Well, considering the world was supposed to end with the year, I dined my little heart out in twenty twelve. I’m a suspicious person, and although I didn’t believe that a race that could not predict their own decline could accurately pinpoint the apocalypse centuries and centuries in the future, I have had other reasons to live this year like it is my last (no – I’m not dying, you’ll have plenty of inanity coming on The Hedonista in 2013).
It’s been a super year of food. I’ve discovered cuisines this year that I thought I already knew. It’s funny, isn’t it, that the more you learn about something, the more you realise you don’t know. This year’s aspirations of writing a book about eating in Provence (ahh, yes… still in the pipeline, which unfortunately seems to be plugged with some ferality.) have lead me in an almost explosive quest for knowledge on all things food. I select my restaurants with careful consideration, I order with expectation, I taste with discernment, I evaluate and above all, I learn. And the list below doesn’t surprise me, although some might surprise you. There’s no Michelin Stars. None sent me bankrupt (although one gets close if you turn up in a state of near starvation). But all have something in common – I took something away from them. The kind of thing you can’t fit in a doggie bag (and no, I have not been nicking furniture)
Toro Toro – Marina, Dubai, UAE
I subconsciously avoided Toro Toro from the start. Firstly, I didn’t want my favourite Argentinian steakhouse (below) knocked off its pedestal. Secondly, it’s one of those restaurant-nightclub hybrids that involve dressing in sparkles and stilettos and dining with ear plugs. But I managed to make a friend of the Chilean trade commission persuasion who fangled me an invite to their Chilean Food shindig. And here, we find it in one of my best eats of the year. Sure, the music is too loud and I’m too old, but the food is special. Very special. The kitchen did put on an array of national treasures brought in by the Chilean Consulate for the evening, but return visits have shown me it’s always as good, and not just in big plates – in nibbles and tipples they shine in Dubai. Not only that, the venue shines with the food. Linear, geometric, but not sharp. Black wood, white linen, fiery lighting behind thin layers of marble and resin. Hard and soft, curved and cornered. And the music rocks.What I loved: The delicate balance of flavours achieved in bite-sized food, the ambience What I learned: How to make a Pisco Sour fluffier than a cappucino, and that my new mate Francine is a great dancer. (also included in my top 20 restaurants of Dubai, part of the Dubai Gourmet Trail as coordinated by the Dubai Food Festival. My post here, and theirs on the Dubai Food Festival website)
Amal – Bentota (just south of, on the train line), Sri Lanka
This is one of the only places I will happily wait 90 minutes for my food. I’ll also forgive them for serving me heat-affected rose (they exchanged it anyway), because I should have been sticking to Lion Lager. This place manages to fill a niche that nearly every other beachside restaurant in Sri Lanka tries to. And this shows in the crowds that fill it, service after service. It finds a blend between being something that comes across as having just enough local culture while providing simple yet super food with a great location just a stroll from the sand. You can wait for the famous Hikkaduwa train to thunder through below you while selecting today’s catch – king prawns the size of small lobsters, and wriggling lobsters the size of well, big lobsters, red snapper or para fish still glistening with natural saline. They arrive at the table grilled in spices, devilled, fried or curried with garlic and coconut roti and fragrant flavoured rice. Just remember to order quickly, tip before you eat, and maybe ask for some pappadams to fend off starvation while you wait.What I loved: The black and white decor against the tropical outlook, the simplicity and the freshness.
What I learned: That slow service is not always unacceptable, and that entertainment can be found in a view, a glass of rose and the happy faces of tourists.
Chin Chin – Melbourne (CBD), Australia
This little alley restaurant is famous in Melbourne, so much so, that there are nightclub style queues chocking the pavement every lunch and dinner. They only take large bookings, so you have to get in early and be prepared to be rushed through your meal so you can share the love with those still waiting in the line for tables. This is one of the only cocktail lists I will not pass over for the wine list – the drinks have as much care taken in their recipes as the food. They use herbs and spices in the drinks to give them a Thai flavour, but Melbourne style. Their menu has a section on it that says “feed me”, where you just tell the waiter how much you want to spend, and they give you the best they can on the day. This has become common, particularly in Japanese restaurants and some other asian cuisines where sharing is commonplace, but there’s not many places I’d trust this. In Chin Chin, it works, because everything tastes good.What I loved: zingy food, sassy staff, jumping atmosphere.
What I learned: That Melbourne gets what a multicultural society can do for a city’s personal style. They can take parts of the asian community, and put them in a restaurant that is quintessentially “Melbourne” yet, on their own, each feature of the venue, the menu and the staff are almost “un-Australian”.
La Petanque – Main Ridge, just outside Melbourne, Australia
This was the last meal I had out with my Mother, and it’s such a lovely place to connect to that memory. It’s a restaurant I had been driving past for a few years. Sandwiched between wineries, strawberry farms, artisan dairies and boutique beer producers, this restaurant almost has no reason to be there. They have no production, it’s not an eatery attached to a farm like everything else in the area. It’s simply a restaurant, a restaurant that looks like a house. Not only that, it’s a French restaurant, a very french restaurant, in country Australia. It’s so completely out of place. But then you walk in the door, and you’re greeted with french accents and rustic wood, perfect table linen, views through floor to ceiling glass over pines and a petanque court, and you feel like you are in country France. Albeit country France with forest gums over the hill. The food is amazing, the people adorable. Love it.
What I loved: watching my Mum attack the pork belly like a kid in a candy shop, playing petanque with a glass of red hill sparkling after lunch.
What I learned: Anyone can find a home anywhere – it’s a measure of both giving and receiving to the terroir. I also now know how to make a savoury hazlenut crumble.
