January 20, 2022

When I was living in Singapore, I would dine out a lot and conjure up words to help you decide if a restaurant was worth a visit. But 2021 was a year that I spent hunkering down. Moving to the countryside was hard and the lockdown made it even tougher. In May, when France reopened cafe and restaurant terraces, I immediately made my first restaurant booking and committed to two seats on the terrace of Arbore et Sensa fresh joint steered by a young chef serving up fashionable food inspired by the seasons. Two days before my long-awaited dining experience, I received a call from the restaurant requesting to cancel our outdoor reservation due to predictions of bad weather. I cried like it was the end of the world.


Arbore et Sens

That setback lit a fire under me. From there on out, it was a catch-up game as I embarked on numerous road trips across Europe, some led by the spirit of adventure, others powered by a perpetual hunger. The day I got led into the stunning dining room by a maitre’d (yes, an actual person) of Le Bois sans Feuilles by Troisgros and mulled over my cheese trolley choices, was one of the most lovely things I have ever experienced. It was abundantly clear that everyone around me was elated to be back, revelling in the normality of a meal out. You would think that after how much the hospitality industry had to weather, with the constant barrage of restrictions and rules thrown at it, the waiters would be a bunch of sourpusses or hardened souls. Yet, they were in good spirits, managing to stay jaunty despite being tested time and time again.

Making it all the way to Modena, Italy for Osteria Francescana after two cancellations over a two-year waiting period was a personal milestone and the apex of my dining experiences of 2021. Plus the frisson of walking into a three-Michelin-star establishment never gets old.

La Piedigrotta Da Carmine e Antonio

Osteria Francescana

Perched up on the great amphitheatre of vine-covered hills is Campamac in Barbaresco. The bustling restaurant benefits from the sunset spray of coral and ochre, adding tints of crimson to the Piedmontese wine that you order for your table. As you gaze rapturously through the open kitchen windows, staff are purposely positioned—rolling dough, cranking out fresh pasta sheets and filling raviolis.

Let me draw your attention to the semolina crusted fried porcini mushroom flanked with a dazzling spool of hazelnut mayonnaise. It single-handedly activated a part of me that also went into lockdown—that sensual nature linked to food. In Genoa’s La Piedigrotta Da Carmine e Antonio, a plate of pasta sheets bathed in an authentic Genovese pesto sauce with basil, garlic and citrus, bolstered my weary spirit. 

If what I ate in Italy was an indication of the level of culinary excellence, Spain should be on par. And the restaurant deserving of a 6-hour journey is Casa Julian in Tolosa. Most gastronauts find their way to this joint for one thing and one thing alone: Txuletas—the restaurant’s ceiling covered in black soot is a testament of their round-the-clock action since 1954. There’s no Instagram bait here, in fact, a photo of the ribeye steak does not do it justice. 

Casa Julian: Txuletas

Special mentions must also go out to Vrijmoed in Ghent and Retrobottega in Rome, flavour masters in their own respective ways. Both meals progressed in an uncontrived, provocative, personality-packed manner. Guaranteed fun. A little further away, in London, where the citizens battle the corruption of Salt Bae’s empire, lies an extraordinary dim sum experience put together by chef Andrew Wong. I do miss cheap and cheerful dim sum, however, at A.Wong, he replaces any existing memories you have of rowdy overcrowded tea houses with Michelin finesse while honouring heritage and elevating classics.

It’s challenging to list my top restaurant experiences of 2021, because they were all memorable, particularly in this pandemic climate. Unlike in the past, where dining out is looked at with a fine-tooth comb, these days, it's about embracing the multifaceted experience with other human beings around us. Here’s to more delicious escapades in 2022.