It’s a wonderful job, evaluating the world’s best hideaway hotels, but it’s just as delightful to test out top restaurants. As with hotels, we visit restaurants anonymously and pay full price for our meals. Indeed, I’ll never forget the look on my co-editor’s face when he received the bill for our dinner at Alinea in Chicago. Even back in 2011, dinner for two with wine pairings cost almost $1,000!
This year, we (mostly) spared our accounting department such heart-stopping expense reports, but we dined sumptuously nevertheless. Japanese cuisine continues to be a major influence; one of our favorite restaurants was in Tokyo, and two others took inspiration from Japan. Also notable were the restaurants in second-tier cities like Richmond, Virginia, and Salt Lake City, Utah, on our list. These commendable establishments offer yet more evidence, if any more was needed, that fine dining is no longer confined to traditional gourmet destinations such as New York, San Francisco or Paris. In fact, no restaurant in any of those three cities made it on to our list of favorite discoveries this year.
Of the hundreds of restaurants around the world that we tried out in 2019, these were nine of the best.
Combining the panache of Copenhagen’s legendary Noma with the pristine beauty of Japanese ingredients, this Tokyo newcomer is a gourmand’s dream. German-born chef Thomas Frebel, former head of R & D at Noma, plunges diners into the 72 micro-seasons of the Japanese calendar. Chefs move in and out of the open kitchen, delivering wild yet refined dishes to tables that are so well-spaced it’s like having a private culinary adventure. Frebel has an out-of-the-box approach to Japanese foods. Whipped and aerated, ankimo (monkfish liver) becomes an umami meringue. Showstoppers are paraded by before being plated (including an air-cured and smoked maitake mushroom as big as a basketball). After dessert, a chef leads you on a tour of the kitchen, and you see how all the deliciousness relies on state-of-the-art technology. [Editor's note: This restaurant closed in spring 2021.]
Kadokawa Fujimi Building, 2-13-12 Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Tel (81) 3-6683-7570
Richmond, Virginia, United States
With its sleek gray-on-gray interior and inventive fare, this is Richmond’s most exciting (and highfalutin) restaurant. Take the newfangled Old-Fashioned: With vodka instead of whiskey and salt-cured-strawberry syrup, it’s weird and wonderful. Exemplifying a trend in fancy Southern restaurants, a farm’s worth of seeds — from chia to pumpkin to sunflower — is lavished in fontina fondue and strewed with herbs and flowers for the Seeds Risotto. Smoked, sliced pork rib is hidden beneath deliciously pungent sheets of cabbage kimchi dusted in black onion powder. Crisp-skinned and tender, arctic char is all the more opulent for its accompaniments: shiitake butter, plus chestnut and parsnip purées. The standout, though, is foie gras. Whipped to a mousse, crowned with a globe of ginger foam and girded by hazelnuts and grapefruit made crumbly with liquid nitrogen, it’s a study in outrageous contrasts. Closed Sunday and Monday.
2939 West Clay Street, Richmond, Virginia. Tel. (804) 308-3497
Los Angeles, California, United States
One of downtown Los Angeles’ newest eateries is also one of its best. Hidden on a side street in the Arts District, this chic restaurant has a bright industrial-luxe décor and superlative food influenced by a wide range of Asian cuisines. An appetizer of hand-chopped beef tartare had a complex interplay of flavors and textures, with sesame oil, black garlic, slightly spicy gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder), creamy egg yolk “jam” and crunchy crackers made from tapioca pearls. I also loved the al dente squid-ink bucatini with subtly spicy cuttlefish “Bolognese.” A virgin mule of zesty housemade ginger beer and lime worked surprisingly well with both courses, though those in the mood for alcohol will find plenty of temptation on the creative cocktail menu and list of unusual but well-chosen wines by the glass. Closed Monday.
923 East Third Street, Suite 109, Los Angeles, California. Tel. (213) 626-8888
Acclaimed chef Vítor Sobral opened this relaxed, seafood-focused spot in 2011 in the upscale Campo de Ourique neighborhood. Market-fresh fish and shellfish are fussed over by a team of chefs, who cure, marinate, grill and roast from behind a marble counter. Traditional Portuguese dishes are elevated by superb technique, like a feijoada-style stew of cod with perfectly creamy, plump white beans. Others draw on global influences and modern approaches: Raw tuna belly is sprinkled with sesame seeds and microgreens and bathed in olive oil. Sweet, ivory-colored morsels of raw scallop are tossed with enoki mushrooms and toasted almond slices. The sommelier can guide you through the all-Portuguese wine list; we particularly enjoyed the Ribeiro Santo Encruzado 2017, whose crisp lemon and green apple notes were balanced by the creaminess from a short stint in French oak. Closed Monday.
