Looking back on my time as your Traveling Gourmet, I recall the many restaurants where I have eaten. Some are great, some you never read about because I didn’t really love them, and some are like this group: my favorite restaurants in the world.
In thirty years of writing about travel and food, of course some of my beloved places are no longer open, and it wouldn’t really help you to read about them, so I’m sticking to the places that still exist. What makes a restaurant eligible for this list? Well, great food of course. That’s a given. Then there’s the atmosphere, which includes everything from décor (fancy or down-home, ornate or minimalist) to service, which is impeccable at every one of these places. There’s also a certain undefined quality, call it a feeling it gives me, that makes me say “I want to come back here over and over again.” I’m confident that if you check them out, you’ll feel the same.
RIVER’S END (Jenner, California) Of course, River’s End, which you’ve seen me write about too many times to count, is part of my list of favorites. Perfectly situated on a bluff overlooking the spot where the Russian River flows into the Pacific Ocean, it’s been my beloved go-to whenever I visit Sonoma County, and now that I live here, well, it’s still (twenty years after I first ate here) my beloved go-to restaurant. Step out onto the balcony, take a look through the telescope, and you might just see some harbor seals lazing on the beach. Have a seat at your table and prepare to be pampered with the most excellent service imaginable. If you’re really lucky, your server will be Lichi, the Duchess of the River’s End waitstaff, but whoever your server is, they’re going to be super-nice, because that’s one of the hallmarks of River’s End. Having tried just about everything on the menu, I can honestly say you won’t go wrong with anything, but of course I have some favorites, like the beautiful Technicolor Beet Salad, layers of multi-colored beets interspersed with goat cheese and macadamia nuts for the most delectable little tower you’ve ever had. I also love the duck confit rolls: wonton rolls filled with duck, Asian noodles, Napa cabbage, and water chestnuts. Among the mains, the lemongrass halibut served over black forbidden rice is pretty amazing, as is the applewood-smoked filet mignon. I’ve always loved the vegetable Napoleon, a vegetarian standout that’s been on the menu forever, with fresh seasonal vegetables layered with basil, feta, “overnight tomatoes,” and marinated tofu, all served over forbidden rice with a zesty citrus beurre blanc. To end, a rhubarb crostata combines this sweet/tangy compote in a pastry shell with stunning rosemary ice cream, while crème brûlée is their unique version, complete with raspberries and a chocolate ganache “surprise.” Be sure to visit the deck between courses, preferably as the sun is setting, because there really is no better view in the world (literally). They also have a row of cabins overlooking the sea, and the gorgeous two-bedroom Sunset House for rent, and it would be super-easy to spend an entire vacation gazing out at that view, and, of course, savoring a menu that’s as spectacular as the vistas. 11048 CA-1, Jenner CA. Tel: 707-865-2484. ilovesunsets.com
THE ARTIST (Bucharest, Romania) I still remember my first visit to The Artist, a spur-of-the-moment lunch because I happened to be in the area. The place is lowkey, refined, and elegant, the service flawless. Then there’s the food: what a gorgeous meal I had, each dish more visually and culinarily exciting than the one before! This is a chef whose mission statement proclaims that he’s “inspired by world cuisine, influenced by Romanian seasons, driven by innovation,” and it’s this playfulness combined with passion that makes the food here so exciting. What I love is that it’s never innovative for the sake of innovation: it’s always in support of the fresh ingredients and their flavors. When I visited, they were doing tasting menus, in which you’d be brought several spoons on a plate filled with a variety of appetizers, mains, or desserts. I’m not sure they’re doing that anymore, but it was the perfect introduction to the creative wonders on offer here. You can start with a Romanian Telemea (a beautiful white cheese) with melon, quinoa, tomato, and balsamic, or a fascinating BBQ polenta with egg, cauliflower, and cheese. Maybe the prawn tortellini on the menu catches your eye. Go ahead and try it, you know it will be great, heightened with corn chowder and chorizo. You might also be drawn to the sirloin, a super-meaty dish with oxtail goulash, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms, or a trout fillet with crispy pilaf. You have your choice of a two-, three-, four-, five, or six-course menu, and of course I suggest the largest number possible. After all, you wouldn’t want to miss out on desserts like a “liquid chocolate bar” with coffee, hazelnut, and salted caramel, would you? (By the way, the cucumber sorbet, with hints of basil, mint, green apple, coconut, and passion fruit, is the perfect palate cleanser before you launch into the rich finale!). “Here your imagination will be challenged,” they proclaim, “and known gastronomical rules will be broken.” Well, that’s what artistry is all about, isn’t it? Calea Victoriei 147, Bucharest, Romania. Tel: +40-728-318-871. theartist.ro
