favorite not to mention one of my top three meals in Switzerland ever. The dining room is paneled in rough-hewn wainscoting and plaster walls festooned with vintage wine presses, while an impressive parquet ceiling marinated in decades of fondue steam draws your eyes upward. I ate alone, but the food here was a most entertaining dinner companion, or as the French say, commensal. Fresh morels and white asparagus tips frothed it up together in a rich cream sauce, while medallions of lake perch arrived dressed in silky jackets of truffled butter sauce, and a hot, crunchy posse of pomme frites begged to soak up any extra puddles or spills…of which there were none! Aged flanks of steak dripping of fat, are charred in the dining room fireplace as suited waiters whisk to and fro prim Suisse grandmeres and trysting French couples who popped over Lac Lèman to linger anonymously for hours over post-dessert espressos. Or so I imagined. Perhaps my imagination was corrupted by the Swiss wine list—extensive and expensive—featuring a Calamin Grand Cru from Louis Bovard and a Viticole de Lutry Chardonnay with hints of barrique and the trademark mineraly gunpowder that the French call pierre à fusil. If you don’t have at least one long, boozey, borderline-delusional meal like this, you haven’t experienced the essence of the Lavaux. Read more about my bike trip through Switzerland’s Lavaux wine country in my Four Seasons magazine story on Swiss Wine. Dinner for two, $150
2. L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Napoli, Italy
Picture it. Napoli. 2013. A thin pie-crust is smothered by a blood red sauce of San Marzano tomatoes and buried under a veil of mozzarella di bufala Campana before being stuffed in a 905-degree oak-fired stone oven for 90 seconds. No toppings, just one single leaf of basil, which serves as a headstone to commemorate this pizza’s deliciousness. The D.O.C. protected pizza in Naples is the real deal and its simplicity is its allure. I first tried Naples style pizza in New York City when I wrote restaurant reviews and I didn’t like it one bit. It’s one of those foods that, for me, just doesn’t translate out of context. But Napoli style pizza in Napoli…well that’s something else altogether. In September 2013, Ralph and I visited Napoli and the Amalfi Coast and we tried about eight different pizzas during our 10-day stay—but nothing beat the $5 pies here, eaten with a fork and knife and washed down with a glug of Peroni. We stumbled into this place not knowing it was so iconic, and loved it so much. It was only later we realized what an institution it was. It’s also one of the few pizzerias open all day, so go early or late. Lines peak by noon and die down by 2 p.m. This spot can be a bit touristy, but it was locally loved for 140-years before Eat, Pray, Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert wondered if her pizza love was reciprocal and before Julia Roberts guffawed in its tiled dining room during the 2009 movie shoot. Read my Wall Street Journal article on How To Avoid Tourists on the Amalfi Coast to find out more. Dinner for two, $18
3. Shop Café, Santa Barbara, California, USA
After spending a sunny half-week in April of 2013 packing up my Burbank storage unit to be shipped to Zürich, Ralph and I escaped to lovely Santa Barbara for a weekend of eating and R+R. Ten minutes into our meal at Shop Café—a sweet roadside California joint that opened in December 2012 and serves up fantastic slow food, fast and cheap— I wondered if I’d made a mistake moving away from California. I’m a big fan of California, and even bigger fan of its food. Dishes there can be twenty times fresher and more creative than anything you get in megacities like NYC and Paris. With that in mind, there wasn’t a single menu item I didn’t want to try at Shop Café. So, I tried many, and loved each. Highlights included a juicy tri tip sandwich drenched in wasabi creme fraiche,onion marmalade and melted cheddar and piled atop toasted ciabatta. The “mac on crack” is a creamy bed of macaroni topped with crumbled gorgonzola, pecans, apple, and bacon. A basket of crunchy buttermilk-fried chicken is served on a crumbly biscuit. The signature Rolex—a popular Ugandan street food made with egg and tomato wrapped in chapatti—was inspired by co-owner Chris Vigilante’s trip there. The Shop Café is everything in a restaurant that cannot exist anywhere else. And it’s the kind of place that will probably make me move back some day. Read more about Santa Barbara’s food scene in an article I wrote on Santa Barabara’s food scene for Four Seasons Magazine. Dinner for two, $28
