Food: The Year in Review

I like my food. For about as long as I can remember, I have had somewhat expensive tastes. For a long time I was very picky about my food, then I was sent to boarding school. Now, I am somewhat less picky about my food, but I still retain an appreciation for fine dining. This recent year has been an exceptional one and I will probably never forget some of the delights to which I have been treated. The period which I will cover extends ever so slightly more than one year, it begins in November 2003, in Santiago de Chilé and ends in January 2005 in London.

During this time, I have, for no apparent reason, embarked upon a mission of sorts to try and sample the very best food that the world has to offer. That’s right, the WORLD. It all started in the hotel restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton in Santiago de Chilé, where I treated myself to a sumptuous lunch, then I followed it up the next night with an equally extravagant meal at a quaint “New Zealand” restaurant hidden behind the Ritz. From there, our journey takes us back to Hong Kong, a place where good food is simply the order of the day, at any price. There, hotel restaurants in the Mandarin Oriental, the Conrad, “Spoon, by Alain Ducasse” (who divides his time between HK and the Plaza Athenee in Paris) in the Intercontinental and “Gaddi’s” in the Peninsula were sampled. There were also the quaint, but no less exquisite restaurants “Mezzanine” in Princes Building, and “Boullabaisse” in Lan Kwai Fong. After this, the quest continued to Melbourne. “Radii” at the Park Hyatt, the site of my 21st was re-sampled after they acquired a new chef, as was “Windows” in the Marriot for similar reasons (although with different results). Grossi Florentino, apparently a Melbourne institution, was tried… and liked, as was Vue de Monde, a stunning French restaurant in Carlton. Having discovered a penchant for French cuisine, the next logical stop in our journey was, of course, France. Marseille, home of the boullabaisse was the first stop and it certainly lived up to its reputation for mouth-watering seafood. Outstanding restaurants “Miramar” and “Pavillion” served up the signature boullabaisse dish along with some exceptional appetisers and desserts. After this, it was on to Paris, where the prices threatened to out-do the food (but didn’t quite). The final stop was “brasserie Roux”, the hotel restaurant of the London Sofitel on St. James (I spared my dad the pain of a restaurant bill from the Ritz in London). Not wanting to clutter this piece with reviews on individual restaurants, I will present this review in the style of a menu.

To start a meal, few things can substitute for a good soup. My favourite – lobster bisque. There are many different ways of presenting this dish. Often it comes with cream on top, sometimes it comes with bits of lobster, crab, or even prawn mixed it. Often it is quite thick, although I prefer the thinner variety. Long have I debated with myself which lobster bisque is the best I’ve had. Coming to a definitive decision is too difficult – it is a dead heat. Even this is unfair though, as many restaurants presented superb soups, the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne, the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, not to mention my other favourite type of soup – shark’s fin, of which I could name countless exceptional examples from exceptional restaurants. The tie for first place is between the Ritz-Carlton in Santago de Chilé and the Brasserie Roux in the London Sofitel. In the Ritz, the soup was presented in three small bowls, each with a wafer-thin slice of bread placed over the rims, each with a different sauce to mix with the soup-soaked bread. Gimmicks aside, the soup was superb. The soups from the Ritz and the Sofitel were both quite watery but this betrayed a complex taste which manifests itself in the moments after swallowing – like a lobster (one would hope so!) but not as rich, perhaps it would be best described as a “hint” of lobster, but a very strong hint indeed. The soup in which my Boullabaisse in Mirimax in Marseille was served comes a very close runner up, for all the same reasons.

Entrees are essential to a good meal, they whet the appetite, set the tone and prepare the tastebuds for the onslaught which is to come. Presenting a good entree is a lost art, well, almost lost. Clearly there exist restaurants around the world in which this art is still alive and well. So which entree is the best? After sampling multitudes of terrines and what seemed like an endless variety of escargos and fois gras this was a difficult decision to make, perhaps even more so than deciding which soup was my favourite. To me, the entree dishes are the most important part of the meal and the quality of an entree will, in my eyes, make or break a restaurant. The award for best fois gras goes to the Pavillion in Marseille. Served with a light sprinkling of sea salt (in no short supply in Marseille), Jus and accompanied by bread (oh! the bread in France) made specifically for the dish, nothing quite compares to it. Surprisingly, it was not my favourite entree. That accolade goes to a curious mushroom-waffle dish that Restaurant Miramar (in Marseille) served me. Made with what is apparently a very expensive type of mushroom this dish was rich and complex at the initial taste, but left a hollow and tantalising aftertaste which, along with its beautiful aroma, was enough to make anyone’s mouth water. A chef’s specialty at a restaurant with many awards (although all in French, and thus unreadable to myself)… what a treat. An honourable mention must also go to Mecca in Southbank and Grossi Florentino in Melbourne CBD who both serve a beautiful scallop dish.

