I’ve wanted to do one of these posts for a while now. But, I’ve never been able to get around to it until now. That’s because I’m still stuck at home dreaming of my favorite meals from around the world. So, here are my all-time top 10 meals 2021 edition.
This is what, I hope, will be the first post in an annual series. As you all know, I love unique dining experiences. And while we haven’t been to dozens of Michelin-starred restaurants, we have had the privilege to enjoy a great many amazing meals. That, of course, makes putting together a list like this exceedingly difficult. Sure, I could’ve expanded the size of the list, but that’d defeat the purpose, don’t you think? So, unfortunately, there are many fantastic restaurants that I love dearly that aren’t on this list. Maybe I’ll do a categorized list one day to even the playing field a bit. But, for now, let’s get into my all-time top 10 meals 2021 edition.
Note: (*) represents 1 Michelin Star, (**) is 2 Michelin Stars, and (***) is 3 Michelin Stars.
10. Mister Jiu’s (*)
To kick things off, we’re heading to San Francisco. I’ve been to the Bay Area exactly twice in my entire life – once in sixth grade and once in 2018. During this last visit, my first as an adult, I made it a point to get to one of the city’s famous Chinese restaurants. But, I didn’t choose any old dim sum house; I chose the best – Mister Jiu’s – a one Michelin star establishment that makes everything in-house, including pickles, vinegar, and soy sauce, in-house. Plus, it helped that we got to meet Chef Brandon Jew and sample his food at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival a couple of years back.
While we enjoyed everything at Mister Jiu’s, I think the standout dish was the Steak Fried Rice. It looks deceptively simple, but it’s a flavor bomb. So GOOD.
9. Marea (*)
I’ve long been a fan of Anthony Bourdain. In fact, his shows, along with Netflix’s Chef’s Table, are where I learn of the vast majority of the restaurants on my dining wishlist. That’s how Marea ended up on my list. Chef Michael White made an appearance in two episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations – the Emelia-Romagna episode and the Food Porn 2 episode. So when we headed to New York back in 2016, Marea immediately went on to my must-dine list.
The dishes that drew me in the most here were the Astice and the Fusilli. Bourdain called the Astice a sin against God, as the dish marries lobster with burrata cheese – a big no-no in Italian cuisine. But, you know what? It’s incredibly delicious! As is the Fusilli, which takes red wine-braised octopus and combines it with bone marrow. The desserts were all fantastic too.
8. Petrus (*)
A long time ago, Mrs. Island Miler was a Gordon Ramsay fan. So, during an overnight layover in London during our honeymoon, I booked us dinner at Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus. The French-British restaurant was our very first Michelin-starred dining experience. Ever. And they didn’t disappoint. Not only was the food fantastic, but the service was wonderful too.
When I say the food was good, I mean everything. The amuse bouche already blew our socks off – if memory serves me, I believe it was a truffle cheese cigar and a foie and preserves sandwich. For dishes we actually ordered, Mrs. Island Miler ordered the seasonal pasta with mushrooms and white truffles, shaved table-side, and venison, while I got a foie gras dish, a scallop, and partridge.
I’m glad these guys did a couple of collabs because it’s hard to pick between the two. You see, Chef Kevin Lee of PAI Honolulu is an endless perfectionist, aging his own meats in-house, baking his bread, and all. The dish that put him in the spotlight, though, is his take on the classic Chinese turnip cake – the XO Agedashi Turnip Cake. Aside from the obvious Japanese and Chinese influences, the dish incorporates Hawaiian ingredients, such as akule and even a ti leaf consome. Insane.
As for Na’au Hilo, Chef Brian Hirata is reinventing Hawaiian cuisine. Much like Chef Rene Redzepi, Chef Hirata cooks up hyper-local dishes composed of locally farmed, foraged, fished, and hunted ingredients. You won’t taste anything quite like these dishes anywhere else on earth. Especially because, not only are Chef Hirata’s ingredients hyper-local but his techniques are often influenced by old-school local dishes.
6. Le Pigeon
There’s no secret that Portland is a foodie town. Unfortunately, I didn’t really do my research before heading there for the first time back in 2015. But, in 2019, I made it a point to finally check out a Portland institution – Le Pigeon. This small, unassuming restaurant is home to some of the best food and service in a town famous for its food.
While everything we had was incredible, I think the standout dish of the night for me was the seared foie gras with squash waffle. Though, the geoduck with strawberry granita and smoked shiitake was just as mind-blowing.
Our very first three Michelin Star experience was Le Bernardin back in 2016. It was a very difficult reservation to get, only being able to snag an off-hour slot on our last night in the city. And it’s easy to see why. Chef Eric Ripert’s seafood-focused cuisine is sublime. Ripert not only draws on his French culinary background but also on Asian influences. Heck, I was pleasantly surprised to see calamansi – Filipino lime – used in one of our dishes.
