Top Ten Dining Experiences

The Zagat.com discussion boards are alive with a debate about top ten dining experiences so I just had to share my own.  Here’s the fine dining list.  Soon to come:  the list for everyday dining.

1. The Edge, Dubai, UAE – Dubai is all flash and no substance. Well-known chefs lend their brands to restaurants in the city but only step into the kitchens there a couple of times a year. It makes fine dining a real hit-or-miss experience. Except at The Edge. What used to be a private invitation-only dining room for financial tycoons is now open to the public (on a reservations-only basis, and only for the first 30 who can get a seat) so that the Slovakian genius who runs the kitchen can showcase his work. It’s the anti-Dubai restaurant and the only place in town worth spending $400+ to eat. Which is a steal and the reason the owner is more of a generous benefactor because he “didn’t open the doors to turn a profit.” Only in Dubai…

2. Extebarri, Axpe, Spain – This little haven nestled into the hills south of Bilbao has garnered considerable attention since Anthony Bourdain hailed it as one of the 13 places to eat before you die. Well, I think it is one of 2 places to eat before you die. My meal consisted of baby eels and baby octopus and prawns and oysters — all prepared better than I had ever experienced before. Near the end, a steak arrived from the kitchen that was lightly dusted with sea salt and cut to reveal a perfectly red center. It was unbelievable. For a restaurant known for inventive grilling techniques, the biggest surprise was dessert — a most unbelievable ice cream that I am still thinking about a year later. Axpe is out of the way — a 120 euro cab fare from San Sebastian or a 50 euro cab fare from Bilbao — and you better hope your driver has GPS. But, no matter the logistical hurdles it takes to travel off the beaten path, it is worth every hour and every dollar.

3. Arzak, San Sebastian, Spain – The crown jewel of northern Spain, Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena prove why this destination restaurant put their charming coastal town on the foodie map. Course after course, they deliver culinary excellence, including the most amazing poached egg dish imaginable. Furthermore, they are gracious hosts, greeting guests and visiting each table during the evening as if you are a visitor in their own home.  Then again, you are. 

4. Enoteca Pinchiorri, Florence, Italy – I was concerned about mixed reviews online but, by the third course, I realized that the negative comments were a result of reluctant tourists who denied themselves by ordering from the ala carte menu. Don’t be crazy…spend the extra cash and experience the talent that emerges from the kitchen course after course. The service is charming and they completed my evening by sending me home with a box of muffins for the next morning’s breakfast (as if I was planning to eat within the next 24 hours!), which would be an accomplishment after dinner at EP. Also of note, their wine pairings (and pricings) are fabulous — take full advantage! 

5. The Kitchen, Sacramento, CA — I never see this little restaurant on lists, which surprises me because most of the clientele are vacationing foodies who are traveling through on their way to or from Napa. I haven’t been there in almost 4 years but I’m still reminiscing about the octopus bacon from my last visit. The remarkable thing about this restaurant that seats 50 people per night for their “demonstration dinner” is that they live by the mantra “no rules.” Roam the back kitchen, hang in the cellar, take your plate to the outdoor patio (where they serve a sushi/sashimi course midway through the evening) — they don’t even have a closing time! Also truly unique, when you finish with the last course, you are welcome to have second, third, fourth helpings of any of the dishes. Not that I could even attempt but, it’s a great sentiment. Oh, and the night is capped with your own custom tea blend. Very nice.

6. Marche Moderne, Orange County, CA – Thank goodness for Amelia and Florent Marneau! This restaurant is in a mall — a MALL! — and I still included it!!! Because the food transcends its retail location. Forget the drive to LA, or embrace the drive from LA, because this is the best french food in southern California. I get the east coast vs. west coast rivalry but the Marneaus give the Pacific one heck of a boost in that argument. 

7. Basilic, Balboa Island, CA – I hate to divulge this spot because I feel like Basilic is the best kept secret even though it consistently rates among the best restaurants in the area. Also in Southern California, this tony establishment on the island’s main street only seats about 28 per night and, thankfully, doesn’t require a month’s advance for reservations. But, it should. The swiss french cuisine prepared by Bernard Althaus is divine and the service is attentive but not cumbersome. The very definition of “intimate,” it is frequently, thankfully, overlooked by tourists and therefore home to the more discriminating locals. 

8. Le Bernardin, New York – After a trip which also included dinner at Gordon Ramsay and at The Modern, Le Bernardin emerged as the best restaurant for food. NOT the best for service. It was snobbish and unwelcoming and really detracted from what would otherwise have been the most delicately prepared seafood. I still included it because Eric Ripert’s genius should be mentioned but I do hope they reconsider their approach to service. Maybe the new economy will force them to appreciate their customers more…

9. St. Elmo’s, Indianapolis, IN – Great steak but the shrimp cocktail, on fire with a daring horseradish/cocktail sauce ratio, is a must-have. 

10. Pierre Gagnaire, Paris, France – I debated including Pierre Gagnaire. In fact, I noticed that it fell a considerable number of slots in this past year’s Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 and I wasn’t surprised. Although it wasn’t the most amazing meal I’ve eaten, it did rank among the most memorable. I mean, who can forget oyster ice cream? No matter how badly I want to! Still, M. Gagnaire did challenge my palate and introduce me to radical flavors that gave me a new appreciation (and slight fear) for molecular gastronomy. I walked away thinking “over-rated” but I am still talking about it. And, there’s something to be said for that.

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