I love writing about my favorite meals of the year and 2016 was a great year of food for me. The last few years I’ve started keeping a journal of my excellent meals, and because I seek them out, the list become longer every year. So this year, I’m organizing my best meals into three categories. Think of it as my own Michelin rip off.
But first, let me say this to those who think I don’t edit: there were several high end, notable, Michelin starred restaurants that did not make it onto my list. I don’t chase stars, I seek out good food. Like most of you, I probably ate about 1,150 meals in 2016. I’d estimate that I ate out about 450 meals in 2016 including breakfasts, airline meals, business lunches, snacks, etc). Of those, 70 meals made this list. 12 were ***Sublime. 28 were **Excellent and another 30 were *Noteworthy.
The top category ***Sublime are meals that were transformative, unique, memorable, and Proustian. Dishes that challenged my palette and expressed an essential regional flavor. They are not necessarily Michelin-stared places and do not necessarily focus on especially talented chefs, but instead embody meals that are perfectly expressed in a variety of ways, from ambiance to quality of food to integrity of flavors. These meals are rare, and the joy I experience during them is part of what makes the food so good. (Or is it vice versa?). The meals are destination-worthy and worth traveling long distances for.
The **Excellent category are meals that were outstanding and memorable and would merit a second visit. These meals also elicited joy and unexpected pleasure in unexpected places (a hospital and airport are on this list) and feature quality food and outstanding cooking. These are all places I would heartily recommend to other food loving friends, and worth going out of the way for.
The *Noteworthy category is by no means a loser. It also reflects my top meals of 2016 but includes meals that lacked a consistency with quality or service or were subject to other minor flaws that detracted from the overall experience. I don’t mean that they didn’t have the right glassware or that there were smudges on the linen, because I don’t care about that stuff. But all it takes is one off ingredient or a waiter’s grumpy attitude to transform the sublime to the so-so. Nevertheless, these restaurants should be on the radar of food lovers, but might need to work out a few kinks. I enthusiastically recommend, but with some reservations.
Other food favorites from 2016 include markets, bakeries, bars, snacks, and native foods that were especially good at the source.
As with all my lists, these meals and restaurants are not listed in any particular order.
12 Sublime Meals of 2016
, Torshavn, Faroe Island
meals from $35
Etika is the Faroe Islands’ first sushi restaurant and it’s located in a glassy building in the center of the Island’s capital, Tórshavn. I ate here in May and it was the best sashimi I had in 2016 (which says a lot since I spent two weeks in Japan the same year.) The restaurant’s lacquered tangerine walls and sun-flooded dining room are a far stretch from authentic Japanese. But its tender porbeagle, cod, and langoustine sashimi were some of the best I’ve had anywhere, each expressing a flavor as pure as the surrounding sea. Food from the Faroes has a purity that’s evident in every bite, mostly because its waters and meadows have been minimally tampered with by humankind. Langoustine from Faroes is described as one of the purist flavors in the New Nordic Food Manifesto
and the cold sweet flavors of the langoustine at Etika are no exception.
meals from $32
This is the kind of Italian trattoria my husband and I dream of—an untouched interior, and not widely known to Michelin-checking food rovers (though it does have one Michelin star). Its warm, Italian (but English-speaking) owners Marina Malavasi and Alberto Bettini can be seen running the establishment day to day in the picturesque Emile Romagna town of Savigno know for absolutely nothing—its very appeal. We ate here twice. The last meal was a TKO and started with an amuse bouche of chickpea puree followed by a bottle of cold chardonnay, a plate of cold smoked char with green tomatoes and truffled beef tartare—ideal for the sweltering hot June evening we visited. Less ideal, but worthy of the sweat it induced were a plate of Taglitele Bolognese Ragu with a cool crisp raw onion atop it and a torteli gratin which arrived from the wood fired oven with the béchamel sauce still bubbling. Cod with mayo and potatoes and pork three ways with gratin onion cake were other memorable dishes. But the undisputed highlight was the homemade fiori di latte gelato topped with a swirl of Aceto Balsamico, a sublime way to end any meal.
breakfast free with stay
Sometimes what makes a meal so outstanding is it unexpectedness. My husband and I made a booking at B+B I Cappanni located on the “Via di Dante” atop a woodsy mountain pass in the Apennines for his birthday in June. To be honest, we only stayed there so that we could experience a notable truffle restaurant in town. But the B&B’s humble breakfast proved infinitely better than the truffle restaurant. A knock on our door in the morning revealed the olive-skinned owner standing there gesturing that breakfast was ready. He invited us into the rustico’s main kitchen, where it’s served. There, on a red and white checker clothed table, was one of biggest breakfast spreads I’ve seen: homemade almond apple cake, blackberry and fig jam, fresh cherries, a truffle-flecked fromage di fosso (a local cave-aged cheese usually made by individual families instead of professional cheese-makers) plates of smoked ham and salumi, and a big platter stacked with tomato bruchetta. He also offered us piping hot coffee prepared from a mokka pot. Every dish was prepared by our Italian host, who barely spoke English, and had painstakingly renovated the rustico himself. Don’t miss the display of nighttime fireflies along the B+B’s roadside in June and July.