The best sushi is always from Japan, right? Nope. Sushi Sho exemplifies this, as chef/owner Keiji Nakazawa takes Edomae Sushi techniques and a mixture of Japanese and local ingredients to create some of the most unique sushi in the world. That’s why Sushi Sho Waikiki ranks so high on my list. Think of dishes like grilled local ahi brushed with Hawaiian chili, opah lau lau, Hawaiian taro tofu, etc.
3. Vintage Cave
For my wedding gift, Mrs. Island Miler treated me to the ultra-exclusive Vintage Cave in Honolulu. Located in an odd location under what was the Shirokiya Department Store in Ala Moana Center, it was known as the blank check restaurant. That’s because owner Takeshi Sekiguchi gave the restaurant’s first chef free rein over equipping the kitchen. What’s more, the restaurant is filled with millions of dollars worth of fine art. Crazy, right?
At the time (2013), the chef at the helm of the restaurant was Chef Chris Kajioka, along with Pastry Chef Rachel Murai Alvarado. While I loved the brioche with caviar, the seared truffle, etc., the most surprising dish to me was probably the simple slice of avocado with curry powder, crispy quinoa, and buttermilk ice. So simple, yet so good. On the dessert side of things, everything was fantastic. But, this is where I tried my first caneles ever, and I’ve never had anything that’s come close to it since then.
Way back in 2002, I was still in high school. At that time, A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain was airing on the Food Network, and teenage me was totally into it. This was also how I first learned about The French Laundry, Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, and Michael Ruhlman. And it was from this point on that I made it a goal to one day dine at Thomas Keller’s landmark restaurant.
Fast-forward 16 years and I finally made it. As it turns out, Mrs. Island Miler and I had to be in the area-ish for a wedding. And, as it turns out, 2018 was a milestone birthday year for Mrs. Island Miler. So, what better time to dine at The French Laundry.
If you’ve read my review of the restaurant, you know we loved the experience. Service at The French Laundry is so over-the-top and polished, it’s like nothing else we’ve ever experience either before or since then. Of course, the cuisine was fantastic too. So, why only rank two? It’s because I didn’t love everything. In fact, I straight-up didn’t like one of my dishes. The lamb on the night that we were there was a heavy preparation that simply wasn’t to my liking. I also thought the lobster dish was a bit *meh* too. Otherwise, The French Laundry would’ve ended up as rank 1.
As for favorite dishes, the classic Oysters & Pearls ranked as my top dish of the night. For Mrs. Island Miler, I know her favorite was the hen egg under a MOUNTAIN of white truffle.
Opened in 2011, Atelier Crenn is a much newer restaurant than the French Laundry. In fact, I had never heard of it until I watched Dominique Crenn’s episode during season 2 of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Upon viewing that episode, I instantly knew this is a restaurant both Mrs. Island Miler and I would enjoy. Why? Because Atelier Crenn is a seafood-focused restaurant. What’s more, Chef Crenn’s style is very whimsical, which leads to, not only a menu presented as a poem but dishes that are as visually appealing as they are tasty.
We visited Atelier Crenn in November 2018. At the time, the restaurant had a two-Michelin Star rating. Despite this, we left thinking that Chef Crenn and her team deserve a three-star rating. Low and behold, not long after we left, the new Michelin guide came out awarding Atelier Crenn three stars, making Dominique Crenn the first woman in the US to earn the coveted rating.
That’s all well and good, but I’m sure at least some of you are wondering why I ranked Atelier Crenn higher than The French Laundry? Preference. While both restaurants have outstanding service and serve phenomenal cuisine, the food style of Crenn spoke to both Mrs. Island Miler and me more. The dishes here are brighter, lighter, and are more fun. What’s more, there wasn’t a single dish on the menu that we wouldn’t hesitate to order again. I can’t say the same for The French Laundry.
As for favorite dishes, where do I begin? The lobster tartare with a white truffle-esque seaweed foam? Or the Golden Osetra Caviar with onions from Chef Crenn’s hometown? How about the abalone with dried cabbage?
My All-Time Top 10 Meals 2021, Final Thoughts
Believe it or not, not all of our Michelin-starred experiences made this list. For example, The Rich Table in San Francisco is a damn good 1 Michelin Star restaurant that I’d return to in a heartbeat. But, thanks to the caliber of some of the other restaurants on this list, they didn’t make my top 10. And just because a restaurant didn’t make this list, doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. For example, I love Noreetuh and think Chef Chung Chow is an awesome guy. Same with Senia and Chef Anthony Rush. You guy’s get the idea.
So. What are your guys’ favorite meals of all time? Are any of your favorites on my list? Let me know!