Readers always ask us "Which country has the best food?" and "Where's the best place you've ever eaten?" Here are the most delicious and undeniably amazing meals we've had around the world.
Our meal at Black Tartan was sponsored by Ontario's Highlands Tourism Organization and we thank them for their support.
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Do you remember the time we feasted on desserts across Budapest, including some showstopping plates at a Michelin star'd restaurant? Or that time when we had an incredible meal at a near empty Parisian restaurant after a late night river cruise? We sure do! We love eating our away around the world and our list of good meals, restaurants, and experiences is endlessly long.
But what about GREAT meals and restaurants? No, not just great. How about the absolute best? People ask us all the time about the best meal we've ever had or the best restaurant we've ever visited and we always struggle to answer. I've realized it's not just that food enjoyment is subjective. For us, it's also about having our expectations surpassed, about being overjoyed to discover that a meal we anticipated would be merely satisfactory is actually sensational. Sometimes it's been an order from room service that blew us away so much that we are STILL talking about how perfectly creamy the sauce was. Other times, it's an unassuming country bistro, the last place we expected to find a cheese lover's heaven. In every case, the food isn't just good - it's surprisingly, unexpectedly fantastic.
After much debate, we've finally narrowed down our list of the best meals we've had around the world, using the criteria above. None of those incredible restaurants in Budapest or Paris made the list. They were wonderful - but we expected them to be wonderful. An element of joyous astonishment just wasn't there. We also eliminated any experiences that we enjoyed solo - this list is all about the places that Ryan and I have enjoyed together and have the same reaction to. Looking back on all our delicious destinations has been a fun trip down memory lane, but also a sad one. Should we go back? Would things be just as great a second time round or are our expectations now skewed? It's a good reminder to always savor the moment as much as the food!
The room service menu at Amari Don Muang Airport Hotel, Bangkok
The night before we flew from Bangkok to Mandalay, we had some uninspiring food at the airport hotel restaurant. Modeled after an American diner, it promised home-style fare but in reality left us unsatisfied. Three hours later, hungry and grumpy from jet lag, we decided to give the room service menu a peek. To our delight it was full of traditional Thai dishes! Hurrah!!! This had to be better than the underwhelming burgers downstairs, right? In a flash, we picked up the phone and ordered red chicken curry with pea eggplant and chicken with cashews and chilies.
The result was the best Thai food we've ever had and one of the best meals of our 2013 round the world trip. The food was so perfectly cooked, so flavorful, so rich, that it banished any memory of the substandard diner food from just a few hours previous. We were blown away. You don't usually expect an explosion of flavors and textures at an airport. If you're ever flying out of Bangkok on an early morning Air Asia flight, the Amari DMK airport hotel is a solid sleeping choice but you should absolutely come for dinner as well.
"8 am to 11 pm" restaurant at the Athinais hotel, Athens.
How I wish I had more photos to show you! Alas, at the time of our meals here (yep, meals - we came back more than once), we didn't realize quite what a gem we had. Let me explain....
If you're in Athens for a conference, chances are you'll be spending some time at the Megaron, Athens' concert hall and conference center. If so, I highly recommend staying at the nearby Athinais Hotel. We adored their in-house restaurant, called "8 am to 11 pm". From the outside, it looked like your average hotel restaurant. The only reason we ate there on our first night in Athens was because we were so tired. After all, hotel restaurants usually aren't that exciting. That's partially why we have so few photos - we weren't exactly expecting a dining experience worth recording. But what we tried astonished us.
An appetizer of feta cheese wrapped in phyllo pastry, deep fried, and covered in honey and sesame was the best dish I had in all of Athens. Homestyle meals, such as grilled chicken with a side of steamed beet greens, were stunning in their humble simplicity. So much so that we never even bothered to photograph them. After all, what's so exciting about grilled chicken and steamed veggies? You can find that just about anywhere in the world, right? Not like Athens! It was perfect.
Adding to our absolute delight was the fact that Ryan - who hates yogurt, feta, beets, and bell peppers - ate all four here. He stole half of the feta cheese appetizer every time it came to the table! If a restaurant can make someone love not one but four foods on their 'no go' list, that says something. And our value-loving hearts adored the fact that every meal came with a generous free bread bowl and side of yogurt-herb dip.
La Guinguette brasserie, Landelies, Belgium
The small village of Landelies, Belgium, is a beautiful area to enjoy the changing seasons and there's plenty to see and do around the banks of the River Sambra and the river locks. Ryan and I, being just who we are, of course had our thoughts turn to food!
We settled on La Guinguette by the simple formula of choosing a spot with a good view that was packed with non-touristy looking folks. We chose right! We were in the perfect location to watch the world go by and had an ever rotating cast of local families, couples, and friends at the surrounding tables.
We opted for the cheese fondue, which we anticipated was a Swiss-style pot of melted cheese with chunks of bread. Instead, we each received an individual wheel of molten cheese, which had been slowly heated for nearly an hour in it's own rind and wooden case until it was completely liquid beneath its crust. Fresh young potatoes were boiled in their skins and served on the side and we also asked for a refill of our bread basket to help sop up the cheesy goodness.
Just in case this food miracle hasn't sunk in yet, it was cheese. An entire wheel of cheese. Baked in its own rind until it was melted inside. Glorious.