EVANS AMERICAN GOURMET (South Lake Tahoe, California) If there’s one thing I love about Evans American Gourmet, Tahoe’s best restaurant, it’s the surprises. You arrive at this little roadside place and enter a world of floral carpets, windows trimmed in valances, and vases full of flowers. Then your incredibly nice server brings the menus, and a board on an easel with the nightly specials. You’ll see that the cuisine is up-to-date, surprising, even risk-taking, in a way you might not expect in this comforting, “granny’s parlor” dining room. A daily pizza and pasta always grace the specials (at least, they have every time I’ve visited), and whatever is on offer will be amazing. I’ve had pizzas from ricotta/blackberries/honey (the best creation in the history of pizza), to smoked chicken/pesto/poblanos, and both in their very different ways were completely perfect. The nightly pasta might be topped with something like seared scallops, capers, mushrooms, and preserved lemon beurre blanc, displaying an equal perfection. You must (this is an order, pardon the pun) get the chile cheesecake, a wonderful savory version of what’s usually a dessert, topped with lobster salad and white corn fricassee. It’s definitely on my top 10 starters of all times list! For mains, choose one of the favorites such as pan-seared dayboat scallops, rosemary/garlic-marinated lamb, or panko/thyme-crusted chicken breast with a yummy mascarpone risotto. For something a little more daring, some of the most original creations can be found among the nightly specials: mine one night is this incredible halibut done in the most unexpected way, with a polenta crab tamale, corn and jicama salad, and green tomatillo sauce. I’ve honestly never seen fish prepared like this, and I can still remember every savory flavor melding so smoothly into a rich, delicious, and thoroughly surprising dish. Round off your meal with one of their luscious desserts, such as a martini glass full of pecan ice cream, bananas, and a caramel rum sauce, or blackberry/chocolate crème brûlée tart. There’s a reason Evans has been around for years, even in a place as full of restaurants as Tahoe. That’s because it’s, simply, the best. 536 Emerald Bay Rd., South Lake Tahoe, CA. Tel: 530-542-1990. evanstahoe.com
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TIAN BISTRO (Vienna, Austria) I came across Tian Bistro, in the lovely Spittelberg area of Vienna, when I was doing a Traveling Gourmet on vegetarian restaurants, and it quickly became one of my favorites. Chef Paul Ivić works wonders with plant-based cuisine, transforming even the most seemingly simple set of ingredients into something that’s as stunning visually as it is full of flavor. Author of several cookbooks, including the wonderful Restlos glücklich (completely happy), Ivić is clear that he’s not trying to imitate or substitute, but rather explore the beauty of fresh, seasonal vegetables arranged into a fascinating flavor palette. You might start with an intriguing grilled romaine, watercress, and green gazpacho, or perhaps carrot hummus with spiced spelt flatbread. I’ve had such wonders here as a beet tartare with spiced mayo and grilled bread that could have been designed by a world-class painter, or a watermelon/mushroom salad that actually makes for a perfect, if unusual, combination. That’s what is what I love about Tian: the willingness of the chef to venture into preparations I wouldn’t have thought of in a million years, and end up with a little work of visual and culinary art. How else can you describe a porcini risotto with pine nuts and lovage, or a dessert like a chocolate “column” with pumpkin seed nougat and strawberries? If you’re overwhelmed by the choices and the creativity on display, take the easy way: do a “Sharing Chef’s Garden,” and let them decide on a series of offerings, all served family-style, while you sit back and relax in the cozy, wood-toned dining room or the front patio (on a nice day, there’s nowhere on earth I’d rather be). “Food is about connecting people because it doesn‘t need a specific language, all it needs is a loving soul,” proclaims Ivić, and if you wonder how food can have a “loving soul,” I suggest you stop in Tian Bistro and find out for yourself. Schrankgasse 4, Vienna, Austria. Tel: +43-1-526-9491. tian-bistro.com/en