, Montefalco, Umbria
meals from $25
As I get older, I find myself returning to same restaurants, a habit I eschewed in my younger days. But when you find good food, don’t let go of it! I first dined here in autumn 2015 and added it to my Best of 2015 list that year. I loved it so much I came back with my husband in June 2016. The house specialty at the tidy, unassuming food shop turned eatery is olive oil, and it comes to the table in a variety of ways, including an Umbrian olive oil sampler with fresh baked breads, an excellent antipasto mixto with artichokes, tomatoes and mushrooms drowning in various golden puddles of EVOO and fragrant soups swirled with the zesty jade-colored elixir. The chicken in Sagrantino sauce is a rich savory take on the local Sagrantino wine, but the sweet, slow cooked eggplant parmesan is not to be missed, wrapped in a thick coat of sweet tomato sauce and topped with cheese. Of course, everything tasted better washed down with a bottle of trademark Grecheto, a local white wine that was a nice alternative to the heavy tanniny Sagrantino we’d been guzzling. Located in the heart of Montefalco, locals head to the restaurant’s quiet and creaky upstairs dining room, while tourists often take over the sunny terrace.
, Walchwil, Lake Zug, Switzerland
meals from $35
I complain a lot about Swiss food. The cheese is wonderful—the best I’ve had anywhere. But meat in Swiss German-speaking Switzerland is always low on flavor and usually either breaded, smothered in cream, or minced into wurst (sausage). It’s almost always overcooked and dry and usually served with soggy overcooked vegetables or frozen French fries. Finding a good steak is rare (pun intended). But one meat dish that consistently stands out in Switzerland is poulet im chörbli, which in Swiss German means ‘chicken in a basket’ and is considered low-brow, road food. Restaurants serving it will often place a large cartoony chicken out front to indicate its prominence on the menu. I’ve tried poulet im chörbli at about 10 different places across Central Switzerland (where it’s most popular). It’s almost always a better alternative to the creamed veals, greasy cheese and pork laden rösti dishes, and wurst salads, a revolting Germanic invention that’s more wurst than salad, pun intended again. The poulet im chörbli is a marinated half chicken fried in oil, (unbreaded) which yields a crispy skin and usually served with a creamy sauce that comes in three different spice ranges, extra scharf being the spiciest. The one I ate in October at the wood-paneled stubli Engel is extraordinary— the best I’ve had so far and impressed Ralph and my visiting New York City friend too. It’s tender, not overcooked, with crispy skin, extra scharf sauce that’s tangy, rich and spicy. Atop the accompanying salad was the word “Engel” written in balsamico and a silver gravy boat filled with a creamy homemade French dressing with just the right amount of mustard. A rosé paired excellently with the light meat, as did the red wine, a Blauburgunder from the region.
meals from $40
Because it’s terrible for the environment, I don’t order steak as much as I used to. But I still treat myself from time to time, usually as a reward. After a long day of travel and reporting on a BBC archeology story on Danish Bog Bodies
in September, I arrived at my hotel in Aarhus at about 7:30pm, too late to go back into town for dinner. So I ordered room service, which I seldom do. And what a delight! Prime rib steak cooked to pink-centered perfection, a side of creamy, flavorful béarnaise sauce, fluffy crisp steak fries, and a fresh green dressed salad served in a Weck jar. There’s nothing revolutionary about room service steak. But this meal stood out because of execution. It’s one thing to create amazing food, but nailing comfort classics takes a special skill. The staff even offered to waive the $10 delivery charge if I went downstairs to retrieve the trayed meal myself, which I of course did.
meals from $25
This is another unassuming Italian joint, located in the village of Nonantola, just outside Modena. The polpette (small meatballs) came dressed in a silky parmesan sauce, and Passatelli (a rustic pasta made with breadcrumbs and eggs) arrived in a variety of forms including one with artichoke and another with prosciutto. Sides includes char-grilled radicchio drizzled with olive oil and dabbed with inky splots of aceto balsamico, and fluffy polenta cakes studded with mushroom and parmesan. The meal was fortified with rich Lambruscos like a Sorbara and a Scurone Sgrassaporco followed by a glass of dark and nutty noccino. If you’re lucky, the charismatic owner Massimo will greet your table as he did mine this past November, chatting us up in a mix of English and Italian.
