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Reviewing a restaurant is so hard. You have to consider everything: the decor, the vibe, the comfort of the seats, the attentiveness of the service, the tap water (ever had it tepid-warm? Cue a first-world, ironic ‘yuck’). Heck, even the restaurant’s ‘concept’ is something to think about, whatever that entails.
If there were some way to convert the mental exertion in assessing all the above directly into physical exercise, I’d never have to exercise again. And all this, before you get to the most important part: the food.
Real food journalists are underrated.
So, then, wouldn’t it nice to just talk about pure, unadulterated food for once? And wouldn’t it be even nicer if it’s about the best? You’ve read up on my favourites of 2019 and let me guess, you’re thinking ‘typical I’m Still Hungry, putting fine dining and Japanese up on a pedestal.’ Well, I can’t exactly apologise for that, but I do agree – the list is skewed towards the high-end. This post is the balancing act.
As with the last post, the list not ordered by rank. Good luck trying to coax that out of me.
All restaurants featured in this post were based on independently-paid visits.
Bebek Betutu – Bebek Tepi Sawah
Bali was well represented in the best restaurant stakes, so it’s no surprise that its strong showing extends to specific dishes.
Bebek betutu is a duck that’s been marinated in a blend of soy and bumbu betutu – a Balinese spice mix that could consist of shallots, garlic, turmeric, galangal, chilli peppers, shrimp paste, peanuts (and so on, so forth) – which is then roasted or baked in plantain leaves. Even in Bali itself, betutu express regional differences, but what ties them together is the impressive, intensely rich flavours of the final product which the betutu seasons. A great bebek betutu should have the duck meat falling right off the bone, and as tender as my belly (mental imagery aside – I’m sorry – I really need to work on that this year). Every mouthful is nothing delicious, and is probably now one of my favourite ways to eat duck.
I ate mine at Bebek Tepi Sawah. Read more about it here.
Nasi Campur – Men Weti
Nasi Campur (mixed rice) is one of Bali’s most commonly-eaten dishes. Why wouldn’t it be when it’s the equivalent of $3AUD, with quite possibly the best bang-for-buck ratio anywhere this side of the hemisphere?
Nasi putih (boiled rice) is served up with a range of assorted sides – meat, veg, eggs, peanuts, fried shrimp & sambal. You can probably work out that like most of Indonesia’s greatest hits, there is no exact recipe: you’ll likely never come across the same one twice. Ours came with shredded chicken, skins, spicy sambal, spinach, sprouts, peanuts and dried shrimp. It’s times like these that one really can question paying $300+ for a meal at an upmarket restaurant when deliciousness this cheap exist, but that argument’s neither here nor there.
Now I’m not going to indict anyone, but as one of the cheapest meals you can get in Indonesia, and found at more warungs than Starbucks outlets in America, wouldn’t it be just a little bit criminal to not try while in Indonesia?
Zesty Vegan Ramen – Kyoto Engine
A vegan ramen that happens to be one of the best bowls I’ve crushed – not just in 2019, but any year, full stop. Righto, onto the next dish!
Oh, need I say more? Sigh, fine.
If a ramen-ya’s touting vegan, gluten and lactose-free credentials, I’m going to keep on walking. Nothing against those with dietary requirements of course, but not being limited means dietarily-restricted cuisine isn’t necessarily my first choice. But like most of the time where I’ve made up my mind about food, a restaurant comes along that proves me wrong.
Kyoto Engine serves up a whole bunch of different ramen – non-vegetarian/vegan among them – but would you visit Maccas and order the salad?* You get my point.
The bowl to crush is the zesty vegan ramen, which has a miso base made from over twenty different spices. The broth has high viscosity (even I found it difficult to finish it all – but finish it I did), and the noodles with plenty of bite to mop up the almost gravy-like sauce. If vegan ramen is capable of being this good, then I’m capable of changing my biases. Bring on the soy(beans).
*Real talk: jokes aside – the Create Your Taste salads at McDonald’s are legit. LOL.
Ham & Cheese Scroll – Saga Lyte
It’s not even a dish, but here we are: there are few pleasures like that of a perfectly-made pastry, and fewer still capable of eliciting a feeling of having discovered the same dish all over again, as if having it for the first time.
Saga Lyte’s ham & cheese scroll managed to elicit that rare feeling, one that hasn’t really come about ever since Lune. Pastry is quite subjective (e.g., do you like your croissants crunchy and flaky, or buttery and soft?), but this scroll ticked all of my personal boxes: very crunchy, very cheesy, and left my hands so slick I could probably glide on them. In other words, lots of butter, lots of flavour, lots of texture.
‘Tis all it takes. Simple. Best scrolls in Sydney.
Mandoo – The Mandoo
Mandoo are Korean dumplings that are larger-than-average. That’s it, but this post is full of examples proving that mastery of the speciously simple is all it takes, but hardest to master.
