My brother and I both have restless feet. No, not the medical condition by that name – more the fact that though we’re both rather young, we’ve gotten around the world, each in our own way. We laugh about it, because while he tends to travel as much as his free time permits him and backpacks through whatever disreputable Burmese jungle or Peruvian demonstrations he can find, I tend to move places. Or I have been and now hopefully settled here in Stockholm and will henceforth travel in a less permanent and luggage-laden manner. You know, more like other people – for vacations, not to live. Of course, who knows, T and I may one day take off for Australia if life goes that way – I mean, we haven’t been there before, it’s a new place.
In the meantime, however, I have decided to take a tally of my favorite places to eat in all of those places I’ve lived – and visited – so far. An important note here is that, while I have been to – and eaten – at many, many more places than these, and that many of those places were far higher-rated and pricey, what I am listing here is the places which had (at the time I ate there, hope they still do have!), hands-down, the best food, regardless of how prestigious or hole-in-the-wall sorts of places they are. In all the years of my travels, these are the places I remember for the sheer eating pleasure itself – if I pass by those locales again, these are the places I would wish to revisit. And eat at. Obviously.
In no particular order:
- Mai Lee Vietnamese Restaurant – Saint Louis, USA The place which both, introduced me to Vietnamese cooking, and then set the standard for it so high that most other places I’ve been since pale in comparison. Fresh greens, homemade sauces, and fascinating regional dishes make the place really unforgettable. And, they have fantastic Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk!
- Fred’s House and Market Seafood Restaurant – Hyatt Regency Grounds, Cancun, Mexico. The seafood is the catch of the day, caught the same day – and you can pick out which specific one(s) you want to eat, before you order, from an iced market-style display! Simple preparations that highlight the flavor of really, really fresh fish and shellfish and fantastic cocktails. I’ve still not forgotten the Almendra Tostada I drank there after a mountanous dish of a broiled spiny lobster tail!
- La Fattoria in Chester, UK / Mama’s on the Hill (formerly Mama Campici’s) in Saint Louis, USA. The former is hands-down the best Italian food I’ve ever had, and the latter is the runner-up. Both offer non-standard Italian dishes, and I won’t go through their huge arrays of dishes as I’ve never had anything there that was less than wonderful. Though… I am weak, and Mama’s crab-stuffed mushrooms and Fattoria’s calamari both merit far more than just a mention – my mouth waters even at the thought! I’m sorry Italians, best Italian food I’ve had was… not in Italy. But, it was still made by Italians abroad, and it was gorgeous! And, Tuscany DOES have the best wines!
- Cafe Piastowska – Stockholm, Sweden. A quiet corner of a less-touristy area of Stockholm city is home to this tiny tiny eatery which has ground floor and cellar seating, and serves amazing Eastern-European fare (I had entrecote in caper sauce with crispy potato pancakes… mmmm!) to candlelight and old Russian music. Expect your tea service to be properly brought in glasses stabilized by ornate tea-glass holders. On a weekend, booking a table is recommended.
- Olympia Kebob House and Taverna – Saint Louis. I have been to Greek islands, and Greeks-in-Greece, I offer you my apologies as well – best Greek food I’ve had was at this tiny out-of-the way eatery deep in the continental USA. This place is home to the best homemade taramosalata I’ve ever had, and to cheese saganaki served in sizzling cast-iron dishes and flambéd in armagnac in front of your table in an applause-worthy display of pyrotechnics. The mavrodaphne wine is nothing to sneer at, either!
- Cafe Natasha – St Louis, USA. Persian cuisine. Amazing traditional osh soup, tender marinated lamb chops over herbed basmati rice, and Persian ice cream with rosewater. The place needs no more recommendation – and, like in case of Cafe Piastowska, being tiny, requires reservations on weekend evenings.
- Toffs Restauraunt and Lounge in Luton, UK / Ann Marie at the Taste of the Taj in Hanger Lane, London – tie for best Indian food (no I haven’t been to India… yet, but when I go, they will be hard-pressed to compete with these places). Toffs is indian cuisine done post-modern glam style, while Taste of the Taj is traditional, but the quality of food is astounding. Both are situated in less-than-star locales, but should you find yourself in the vicinity, either is really really well-worth the trip. I have eaten at the more premier and expensive (not naming names) indian restaurants in the London area, and none hold the candle to these two.