8. I don’t make a habit of attending press events, as I often find them useless time-killers. But the press launch of the 2017 Michelin Guide to Italy in Parma was not only worthwhile but incredibly delicious. It was also heartening to see so many Michelin noted cooks— men and women, young and old (and even a few non Italians)— take to the stage for the event. Seeing the older chefs welcome and congratulate the new guard exemplified the best of Italian food cooperation. Better yet, several starred chefs offed up their creations to the jam-packed press event. Delectable dishes included lemon vanilla risotto, creamed gnochetti with mushrooms and culatello and snails in green sauce. But one was a standout: Bomba con bolliyo di pancetta, senape e lattuga. The fluffy pork bun sandwich turned out to be from a Michelin three starred chef Niko Romito who melded Asian and Italian cuisines perfectly for this tasty bun, which was by far the tastiest thing at the event and had throngs of food journalists queuing until they ran out. I haven’t been to Niko’s Ristorante Reale
, in Abbruzo, located in the middle of the boot, about 2-hours drive respectively from Napoli and Roma, but I intend to add it to my list.
breakfasts included with stay
I never expect breakfast to wow me. But when it does, it’s news. Breakfast in Japan is one of the most laborious meals of the day and the variety of plates that greet you are a wonderful way to awaken your palette and other senses. If a hotel offers a Japanese breakfast or the Western buffet, always chose the Japanese breakfast, as I did during my stay at the Shima Kanko Hotel, which hosted the G7 leaders in spring 2016. The Japanese breakfast is located on the third floor of the Bay Suites Hotel, the property’s new annex. My breakfast spread barely fit into the photo. It included a rolled Japanese omelet, a fried tofu ball, simmered turnip, a bowl of tiny baby sardines with their eyes sparkling, (yes it’s slightly weird), a red pepper miso and seaweed served in a wood box with a hot charcoal under it gently toasting it. My dinners at Shima Kanka’s Teppanyaki Grill and French Restaurant were outstanding also and both are included below.
meals from $20
My best meals in Japan are often at Izakaya, Japanese pubs, and this hidden charmer emphasizing local sake and tofu was no exception. I accidently discovered it while walking from my hotel in search of place to eat one rainy November night in Toba, a small city in Mie Prefecture 3 hours from Tokyo. As usual, I entered hesitantly, not knowing if they would have an English menu. But I was relieved and joy-struck when the kind, non-English speaking waitress went to the kitchen and came back with a hand written English translation of the entire 7 page menu (not including the sake), a rarity in Japan. I settled into my bar seat with an iced sweet potato shochu and communicated my needs by pointing kindly and smiling to the waitress, while additional questions were handled by Google Translate. Every dish she brought back was perfect. Highlights included the izakaya’s signature dish, a bowl of fried tofu in a sake, mirin and soy sauce and topped with scallions and bonito flakes and julienned seaweed. Chicken wings were sweet, sticky and crisp, grilled chicken skewers were tangy with flecks of citrusy yuzu, Ise Udon was especially thick and fragrant and topped with an egg, and the never-ending selection of sake helped wash it all down. Because of language and cultural barriers, Japan can be the most difficult place to eat as a traveler, but the payoff is especially rewarding when you go off piste and explore the unknown.
meals from $100
The architecturally aesthetic Aman Resorts known for their exorbitant rates and 1%er guests are not typically beloved for their food, but it seems as if the brand is turning that reputation around. The cuisine at one their newest properties, Amanemu, in Shima, Japan is excellent. Dinner during my stay (for a magazine assignment) was a Sukiyaki made tableside by a local woman known for her savvy Sukiyaki skills. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!) She dropped a piece of beef fat in a hot copper pot before gently deposited marbled slices of Matsusaka beef (a Japanese beef considered better than Kobe) followed by three types of mushrooms (enoki, kikurage, and shitake), a square hunk of charred walnut tofu, and slices of turnip, carrot, tomato and green onion before adding the exquisite soup base of sake, mirin sugar and soy (a base for just about every sauce in Japan). Two raw eggs in a bowl were given to dip the beef into. It was rich and sublime and a must for any food lover. The Ise Udon was another highlight, made in a dark black daishi and soy sauce instead of a broth and filled with thick wheat Udon noodles, topped with a tempura shrimp, fish cake and green onions and a raw egg. A bottle of 2012 Koshu Mitsaka Japanese Wine was the perfect accompaniment to the meal. The Koshu grape was brought to Japan over a thousand years ago and came directly from Georgia, where wine originated. Like all things in Japan, Japanese wine is excellent and is constantly being perfected. The Japanese breakfast the next morning was equally outstanding with the usual rolled eggs, grilled fish, baby clam studded miso soup and more.
