In last week’s post on the best restaurants of 2018, I talked a little bit about how 2018 was, effectively, a dream lived in real life. Then again, the horrific bites of the Horse Fly that I was subjected to on my latest trip – a four day hike in the Australian Alps – reminded me that I was very much alive. Of course, even that was only a shadow compared to the pain and humiliation in mistaking a rabbit for a bird. If you understood that reference then congratulations: your Instagram-sleuthing skills deserve an A+. I still make no apologies for the gaffe. It’s how we um, grow, as adults.
Talk about tangential introductions. 2018 was big, really big. There was no way I could talk about ‘just’ 10 restaurants. It would be like picking your favourite children: no parent will publicly claim to have any, even though they all do in secret. I’ve never been afraid to tell it like it is, and so last week’s post was exactly that. But hey, sometimes, you could just return to the same place again and again, for the same order of legal crack again and again.
And so with that, I present the top ten dishes of 2018. For fairness and more variety, I deliberately excluded any dishes from the top ten restaurants.
Chilli Crab Noodles – Monkey’s Corner – Chippendale, Sydney [Blog]
Sorry for not including the spoiler tags, but I’m sure you didn’t need them.
In what is another non-surprise, noodles dominate this list in frequency, and one of my favourite small bars makes one of the best. Chilli crab, to be specific. Oh sorry, forgot the spoiler tags again.
Monkey’s Corner has a particular recipe for firmness and mouthfeel they get their suppliers to custom produce for them. Needless to say the noods and I matched better than 99.99% of Tinder dates, to the point where I had to take a packet home to recreate something that somewhat NSFW (A++ if you remember this dish from my IG stories). But back to Monkey’s Corner’s version: when paired with the Poernomo’s godly flavourful ‘Grandma’s style’ chilli crab sauce, thickened with a little bit of French goodness (hint hint) and you have a dish I literally came back for on a weekly basis for some time.
Combo Laksa – Laksa King – Sydney CBD
Oh shit, another bowl of noodles. I admit I can be incredibly one-dimensional, but this laksa is anything but. Earlier this year, I did a ‘best of X in Sydney’ on this underrated dish, and while I concluded that most entries are worthy of your carb intake, Laksa King inched just past the honourable mentions of Happy Chef and Malay Chinese by a single strand to take out the gong. This was a slightly controversial choice given Malay Chinese has a legion of supporters (yours truly being one of them), but this is the truth I believe in: if both locations were equidistant from where I work, I’d visit the King more.
In any case, if laksa hasn’t really been on your radar in lieu of other popular substitutes such as pho and ramen, get planning and get slurping.
Kogashi Shoyu Ramen – Gogyo – Surry Hills, Sydney
Wow I’ve got to stop this: last noodle dish, I swear. No, seriously. Sometimes I’m so Asian it’s embarrassing. However, to leave out ramen simply because it’s another noodle dish would be lying to myself. There were so, so many good bowls that contended this year: honourable mentions go to Bon Japanese in Canterbury and Rokurinsha in Tokyo, not to mention the simple fact that every bowl of ramen I’ve had in 2018 has been enjoyable. But once again I have to pick the favourite child. To that, I ask one question: if I were to eat one bowl again, which one would it be?
I’ll happily cross the event horizon, and enter Gogyo’s black hole. No euphemisms, seriously. Gogyo’s dark, broody ramen comes about with its signature ‘burnt’ style using high heat (the infrared thermometers are brought out) and slightly charring the ramen’s tare – whether that be soy sauce or miso paste.
Goddamn. A ramen that might actually, literally give you cancer. Why can’t we have our ramen and drink the soup too?
Tonkatsu Don – Juan Bowl & Tea – Redfern, Sydney
The best tonkatsu I’ve ever had is at a literal hole in the wall called Narikura, while the best tonkatsu in Sydney is piled on top of a bowl of perfectly-cooked koshihikari rice. Paired with impossibly silky egg with a miso sesame sauce, and the combination is one of many reasons why Juan Bowl and Tea has made such waves in Sydney’s dining scene in 2018.
While an appointment with a cardiologist wouldn’t be a completely terrible idea afterwards, the cost is well worth the effort. And heck, if you don’t like tonkatsu, you can get pretty much any other dish from this exclusively donburi-focussed restaurant and have an award-winning experience without the actual pomp and pageantry.
Crispy Salmon Nigiri – Sokyo – Pyrmont, Sydney
There’s no questioning that Japanese sushi chefs have access to the best seafood and talent in the world, and that a B-grade sushi chef there would be A-grade anywhere else. But rules are proven by their exceptions. They are rare by definition, but where they exist, they delight and stupefy in equal measure. Sydney’s own Takashi Sano at Sokyo is a shining beacon – one of few – that light the way towards great sushi in our city.
While I’ve made it no secret that Sokyo’s sushi omakase is quite literally the pinnacle of sushi in our city (notwithstanding my aversion to its dining environment, which is a different story), to say that some of Sano’s work is comparable to that of what I had in Japan is a different story. Or is it?
Well you do you I guess, because I can only do me. And Sano’s crispy salmon nigiri, while wildly nontraditional and would never fly in Japan, takes wings here. Gosh, we’re lucky to have him, producing sushi such as this particular piece so it can grace my belly again and again, and again.
At the time of writing, the omakase is booked out 9 months in advance till September. How’s that for a waiting list?