That means to take the title of the ‘best’ is no mean feat, but when it comes to these parcels of goodness, the best are undoubtedly at the eponymously-named The Mandoo in Strathfield. Here, the dumplings are so good that I haven’t even had one in Korea that’s its equal. Sure, you can gatekeep and say ‘oh, you just haven’t had a good one in Korea then’, but while potentially true, it also does The Mandoo a disservice. It’s bloody good in its own right and once you take a bite out of any of their options – particularly their kimchi & pork mandoo – it’s the end of one chapter (pre-The Mandoo) and the start of another (post-The Mandoo).
Pithivier – LuMi Dining
Readers of this blog know that LuMi Dining is one of my perennial favourites, so it’s no surprise that most of its dishes contend for a spot on this list. While even its bread is worthy of dish-of-the-year status, the crown for 2019 would have to go to its pork & fermented shiitake-filled pithivier, which plays perfectly to the restaurant’s Italian-with-a-touch-of-Japanese sensibilities. It’s as gorgeous as it looks: the pastry tastes like it’s 50% butter and probably is, the filling a luscious, palate-filling mouthful of umami-esque, porcine savouriness.
It’s quite frankly a f*cking great pie.
Malatang – No.1 Malatang
I’ll spare you the history lesson and provide the CliffsNotes: Malatang is a kind of solo hot pot where you pick your own ingredients – uncooked, paid by weight – for it all to be cooked in a rich, savoury & spicy soup. The dish format originates from the Sichuan region of China, which kind of makes sense given the prevalence of Sichuan hotpot. Most of you have probably also connotated ‘oh sh*t, Sichuan peppercorns’ as well. While a classic malatang soup base certainly contains the mouth-numbingly spicy yet terribly-addictive berries (yes, it’s a berry), malatang establishments in Australia will serve a more, shall we say, manageable version which allows the diner to add the desired level of chilli – a smart move.
Malatang has exploded over the last couple of years in Sydney, and venues are generally differentiated by the soup base. I like them all, but No.1 Malatang is the one chosen for this list: it’s very well-balanced, the soup based on chicken stock with just the right amount of mala flavouring, which can then be customised with sugar, garlic, sesame and the aforementioned chilli.
The pictured bowl comprised 800g of raw ingredients; add the soup, and I’d say a cool 1.3-1.5kg. No biggie when it’s this tasty.
Seolleongtang – Sinseon Selleongtang
Speaking of soups, the Koreans do them pretty good too. There’s a soup for every occasion, even hangovers, but seolleongtang (or Seolnongtang) is perhaps the all-rounder. It’s an opaque, milky-white soup made from ox bones, briskets and sometimes off-cuts and offal. It’s served unseasoned, with rice (on the side, but intended for dunking), meat (probably beef, duh), and a few other bits and bobs. As with malatang, the diner applies their own seasoning, which for me means copious amounts of spice and pepper, plus a healthy dash of salt which really brings out the delectable but otherwise shy umami notes of the broth.
If you dunk the rice in, you can think of it as a very, very soupy porridge. But really, it’s soup. Then again, it’s not just soup. When you’re up at 7am on 0 degree day in Korea, few things are better.
Hire Rice – Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare
The hardest part about writing up the best restaurants of 2019 was to not re-include Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare, which technically re-qualified for the list given that I was blessed enough to return to again back in November. Norimitsu Nanbara’s bovine temple will probably be the very last bastion to fall when we humans collectively move off meat. I’ll happily confess that as an imperfect person who’s trying to reduce his red meat consumption, restaurants like Jumbo Hanare make that exceptionally difficult.
But maybe once a year, just maybe, I have to make an exception for the hire rice (fillet rice). This is an absolutely mouthwatering pot of rice cooked with tender diced wagyu beef fillet, whose aroma and would turn perhaps even a hardcore vegetarian into a ravening carnivore. It’s perhaps even better than the yukke rice I had on my first visit; that it’s served in a pot fashioned in the shape of a cow (we had a sufficiently large group) gave the dish extra cool points.
Literally the best rice dish I had in 2019. You can read more about Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare here.
Warabi Mochi – Juan Bowl & Tea
Feel free to disregard this entry given that anyone following me on social media knows that Juan’s owner Anna Ishiguro and yours truly are friends. CONFLICT OF INTEREST, DISCLAIMERS, ETC. ETC. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, feel free to show me a better dessert showcasing the simplistic beauty of warabi mochi (bracken starch jelly) and I’ll happily plug it for the 2020 version of this post.
Juan’s warabi mochi is, like most dishes in this post, simple: kinako (soybean powder), kuromitsu (black sugar syrup), light cream and the warabi mochi itself. Juan’s is excellent for the same reason why the restaurant itself is excellent: the limited menu means that all efforts go into making sure Ishiguro’s exacting standards do not slip. Like most dishes à la Japonaise, the devil is in the detail: the fineness of the kinako, the balance of sweetness and molasses of the kuromitsu, and the purity of that mochi.
I’ve hit up Juan plenty of times since the inaugural 2017 visit, but I think it’s time I honour Ishiguro’s most underrated dish. You can read more about Juan Bowl & Tea here.
All restaurants featured in this post were based on independently-paid visits.
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