TRIA CAFE (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Wait, you say, a wine bar in your group of favorite restaurants? Well, when it’s done with the aplomb of Philadelphia’s Tria Café, it definitely earns a spot among these luminaries. I love the location in Washington West (Philadelphia’s gayborhood) and, probably because I once lived a few blocks away, it’s my location of choice, but their spot near Rittenhouse Square is equally winning. The food is so good here that you’ll love it even if you don’t pair your dish with one of the many wines on offer. Among the many wonderful dishes, the standouts for me include the fig and gorgonzola salad, which combines black mission figs, rich gorgonzola, prosciutto di Parma, and pine nuts, and the duck salad, a luscious mound of roasted duck atop a spinach salad, with strawberries (or cherries, depending on the season) and citrus-mint vinaigrette. The various bruschetta choices are also sure bets, whether you choose fontina/mushrooms, goat cheese/pesto, or pistachio/herbed ricotta with lavender honey. While all three are absolutely perfect (as I can testify from repeated experiences), if I had to choose one favorite, I think I’d go with the pistachio ricotta for its soothing and luxurious blend of flavors. There’s an elegant simplicity to everything they do, with the flavors in perfect harmony, from a truffled mushroom panino to an asparagus and artichoke panzanella. Flourless chocolate torte with mascarpone and strawberries, or gorgeous Meyer lemon ricotta cheesecake, might just be the perfect ending to your meal, perhaps with a sauternes, tawny port, or madeira. This bi-level spot is the ideal place to while away a few hours, sipping vintage after vintage from the large wine list that roams the globe from Italy, Spain, and France to California, Australia, and even the occasional Pennsylvania selection. They also have a nice selection of beers from craft breweries across the country, and a captivating cocktail selection (including the non-alcoholic). So take your beverage of choice, or just spend your evening indulging in the treats that, it seems, just keep coming and coming. That’s because if you’re anything like me, every bite you take will just make you want more, more, more. 1137 Spruce St., Philadelphia PA. Tel: 215-629-9200. triaphilly.com
JOËL ROBUCHON (Las Vegas, Nevada) Everyone who’s at all knowledgeable about foodie matters knows that Las Vegas has an incredible culinary scene, and there’s nowhere more memorable than the unforgettable Joël Robuchon, located in the MGM Grand. Named, of course, for the late chef who was one of the towering giants of the gastronomic world, there’s an elegance here that just feels natural, a level of service and cooking that is so elevated it feels second-nature and not at all pretentious, as it’s all delivered with an air of “Well, isn’t this what everyone does?” I arrived for my first visit with all the accoutrements of my job: notebook, pen camera, etc. (yes, I’m old fashioned), stuffed into my little black bag, and they immediately offered me a separate little stool for the bag. Then they wheeled over a cart of luscious breads for me to choose, but this being Joël Robuchon they didn’t just lift one off the cart, instead they returned a few moments later with my selection, fresh and hot from the oven! You choose how many courses you want: two appetizers and a main, two mains, or whatever you feel like, and soon the amazements start arriving: a “symphony” of caviar and salmon tartare, white asparagus panna cotta with sea urchin and rhubarb (an unusual but incredible combination), truffled langoustine ravioli, or caramelized black cod in Malabar pepper sauce. For the ultimate splurge, choose the degustation menu, twelve sublime courses that might also include such wonders as seared scallop in green curry sauce, lettuce velouté with scallion flan and ricotta tortellini, or grilled beef over grapevine shoots with eggplant “caviar.” Now, don’t get me started on the desserts, which are a world of perfection in themselves, from blueberry confit with Kalamansi mousse to berry compote with coconut tapioca and basil oil. Like the food, the dining room is elegant but comfortable, elevated but welcoming, grand but accessible. That, I think, is the thing I love best about Joël Robuchon: it’s clearly a unique and exalted spot, but one you immediately feel right at home in. 3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd. Tel: 702-891-7925. mgmgrand.com