meals included with stay
Good hotel food is a rarity. So are two excellent meals back to back. Both of those feats were accomplished with aplomb at this renown ryokan in Kinosaki, a small onsen town on Honshu’s Southwest coast. A special Matsusake beef dinner served in-room, in accordance with local ryokan tradition, was the standout. First of all, Nishimuraya is one of the best ryokan I’ve ever stayed at, in the same league as Hiiragiya in Kyoto, which I stayed at last year and which made multiple Best Of 2015 lists. Here, there are two different properties, an old ryokan and a modern hotel and both are excellent. Our server Yumiko spoke perfect English, and was hard working and charming and three dimensional all at once. And the food was a knock out. The Tajima beef kaiseki dinner included beef served with Matsuba pine needle, a silky orange yam chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard), mushroom and mitsuba leaf, shiromi sashimi, and Tajima beef in a variety of ways including grilled ishiyaki, konyasai nikomi stew, tajima beef aburi roast beef, shabu shabu, and raw beef sobora sushi. Each new dish was served a new saki, served in its own bowl of ice with an accompanying seasonal flower or plant. 24. A crab kaiseki dinner at Nishimuraya Honkan Ryokan came with tofu sunroot, wasabi oroshi, smoked duck, charcoal crab, and warm sake with a crab leg in it. Breakfast at both properties also outstanding, especially the tamago onsen, an egg soft boiled in the onsen thermal water. My husband Ralph ordered the western breakfast at the Honkan and it came with an electric toaster oven!
28 Excellent Meals of 2016
Ecuadorian meats go haute at this modernist new restaurant in Quito.
Highlights: Sautéed beef medallions in smoked banana sauce, naranjilla and black beer ice cream, slow poached eggs, Andean potatoes.
Lively everyday tavern in Sud Tirol’s ski town of Val Gardena.
Highlights: Fluffy puffy speck knudel and crispy speck topped pizza.
Skiers take a snowplow up the mountain for this special Alpine dinner party.
Highlights: Excellent appertivo with truffled honey, shrimp, beef on grissini, tuna crudo, fried cheese, and lambrusco. T-bone steak with béarnaise sauce, chateaubriand, crispy roast potatoes unusual red wines unique to Sud Tirol, corn soup.
, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Went twice to this relaxed Japanese garden restaurant during my 4 night stay in Ubud. It was that good.
Highlights: Yakiniku (grilled beef), pork katsu, tuna sashimi, salty sukiyaki, tempura, soba noodles, followed by a Balinese rosé.
Yes, an airport food court made my list. It’s rare to have a bad meal in Singapore, and even the airport offers up incredible flavors.
Highlights: Singapore dry noodles (noodles with duck and fresh chilis), vegetable and pork dumplings, #7J on the automated system.
Hirslanden Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland
Hospital Food too!? Yep. This destination worthy restaurant inside the hospital draws a lot of doctors, nurses, and patient’s family members.
Highlights: Mouselline soup, vitello tonato, and a glass of petite arvine.
This hidden gem of a restaurant in Bergen packs in the flavor emphasizing local Scandinavian ingredients.
Highlights: Trout and Salmon in lemon butter, artichoke cream soup, grilled lamb, shaved beets.
A haughty bearded server at this small restaurant told us which wines were for men and which for women, while tourists snapped food photos with their phones.
Highlights: Mozzeralla with anchovies, polpette in cream sauce, spaghetti carbonara with saffron and zucchini, Grechete wine, pasta Amatriciana, side of chicory.
Great atmosphere with mostly Romans at this bustling Slow Food restaurant in Rome’s Campo Dei Fiori.
Highlights: Antipasto Misto, fried meat balls, eggplant parmasean, baccalao, parmagiana, buratta with crackers, Insalata spinaci with walnuts, pears and cheese.
, Rome, Bologna, Milan, and Venice, Italy
This small boulangerie, cafeteria and espresso chain at Italian train stations has kept me especially well fed while traveling across Italy on the highspeed frecciarossa trains.
Highlights: Roast beef on croissant with cucumbers and cheese, pizza calabria, croissant with mozzarella basil and tomatoes, sfoglietele, ricotta stuffed cake, truffled cheese and mortadella pannini.
So good, I ate at this four-star Alpine hotel restaurant twice during my two separate stays. Excellent Swiss wine selection and a surprisingly great choice of fish, from see & sea.
