Year in Review | Best Restaurants of 2019

How about that, a new decade. I’m thankful the blog hasn’t been around for that long, because rounding up ten ‘best’ restaurants is already one of the hardest things I’ve had do to – and that included some of the longest travel pieces I’ve churned out in the last year. I certainly had more than ten excellent meals during over the past year, but coming up with listicles like these get clicks forces me to hit pause and reflect – like, for a really long time – though I needn’t have tried too hard, as the results are almost laughably skewed towards my biases.

But I like to think I’ve been pretty balanced with my picks without having to ‘moderate away’ the bias from the Land of the Rising Sun. Korea makes a surprise showing, and Bali has punched well above its weight. Heck, even a restaurant that got its fame from vegemite roti – of all things – managed to make its way on here. Ultimately, Japanese or Japanese-influenced cuisine still rules this roost. It is what it is. The criteria this year is imperfect, as it must be: the food must be excellent, the experience inimitable, the impression lasting. That’s as good as it’s going to get.

I’ve also written up a similar post but on my top ten dishes of 2019, available here.

All restaurants featured in this post were based on independently-paid visits.

Notes:

  • Restaurants are not ranked. It’s already a top ten list!
  • Only restaurants that are permanent establishments are on the list. Thus, pop-ups and other events of a temporary nature are excluded.

Cafe Paci

Cafe Paci Newtown
Cafe Paci

It’s very, very difficult to elucidate the je n’ais ce quoi that makes Pasi Petanan’s hopefully now-permanent venture one of Sydney’s hottest tickets of 2019. As usually is the case in these hard-to-pin-down venues that just have the right stuff, Cafe Paci does all things – big and small – well in a way that few other places manage. As I have a separate review (here), I won’t bog this post down with the detail – suffice it to say, it’s one of Sydney’s most exciting openings of 2019, one I’m going to smash until I see how many visits it takes me to become sick of it.

Likely lots.

  • Cafe Paci Newtown
  • Cafe Paci Newtown
  • Cafe Paci Newtown
  • Cafe Paci Newtown

Matilda 159

Open flames, open everything really at Matilda 159

If you don’t live in Melbourne, I’ll catch you up: Scott Pickett is a name that carries clout in Melbourne – Australia’s best food city (now come at me, fellow Sydneysiders). Saint Crispin, ESP (now closed) and Matilda; all his restaurants, all household names – depending on the household (a woke Melbourne one, probably). Matilda is possibly Pickett’s finest establishment, but also eminently approachable. Think of it as Melbourne’s equivalent of Firedoor: everything is burned but not burnt. Fire caresses everything, the heat emanating from the open kitchens and controlled chaos of its open fires will leave you with little doubt. But no, this is hardly rustic dining: the ochre wood ceiling, plush seats and lengthy leather banquette seating evoke the image of a luxury hunter’s lodge, except you don’t have to do the hunting or cooking. You’ll just have to do some forking – of your wallet.

Decor and vibe aside, the only way a restaurant can make this kind of list if is everything coming out of the kitchen is nothing less than stellar and lives up the promise set up by that kitchen. From the ostensibly cliché but-actually-f*ck-yum prawn butter w/spanner crab to the refreshingly tart goldband snapper w/leche de tigre, everything was On. Damn. Point. The highlight – and what catapults the restaurant into this list – was the 1.5kg Sher Wagyu tomahawk, which – excuse my language – was basically sex. Yeah I said it, sorry kids. Now to get yourself some.

Seizan

Seizan

No matter how above-it-all we think of ourselves, the hype train takes no prisoners, especially when the three ‘pillars of influence’ (yeah, I totally made this up) – critics, reputable friends and an initial bias towards the cuisine – align. A Tabelog Silver award, universal praise from everyone I know who’s been and well, you know what I think of Japanese cuisine. Actual catnip.

Seizan’s inclusion in this list is reflective of both its technical excellence, but also a cavalier attitude that goes against a Platonic notion of what kaiseki ‘ought’ to be. My meal here did technically include many elements of the kaiseki playbook, but it takes great liberties with the formula, which is how Seizan crafts its own identity in an otherwise identikit, conformist landscape. If you’ve eaten in Japan enough you’ll know that beneath the teeming variety is a surprising rigidity. It’s impossible for me to explain this without a whole post in and of itself, but an example at Seizan was the matsubagani (snow crab) croquette w/onion sauce. You would never find this at a ‘normal’ kaiseki, in the same way as no normal person would order a well-done steak, but it’s arguable that the whole field is elevated by dishes like these, which push the cuisine forward.