How does one pick the best main course? There are such a variety of dishes and styles and many are difficult to compare due to their very nature. Unable to pick a dish which is unquestionably the best, I have resorted to naming best dishes in pseudo-categories. The best meat dish was, fortunately, reasonably easy to pick. It goes to the steak which I had at “Spoon” in the Intercontinental Hotel in Hong Kong. A charred but tantalisingly juicy exterior which was dark-but-not-burnt wrapped around a juicy pink-but-not-bloody interior – it was difficult to imagine how a steak could be any better. Also deserving of a mention is a lamb shank which I ate in Brassirie Roux in London, the meat broke off the bone with minimal effort and had a consistency akin to lamb which is undercooked – except that it was not. A crayfish and crepe dish which was served to me in a French restaurant in Southbank (south of Melbourne) runs a close second to the dish which I would have called “best”. Exceptionally well prepared and fresh crayfish buried in a rich lobster gravy, which was almost too rich were it not for the folded crepe wrapping treatment that it got – rich but understated at the same time. It was going to take quite an extraordinary dish to top that, but Mirimar in Marseille was, once again, up to the task. A specialty of the city of Marseille – Boullabaisse. 6 different types of seafood served in a lobster bisque (can you see why I like this dish?). What can I say? The fish was excellent, as were the many other miscellaneous sea creatures which featured in this dish, this dish also did something which few others can lay claim to, and that is it actually made me very full. You see, you are allowed to have as much soup as you want, enough said. The best pasta dish goes to the large tortellini which was served up to me in Grossi Florentino in Melbourne during the “Old Scotch Wine and Food club” anniversary dinner. A bit of lamb and other assorted bits left the pallette very satisfied indeed.

The fight for the best dessert came down to a tiramisu from a restaurant in Rome, Italy and a divine chocolate dish by “Pavillion” in Marseille, France. I have tasted many tiramisus in my time, but this tiramisu was different. Why? It is difficult to describe, it was unbelievably rich but somehow not sickly so. However, the dessert which emerged the victor was the dish from France. When it was brought out, it looked like three scoops of ice-cream, vanilla, hazelnut and chocolate. However, it was not ice-cream. It was cold, but not ice-cold. It was creamy but not light like cream, it was chocolate but not crunchy in any way. To call this dish “food” would be an injustice – it was “art”. Most of the dishes mentioned here certainly looked like art, but very few had the delicate refinement and finesse to be classified as art for the tastebuds as well as a feast for the eyes. This was one of them, as were most of the entrees.

This is, of course, not a definitive list by any stretch of the imagination. This is a mere sampling of those dishes which really stood out for me, this year. A number of genres have been missed altogether, many of which are among my favourite foods. No Chinese food has been mentioned, that does not mean that I haven’t had any good chinese food this year, but, having grown up in Hong Kong, it is difficult for any restaurant to produce a Chinese dish which is, to me, outstanding. Japanese food has also been ignored even though it is a staple in my fine-dining-diet. (Perhaps, if I had been raised in France rather than Hong Kong, this entire article would be raving about food from the Orient). The award for the best Indian food goes to Balti on Lygon St. Carlton (a suburb north of Melbourne). Many outstanding restaurants whose dishes didn’t quite make the cut should also be mentioned. The Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong was an excellent all-rounder, able to produce excellent dishes of all types, as was the Windsor Hotel restaurant in Melbourne, although of a slightly lower standard. “Vue de Monde” in Carlton is also a stand-out, not only because it dishes out excellent French food in Melbourne of all places (and in the heart of an Italian food district), but though each dish was small and deserved no special mention, but the sum of them all amounted to a trumendously satisfying meal. It also receieves a special award for the most interesting “pallette cleanser” – water with tomato extract mixed with small bits of some kind of green jelly and, to top it off, served with a small piece of dry ice in the bottom for maximum “wow” value. Best restaurant, not surprisingly, goes to Miramar in Marseille, France (and so it should, the meal cost €100!) for two of the best works of art which I have ever digested which, together, summed to what was possibly the best meal I have ever eaten. Viva la France!

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