Highlights: Char and pasta, heaping green salad, Petite Arvine, Amuse Bouche fried mushrooms.
Small family run restaurant hidden atop the mountain in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian speaking canton.
Highlights: minestrone soup fortified with pesto sauce, vegetable lasagna with zucchini and a jug of hearty Ticinese Merlot.
The female chef at this family run restaurant was featured on the Netflix series Chef’s Table, and rightly so.
Highlights: Slovenian wines, beef and native grass platter, marble trout with chestnuts and bayleaf; watermelon, rhubarb and langoustines, Summer couliflower ravioli; walnut meringue; mountain rabbit that wants to become a Mexican chicken.
Watch out for the falling apples at the outdoor terrace of this charming fondue stubli.
Highlights: Moitié-Moitié Fondue, excellent heaping salads, Swiss wines.
New street food market in former Aarhus bus station has touches of elegance and anarchy.
Highlights: Flaeskesteg sandwiches, tacos, pulled duck sandwich, pizza, cocktails
Excellent Japanese breakfast at this hidden charmer of a hotel in an offbeat Tokyo neighborhood.
Highlights: Chowanmushi, grilled fish, miso soup
Highlights: Japanese wines, grilled ise ebi lobster, grilled Matsusaka beef, grilled abalone
Bonito macaroon, Ise lobster cream soup, grilled abalone with sea lettuce sauce,
sauteed Ise lobster with Port wine sauce, Yonezawa Mochi Laley risotto,
Matsusaka beef tenderloin with Ise green tea and Miyagawa wasabi,
Chateau Mercian Japanese Chardonnay
Izakaya, Tokyo, Japan
Excellent Izakaya in the Nakameguro neighborhood of Tokyo
Highlights: sea urchin rice, chicken wrapped asparagus, skewers, sashimi,
Female Ama divers on the Ise Peninsula forage for a variety of seafood, including oysters and scallops. I visited two Ama Huts in Ise Peninsula, but Satoumi An was by far the better of the two.
Highlights: Grilled lobster, barracuda, scallops on the halfshell, grilled squid with mayo and Shichi-mi tōgarashi, homemade rice cracker.
Excellent under the radar ryokan dripping with handmade cypress carpentry, great onsen and super friendly staff and a shibu inu named Madeline.
Highlights: nabe in paper with chicken and shrimp, fresh oysters, lotus root, sake, chowanmushi, sashimi, scallops, tempura
Tiny Ramen counter in Kyoto where chef lights ramen on fire.
Highlights: Fire Ramen, karage,
Small cozy sushi restaurant in heart of Kinosaki Onsen town serving excellent sushi.
Highlights: Sushi, sashimi, crab
Bottle stuffed Art Deco restaurant in Milan’s Brera district.
Highlights: Spaghetti Pomodoro, risotto, soup
Wonderfully homey and charming cheese restaurant on Milan’s Navigli canals.
Highlights: Spaghetti with peccorino and walnuts, truffled sheep’s cheese on cracker bread, artichoke salad.
Owners Tony and Angelo run the Tuscan style restaurant on Piazzale Lavater.
Highlights: Steak, pork on raddicihio with honey and truffle, artichoke salad
Family owned stubli at end of a road in a Graubunden valley near base of Mittaghorn
Highlights: Capuns, Pizzokel
Upgraded beach food classics at the Ed Tuttle designed masterpiece resort.
Highlights: Pińa coladas, soft shell crab tacos, fish burgers
30 Noteworthy Restaurants of 2016
, Brunnen, Switzerland
2016 Markets, Bakeries, Bars, Gelatarias, Snacks, Cafés, and Foods at the Source
Café and Takeaway
Take Away, Campo Dei Fiori, Rome, Italy
Lobster Gelatto at Akafuko
, Oharaimachi, Ise, Japan
Zabione and Ricotta Gelato at Remondini
, Modena, Italy
Foods at the Source:
Pacari Chocolate, Quito, Ecuador
Naranjilla, Quito, Ecuador
Parmesan, Parma, Italy
Aceto Balsamico, Modena, Italy
Engadine Nusstorte, Engadine Valley, Switzerland
Prosciutto, Parma, Italy
Sagrantino Wine, Montefalco, Italy
Lasagna, Emila Romagna, Italy
Lambrusco, Bologna, Italy
Gruyere, Gruyere, Switzerland
Olive oil, Umbria, Italy
Aperol Spritz, Milan, Italy
Sweet Potatoes, Mt. Hagen, Papua New Guinea
Ale, Devon, England
Ghoulash, Budapest, Hungary
Gjetost, Bergen, Norway