(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 three months of my trip, up through the end of our time in South America. (See the first installment here.) I will update again when Spain and Turkey inevitably squeeze out two-thirds of this list. See snapshots at @wearethemacks and @blakewmackay on Instagram and hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
1. Huen Muan Jai (Chiang Mai, Thailand—formerly #1): It’s been three months since we set off on our trip and two months since we were in Chiang Mai, and still no dining experience (emphasis on the dining experience, as opposed to a single dish or bite of food) has left as much of an impression on my culinary imagination as Huen Muan Jai. Its #1 ranking is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that I love Northern Thai cooking so much, but we only have our own tastes, right? From the future, I can predict that some of our European resto adventures will make a run for the top spot, but as of today, Huen Muan Jai reigns.
2. Mustard (Singapore—new to the list): MacKenzie is so mad at me for putting the wonderful Mustard on at #2, BUT THIS IS MY LIST, WIFE. In the Little India ‘hood in Singapore, Mustard cooks Bengali-Punjabi cuisine in a room that seats about thirty and damn, are they doing it right. I say this as if I’m well versed in regional Indian cooking; I’m not. But this was one of the most delightful, tasty, complex, rich, and consistent spreads I’ve eaten on our travels. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was particularly moved by the vegetable dishes, including a perfect roasted eggplant and a weirdly addictive bitter melon, and there was a paneer that just gave it to me. Also, good naan all day, every day.
3. Nahm (Bangkok, Thailand—formerly #2): Nahm, I sort of wish I knew how to quit you because there is much about your whole operation that I find problematic, but there was also just so much tastiness. With a little time and some wise words from a new Spanish friend, I’ve realized that my earlier judgments of Nahm may have actually been a bit harsh…and naïve. I love Thai food. Oh man, do I love it. But I’m no expert, which means that the majority of the choices and updates and slants being applied to “traditional” Thai dishes by Chef David Thompson are most likely lost on me. I can surely appreciate the composed dishes in all their fresh, spicy glory, but only someone who really knows Thai cooking can grasp the cheffy genius behind the plates.
4. Ameiro Shokudo (Naha, Japan—formerly #3): My dinner at the beyond charming Ameiro was a meal that I could eat thrice weekly, which is part of why it’s holding strong near the top of this list. It was clearly well-sourced, beautiful food that was prepared simply and cleanly—and yet, for this Western palate, not without surprises. My attachment to this place may have to do with the adorable couple who ran it or the tiny street it sits atop or the stage of the moon that night, but it felt a little revelatory in its simultaneous youthfulness and lack of pretension.
5. 99 Restaurante (Santiago, Chile—new to the list): My top South American pick! MacKenzie doesn’t even know what The 99 is, so all my hilarious 99 jokes were lost on her. I’m a sucker for the theater that is sitting at a chef’s counter, and 99 did not disappoint. (Note: I did not hear a single “sharp behind,” despite many actual sharp behinds, and I am legitimately confused that we got through our entire tasting without seeing someone get stabbed in the kidney.) The tasting at 99 is inventive without overreaching; the combinations tend to be classic with a twist, which is a phrase overused by people describing restaurants and food, but it’s accurate so oh well. There wasn’t a single miss as far as the courses were concerned. The sole hiccup, in my book, was the proportions on each plate: a little too much gelée with the clam, not enough mascarpone with the sardine, etc. Otherwise, beverage pairings were delightful and generous, service was relaxed and attentive, and prices were incredibly reasonable.
6. Wasabi (Osaka, Japan—formerly #4): I can’t imagine a better introduction to kushikatsu than Wasabi. Sitting at their counter of ten and eating bite-sized course after bite-sized course of fried things on sticks was a little mind-blowing. I’d never done it; I’d never seen it done. But even beyond the novelty, the quality and cleanness of the flavors at Wasabi—despite the fact that nearly everything was fried—make this one for the list. Wasabi is a lovely and slightly mysterious restaurant with a soft touch, and I hope to be able to sit at their counter again. I miss you, ginger salt.
7. The Shed at Te Motu (Waiheke Island, New Zealand—new to the list): The Shed is perched on a picturesque little spot on a picturesque little island where grapes grow neatly in every direction, so, tough to beat the atmosphere. Also yes, the wine you’re drinking with your meal is local. You’d forgive this place if it were half as good because of the surrounds and legit Bordeaux blend, but the female-chef’d kitchen is both ambitious and smart. We happened to begin our lunch with the best chicken liver toast I think I’ve ever had, which means that Chef Bronwen Laight will forever be in my heart.
8. The restaurant at The Apsara Hotel (Luang Prabang, Laos—formerly #5): We were wiped on our first night in Luang Prabang, so we ate at our hotel restaurant—not something we often do, but there are only so many restaurants in LP and we’d heard that the one at The Apsara was quite good. Turns out, it was much better than quite good. The first thing we tasted was the ubiquitous (in LP) fried river weed with buffalo chili jam. This dish needs a marketing team because it sounds sorta awful, but in fact it’s one of the best things we ate in all our time in Asia. And that was just the beginning. Curries and fish and noodles and salads: all doing great things. Midway through our week in town, I was beginning to think that I had mentally overhyped the restaurant at The Apsara (a feeling that keeps coming back to me even now). But then, on our last night, we went again, ate completely different things, and every bit was just as good as our meal on night one.
9. ámaZ (Lima, Peru—new to the list): The spelling. I know. The word on ámaZ is that even people in Lima don’t know what the hell to make of the food there. It’s Amazonian, supposedly, and not that I have a frame of reference, but Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino’s interpretation seems pretty weird and wonderful. I ate four dishes: one was a bit of a dud—the main course fish, which was overly sweet—but the other three—giant stuffed snails with chorizo, grilled plantain stuffed with cheese, and chocolate mousse with a bunch of green accompaniments*—were as tasty as they were strange. Cocktails were challenging, balanced, and visually stunning. Basically, ámaZ’s vibe felt like a slightly more upscale Rainforest Café, which I didn’t even hate.
*Pictured at top in my precious hands.
10. Parador La Huella (Jose Ignacio, Uruguay—new to the list): La Huella’s presence on this list is my acknowledgment that restaurants can be about more than food, in special cases. My report card for La Huella would look like this: the food is a B-, the service is a B, but the atmosphere and surrounds are an A+. It sits directly on the beach in tiny, celebrity-studded Jose Ignacio, a town that is like a cross between Provincetown (but so much smaller) and what I hear the Hamptons were like in 1970. Shakira has a house here. La Huella was relaxed when we went for a weeknight dinner at the bar and then again for an afternoon snack/drink in what was very much the off-season. Serving three meals a day during peak season, they’ll do 1,000 covers in a single day, pumping out shellfish and meats from their spectacular grill set-up. A thousand covers a day is a number that I actually can’t even wrap my head around. I ate a seafood pasta with red sauce that needed a lot of salt in order to taste like much of anything, so the fact that San Pelligrino has La Huella as the 20th best restaurant in South America…no. But, like, the ocean and the lovely ivory wraps they give you when the wind picks up, so…yes.