Discovering the work of imaginative young chefs is one of the consistent pleasures of travel. This past year, I experienced Barbara Lynch's unparalleled cuisine at Menton, in Boston, and encountered the dazzling virtuosity of Francis Paniego at El Portal de Echaurren, in Spain. Read on for my other favorite restaurants from around the world, including those in Chicago, Hong Kong and Vancouver.
Best Formal Restaurant in the United States
Barbara Lynch’s culinary star has long illuminated the Boston dining scene. I have recommended her No. 9 Park for many years, and I now happily endorse this excellent restaurant. With a spare, sophisticated interior, Menton features big windows that overlook the bustling Fort Point neighborhood. The name of the restaurant comes from the delightful French town of Menton, near the Italian border, and the menu draws on culinary traditions from both nations. We began our memorable lunch with an exquisite presentation of heirloom tomatoes with crisped goat cheese, chili-inflected rhubarb and za’atar spice. A beautiful dish of striped bass, with leeks, miso and mustard followed. Service was attentive, informative and friendly throughout. I look forward to returning, especially for dinner, at which there are four- and seven-course options.
354 Congress Street. Tel. (617) 737-0099
Best Formal International Restaurant
El Portal de Echaurren
The modern dining room of this casually elegant Michelin two-star restaurant not only serves some of the best cooking in Spain right now, but it also provides impeccable service. Young chef Francis Paniego learned to cook from his award-winning chef-mother, Marisa Sánchez, and is now the fifth generation in his family to run a restaurant. At El Portal, Paniego is inspired by the traditional cooking of La Rioja and the seasonal produce of the surrounding farms and countryside. When the first hors d’oeuvres of the tasting menu come to the table, they are presented with a fanlike menu, where every dish is explained and detailed on a different paper panel. These dishes range from the wonderfully earthy (white asparagus with raw perrechicos, a type of local mushroom, with freshly made mayonnaise seasoned with the same mushroom) to the intriguingly cerebral (“Fresh herb, or how to eat a high mountain meadow,” which is goat cheese cream topped with frozen foie gras powder and grass powder). This last dish may sound odd but it is stunningly light, bright and original, as is all of Paniego’s cooking. El Portal offers a superb wine list, too.
Calle Padre José García 19, Ezcaray. (34) 941-354-047
Best Informal Restaurant in the United States
I can’t think of any American chefs who do upscale Mexican cuisine better than Rick Bayless. His newest Baja-inspired restaurant counts among Chicago’s most coveted reservations, thanks to dishes that offer strikingly complex flavors. One memorable appetizer combined the sweet and charred flavor of roasted pineapple with pungent goat cheese, tangy orange-lime broth and hazelnut salsa macha. I also loved our main courses of black cod with spicy “pastor” marinade and sweet pineapple-shiso salsa; and short rib with smoky Oaxacan pasilla salsa and rich cauliflower purée. We spotted Bayless himself working in the kitchen, and his engaging daughter, Lanie, arranged for a selection of mezcals to pair with our courses.
900 West Randolph Street. Tel. (312) 733-1975
Best Informal International Restaurant
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Tucked away in Vancouver’s Chinatown, chef Joël Watanabe’s acclaimed new restaurant serves Japanese-Italian fusion cuisine amid chic midcentury-modern décor. The food manages to be at once imaginative, attractive and comforting. I started with a gorgeously composed albacore tuna crudo, garnished with olives, Tokyo leeks and capers served in olive oil and a shiso vinaigrette. A square of lasagna was layered with chanterelles, ground pork, radish greens and a miso béchamel, served in a pool of basil broth. And the tiramisu — an ethereally light version made with whipped soy, tofu mascarpone and plum wine, as well as espresso-soaked lady fingers — was as good as almost any I’ve had in Italy.
263 East Pender Street. Tel. (778) 379-8078
Hotel Restaurant of the Year
Café Gray Deluxe
The Upper House, Hong Kong
With sweeping views of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, the 49th floor of The Upper House hotel provides a spectacular setting for Café Gray Deluxe. Directing the kitchen is chef Gray Kunz, who made his mark at Lespinasse in New York’s St. Regis hotel. Here, Kunz oversees a menu that is seasonal and market driven. During our stay, it featured dishes such as a cucumber roll of tuna tartare garnished with tobiko (flying fish roe); tortelloni stuffed with crab, spinach and ricotta; and quail glazed with verjus (the pressed juice of unripened fruit, typically grapes), with sides of grape chutney and couscous. The wine list is notable, especially for its selection of Champagnes.
Café Gray Deluxe
Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Central. Tel. (852) 3968-1106