Peixaria da Esquina
Rua Correia Teles 56, Lisbon. Tel. (351) 213-874-644
On a quiet street a short walk from the Spanish Steps, this seafood-focused restaurant opened recently but has already found its stride. Just after we sat down at a table in the bright barrel-vaulted space, a friendly waiter welcomed us with complimentary flutes of fine dry Prosecco. We loved the capellini pasta filled with smoked ricotta and topped with deeply flavored shrimp bisque and crunchy hazelnuts. An acidic but round glass of Erbaluce from Piedmont paired beautifully. The wine also worked well with some crispy-skinned charcoal-grilled turbot accompanied by housemade potato chips and aromatic truffle mayonnaise. And we let the waiter talk us into the “Ovomisú,” a fluffy tiramisu served in a meringue eggshell. The chic décor, personable staff and superlative seafood made Pesciolino our favorite restaurant discovery on our trip to Rome.
Pesciolino Fish Bar & Restaurant
Via Belsiana 30, Rome. Tel. (39) 06-6979-7843
Right in the heart of Reims, near its magnificent cathedral, Japanese chef Kazuyuki Tanaka’s Michelin one-star restaurant has a décor of streamlined modern oak furniture and parquet floors that recalls a ryokan in the Japanese countryside. Tanaka is the most talked-about chef in Champagne for his exquisitely light, fresh, inventive Japanese-influenced contemporary French cuisine. The $100 lunch menu changes regularly but begins with four hors d’oeuvres, including the likes of finely grated beetroot with smoked eel and smoked-eel bouillon, followed by scallops with celeriac and grapefruit, arctic char and chervil, lamb with wild mushrooms, and pineapple with Timut pepper for dessert. The service is polished and amiable, and there is an excellent selection of wines by the glass, including a 2014 Chevreux-Bournazel Coteaux Champenois, a richly flavored but intriguingly nuanced still wine from just outside Reims. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
6 Place Godinot, Reims. Tel. (33) 3-26-35-16-95
Salt Lake City, Utah, United States
Small cities can yield big discoveries, like this enthralling spot far south of downtown. The banquettes are so high they’re like private dining rooms. But counter seats are best for watching the trio of chefs tweezer garnishes and coax dough into boules. With house-cultured butter, the sourdough is irresistible. Don’t fill up, though; an extraordinary $65 tasting menu awaits. Much of it comes from the garden. Curried beet purée with crunchy chickpeas and pickled cauliflower has autumnal appeal. You could die happy after risotto with lemon, brown butter and mint. But you’d miss moist alabaster halibut on coconut sticky rice with a hint of Thai chile heat. Tender bavette steak with basil chimichurri will have you exclaiming its glories out loud. Desserts, like garden fruits and poppy seed cake, aren’t as exciting. But the wine list is, with finds like Secateurs’ old-bush-vine Chenin Blanc. Indulge. Closed Sunday and Monday.
1457 East 3350 South, Salt Lake City, Utah. Tel. (385) 528-3712
Cape Town, South Africa
At this hot spot with an open kitchen and an Africa-meets-Scandinavia design, the menu is set: nine dishes in three savory courses. The only choice is dessert. But trust in chefs Henry Vigar and Andre Hill. In their elevated take on Cape Malay cuisine, even the bread course enthralls: wild garlic flatbread and seaweed butter; spinach-stuffed puffs called dhaltjies (chilli bites) on curried eggplant; papadum with a teriyaki-glazed pâté made with a local fish called snoek. The chefs use a high-low approach to great effect. Karoo lamb “kebab” is actually a Scotch egg, the meat wrapped around a hard-cooked quail egg. Cured sea bass in a spiced emulsion with a diced-vegetable salad is a crudo-style Malay fish curry. And you’ve never cut into more tender beef than the medallions here. They’re served atop an onion purée draped in a crumble of biltong, or South African jerky. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Upper Bloem Restaurant
Shop 1, Winston Place, 65 Main Road, Greenpoint, Cape Town. Tel. (27) 21-433-1442
Chicago, Illinois, United States
This high-end Japanese restaurant had a tough act to follow; it opened last year in the former digs of Grace, which earned three Michelin stars. The clean-lined space looks similar — the same comfortable white leather chairs remain, for example — but the menu is quite different, presenting highly contemporary interpretations of classic Japanese dishes, such as chawanmushi (an egg custard dish), shabu-shabu and miso soup. Although we visited less than a month after the restaurant’s opening, service was already polished and precise. We couldn’t find fault with any of the 10 courses on the expensive tasting menu, and several were nothing short of stupendous. A dish of Alaskan king crab with puffed rice, trout roe, a tamari-cured egg yolk and uni butter elicited sighs of pleasure, as did a bowl of delectable Kurobuta tonkatsu (deep-fried, breaded pork) with apple and red cabbage. Closed Sunday and Monday.
652 West Randolph Street, Chicago, Illinois. Tel. (312) 265-1008