Around the time you will read this, my life dial will have switched into a new decade. For all the talk of life starting at 40, I have found myself spending more time reflecting on the forty years that have been rather than planning what I might get up to in the next forty. When I do look back, I see four decades where food has been a constant highlight – it has been a life well eaten thus far.
Recalling the best memories I have of this life well eaten sounded like an easy thing to do (it wasn’t) and while mostly linked to my other love of travelling, eating out remains one of my most important and cherished activities. Thankfully, a couple of home grown treasures also made my list of the Top 11 best dining experiences (in no particular order) over the past 40 years.
A good few years back I spent a chunk of time out in Chennai on the east coast of India, a sprawling city still mostly traditional overlooking the Bay of Bengal. The time I spent in Chennai has confirmed Indian food my most favourite of all cuisines.
Chennai for me will forever be remembered for the brightly coloured sari-clad women; the scent of jasmine in the air, incredible sunsets and the meal I had at Peshawri. In India, many of the best restaurants are hidden from view inside the best hotels.
In Peshawri, servers in crisp white traditional garb of Northern India give first class service in a five star restaurant. The glow of copper from the firey tandoors was about as close as I had ever gotten to food heaven. A leg of lamb cooked in a tandoor for 24 hours that just melted in the mouth and the best butter chicken I have ever tasted, even to this day.
This restaurant stands out to me as one of the where I truly experienced fine dining for the first time. The Witchery is a love letter to gothic architecture, located inside the original dining room of a 16th century merchants’ house on The Royal Mile.
It’s dark and moody, but in the best possible way lit, as it is, entirely by candlelight. I distinctly remember the wine list: a leather bound book 70-odd pages long. At the time, I was only just emerging out of my fascination with Oaked Hungarian Chardonnay – well versed in wine I was not.
Time has passed and all we can remember of the food was that we couldn’t stop talking about it for months: there was a steak tartare and a trio of crème brulee. Overall, it was the experience of that dining room itself that has stuck with me for 15 years and remains one of the most unique dining experiences I have ever had.
I was fifteen when I visited Cuba. Fidel Castro was still in power making experiencing anything a challenge: half-finished roads, fuel shortages, and everything from cigars to lobster restaurants government controlled. Rumours of delicious Cuban lobster were rife, but it could only be eaten in government sanctioned restaurants for an extortionate price.
However, my parents had heard it was possible to dine on fresh lobster “with a local” somewhere near the hotel. Dad explained that the money would go straight to the people that fished and cooked the lobster rather than the government. To my Chez Guevara flushed ears, this all sounded terribly revolutionary.
Apprehension was piqued however as we pulled up to the apartment block built in the soviet style of Bleak Chic. There are bits of the meal I have blanked from memory, like how we were smuggled from the taxi to the apartment without being seen and how we got out alive. But I do remember two things: being stormed by the Cuban Police who had been tipped off that there were tourists dining on unsanctioned lobster and, of course, The Lobster: huge, fresh and ridiculously sweet.
Perched on the side of hill amongst lemon, orange and olive trees with an impossibly beautiful view over the Aegean Sea is Limon. This is the spot to come for watching sunsets with a chilled glass of white.
Limon is an open air restaurant, the table and chairs ramshackle and while waiting for a table to come free, perch on an old sofa covered in chintzy floral patterned fabric. The food here is simple but delicious.
Classic Turkish mezze, fresh fish, just pulled vegetables, vine fresh tomatoes, charcoal aubergines drenched in the greenest of olive oils. Food like this isn’t expensive, it’s the sunset view over the blue that you are paying for, and you won’t mind a bit about it either.
The table was booked three months in advance in the midst of Heston’s foray into Alice in Wonderland inspired food. It was to coincide with our first wedding anniversary – paper, because diners receive a copy of the menu.
Dining at The Fat Duck was an emotional experience: not weeping into my heavily starched napkin kind of emotional, deeper. The Hot/Cold Tea where, through the magic of imagination and science, a cup of consommé poured from a miniature china pot was vertically split in temperature: one side hot the other cold.
Eating gold leaf for the first time, and the by now infamous Sound of the Sea replete with iPod tucked away inside a conch shell as you listen to the sound of sea rolling on a pebble beach and the smell of proper vinegar from an atomiser spritzed overhead. It was by far the most amazing and ridiculous meal of my life. Food as theatre; food that can make you have the giggles; food that was as much fun as it was serious. I framed the menu and kept the fat bill.
