Sampling new cuisines is an essential part of any holiday, but if you manage to snag a coveted reservation at one of these places, it’ll become the raison d'être for your entire trip.
Jill Starley-Grainger is commissioning editor for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Each month she muses for us on some of the finer things in life when it comes to travel. This month: restaurants worth booking the whole trip for.
How do you decide where to go for your breaks? Cultural highlights? Sun and sea? Luxury hotels or adrenaline-fuelled activities?
How about food? Occasionally I fly somewhere mainly to sample the food. I'll take in the sights while I'm there, but the top item on the menu is dining at a world class restaurant. It might seem a bit of an indulgence, but for a select group of places I think it's utterly worth it.
If you want a gastronomic experience you’ll never forget, you need to put aside your usual ‘book a flight, sort the details later’ holiday plan. For the planet’s most memorable meals, you need to secure the table first, then arrange the rest, because it takes some serious legwork to even get your foot in the door. But trust me; you'll be glad you did it.
Rome On A Platter - Imago, Rome
Before I was even handed the menu, I’d fallen for Imago. As the host pulled back my chair, I was greeted with an aperitif you won’t find anywhere else – Rome laid out for me on a platter through the panoramic windows. Imago sits in one of the city’s landmark hotels, the Hassler, and rises high above the Spanish Steps on one of the highest points in the historic centre.
Image: Chef View
As the waiter poured a Veruschka (fresh pomegranate juice with sparkling Italian wine), the 270-degree vista afforded through the windows showed the Roman Forum, the Pantheon and the dome of St Peter’s.
As the sun tinged the sky reddish-gold, my first course arrived – Italian green-vegetable cream soup, followed by ravioli with mature grana cheese (a taste similar to parmesan and Japanese seaweed). By the time the gooey rum baba was served (on an edible crisp-sugar saucer), the city glowed beneath a blanket of stars.
Image: Food at Imago
Booking: Reservations open a year in advance, but you can usually still get them two to four weeks ahead. Book to stay at the hotel and they’re more likely to squeeze you in with less notice.
Multi-Sensory Munching - The Fat Duck, Berkshire - and Melbourne
Nobody does kitchen wizardry better than London-born chef Heston Blumenthal. He opened The Fat Duck in the quaint village of Bray in 1995 and began experimenting with molecular gastronomy – using scientific methods to create new taste combinations. It served him well, eventually earning the restaurant first place in the annual World’s Best Restaurants awards, as well as three Michelin stars.
Image: The Fat Duck, Jelly of Quail & Crayfish Cream ©Ashley Palmer-Watts
Getting a table requires a Herculean effort, but I finally managed it in April this year. The 14-course menu started with frozen nitro-poached tequila and grapefruit aperitif balls, followed by red-cabbage soup with grain-mustard ice cream, accompanied by a smoking moss garden – the fragrance enhancing the flavour of the soup. The rest of the meal continued in a similar multi-sensory fashion.
Blumenthal has announced that in February 2015, he’s closing the Fat Duck in Bray for a six-month renovation and relocating the restaurant to the Crown Resort in Melbourne. It’s sure to be the hottest ticket in Australia’s second-largest city.
Image: Fat Duck, Nitro Poached Aperitifs ©Sergio Coimbra
Booking: Tables open two months in advance at 10am, bookable online only, and are gone within about five minutes. At time of press, The Fat Duck hasn’t released details of how to book the Melbourne pop-up, and advises guests to check the website frequently for announcements.
The Hot Tip - Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain
They might not use the same sci-fi techniques as Blumenthal, but father-and-daughter team Juan Mari and Elena Arzak are quietly climbing up the ranks of the world’s best restaurants, and even surpassed the Fat Duck in the most recent awards. Perched on a hillside, Arzak overlooks San Sebastian, arguably Europe’s most important – and alluring – gastronomic destination. This coastal city has a higher per-capita concentration of Michelin-starred eateries than anywhere else on earth. Rooted in traditional Basque cuisine, Arzak gives it a modern spin: so seabass is marinated in gin, whilst chorizo is wrapped in mango and bathed in tonic - served in a mashed Schweppes tonic can.
Image: In the kitchen © Coconut
Booking: Reservations open a year in advance online. You should be able to get a table by booking up to three months ahead.
Food As Art - Issen, Naoshima island, Japan
Taking the concept of ‘food as art’ to the next level, Issen is located inside a museum on the extraordinary island of Naoshima, home to white-sand beaches, three world-class art museums and a fishing village turned into an installation-art project
After museum visitors are herded out of the main building, overnight guests make their way to the simple restaurant to be served an exquisite multi-course kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) meal. Expect starters like fresh sea urchin, crunchy lotus root shaped like a flower and fish roe rolled in radish. Wash it down with a bottle of delicate sake, then wander the empty galleries, eyeballing Tate-worthy works by Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock and Richard Long.
Booking: Dinner at Issen is only open to guests staying at one of Benesse House resort’s four on-site hotels. You can often get one of the priciest suites at short notice, but for the widest choice, book at least two months ahead online. The kaiseki dinner must be ordered two days in advance. Tables are limited, so best to reserve a meal at Issen as soon as you receive your room confirmation.
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