"Cooking With Nonna" cooking class, Rome.
In Rome - a swirling, enchanting, hedonistic kind of town - we were blown away not by a phenomenal, Michelin star rated feast but rather by humble bruschetta. Of course, I'd eaten bruschetta long before visiting Rome. It was a mainstay of my student backpacking diet and I couldn't pass on the chance to try a small Roman cooking class where bruschetta was included on the menu.
Of course, the menu wasn't just about bruschetta. Throughout the evening, we mastered the art of making homemade pasta dough, which we stuffed with ricotta and spinach filling and topped with a simple marina sauce. We pounded veal and carefully folded sage leaves for an incredible main of pan-fried "Saltimbocca Alla Romana" (veal with proscciutto and sage) and we whipped our tiramisu filling with two spoons - one for stirring, one for tasting! But the bruschetta was the star of the show.
A light drizzle of olive oil found its way to the warm, toasty bread and a clove of garlic, sliced in half and roughly rubbed over each slice, seasoned the dish without overpowering the more delicate flavors. Topped by a cascade of expertly chopped tomatoes and casually torn basil, it was at once precise and relaxed, restrained yet indulgent. And it was utterly delicious.
Essence of Lapland "Flavor Tour", Jokkmokk, Sweden
Where the heck is Jokkmokk and what the heck is a "flavour tour"? Let's start with an easy one. Jokkmokk is a town in Sweden's Arctic Circle, a pretty destination that we really enjoyed and home to the world's northern most botanical garden. But a flavour tour?
In the words of host and chef Eva Gunnare: "We will follow the eight seasons in our walk – how does the midwinter taste and feel like, what flavors do I forage in the spring and summer and what treasures can I find in the summer-autumn? I’ll tell you more about my life in the north as food creator and the local culture. I will explain what grows in the surrounding area, what is traditionally foraged but also what I have learned to forage and turn into food. With my basket filled with taste bits, spices and drinks, I will let you taste the flavors of our nature"
Our flavor tour began in a small hut, with furs lining the floor and a fire burning in the middle. We snuggled in as Eva poured hot berry infused Labrador tea and passed around crunchy herb infused flatbread and butter - all made from local ingredients. Before long, she brought out a piece of smoked reindeer, prepared in that very hut, and sliced off pieces of the meat for us to try.
I'll be honest - I'm not really a fan of reindeer, smoked or otherwise. So why does a food I don't enjoy make the list of the best meals I've ever tried? Overall it was such an amazing, unique, one of a kind experience and I felt so welcome in Eva's home.
Besides, the rest of the flavor tour was pretty darn delicious! We feasted on fresh local greens and herbs, homemade soup, smoked and fried fish, flat bread, and drinks made with forest finds like herbs, flowers, and berries. Ice cream topped with cloud berry sauce completed our perfect evening.
North And Navy, Ottawa
Ryan and I have an embarrassing secret. Whenever people from out of town ask us where they should eat in Ottawa, we never know what to say. More often than not, we stammer and try to change the subject. Such is our guilt that every now and then we go through spurts where we actively try out several new restaurants in a row just so we can have something to talk about!
Along the way we've discovered several good spots but nothing has blown us away quite like North and Navy. In a converted home just off Bank Street, cuisine from Venice and Northern Italy with the occasional Canadian twist is being served to eager, in-the-know Ottawa residents. Ryan is obsessed with their meatballs but the dish that still makes us sigh was a bowl of ricotta infused pasta with homemade pesto and mushrooms, topped with the perfect soft poached egg. Bursting that yolk was an absolutely sublime foodie moment and it made the other dish - pappardelle with mint, peas, onions, and white chocolate (yes!) pale in comparison even though it was really very good.
Thankfully, the trepidation I mentioned earlier about returning to special places more than once hasn't extended to North and Navy. Their menu changes on a monthly basis so each visit feels like a completely different experience. We've been back several times since, always enjoying it, but nothing can replace that beloved pasta dish.
Black Tartan Kitchen, Carleton Place, Ontario
Every meal and location on this list has a few things in common. They all gave us great food, sure, but there was more to it than that. They were all astonishingly delicious, so much so that we couldn't believe our good luck. And no restaurant embodies that happy, unexpected surprise quite like Carleton Place's Black Tartan Kitchen.
We were in Carleton Place to explore Ontario's Highlands Serenity Seeker's route and Black Tartan was certainly a serene experience. In fact, Black Tartan might just win the prize for the best food we've ever had outside a large city.
Chef Ian Carswell has experience working in Finland and France and that global flare shows through in his seasonal menu with strong, minimalist Nordic influences. The evening started with escargot served with puff pastry and mushrooms was a savory explosion of flavors that had Ryan craving more - he said it was the best escargot he's ever had. It ended with a narrow rectangle of intense chocolate cake was perfectly balanced by a sprig of tart red currants. And every dish in between was equally terrific. We couldn't stop talking about how good everything was and how blown away that a restaurant of this caliber was in Carleton Place as opposed to a big city like Toronto or Montreal.
All this feasting equals good value for us
The best thing about all of these meals? They were all affordable! In fact, some of them were downright cheap. And while we're always happy to splurge on a fantastic meal, the fact that we didn't have to in order to have the best meals of our lives is even better. And we can't wait to discover the next round of great meals on our upcoming adventures!
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