Mission Impossible I | Top Ten Restaurants of 2018

As the curtains drew to a close on 2018 and 2019 opens, a timeless tradition is to lament the speed the previous year has slipped away from us: ‘it was January, then I blinked and now it’s Christmas’. But is this really a bad thing? Time spent well is time that flies: the faster it went, the better it must have been.

2018, then, has barely been a flash in the pan for yours truly. Phenomenal is perhaps one adjective that comes close. Spoilt would be another: I am extremely fortunate to have been able to take all the trips that have happened (> 20 flights this year!), and there’s no sign of that stopping any time soon with two trips in January already pencilled in. Of course, it also wouldn’t be the same without all my readers & followers that have come along for the ride: I’m always in excellent company, cheers to you all.

If you’ve kept up with what I’ve been up to, you can appreciate how difficult it was for me to write up the 2018 version of my top 10, and so this year, I’ve decided to break things down into two posts: a list of my top 10 restaurant experiences, and one specifically for the top 10 dishes (there will be no overlap by design). For restaurants overall, it is important to emphasise that while food still matters most, the overall experience is also important: one can be in the top 10 without necessarily nailing every dish (and frankly, no restaurant does that); likewise, one superfluous dish a superior restaurant does not make.

As usual, this is as scientific as I can be bothered to make it: that is, not at all scientific. Unique experiences, a great vibe, and places that simply ‘click’ were all fair game. Dishes that are akin to a out-of-body experience? I’m down. Ultimately, the two posts are a way for me to convey to you the things that have I’ve been most excited/impressed about in 2018, in the same way that I would recommend you in person.

Let’s do it: first up, restaurants (the post on dishes will come next week!).

Kyoaji – Tokyo, Japan

Hands down, the best meal of the year, and one of the best five I’ve ever had in my lifetime. Okay yes, I did say that this is an unranked list; however, this time, Kyoaji was the clear number one.

Kyoaji literally means ‘taste of Kyoto’, a fitting title as the restaurant specialises in kaiseki, the centuries-old Japanese cuisine format whose origin is widely acknowledged to be the ancient capital. Unfortunately, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever visited is also one of the most difficult to get into: without an introduction, your chances are slim to none. I hate to be the one to trot out this kind of line more than once, for I know what it’s like being on the other side, barred from some of Japan’s most exclusive culinary instutitions.

However, as distasteful as foreigners may find the concept of ichigen-san okotowari (first-timers refused), it doesn’t change the truth of my experience: chef-owner Kenichiro Nishi and his team delivered a sublime meal, where most dishes looked so deceptively simple that one couldn’t help but wonder if they’ve been duped like diners visiting The Shed at Dulwich. However, every bite, every slurp, every texture and flavour and every ingredient from the hyper-seasonal menu left at least a quiet ‘wow’, and often quite the audible equivalent. Yes, I am being hyperbolic – but you would be pedantic to call me out on it. No meal is perfect and Kyoaji certainly wasn’t (a blog post will come in time), but for me to consider any meal that I would have again over Kyoaji in 2018? You can look me in the eye and I’ll say: no chance.

Kyoaji
Zuiki (taro stem)
Kyoaji
Ebiimo (shrimp potato)
Kyoaji
Salmon rice

Plage – Cremorne, Sydney

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience: you visit a restaurant with scant coverage: it isn’t featured in food publications and it doesn’t have the PR budget to have its dishes grace influencers’ feeds. Maybe it was just a friend that recommended it, you were lazy and didn’t have any ‘safer’ restaurants planned; maybe it was because there was a Groupon offer. The restaurant is pretty empty when you visit, and you wonder whether you’ve been given a lemon. But then your expectations are exceeded, so much so that it may well have been your best find of the year.

That was me, with a restaurant called Sage Bistronomy. Except cue the Korean tear-jerker plotline: the day we visited was the restaurant’s last. It was April 1. A bad April Fool’s? No; cry me a river. But the story had a happy ending: Restaurant Plage. Thank you, Tomoyuki Usui, for not giving up on running a restaurant in Sydney – one of the hardest things you could do.

