10 favorite restaurants of 2021

Last year, when I got tired of reading restaurant obituaries, I decided to write restaurant love letters instead. I had hoped it was a one-time case, but the pandemic is not over, and neither are the obituaries. But I still managed to eat well, so I have more love letters.

These ten restaurants (in alphabetical order) have come to life for me over the past year. A couple are new, but most are worth celebrating because they’ve adapted and hooked up. Some have Michelin stars while others don’t even have menus. They all reminded me of the origin of the word Restaurant-restore, take care, make one feel complete.

Ramusè farmhouse, Ascoli Piceno, Italy

My first night at Agriturismo Ramusè, I watched with pleasure the owner Paolo Ciccioli spend 30 whole seconds shaving a black truffle – one that I had harvested with him and his truffle hunting dogs a few hours earlier – on my pasta. It was just the primo piatto, halfway to a dinner in which all three courses included a sumptuous amount of truffles, during a stay in which every dinner and even breakfast included the same. The rural accommodation is as charming as it gets, with natural materials and antique furniture, but it’s the sumptuous truffle whips that will stay with me. (Thank’s for Italy charm for the introduction.)

Alameda, Faro, Portugal

The chef of this laid-back spot honed his craft at the two-Michelin-starred Algarve Ocean Restaurant after exhausting himself in haute cuisine. Here is the concept of ‘fancy and fun dining’ in a dining room full of tropical plants, silver sculptures hanging from light fixtures, and a lovely little garden out front. The technique is still there, with primo local ingredients, but nothing is too much trouble – while I love the unique two star experience, Alameda is the kind of place I could eat every week. Especially since the tasting menus change frequently, depending on the daily products, but they generally favor fish and seafood from the Algarve.

Azores Wine Company, Pico, Portugal

Some context sets in here: The remote, rural islands of the Azores tend to be great places to eat unfussy fresh fish, grass-fed beef, and a spoiler of rich cheeses and butter. These are generally not good places for ambitious gourmet menus. This makes the accomplishments of chefs José Diogo Costa and Angelina Pedra within the new Azores wine business all the more impressive. They offer three six-course tasting menus, served to one group at a time around a magnificent table centered on a basalt stone, made from top-notch ingredients (the fish is slaughtered by the Japanese like jime technique, supposed to give it a superior flavor) and accompanied by wines, of course.

Castañeda Bar, Las Vegas, New Mexico

Every time I return to my native New Mexico, I expect to feast on green chili peppers. I wouldn’t expect to find a dining room in an old railroad track in a small town. And yet, that’s what I discovered in May, when I reunited with a fellow journalist and found myself in the Old West dining room of chef Sean Sinclair and his wife, Katey Sinclair. The dishes blend local classics, fresh interpretations, locally raised meats and seasonal produce – and there in the desert, improbably tasty fish and chips.

Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, Alentejo, Portugal

A carriage ride pulled by Lusitano horses to a shady spot next to the vineyards, where the tables are loaded with cheese and ham, octopus salad, perfectly fresh tomato, grilled vegetables, smoked fish, cod salad and dozens other Portuguese specialties: it could be an advertisement for Alentejo tourism. It is also the picnic at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, a moving wine hotel concerned with sustainability. These entrees are followed by all sorts of things from an oversized grill, chaired by Chef Rodrigo Madeira. (Michelin-starred chef Joachim Koerper consults and sometimes introduces himself, along with his pastry wife, Cintia.) Golden, sunny afternoons around these tables with old and new friends are memories.

Noor, Cordoba, Spain

“Gastro-archaeologist” Paco Morales has spent years researching, exploring, and playing with the culinary traditions of his native Andalusia, or Al-Ándalus as he was called from the 10th to 15th centuries, when under Arab rule. Now he describes his project in several ways, but my favorite is that he imagines he is cooking for an emperor or a caliph. Its two Michelin star tasting menu is a dazzling display of ingredients, flavors and presentation, on custom-designed black and white ceramics with 3D printed table accents. (This is how deep the attention to detail is.) Each year he advances a century in the gastronomic history of his native region, and this season has been significant, as it reflects the arrival of new world ingredients like tomatoes and corn.

Osteria U Local, Buccheri, Italy

This local restaurant in a small Sicilian town would have been impressive on its own, but it’s even more memorable because it was my introduction to food historian, cookbook author and local character Pippo Formica. Before having lunch at this restaurant that he runs with his brother Sebastiano, they made granite from scratch next to a hillside hut that dates back to the days when ice was a kind of cold gold, in terms of value. The Brothers’ Restaurant is a small, bustling place whose walls are covered with newspaper clippings and award certificates. I’ll take their word for it wild boar is awesome – my pasta with the simplest, freshest pomodoro, and a simple egg sprinkled with truffles certainly was.

Tsaghkunk Restaurant, Tsaghkunk, Armenia

Truth be told, I found myself in this village about an hour from the Armenian capital for a unique event, a collaboration between the restaurant staff and Noma’s founding chef, Mads Refslund, which aimed to elevate the local cuisine and – just as important — putting Armenia on the culinary map. (I’ll go so far as to call it the New Georgia.) Refslund and his team have been back to New York for a long time, but the restaurant was very inviting before we got there. When I went for breakfast, chef Susanna Guckasyan and her team prepared a feast of fresh and smoked cheeses, fresh herbs, lavash (flat bread), egg dishes, a kind of lasagna, aveluk (wild sorrel) and, my favorite, gaylakhach, sour yogurt soup with green vegetables.

Vespasia, Norcia, Italy

Although the Relais & Châteaux Palazzo Seneca hotel is upstairs, the brothers who run both the palace hotel and the dining room describe themselves as “restaurateurs with rooms”. Vespasia, one of two restaurants in Umbria with a Michelin star. The restaurant has two chefs, Fabio Cappiello, originally from Puglia, and Fumiko Sakai, born in Japan. They bring broader perspectives and influences to what is inevitably (because it’s Italy) hyperspecific regional cuisine. Although Norcia is known for their smoked and cured meats, they didn’t look at my pescatarian preferences and whipped up a five-course menu full of interesting flavors and lovely presentations.

Viscri 125, Transylvania, Romania

One of the best things about visiting Transylvania is staying on a rural farmhouse. Viscri 125 is a centerpiece of the village of the same name, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a timeless place. I loved my adorable bedroom, with its green wooden furniture and its typically Saxon flowered chest of drawers. The dinner was even better, prepared by cooks from the village, with vegetables from the home garden, grown from rare seeds. Their cooks have adapted traditional recipes to make good use of these old exotic vegetables, making sarmale (stuffed cabbage leaves) with kale, bean soup with cavolo nero, Chard quiches or fennel velouté. A simple dinner of vegetable soup and polenta with forage mushrooms was one of my favorite meals from a weeklong trip through Romania. (Thank’s for Beyond Dracula for the introduction.)

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