Memories Across Asia
A Food Critic's lot in life is to try everything at least once but some experiences are so memorable, return visits are warranted. After being grounded for almost 2 years, C T revisits his favourite gourmet memories pre-2020 spanning 11 destinations. Photography by CT
Breakfast served on the West Lake by Four Seasons Hangzhou
Maldives as an island nation is renowned for its shimmering luxury resorts that act as private paradises for the well-heeled. There are many beautiful restaurants to choose from within these resorts but only a handful are built under water. SEA restaurant at Anantara Kihavah is a spectacular restaurant and wine cellar raised on the seabed surrounded by a bewildering plethora of corals and marine life. In the day massive schools of fishes can be seen pulsating near the restaurant and at night the illuminated expanse of its oceanic fringes reveals the drama of life in the coral reef after dark. When you consider the ethereal beauty that surrounds this spectacular structure, it is understandable that the food here is of secondary importance although the wine list does feature ample prized vintages.
Le Normandie, Bangkok
An grandee in the culinary scene of Asia's food capital, Le Normandie used to feature stuffy French classics with old world attitudes before morphing into a modern establishment with a masterful balance on French cuisine for the 21st century. The service here is expertly sharp and rendered with panache via crisply pronounced menu introductions and trendy trolleys that proffer decadent cuts and fancy flambés. The plates are large and the food sparsely arranged, yes, but no one will be begrudging these avantgarde presentations because chef knows exactly what flavours and techniques he wants to showcase on each plate and does so with aplomb. Everything works to a bedazzling degree and considering what insipid stuffed pigeons with foie gras that were routinely dispatched merely a decade ago, whoever says an old dog of a restaurant can't learn new tricks can benefit from a sitting at Le Normandie.
China Blue, Tokyo
When presented with a 'must-try' recommendation to a Chinese restaurant in the Japanese capital, the usual quizzical expressions are understandable as a first response, but a visit to China Blue will reveal sound, and always delicious justifications. Renowned Chinese chef Albert Tse hailed from Hong Kong, earned his chops in Singapore before being enticed to Tokyo where he continues to reinvent Cantonese cuisine with the best Japanese ingredients. Classics like sweet and sour pork are elevated with Japanese kurobuta, and wonderful savoury bird's nest soup are enhanced with Hokkaido potatoes, reflecting a masterful culinary evolution that melds top ingredients with age old recipes and modern presentations. An evergreen favourite here is the duck wrap with Japanese plum, best enjoyed with 10 year old Shaoxing wines and the stunning vista of the harbour from the China Blue's dizzying vantage.
Santani, Sri Lanka
A wellness retreat that encourages guests to rise from the crack of dawn to meditate and stretch is the last place one would expect to find gourmet treats but the highly-lauded Santani surprises with what is probably the best gourmet orientation in Sri Lanka, holding true to its mantra that to attain true wellness, one must work hard and eat well. For wellness enthusiasts who travel for hours to this remote but stunning location, the decadent meals served here must be the cream on the cake but for others who are more in pursuit of earthly pleasures, the dining moments here will rank high in a lifetime of food memories. From the Sri Lankan breakfasts featuring fabulous hoppers and traditional curries to the masterfully prepared modern cuisines that uses only top ingredients available on the island of spices, some visitors here might actually go away more keenly aware that decadent good food and rigorous yoga poses are not incompatible bedfellows.
Arashiyama Yoshimura, Kyoto
Scenic Arashiyama is a must-visit spot for visitors to Japan's ancient capital. As signature as its serene bamboo groves are its succulent soba noodles, and the best place to slurp up these buckwheat treats is Arashiyama Yoshimura, a soba institution housed within a historic building with splendid views of the Togetsukyo bridge and the rolling hills beyond. Usually, one would be lucky to get a seat here, but to land a window seat in plain view of the stunning vista is like hitting a mini jackpot. The soba here is the main draw, but everything from pickles to tempura to condiments are all wonderfully prepared with the refinement of a restaurant and the familiar sense of home.
Restaurant Zen, Singapore
Freshly minted 3-star Restaurant Zen is currently Singapore's most coveted dinner seats with a waiting list that stretches for months. The wait may be frustrating, but once you are in, a succession of gourmet thrills await. Nowhere else will diners be required to move as much but the upwards migration here are all purposely orchestrated to imbue understanding and induce interactions between guests and the food they are about to eat. The multi-course dinner takes guests from entrance to kitchen to dining room before finally ending up at the last spot where the evening comes to an end in an unhurried high. Every course of the dinner contains so much thoughts and details that they each deserve a review. The collective experience is a superlative outing on how food can be mysterious, magical and familiar all in one stroke, but it has to be a masterful stroke delivered with panache exactly like at Restaurant Zen.