Plage bills itself as a Modern Australian restaurant, though French-Japanese is a more useful description. It won’t win 3 hats in the Good Food Guide, but its approach in bringing together a menu that’s priced almost too affordably with fine-dining techniques and ingredients in a setting that could well have been the local no-name no-frills cafe won me over, completely. ‘Hidden gem’ is a term used far too often, but here’s a restaurant that absolutely deserves the title.

Restaurant Plage North Sydney
Scampi ramen
Restaurant Plage North Sydney
Wagyu beef carpaccio w/cured egg yolk, kombu & genmai dashi
Restaurant Plage North Sydney
Rockmelon x sweet potato, lemon myrtle, ricotta, yoghurt

Cavalier’s invitation-only Dinner – St Leonards, Sydney

None of the restaurants in this post should surprise long-time readers/followers, and Cavalier should be one of the least surprising entries on the list. While many cafes that are otherwise successful in operating a daytime trade have tried and failed to implement a full-fledged dinner service, that my favourite cafe in Sydney is able to produce a stellar dining experience is somewhat less of a shock to the system. It’s also not much of a spoiler alert, given its inclusion in this list.

It’s food that makes you think twice and double back, such as house-baked chicken fat challah with charred greens & parsnip, or a off-beat house-made kimchi fermented over 8 months, served with fish. It provides suitably many ‘did not expect that’ moments coupled with wow factor, such as the most intensely-flavourful ice creams that actually taste like their headline flavours, each taking more than 2 days to make. Finally, the experience is perhaps closer to a private dinner party whose host just happens to have a fine dining background (yes, this does describe chef-owner Harry Kolotas; it would be unfair to dismiss this as not having influenced Cavalier’s trajectory).

Most importantly, it’s the kind of meal you won’t find anywhere else in Sydney. For those on the outlook for something different, Cavalier is the answer: for both your cafe and dining fixes. The current string of dinners is unfortunately invitation-only, as Harry works on refining the concept and taking on as much feedback as possible. Will it ever launch as a fully-fledged restaurant? Your should hope so.

Cavalier Espresso Invitation Dinner
Charred water spinach, parsnip puree & black onyx sauce
Cavalier Espresso Invitation Dinner
Walnut ice cream w/caviar
Cavalier Espresso Invitation Dinner
Squid ink pasta, blue swimmer crab, brown butter sauce

LuMi – Pyrmont, Sydney

LuMi made it into my 2017’s top 10 with a pasta dish, but its entry this year as a restaurant is overdue. After all, on balance, it would almost be impossible to grandstand a single dish as being representative of what Federico Zanellato and team can do: that would be a shoehorning offence of the highest order.

Indeed, I’ve made seven visits to LuMi and continue to reaffirm its status as one of my favourites in Sydney. It’s the kind of place that features on every type of list I send to people who ask me for recommendations on what to eat in our fair city – though at $150pp, it perhaps won’t make an appearance on the ‘cheap eats’ list. It’s the restaurant I take gastrotourists to when they come to Sydney, the one I recommend for special occasions, the one I think of when I think ‘best fine dining’ (honorable mention: Bennelong), the one for best fusion cuisine; simply, the kind for best food.

Yeah, LuMi’s bloody great. And with their latest revamps to their menu (#ISHLuMi), it’s only getting better.

Lumi Bar & Dining
Stracciatella & sea urchin gunkan sushi w/caviar
Lumi Bar & Dining
A5 wagyu w/koshihikari rice & mushrooms
Lumi Bar & Dining
Duck ragu tagliatelle w/truffle

Jumbo Hanare – Tokyo, Japan [Blog Post Pending]

Ooft, this was a tough one. You see, I visited two excellent – excellent – yakiniku restaurants this year (one per Japan trip, coincidentally), and both would be #1 and #2 in this respective category. However, if there was one I’d immediately return to, it would be Jumbo Hanare.

Yakiniku means grilled meat, and as such this entry is certainly not for the vegetarians. However, for those who could figuratively (and maybe literally) eat a cow, this is absolutely and unequivocally the best beef-focussed restaurant I’ve been to in my life (well, with perhaps a small exception to a restaurant starting with M in Kyoto…).