4. L’Estanco Food Truck, Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia
“Table for one? Really, just one?!” I was asked this question—in a pouty French accent no less— during my eleven days in French Polynesia every time I arrived solo in a restaurant, which was every night, as I traveled there alone. French Polynesia is honeymoon ground zero. And it seemed all honeymooners fell into two camps. Those who chose to begin expressing their martial conjugation sur le table, and those who starred at me while whispering phrases I half heard, like “…left at the alter?” and “…runaway bride?” After this played out about ten times, I headed to Les Roulottes, a convoy of food trucks parked on Papeete’s Pier, that hawks everything from raw tuna and steak au poivre to pizza and Chinese. No trip to Tahiti is complete without a visit there. When I visited French Polynesia in May of 2013, I asked everyone I met which roulotte was the best. Every single person emphatically recommended L’Estanco, which specializes in raw tuna dishes. So after scoping out the smattering of trucks for good measure, I sidled up to a plastic table and ordered a Hinano beer, brewed in Papeete, and the most famous dish—le poisson cru au lait de coco, a scarlet carcassian heap of raw tuna chunks soaking in a bowl of thick white coconut milk punctuated with curls of green scallions. It looked like, well…honeymoon afterbirth. And like most everything in French Polynesia, it wasn’t cheap. But it was as vivid and fragrant and exotic and alive as the purple hibiscus and white tiare flowers tucked behind the ears of the Tahitan women walking the street. It was magnificent, a gracefully composed dish that I think about a lot. Not to mention something I was happy I didn’t have to share. Read more about my trip to Tahiti in my New York Post story on Tahiti’s Monoi Road. Dinner for two, $65
5. Fondue at Jurablick, Uetliberg, Zürich, Switzerland
Living in Switzerland, I’ve had a lot of fondue in the last four years. But the best one in 2013 was at Jurablick, a fondue speakeasy of sorts, hidden on a hiking path on Uetliberg, Zurich’s leafy park/mountain. I’ve been here about four times, but first went in January 2013 with friends who live in Thailand. Getting to the wood-paneled stubli requires a 20-minute hike from the top of Uetliberg, often on pitch-black trails and in earshot of the screeching whistle of the Uetlibergbahn. But as you near, the smell of steamy cheese and kirsch permeates the darkness and you know you’re on track. The fondue itself is creamy, flavorful with a mixture of Gruyere and Appenzeller Surchoix and very kirshy. There’s a nice selection of Swiss wines, including a selection of Fendants, the only wine the Swiss will allow you to drink with fondue. The salads are fortresses—large, green heaps with spikes of speck, and doused in a tangy milky dressing. On my first visit here, we didn’t have cash, but the owners, who we absolutely didn’t know, said they’d mail us the bill. Only in Switzerland! Dinner for two, $80
6. Ubiquitous Chip, Glasgow, Scotland
I visited Glasgow in January of 2013 and again in October 2013. I adore Scotland and I love Scottish food. I didn’t grow up on Scottish food, but I have an inexplicable nostalgia for its fish, oysters, barley, potatoes, wild game, and sheep, and can’t get enough of its oaty, carmely deserts and whiskies. But I’m also impressed by how Scottish chefs use, but are not limited to, Scotch ingredients. There’s a casual locavorism in Scottish cuisine, yet a genuine reliance on the land that pre-dates the novelties of Italy’s Slow Food and Scandinavia’s New Nordic cuisine movements. This meal was one of the ten best for several reasons. For one, the West End restaurant walls remain painted with local artist Alasdair Gray’s cool and colorful murals depicting locals. But also, the kitchen turned out upgrades of old Scottish dishes like Lapsang souchong-smoked salmon and venison haggis with turnip cream, mussels in a smoky Chip broth, and a brown crab velouté. The namesake bowl of chips is excellent too—thick cut and double fried perfectly, something the Scottish also do exceptionally well. Read more about Glasgow in my New York Times story. Dinner for two, $89
7. Il Riccio, Capri, Italy