- Chaophraya in Liverpool, UK – best Thai. Second place goes to The King and I in Saint Louis, USA (same as for Indian food, I’ve not been to Thailand yet!). Again, I have not had a single dish at either place which was less than amazing, but I particularly recommend the Ganang Panaeng curry in Chaophraya – that with duck breast. All I can say is that despite their large and varied menu, it’s the one thing I had a hard time giving up in order to order anything else to try!
- A Popeye-looking guy armed with an oyster knife and a barrel of iced seawater and oysters on a pier somewhere near Annapolis, USA who served us paper plates with freshly-dragged-out-of-barrel-and-shucked oysters garnished only with lemon wedges, to eat where we would, standing up. Best oysters I’ve ever had. To be honest, I am not sure I could even find the place again – all I remember is that it wasn’t very far from the Annapolis Naval academy. My hat off to you, Popeye, whoever and wherever you and your oysters are!
- Brick House Grill – Hot Springs, Arkansas, USA. Birthplace of Bill Clinton. The ciy also boasts thermal spring baths. The restauraunt mentioned? There really isn’t much to say, except – Best. Steak. Ever. Real, hugely tall American strawberry cheesecake, too.
- Gelateria di Piazza in San Gimignano, Italy. Best ice cream I have ever had.
- The Bears Pub – Haifa, Israel. Smoked goose in wine and butter, how I miss thee!
- Miss Aimee B’s Tea Room in Saint Charles, USA. It’s been years since I’ve gone to university and would occasionally eat a meal here on long days, but I still remember your mouffaletta sandwiches and the Hungarian mushroom soup. And I still wish I’d managed to weedle the recipe for the latter out of you back then (when I failed).
- Le Pot de Fer – Paris. When trying to find a website for this tiny cellar eatery in Paris, all I found was a couple of sadly unfavourable reviews of the place from recent years. If the restaurant has gone downhill, it is sad, but I hope it’s just a fluke – when we ate there, years ago on my trip to Paris with some family, the atmosphere and service were down to earth and friendly, and the “bleu” (un)cooked steak I had was tender, juicy and fantastic. I hope it stays so not just in my memories.
- Brew Tea Bar – Liverpool, UK. A real tea shop and cafe where the motto is “Letting the tea out of the bag” and the tea is good, the coffee is amazing, the male barista is cute and courteous and they have (as proclaimed by the message scrawled on a napkin by some happy customer and now proudly displayed near the dessert case) BEST LEMON CAKE EVER! I kid you not – it really is. Really.
- The Leaf – Liverpool, UK. A few doors up the street from Brew, another real tea shop and cafe. They serve proper English afternoon tea. They have a great leaf tea selection, and a lovely revamped-warehouse-style dining room with a stage. They also have utterly amazing wild mushroom soup that has more mushrooms than liquid in it. All worth visiting the place for!
- Cafe Antipasti – Glasgow, Scotland. Fantastic old and rebuilt building, wonderful atmosphere and honestly, the best 1kg of mussels I have ever had.
- Kaffekoppen – Gamla Stan, Stockholm. Other than the pictured bowl of coffee (or hot beverage of your choice), you can also enjoy amazing homemade raspberry or blueberry pie, or Swedish kladdkaka (chocolate cake) – thin, rich and sticky, and oh-so-amazingly good! And, how many coffee addicts haven’t wished that their poison of choice was served in slurpworthy soup bowls?!
- Mike Anderson’s in New Orleans – sadly closed post-Katrina disaster, but I hear there is one around in Baton Rouge. Shrimp broiled in sherry are to die for. Or maybe not die, but certainly to make a detour for, should your road trip ever take you within range of Baton Rouge, USA.
- Tachibana in Saint Louis, USA – All-purpose Japanese restaurant. I’ve had sushi in many places since (yes, in Vancouver and in London, and in Liverpool too), but this place still sets the standard in variety and quality of both, sushi and other simple non-pretentious Japanese food. Ume sushi rolls, fatty tuna nigiri, spicy tuna hand rolls and red-and-white clams were my personal favorites. Also worth mentioning are the green-tea ice cream (!!!) and the very fresh and wonderfully mild fried rice. No, I haven’t been to Japan yet. This IS the 2011 edition, so perhaps I may revise my views – who knows?
I imagine I could go on and the list would just grow longer and longer. And I imagine this will certainly change as time goes, so perhaps the 2012 will find new favorites – but, considering how many years and places have gone into the making of this list, and how monumentally they have impressed me, the placement of new eateries onto this list does not come easy. And while I may go back to some of these places and revisit, or may not, if you are within a reasonable distance of any of these, they are really, really worth the trip – or at least they were when I ate there last.