Chateau d’ Estoublon – Provence (Near St Remy), France
On the plains between the rocky folds of Baux de Provence, this vineyard, olive grove and Chateau resides peacefully and modestly, off the main road, surrupticiously signposted. When I cast my mind back here, I see slender cypress, white gravel, burgundy wooden doors in bleached centuries-old stone and lavender moving as if alive with bees. I smell ripe summer tomatoes, pistou and roses, hear childrens’ wooden swords clacking under the trees as they play at knights and damsels, and taste the region on my plate and in my glass in all its splendour. I remember how relaxed I was here, so much so it nearly brought me to tears.What I loved: The complete package – like a lunch in your own back yard, if you were a millionaire. Simple yet tasty food, kids running on the lawns.
What I learned: Pistou makes everything taste like summer when it’s made right. And that the French are finally realising that there’s more to a winery than just making wine.
La Bastide de Gordes – Provence, France
Another one of those happy/crying moments in Summer in the south of France. This place sits on the edge of a cliff shaped like a U. The valley tumbles down below, and lays itself out like a patchwork throw over a lumpy bed. Juicy fat bumblebees hover harmelssley above in the mulberry trees, cigales provide dinner music from their hiding places. The food was very, very good, but this restaurant is not just about the food. It’s the village itself, which is one of those places that cannot be missed, and this just happens to be one of the best restaurants in the village. I’m not sure if it would have been the same had the sun not been shining – maybe winter overly chills the atmosphere that in the heat surrounds your heart like a cool breeze in summer. I must go back and find out…What I loved: The terrace, light and shade,
What I learned: (Again, but reinforced) Cheap wine tastes better in France. Gazpachio is something I must cook more often, and I need to get a new outdoor setting for our garden.
Asado – Downtown, Dubai UAE
I don’t eat meat as much as I used to. Living in Dubai has changed me from this blood-loving Australian beef-eater. It’s both the weather, which is more suited to salads and seafood, and the quality (which can be excellent, but is more commonly variable) available at the supermarkets here that have changed my habits. But Asado brought all this back to me. It’s the steakhouse to end all steakhouses. It’s not going to blow you away, but it serves great meat, and pays homage to our carniverous bodies in a way that is delightfully politically incorrect. This restaurant reminds me that beneath all our ethics and pretensions, we are essentially beasts at the top of the food chain, and sometimes, no matter how naughty that seems, it’s just a little bit OK to celebrate it. Most nights there is some form of latin entertainment, either a small band or tango.What I loved: The ambience – totally red-blooded
What I learned: quite a bit about Argentine wine, and how those small grills you can buy in Carrefour look smokin’ in the middle of a dining table.
Zuma – DIFC, Dubai UAE
This was not my first experience at Zuma, but my return that was encouraged (and paid for) by their PR manager, who believed I had not seen the restaurant at it’s best when I reviewed. In a part of the world where bloggers are haraassed, sued, jailed and more for having an opinion that goes against the desires of the subject, I was a little taken aback when I was approached in response to my post which questions the position of Zuma in the world’s top 100 restaurants. The return visit involved more tasting, dishes which I would not have selected if given a choice, but which tasted far better than they read. A tour of the kitchen, a chat with some of the staff, and an assurance that they take criticism to heart but not to court has assured me that this restaurant is quite possibly the best in Dubai – not for what it is (which is pretty damn good anyway), but for what they will be over coming years if they retain this attitude which is so rare in this city, and the many other cities around it.What I loved: buttery black cod, succulent beef. It’s all about the food. Oh, and I love their PR
What I learned: That although I still believe Zuma Dubai is not one of the top 100 restaurants in the world, they deserve to be in the top 5 (if not foremost) in Dubai, and the voting, however skewed the worldwide results, shows us that other voters in the region can come together in opinion over Zuma’s prominence at least in the region.
Petra Kitchen – Petra Township, Jordan
Is this classed as dining out, or dining in? I mean, I cooked a bit of the food myself. We ate at the kitchen table with the other chefs. But it wasn’t at home, so yes, I think we’ll call this dining out. This was in a shopfront just up the hill from the gate to historic Petra. A shiny, fluorescent-lit kitchen in a non-descript building next to souvenir shops selling “I love Petra” t-shirts and brass camels with ashtrays in their humps. But inside was history as old as what I’d seen that morning around the Treasury. Recipes. I’d eaten nearly all of these dishes before, sometimes better examples of the same either out or at someone’s home. But it’s the action of putting together a meal with such a large group of interlopers that ends up as perfect as a Jordanian Ommy might prepare for her own table (or mat, as many will eat on the floor). Dishes that have been passed down through generations, and travelled throughout the Arab world and been translated and transmuted through distance and time. It’s a beautiful thing.What I loved: the entertainment, cheeky chefs and enthusiastic dining partners
What I learned: Recipes, of course, how easy it is to make smoky eggplant. And that Pinot Noir can actually be blended with Cabernet and taste reasonable
Frying Pan Tours, Deira – Dubai, UAE
I’ve known Arva for a while now, and this woman scares me with her food knowledge. Funny thing is, she doesn’t cook. And look at her, and you’d think she doesn’t eat either. But she knows just about everything there is to know about the ethnic food of Dubai and many other parts of the region I think there is to know, from my perspective anyway. I did a trial tour with her and about 5 others one night, where she took us walking (through the rain at some points) around Deira, stopping at middle eastern eateries for an educational eating tour. Now I know a fair bit about Middle Eastern cuisine for an Aussie, but it turns out, that is only about half of the basics. I really want to hop on the tour she does of subcontinent nibbles around Meena Bazaar.What I loved: al Tawasol Yemeni restaurant, Manakeesh at Breakfast to Breakfast
What I learned: err… everything?