I didn’t fall in love with Capri during my September 2013 visit. The tourists there are maddening and you have to constantly strategize to avoid them. Still, it’s a must-see island and there are some super lovely off-the-beaten-path pockets. I did however, fall in love with a meal there. Ralph and I lingered over a breezy, albeit expensive, sea-kissed lunch at the one-star Michelin restaurant that recently became Capri Palace’s offsite beach club. It’s tucked into a private cove on the same cliff face as the touristy Grotta Azzurra, but a world apart. The turbot baked in salt, scallops nestled into puréed artichokes and its namesake spaghetti strewn with sea urchin are delicious and worthwhile splurges. Did I mention that there’s a Pudding Room— a temple to Neapolitan pastry! If you haven’t gone overboard in it, you can jump overboard into the sea from the restaurant’s private swimming deck while Blue Grotto-gawking tourists gaze in envy. Read my Wall Street Journal article on How To Avoid Tourists on the Amalfi Coast to find out more. Dinner for two, $220
8. Georgian Room Chef’s Table, Cloisters, Sea Island, Georgia, USA
You don’t hear about father-son Valentine’s dinners all that often, but in 2013 while waiting out my Swiss work visa arrival, I spent a Valentine’s weekend with my dad, Edson, at South Georgia’s Cloisters, which turned out to be a lot of fun. In my line of work, I’m fortunate enough to sample a lot of chef’s tasting menus. To be honest, they rarely impress me, and I waddle away feeling as stuffed and trapped as a foie gras goose the night before he’s slaughtered. But the meal at the Georgian Room Chef’s Table was different. Not only did we have an excellent meal, but we were given TV remote controls so that we could zoom in the mounted kitchen cameras to see exactly how the chefs were making it for us. Highlights from Chef Daniel Zeal’s menu included an amuse bouche of sweet potato panna cotta, crispy maitake mushrooms lapping in a sherry vinaigrette, even crispier pork belly, and a cauliflower slow roasted for three hours and served with kobe cheek and black truffle. Romantic? Not so much. Voyeuristic? Weirdly. Delicious? Yes! Read more about Sea Island in my Departures.com story. Chef’s Table dinner for two, $200
9. Ristorante Lo Scoglio, Massa Lubrense, Italy (Amalfi Coast)
My lovely friend Pavia—who founded the travel site Fathom and has a knack for finding the world’s best food—has had her fair share of excellent Italian and Italian-American meals. She characterizes lunch at Lo Scoglio as the “Best Lunch Ever,” which I couldn’t agree with more. In September of 2013, Ralph and I escaped the madness of Amalfi’s vespa-clogged streets to this quiet hidden gem where diners were casually perched at the end of a dock overlooking Nerano Bay sipping affordable local wine, forking into house specialties like linguine con cicala, spaghetti with zucchini, and copper pans of verdure miste, cooked seasonal vegetables from the family’s farm. Isn’t this exactly what people came to Amalfi for in the first place?In most restaurants that offer views, the food loses out to the views. But not here. Check out my WSJ story mentioning Lo Scoglio, or my Hollywood Reporter story mentioning Lo Scoglio. Dinner for two, $75
10. Marisqueria Ribeira do Miño, Madrid, Spain
For my 41st birthday in December of 2013, Ralph and I met up in Madrid with my New York friend Matt. Matt is originally from the U.K. and studied oenology at Oxford, but spent some time living in Madrid. His sense of food is impeccable and he knew all the best spots in town (and then some.) My one requirement for him for a birthday restaurant was to find an affordable but good resto without tourists. “No problem in Madrid.” said Matt leading us to a side street in gritty Chueca where a giant glass window glimmered with fresh seafood. Walking into this weathered marisqueria with 1970s turquoise walls draped in casting nets (instead of castanets) and brown tiled floors covered in dirty napkins and shellfish carcasses was like entering an Almodovar film. It’s everything I love I in a restaurant: rough-around-the-edges, crowded, mostly with locals, and a bit noisy and chaotic. This is the mark of a successful restaurant in my eyes. The locals came here to catch up with each other over glasses of Albariño, hot plates of pimientos del padrón, and heaping piles of fresh Galacian seafood: changurros (crab), shrimp, octopus, hake and sole. If you don’t like the idea of shellfish and napkins on the floor and waiters brusquely bypassing you, this place is not for you. No matter how many restaurant Trip Advisor reviews, magazine articles, and guidebooks write-ups I read, I still find it hard to locate restaurants like this. But the search is often worth it. Dinner for two, $57