Hongtu Hall, Guangzhou
The perennial adoration for dim sum is a global movement but in Guangzhou, the birthplace of this culinary chapter in Chinese cuisine, the enthusiasm for there tasty treats are palpably fervent. Hongtu Hall is the hallowed address for morning dim sum in this provincial capital, and the queue here starts from before 6am, and queues are expected up till the moment the restaurant close after lunch service. The restaurant is actually a function hall that has been retained for this dim sum mission for decades, and the kitchen is the hallow spot where all manners of skills for traditional dim sums are honed and perfected. The young and old routinely come for their favourite '3 baskets of 2 pieces each', just as a manner of speech of course because the menu features an extensive list of old-school and modern dim sums freshly made each day. We are in love with the 'cow's tongue' pastry, the sand worm congee and the cheong fun, but its signature Sachima, a Manchuria sweet delight, is the restaurant's 'red card' and a must try.
Three Elements Restaurant, Bali
Barely 2 decade ago when mass tourism started making an incursion into Bali's cultural heart, there were only a few restaurants in Ubud that catered largely to tourists' undiscerning palate. Today, there are many restaurants across this verdant haven, and some are serious gourmet addresses on the world wide food map. Three Elements restaurant isn't one of those unfortunately, and we are totally baffled. Not only is the restaurant pointed towards a stunning vista, the cuisine here that traverses both Western and Asian palates is outstanding on an international level. Whether one is tucking into a simple Nasi Goreng or a slab of steak here, the sincerity of comfort cuisine whiffs through with excellently balanced aromatics and admirable dexterity. The most unforgettable entree here is a roast pork ribs served with white rice. After a lifetime of tearing through pork ribs, who would have thought the most succulent and delicious slab would be savoured on a cliff delineated by a gorgeous sun setting on the island of the gods?
Shinta Mani Wild, Cambodia
Thousand of miles from a proper city, Shinta Mani Wild isn't that kind of establishment that one can zip in and out of for a meal. Most would opt to literally zip in through the jungle's canopy, and once there, there is nothing to do but eat drink and be merry, enveloped by the milieu of god's good earth. With a dearth of activities, meals here can be as elaborated staged at remote locations or simply enjoyed at the dining tent, but we think the best is to be enjoyed from the privacy of one's luxury tent, which may come with resplendent waterfall or canopy views. It isn't so much the content of the tiffin carriers that makes a meal here memorable; when one considers sheer willpower that raised this luxurious patchwork of tents right in the heart of Cambodia's remotest haven, and how far one has wandered to come wonder in it, one can blissfully break bread with beer and still remember the serene sentiments that accompanied the meal.
Felix, Hong Kong
Hong Kong's quirky fine dining address has been making jaws drop for close to 20 years now, and continues to do that with a combination of views, conception and cuisine. Whether one is up @Felix for an evening cocktail or a fully staged dinner, one is wont to remember the affair because it is still a quintessentially Hong Kong memory station and brag spot, very much like how a different set of guests would feel after a spot of afternoon tea at the Lobby Lounge. Fashionable spots like Felix tend to lose its relevance after a while but long after the outrageousness of its Starck designed chairs and interiors had faded, the stardust lingers on in this atmospheric restaurant. Maybe it is gratifying to sip Bellinis from HK's premier vantage point while pondering the million dollar Victoria Bay view, or perhaps one does relish the European fares that are part classical and part posh, no one is quite in a hurry to forget a handsome establishment like Felix.
Jin Sha, Hangzhou
Wang Yong is China's superstar chef with a sturdy grasp on traditional Chinese cuisine and modern conceptions. Jin Sha is Wang's playground cum laboratory where he interprets and reinterprets many Hangbang dishes, often making them his own with bold touches that deftly elevate homestyle classics. As far as innovation and conceptual cuisines go, Wang has an unparalleled presence within the Hangbang precinct. A few fortunate souls get invited to Wang's elaborate bi-annual 'Chef's Table' dinner where over a dozen meticulously designed courses flow seamlessly bridging flavours, ideas and ideals. Signatures like his Dongpo Pork was served along new creations like crackling wagyu beef and baked sea sedge in the last sitting in Dec 2019. It was a culinary tour de force only a constantly evolving master chef is capable of staging and an experience an invitee is bound to commit to memory for a long time.
Shang Palace, Singapore
Mok Kit Keung was a beloved celebrity chef whose impressive talent with Cantonese cuisine took him back and forth between HK and Singapore in a career that had spanned over 3 decades. Effable in person and incredibly masterful in his renditions of traditional classics, Mok returned to Singapore in 2018 to take over the helm at Shang Palace, successfully steering the old craft back into the top echelons of fine dining Chinese establishments in Singapore in a very short time. Under his direction, the delectable dim sums and soups at Shang Palace were unforgettable and his braised dried abalone was without parallel. Mok's sudden departure in September 2021 was a shock that reverberated throughout the industry and his presence will be sadly missed. For some time it will be difficult to return to Shang Palace in Singapore and not be greeted by his cheerful smiles or looking forward to his seasonal creations. But happy memories of Chef Mok will stay with those who had crossed path with him and had savoured his culinary passion and joy for life.