Highly inventive, with highly delicious results, Seizan is a restaurant that’s at the top of its game – and in Tokyo no less. An easy top ten for me.

Sugalabo

Sugalabo

At 26 years of age, Yosuke Suga became the executive chef at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo. Let that fact sink in and consider what you were doing at 26. Ouch, I know. With that kind of talent honed with a full 16 years working with Mr Robuchon, it was clear that any venture of his own is almost guaranteed to be world-class. As it turned out, it was a laboratory – Suga’s Lab – where Suga-san explores the very best Japan has to offer and applies his French training; a restaurant that is one of the very best examples of the Japanese-French movement.

In what way is it a ‘lab’? Well, approximately once a month, Suga and his team travel around Japan, taking names, searching for inspiration and the ingredients to make it happen. As such, the restaurant can be thought of as an eternally-evolving test kitchen, since perfection only exists as an ideal to be strived for. During these jaunts, the entire restaurant closes: that’s how serious Suga is about the craft.

Needless to say, a meal here – at around 55k JPY/$700AUD – isn’t cheap. But the initial hurdle is even getting in to begin with. Yep, it’s one of those ichigen-san okotowari restaurants – you’ll need to be introduced by the right people. But once you’re in, the experience is worth every last dollar. He sources the very best ingredients – such as translucently-thin ham from BON DABON in Gifu (the only certified Parma ham producer in Japan), or seafood & veg from Ishikawa prefecture – AKA the food bowl of Japan. Of courses, there are the gratuitous – but appreciated, given the nature of the experience – luxuries such as Alba white truffles and Iranian caviar. Where he can’t get the best, he’ll do it himself – he owns his very own rice farm which supplies the restaurant’s rice, and you’d better believe you can taste the difference. Getting a bag of it to take home is an added bonus.

Truly nonpareil. An easy inclusion in the list.

Locavore

I’ve waxed sufficiently lyrical on this Modern Indo-fine diner so this’ll be short: Locavore is a restaurant that lives up to its namesake in a way that makes most other venues with a claim on the word seem gratuitous. Not to diminish them of course, but Eelke Plasmeijer and Ray Adriansyah play the game almost unfairly well. 95% of the produce is Indonesian, and specific dishes celebrate can get hyperlocal, an amazing example being ‘Into The Sawah’, a single-dish panopticon that represents everything that lives, grows and swims in the Ubud rice fields.

It’s easy to ‘go local; it’s relatively much harder to build a restaurant around the concept that’s worthy of inclusion on the World’s 50 Best. Tasty food still needs to be king, and that’s exactly what Locavore does so, so right and so, so consistently.

Room 4 Dessert

A separate lounge area prepares guests for the first round of the experience, which is at the bar

Chef’s Table, season 4 episode 4, sums everything up in about 45 minutes, but a meal at Room 4 Dessert will take longer: you’re going to need time to digest Will Goldfarb’s twenty-two courses, spread out over three movements, transitioning between the outside bar for ‘entree’ (7 courses), the formal restaurant for ‘mains’ (8 courses) and then the external patio for petit fours-style ‘desserts’ (the final 7). I use quotes because technically everything is a dessert, so the restaurant’s name as accurate as it is sound advice. It might seem like an express ticket to diabetes, but at least Goldfarb knows how to show you a good time with it.

Room 4 Dessert is the Locavore of sweets; an encyclopedia of autochthonous ingredients and Heston-esque dessertification of elements you’d ordinarily consider savoury. As you’d expect, it’s not going to be a universally pleasing experience – when else have you eaten a 20+ course meal and liked every single one – but it’s guaranteed to be one-of-a-kind. You’ll definitely learn something, even if you’ve never cooked an honest meal in your life (hello). If you’re ever in Bali and have tastebuds, leaving Room 4 Dessert is a must. Must. Must. See more in my Bali post here.