The details will come out in the blog post, but suffice it to say beef omakase is a thing: we were served multiple cuts of Kuroge Wagyu in multiple ways – zabuton, gyutan, rump, sirloin, upper rib, wagyu sushi etc. each of which goes into one of two different sauces. There are also not-so-secret secret menu items (but I won’t go into that now :P) that really amp up the crack-addiction factor. You, the diner, do little: the chef (in our case, head chef Norimitsu Nanbara himself!) does the cooking. After all, it is in nobody’s interests for an inexperienced diner to butcher (pun intended) a cut of prime A5.

Of course, (almost) anyone with the money and network can acquire top-quality wagyu. As it is with such restaurants, the secret’s in the sauces, the marinades, pairings, and the skill of the chef in producing the output that ultimately gets consumed. Jumbo Hanare sits right up there with the very best. I literally drooled while typing out this entry. It’s that good.

Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare
Chateaubriand
Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare
Wagyu sushi
Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare
Noharayaki – marinated sirloin to be mixed w/egg yolk

Orana – Adelaide, South Australia

If I describe a restaurant whose food is as delicious as it is intellectually exciting, you could be forgiven in thinking that this is more a criticism than compliment. Orana is not that kind of restaurant. For perhaps only the second time in my life, I’m able to answer the question ‘what is Australian cuisine?’, to which Orana is the obvious answer. It took the ironically non-Australian chef Jack Zonfrillo (he’s Irish) to really, really get out there into Australia’s figurative heart and discover the ingredients, customs and techniques that have shaped Australian cooking over literally over 50,000 years.

As you might expect, exotic ingredients like Davidson Plum, bunya nuts, quandongs and green bush ants may not always tickle everyone’s fancy. But the dishes that worked, worked beautifully, and as an experience I feel strongly that everyone with at least some self-professed interest in food – for food’s sake – should make at least one visit here. It’s a mind-expanding exercise for even the most seasoned diner, a positive byproduct of Australia’s geographical separation from the rest of the world. If you don’t think long and hard during and after a meal at Orana, you truly must have had it all.

Orana Adelaide-1
Potato damper & roast lamb butter, macadamia & native thyme
Orana Adelaide
Kohlrabi, dorrigo, quandong & lemon myrtle
Orana Adelaide
Mud crab, mascarpone, bunya & brush cherry

Kimura – Tokyo, Japan [Blog Post Pending]

In Japan, good sushi is a dime a dozen. Great sushi? The same. To leave an impression then is to be a maverick, but without losing touch with the fundamentals, all the while being just as good, or even better than your competition. And of course, it must leave a powerful memory – how can you say a restaurant’s excellent if you can’t recall anything about it? For me, Kimura fits this bill.

Chef-owner Koji Kimura is widely praised as the godfather of aged sushi. When talking sushi and seafood, those new to the cuisine will understandably think that ‘fresh is best’, while those with more experience know that some fish require aging to bring out their true potential – just as you would age a cut of beef. Aging times of between 2-8 days is commonplace – fish simply can’t be aged for too long. Or so you’d think.
Kimura pushes the boundaries far further than what’s thought possible. At Kimura, 8 days is laughably short: try fifty days.

Like you, I’d have thought that this would render the sushi inedible, yet instead it’s the key to some of the most delicious examples I’ve had. The textures are softer, more subtle, the rice made harder to emphasise its importance, with overall flavours strong, passionate, and extremely memorable. Watching Kimura’s skills with a knife is also pure theatre. Excellent sushiya, excellent experience, excellent restaurant.

Sushi Kimura Tokyo
Sea urchin soba
Sushi Kimura Tokyo
Kanpachi (greater amberjack)
Sushi Kimura Tokyo
Iwashi (sardine)

Blue Hill at Stone Barns – New York, America

I’ve been putting off writing a blog post on Dan Barber’s epic restaurant because I honestly don’t know how to start, or finish for that matter. A meal at Blue Hill is figuratively and literally massive. Like several other restaurants on this list that wield incredible influence on the hearts and minds of chefs and foodies, Blue Hill is as much an exercise in food ethics and the philosophical ideal future of food, expressed through its dishes that are largely sourced from its own working farm – living by example. A meal can last over 6 hours. It can be insane.