Pastrami Sandwich – Katz’s Deli – New York
New Yorkers, feel free to call me out for putting the most cliché’d, hyped and overtouristed institution in the Big Apple in this list. With a bellyful of Katz’s pastrami, I can take it. I can take all of it.
Whenever I visit a food destination that’s so popular, so saturated with coverage that they have their own counter-movement and even attract a sort of standoffish derision from people who take pride in ‘knowing better’ than the clueless tourist that’s only here because of its larger-than-life reputation, I try to keep my expectations tempered. After all it is true that some of the time, a ‘oh, that was nice, but was that it?’ moment tends to result. Expectations management sucks.
I didn’t get that at Katz’s Deli. That pastrami sandwich was wicked. And yes, coming from Sydney, that doesn’t really set the best benchmark of how good a pastrami sammy could taste, but golly I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I am so happy this place opened my eyes to the pleasures of meat on meat on meat. Oh, and in between bread.
Yeah, there are probably better places for this kind of stuff, but man, if I had an extra sandwich from Katz’s every time someone tells me it’s overrated, I’ll die very happy, and very quickly.
Five Ages of Parmagiano Reggiano – Osteria Francescana – Modena, Italy
Osteria Francescana is one of those restaurants that delivers on its premise if you buy into its narrative. At the highest levels of cooking, storytelling is important; however, if it doesn’t resonate, you won’t feel the connection. I admittedly didn’t, which is why notwithstanding the restaurant’s bucket-list status, I’ve had better meals, as far as the cooking goes.
Massimo Bottura’s infamous Five Ages of Parmiagiano Reggiano was an exception among the exceptions. While I admit I chortled a bit at the dishe’s somewhat haughty description – the white monochrome is a portrait of the Modenese landscape covered in fog and silence (whoa) – the product itself was, as I noted in my blog post: perfection. It is at its apogee. It cannot be improved. It is the kind of dish that could replace all other savouries of this meal, and I would be happier for it.
Yeah. The rest of the meal was fine, but I would make another reservation just to have this again. And up size it too, while I’m at it.
Double Fromage Cheesecake – LeTAO – Japan
Funny how like tends to attract like. Just as I finish off the greatest savoury cheese course I’ve ever had, comes the greatest cheesecake I’ve ever had. I mentioned in the heading hyperlink that if you’ve visited Japan, like cheese and haven’t had LeTAO’s products, you haven’t visited Japan as far as I’m concerned.
This may be mass-produced, but there’s more under the surface – literally. Hokkaido milk & Italian Mascarpone come together to marry a raw and a baked layer, producing two different textures and flavours into a harmonious whole. This proves that heaven is a two-tiered, and both feature cheese.
Scientific research has shown that cheese can be ‘as addictive as hard drugs’, triggering some of the same receptors in the brain. God, I am so screwed if LeTAO ever begins distributing here. Back when I first discovered this cake, I would buy one and fully solo it in one sitting. It felt so bad.
But so good.
Avocado Kakigōri – Tea House Mayoor – Tokyo, Japan
Seriously, it’s just shaved ice, man.
And yet, here we are. A bowl of H2O, albeit in a different state, with a sugary calories strategically placed with care in both location and concentration, producing one of the most wonderfully complete dishes since ice cream for breakfast became a thing. I am fully aware of my Japan bias when I say that kakigōri sits at the pinnacle of shaved ice desserts in the same way that Everest is the pinnacle of all mountains: both are damn cool. I like it more than than bingsoo (which I rate as a close second), Taiwanese-style snow ice (third), ice kacang (I’ve only ever had coarse, ‘rough’ versions that have never done it for me), or Hawaiian snow cones.
The cliché of Japanese refinement is once again the simple reason why a bowl of water and some syrups can snowball itself into a top ten list.
Kakigōri is layered slowly and carefully, with sweetening agents (almost always natural, of course) interspersed such that each spoonful is full of flavour without being overly sweet. The whole show is then often topped by a layer of cream that represents the overall intended flavour. As you can imagine, seasonal variants exist.
Mayoor Tea House produces the best Kakigōri I’ve personally had (though shoutouts to last year’s Kurogi). It’s everything in the last paragraph, but as close to perfection as I’ve come across. My flavour pick: avocado milk. It might change your life in a way that avocado on toast never could. It did for me.
Bortrytis Cinerea – The Fat Duck – London, United Kingdom
Speaking of life-changing desserts, The Fat Duck’s bortrytis cinerea fits the bill, notwithstanding the $500+ bill to get a hold of it via the restaurant’s tasting menu. This is still my favourite dessert of all time for reasons that go beyond the dish’s technical brilliance and execution. My first visit to The Duck was one of the best meals of my life and is an experience that is unlikely to be ever replicated again. You only fall in love like that once in your life. As such, the reasons for its inclusion here are about as irrational as I’ll get.
I’ve been fortunate to have had this masterpiece grace my belly twice more on two subsequent visits to Heston’s maniacal temple of theatrical gastronomy. It’s a dessert requiring enough steps to constitute its own recipe book, with a result that elevates the humble grape to the highest levels. Then again, that it uses the greatest dessert wine in the world as a key element kinda helps. You can certainly make the argument that the return on investment (both in cost and technical difficulty) is low – think of all the gelato you can get for the cost of one of these! But that’s not how life works, and I’m quite okay with that.
All this, from a fungal rot. Oh food, you can be so funny sometimes.
Man, 2019 has some huge shoes to fill. I can’t wait to eat what’s next 😀
This post is based entirely on independently-paid visits to all venues featured in the post.