It took eight hours to drive from Kandy in the heart of Sri Lanka to Yala National Park in the south. Endless vistas of tea plantations and verdant mountains driving on roads that sometimes disappeared altogether. About half way, we stopped in Ella for Rice and Curry, the national dish of Sri Lanka that is much more complex than it sounds.
Rice and Curry is a banquet of curry dishes mainly vegetarian and including rice, bread and sambals. The curries themselves vary in heat, sourness and texture and slow cooking results in rich, deep flavours that stir the soul. I remember counting twelve small dishes in our banquet.
We visited Chill Café in 2012, and Ella was a quiet town on the tea trail. We sat under the shade of a palm leaf roof, digging into dish after dish of rice and curry and wondering how it was we got so lucky.
Bishop is the jump off point for Yosemite National Park and for anyone with an adventurous disposition. There are plenty of shops selling deer stalker hats, hunting knives and guns as well as a smattering of dive bars serving ice cold Bud. It also happens to be the home to the legendary Erick Shat’s Bakery.
Holy Smoke in Bishop, Ca is the kind of place you smell long before you see it. A huge locomotive smoker sits out back cooking ribs, briskets, and all manner of slow cooked meaty bits all day long. Smoky beans, spiky slaw, corn bread and sweet ‘tater fries all come as standard.
It’s not much to look at – homely I think is the term, but I remember my brisket. I also remember our server rushing down to me with a cup of the cooking liquor: “pour this all over that sweet meat hun, brisket dries out real quick without it.” Yes ma’am. I still dream of that brisket today.
If you hadn’t already gotten that we are fans of Indian food, then hold on to your hats. Pickle mixes authentic Indian cookery with modern Irish ingredients and the result is a thing is heart pounding beauty.
I remember Wild Boar Vindaloo and Butter Chicken; I remember sour pickles cutting through rich unctuous sauces. I remember that the food in Pickle is the best Indian food I have eaten outside of the subcontinent itself.
Outstanding in his field as far as I am concerned is Mark Jennings and Pilgrim’s restaurant in the tiny little oceanside town of Rosscarbery. Every time I dine at this sparsely decorated venue it is one long utter delight.
Sweet baby carrots three ways; the delicious simplicity of half a dressed butterhead lettuce – a tip of the cap maybe to the French love of salad and celebrated in such vaunted places as Chez Panisse.
Meats that fall apart, fish so fresh its sweet, sauces brimming with flavour they will make you shiver and vegetables that are elevated to the stars of the show. To have such a chef whose love of produce and terroir flows so naturally is a rare and special thing. The accolades bestowed of late are fitting and deserved.
Tim Allen was still chef of Launceston Place when we dined, a Michelin star restaurant in the heart of Kensington. It was here that I fell in love with Portuguese wine and pears with cheese.
Given its stature and location, Launceston Place is not a stiffened place of food worship. It is as all the best Michelin starred restaurants should be: welcoming, delicious and fairly priced.
I’m coming to the conclusion that some of the best restaurants lie behind doors that you would easily walk past. Es Pati is one of those restaurants. Located in a tiny little town far away from the usual tourist routes, owned and run by a German couple who seem to embody everything that ex-pats setting up a new life in the sunny Balearics would hope for!
The menu changes daily depending on what chef Felix finds exciting, fresh and of the best quality at their local daily market. A pallet that takes inspiration from flavours all over the world delivers plates of mind bending flavour innovation finished with an infusion of Spanish flair.
It is a set menu and the chef and his team will take you on literal flights of fancy within the walls of this tiny restaurant with a courtyard filled with ancient lemon trees and vines.
Kate Ryan is an established food writer, blogger and founder of Flavour.ie, a website that is dedicated to promoting West Cork Food through writing, events and tours. Kate writes regularly for the Evening Echo and The Southern Star newspapers, The Opinion Magazine, TheTaste.ie, Headstuff.org and has been featured in the Irish Examiner and Irish Times. Kate was commissioned by A Taste of West Cork Food Festival to author an “Artisan Food Guide” published in June 2017.
Her blog, The Flavour Files, is recipe driven showcasing the best of West Cork produce and encouraging everyday cooking with it at home, as well as the best places to eat in the region.
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