Planning your next epicurean getaway to Europe? These are five restaurants in Europe that you don’t want to miss.
#5 El Celler de Can Roca (Girona, Spain)
Flickr:El Celler de Can Roca
Considered the heir-apparent to the now-closed el Bulli as the leader in avant-garde cuisine in Catalonia, this superb restaurant (number two on this year's San Pellegrino list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants) grew out of a simple tavern run by the Roca brothers' parents. The three young men — chef Joan, pastry chef Jordi, and wine expert Josep — learned their craft both from their family and from some of the finest forward-thinking chefs in Spain (Ferran Adrià among them). Today, in their beautiful establishment, clean-lined and bright in an almost Scandinavian way, they offer exquisite, unusual food — from caramelized olives brought to the table on a bonsai-size olive tree to a timbale of apple and duck liver with vanilla oil to sole with olive oil emulsions of olive, pine nut, orange, bergamot, and fennel to Iberian suckling pig with melon, orange, and beet — guaranteed to amaze and delight. Desserts are miniature sculptures (a paper-thin sugar-blown "apple" filled with apple foam, placed atop caramel ice cream), and the wine list is extraordinary, though not as extraordinary as the themed chambers of the wine cellar, a must-visit.
#4 Benoît Violier (Crissier, Switzerland)
In the beginning, there was Frédy Girardet, known as "the Pope" of cuisine, who turned the town hall in Crissier, a town just outside Lausanne, into one of the world's greatest restaurants. In 1996, he retired and was succeeded, in turn, by his longtime sous chef Philippe Rochat, who kept up the same high standards. Two years ago, Rochat himself retired, handing the celebrated kitchen over to his second-in-command, Benoît Violier. He obviously has a large toque to fill, but so far he seems to be doing it pretty well, with such creations like crispy foie gras with raw vegetable tart flavored with Vin Santo, grilled beef from Limousin, and blue lobster tail Roscoff with salted butter from Rougemont, served with "macaronade" pasta with white Alba truffles. The wine list (try some of the unusual Swiss selections) is first rate.
#3 Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)
Photo Credit: Mandarin Oriental London
Having given Britain some of the most scientifically advanced cooking in the world at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal next embarked on a quest to give them some of the most historical. The conceit of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (and yes, to answer the inevitable question, it is also open for lunch) is to reproduce recipes from his country's surprisingly rich culinary past. The oldest example on the current menu is Rice & Flesh (rice with saffron, red wine, and calf's tail, from circa 1390). The most famous dish is Meat Fruit (circa 1500), a chicken liver parfait coated with, and resembling, mandarin orange. Spiced pigeon with ale and artichokes (circa 1780), roast halibut with leaf chicory and cockle ketchup (circa 1830), and an apple, rose, and fennel tart with vanilla ice cream (circa 1660) are among the other offerings. The nice thing about all this food is that it's very tasty and doesn't seem "historical" at all; it's a testament to the longevity of good cooking.
#2 Osteria Francescana (Modena, Italy)
Flickr: Paolo Terzi
Massimo Bottura, a renowned three-Michelin-starred chef, describes his cooking as "traditional seen from 10 miles away." His attractive contemporary-styled Osteria Francescana is located in Modena, in the gastronomically rich Emilia-Romagna region; a town famous as the home of Maserati, Ferrari, and Lamborghini, but also of aceto balsamico (the real balsamic vinegar), cotechino and zampone sausages, and such pasta as tortellini and tortelloni, so there's lots of tradition to draw from. Bottura deconstructs and reimagines tradition with such dishes as "memory of a mortadella sandwich," "five ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano in different textures and temperatures," "guinea fowl not roasted," and "Oops! A broken lemon tart." It's all delicious, and also lots of fun.
#1 L’Arpège (Paris)
Photo Credit: Philippe Vaures Santamaria
Alain Passard, long ensconced in the original site of his mentor Alain Senderens' epochal L'Archestrate, is a thoroughly original chef who combines tradition with daring. In the restaurant's first decade-plus, his focused, superbly finished cuisine often featured rotisserie-roasted duckling, chicken, lamb, and game birds in the style that he learned from his late grandmother, but updated with finesse. In 2001, though, Passard announced that he was turning away from red meat and fowl to concentrate on vegetables. That doesn't mean that he turned vegetarian: An occasional lobster, piece of perfect fish, or even roast chicken does still show up on his menus, but he concentrates on exquisite produce, mostly sourced from one of his three biodynamic farms in various parts of France. Expect such dishes as haricots verts with fresh almonds and white peaches, sweet onions gratinéed with garden herbs and Parmigiano, vegetable sushi with fig leaves and tomato "petals," lemon cucumber with hazelnut praline and acidulated cream, and a remarkable take on ratatouille, involving both cooked and raw vegetables, all far more complex and irresistible than they might sound. And expect to be astounded, so much so that when the exquisite lobster or fish or chicken does appear, it seems almost beside the point. Dining at L'Arpège is expensive — 12-course tasting menus start around $375, minus wine (there is a "bargain" multi-course lunch for more like $00) — but Passard's food is simply stunning; his restaurant is comfortable; the service is impeccable; and the mostly French wine list is well-chosen (though also very pricey). There are far more expensive restaurants in Paris, and in Tokyo, and even in New York (or the Napa Valley), but few that consistently meet Passard's standards.