If all that’s a bit much to you I kind of agree: it’s a lot to take in and can be metaphorical indigestion. It’s certainly not the place you take a first date to, or to serve as your first foray into fine dining, and it certainly isn’t where you’d want to go go if you’re not at least a little serious about all the stuff that happens prior to plating. I understand the latter comment may come off as exclusionary and elitist, but I’m genuinely saying you could have a better time with the same money spent elsewhere.

BUT, if you re-watch Chef’s Table, tend your own produce garden, own enough recipe cookbooks to put your bookshelf at peril and book restaurants before your flights, this is your restaurant. You will love it, I did too and can’t wait to visit again.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Vegetables from the garden
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
‘Shellfish if they met the farm’
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Cold-cured egg yolk & oyster

Noma 2.0 – Copenhagen, Denmark

No. Surprises. At. All. It’s seafood, it’s Noma, it’s Rene Redzepi at his best. It can be difficult to separate a restaurant’s fame with the actual dining experience and quality of the meal itself. I’m of the opinion that you can’t fully divorce the two, especially in the minds of diners (which includes yours truly) that visit, in part, because the restaurant occupies a numerical position in a ranked listicle (the irony of this post, then). Sometimes, this is just how it is at the high-end.

That said, if another unknown, young chef were to have come up with the Noma experience, I would be very surprised if that restaurant didn’t quickly shoot up the ranks. My meal at Noma earlier this year, in its revamped location was incredible, to the point where I could almost recount every dish and how it tasted off the top of my head. The blog post was at once both the easiest and most difficult to write: not wanting to hype it too much, but needing to balance it against my utmost respect for Rene has done with the new Noma. The fact that he wasn’t there that day was indeed a bummer, but in the end I tried to be as objective as possible and let the food do as much of the talking as possible: it is difficult to imagine a purer, more delicious expression of the panache that is Nordic seafood. An experience that, to this blogger at least, lived up to the hype.

Noma Copenhagen
Danish venus clams
Noma Copenhagen
Trout roe sea star
Noma Copenhagen
Plankton cake

Pavillon Ledoyen – Paris, France

Like any foodie, I enjoy French cuisine. However – and I could be crucified for this – I easily tire of it: its richness means I can only take in small bouts at a time. I could eat Japanese food for a week straight without problems, but to do the same with French (where the average fine dining course appears to be in excess of 4000 calories) and a hospital bed better have my name on it. Nevertheless, there are few cuisines executed with the same technical precision, and steeped in history and tradition, there was never any doubt a French restaurant was going to make its way onto this list.

I contemplated long and hard (while assuming the pose of The Thinker, no less) as to why Yannick Alléno’s Ledoyen did it for me over other established venues such as Guy Savoy, Arpège or Pierre Gagnaire – all good restaurants in and of themselves. In the end, it was all the usual factors that would elevate a restaurant to this level in the first place: the dining experience, where the 2-story garden pavilion’s dining room provided fanciful accoutrements without being made to feel like a king (I’m not a fan of genuflecting service). Then there’s the meal itself, an orgy of courses where very few were mediocre (only two or three, out of over 15!). But what ultimately sealed the deal for me were the desserts: at a 3 Michelin star level, perfectly cooked everything is the norm. Send me off with a sweet, sweet food coma and I’ll love you for it, even as I hate myself. Ledyon’s desserts numbered thirteen. Yes, 13. I’m spelling that out in both letters and numbers so you know that’s not a typo. Obviously, some were just single bites, but thirteen.

Too much? Yeah, definitely. But my god, that won me over. I’ll be checking myself into hospital now.

Pavilion Ledoyen
Brioche that proofs at the table
Pavilion Ledoyen
Super slow-cooked turbot
Pavilion Ledoyen
‘Chai latte’ & chocolate cream

These were the best and most memorable meals I had for 2018, and it is clearly a colourful ensemble. While 10-15 more restaurants could easily have joined the list, here we are. Interesting list, no? I would be extremely surprised if you agreed with even half it. Subjectivity is divergence by definition and nature; and at the very top, it’s most divergent of all.

If you have a top ten of 2018 to share with the reasons why, I’d love to hear it in the comments below 🙂

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