(JK. But not about the Masters part.) I am on a four-and-a-half month, ’round-the-world “honeymoon” with my wife, hence this very blog. I’ve worked in the restaurant industry in New York City for seven years and when I travel, I care about nothing more than my meals. Below are the top ten restaurants I visited in the first five weeks of my trip (Bangkok street food not included cause that just wouldn’t be fair to anyone). I will update the list about once monthly through the end of the journey. See snapshots at @wearethemacks and @blakewmackay and hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Huen Muan Jai (Chiang Mai, Thailand): Everything that is good and right about Northern Thai cooking is housed at Huen Muan Jai, a restaurant from an Iron Chef Thailand contestant housed in a traditional Lanna house/garden setting. The khao soi and Northern Thai pork sausage are beyond, and I will dream about them until we meet again someday. (Spread in photo above.)
2. Nahm (Bangkok, Thailand): Currently the top restaurant in Asia—at least according to the Pellegrino list, by which Nahm is considered the 13th best restaurant on the planet—Nahm does not disappoint…until the bill comes. The plates are exciting and challenging and beautiful, if a little pricey for the style of food as similar fare can be consumed throughout Bangkok for a fraction of the baht. The space is beautifully high-end and the service tight, which doesn’t exactly jibe with the food, so, for me, leaves the overall experience a tad disjointed. This said, the stuff on the plates is phenomenal.
3. Ameiro Shokudo (Naha, Japan): After working with Take Root for a year and a half, I know a thing or two about a wonderful meal served by a couple in a restaurant that feels more like their house. Ameiro Shokudo is quaint and charming, their mostly-ceramic serving vessels (of which there are many) are to die for, and their food is g damn spot-on delicious. I had a spiritual moment with some house-made tofu and soy sauce that made me realize I’d been living a soy-based lie.
4. Wasabi (Osaka, Japan): This female-chefed slip of a restaurant down an Osaka alleyway adapts the kushi-katsu (fried skewer) tradition for a more refined audience. It’s a tasting menu, but you just tell them to stop when you’re full and pay accordingly. I didn’t meet a skewer I didn’t like at Wasabi, but the details are what will stay with me: the dipping sauces, the ginger salt, and the collection of raw vegetables to “cleanse your palate between skewers,” including some young scallions so good that I wolfed them down one after the other, palate be damned.
5. The restaurant at The Apsara Hotel (Luang Prabang, Laos): I came into Luang Prabang geared the fuck up for 3 Nagas, the restaurant at which Elizabeth Gilbert claims to have had the best dish in the world. I ate that dish. And it was good. But not as good as what I ate at The Apsara, including the ubiquitous (in Luang Prabang) fried riverweed with buffalo-chili jam and a charcuterie plate of moist buffalo jerky, fatty pork rillettes, and a sweet, punchy house-cured pork sausage. We went back for a second dinner before skipping town.
6. Kingyu (Ishigaki, Japan): Ishigaki Beef is, as far as I’m concerned, peerless. I ate a lot of it in my few days on the island, but none better than the cook-your-own-strips-over-a-gas-grill iteration at Kingyu, a restaurant virtually devoid of real character—it felt like a Japanese Outback Steakhouse, but I DIDN’T CARE cause that steak.
7. Penguin Shokudo (Ishigaki, Japan): If I lived on Ishigaki, this would be my once weekly, buddy-up-with-the-bartender place. Penguin is known for their bottled chili oil sold around the island and beyond, and a feature film was even made about their proprietors, a wife and husband team, in that order. But the Penguins are no Emeril. The restaurant is both seriously local and seasonal, while being casual, warm, and cheap, the sort of place that you imagine 90% of the clientele just happen upon and wander in. Once you eat there though, it’s clear that people are likely returning time and time and time again.
8. Beautiful Restaurant (Koh Lanta, Thailand): When you’re on a tiny island in the Andaman Sea, seafood is the thing. But to find the good stuff, you’re swimming upstream against loads of tourists wanting bad burgers, pad thai, and “American style BBQ.” But the good stuff is at the hubristically-named Beautiful Restaurant in Old Town, where the shrimp with holy basil is flawless and the whole crab with Thai chilis is that special kind of spice torture/addictive that the Thai do best.
9. Opposite Mess Hall (Bangkok, Thailand): Apparently an Australian cool kid chef plus Bangkok equals imitation Momofuku? But I’m not complaining; there are much worse things to imitate. We went just before the end of service straight off the plane and couldn’t ask for much more: their negroni take was balanced and delicious, the fried chicken bao was everything that a very good version of that should be, and the banana soft serve was soft and cold and rich and deeply banana-y, which is to say, dreamy. The experience was made slightly less pleasant, but all the more Chang, when aforementioned chef chastised several of his cooks at the passe of the open kitchen.
10. Supanniga Eating Room (Bangkok, Thailand): From the same chef/owner as Somtum Der in the East Village (Manhattan’s East Village, that is), Supanniga is a great Isan Thai restaurant for all the same reasons Somtum is a great Isan Thai restaurant…and it’s in Thailand to boot! There are plenty of chilis to go around, but my favorite plate was a less-than-spicy Thai Wing Bean salad with shrimp, eggs, and shallots. It had a peanut-y sauce that grew more complex as you ate it. There is dining on three small floors, full of mostly local twenty- and thirty-somethings in large parties having after-work drinks and eating the entire menu.