Sushi E

A modern take on the sushi dining room. Unfortunately, the fish fridges, like many other sushi restaurants in Sydney, get in the way between the chef and the diners

The word ‘omakase’ literally means ‘[I’ll] leave it to you’. It doesn’t mean a progression of hand-crafted sushi, which is how most people connotate the – though the word being a byproduct of frequent association makes this understandable.

Omakase’s actual meaning as chef agency means that Ha Cheun Wai and Michael Fox are perhaps ironically some of the purer adherents to the spirit of the word. Sushi is definitely served (I mean hey, it is in the name), but it’s Fox – Sushi E’s head chef – that sets Sushi E’s Monday-to-Friday only omakase offering apart from the rest. A bevy of raw and cooked courses a la degustation style – too many to list here but including one of Sydney’s best chawanmushi and a mouthwatering scampi soumen – precede Wai’s unique pieces such as quail egg & caviar gunkan and cuttlefish nigiri with dried shaved sea urchin. If either the sushi or the ‘deg’ were served separately, they would be less for it. A fabulous example of 1+1=3.

Amaru

The open kitchen at Amaru

Three. That’s how many diners – myself included – were having lunch at Amaru in Melbourne’s quiet suburb of Armadale. It was a little too quiet at the 34-seater restaurant, and I worried greatly whether the venue would last. I hope Melbourne’s fine dining community recognise Amaru’s pedigree because this was a sleeper stunner sensation.

The restaurant may be ‘Modern Australian’, but that’s only insofar as there’s no adequate buzz term that can label pigeonhole the restaurant. The cuisine is certainly European-ish: elegant and restrained, as can be seen in the snacks, but Vue De Monde-trained Clinton McIver’s also fully capable of unleashing unadulterated pleasure such as a gob-smackingly beautiful and technical ‘quail cooked like a Christmas ham’, or the best Kangaroo dish this side of Orana.

Ultimately, Amaru is all about the deliciousness in front of the diner that doesn’t come with the philosophical baggage: a good time without the attached lecture. Get the basics right and the story is sure to follow. Here’s to Amaru building a longlasting narrative.

Sunda

Sunda Dining

Khanh Nguyen’s Vegemite roti could almost single-handedly propel Sunda Dining into this list. Yes, the young chef has pretty much completely dominated the mid-tier, Australian-Pan Asian niche in Melbourne, but it was no accident: Nguyen may only be 28 years young, but can cook better than most. As it is typically true for this list’s entrants, the food coming out of his open kitchen in Sunda is peerless. The roti would be your first clue, but while it’s so popular that Sunda has been typecast as ‘that Vegemite roti restaurant’, Nguyen is by no means a one-trick pony. Dishes change with enough frequency that makes the Instagram follow – and the revisits – mandatory.

Nguyen may have started here: one day, other restaurants walking a similar path will be assessed by the line: ‘is it as good as Sunda?’

You can read more about Sunda Dining here.

  • Sunda Dining
  • Sunda Dining
  • Sunda Dining
  • Sunda Dining
  • Sunda Dining
  • Sunda Dining
  • Sunda Dining
  • Sunda Dining
  • Sunda Dining

Mingles

Mingles Restaurant Seoul
Mingles

Who would have thought: fine dining in Korea, of all places? I’ve said it before, but I think it’s galling that Asian cuisine can’t be ‘expensive’ and worthwhile at the same time. The Balinese entrants in this list are obvious examples, and I daresay Kang Mingoo’s Mingles speaks for Korean cuisine.

True to its name, Mingles ‘mingles’, throwing authenticity to the wind and mixing it up while still being recognisably Korean to all but the most old-hat intransigents. Any chef with self-confidence and the experience to back it up knows that ‘authenticity’ more often than not means the wrong thing to the wrong people, and holds cuisine back more often than pushes it forward. But boy, does it take guts to serve kalguksu (ordinarily a $10 dish) at a restaurant that runs over $200pp and have diners go ‘yup that was worth it’.

I think Mingles got away with it. Read more here.

  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul
  • Mingles Restaurant Seoul

Good luck 2020, you’ve got your work cut out for you. I can’t wait to see what the year brings! Let’s go get eat it.

All restaurants featured in this post were based on independently-paid visits.

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