10 Unforgettable Dining Experiences

Dining is a necessity, fine dining a pleasure and experiential dining an adventure. A bucket list for those that love food, dream about it, salivate over it and are inspired by it.

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Why do we celebrate special moments with our palates and bellies? When does a meal become memorable and a memorable meal, unforgettable?

It may seem obvious, but not all dining experiences are created equal. Case in point: The husband and I once went to a highly recommended restaurant in Hue, Vietnam for a special 7-course vegetarian Vietnamese meal. Course #1 was a vegetable sculpture of a peacock, with tofu and veggie spring rolls poking out of the body instead of feathers. I should probably mention that I hate tofu. Onto course #2: meat-like tofu sans vegetables. Though the husband loves tofu, the meaty resemblance was a turn-off. As were courses 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Starving by then, we hoped dessert would revive us. Just then, the waiter left a mysterious potted chili plant on our table. After awhile, I requested the waiter to bring our dessert. He pointed to the “plant” and said “That’s it.” Taken aback, I asked him how it had to be eaten. He pointed at two hanging chilies and asked us to pluck them. The chilies were made of marzipan. Bland, tasteless, marzipan. Delirious with hunger, we quickly wrapped up, but by this time all nearby restaurants were shut and our food luck ran out on us. Once the hunger pangs subsided, we shared – and continue to share – a good laugh over the unsavory experience. Just like that, the shared experience became a cherished memory.

Fabulous gastronomical experiences are those that make you sit up and pay attention to the details; truly unique experiences wrapped up in the joy felt when fantasy meets reality at a party in the mouth. Fabulous dining experiences are different in that they are sometimes greater than the meal itself. While great dining experiences may involve gastronomical ecstasy, other elements play a large role e.g. uniqueness, ambiance, occasion (especially life-changing events) and multi-sensory engagement. Here are some incredible dining experiences that do live up to their promise:

Dinner with a View: Locanda dell'Isola Comacina, Lake Como, Italy
Dinner with a View: Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, Lake Como

1. On a secluded island: Locanda dell’Isola Comacina is a restaurant on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Como, Italy. A truly unusual evening spent surrounded by the beautiful blue-green waters of Como and the verdant hills at its edge. The island can only be approached by boat from the nearest town and is so tiny that the restaurant practically covers all of it.

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The meal begins with 8 different types of vegetarian appetisers, followed by fresh pasta and an amazing cheese course. The staff comes with a large wheel of fabulous parmigiano reggiano, which is carved at the table. The final touch – and highlight – is the post-dinner coffee. Lights switch off as the owner regales guests with a dramatic story about the island while creating a caffeine concoction complete with blazing brandy.

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Suspended Dining: Faber Peak, Singapore

2. In a cable car: A unique experience for couples as well as families, the husband and I did it with our baby. When dining with a baby, creativity is the name of the game. Faber Peak, Singapore, lends itself beautifully to the occasion. A private cable car can be booked and each time the car completes a run, a new course is served, starting with a complimentary bubbly toast. The food is nice, but the views of the city and surrounding water are truly fantastic. As the evening wears on, the blues and greens make way for oranges and pinks, and finally twinkling lights in the inky black sky. The view kept the baby entertained and gentle sway of the car eventually lulled him to sleep so we had a peaceful and uninterrupted anniversary dinner (except for a quick, mid-air, diaper change!)

3. In a treehouse: A fabulous addition to any honeymoon itinerary, the Capella Marigot Bay Resort and Marina, St. Lucia’s intimate Treehouse is set with only one table. The steps up to the Treehouse are lit by lanterns, while flickering candles and fresh flowers adorn the beautifully set table. A dedicated butler ensures uninterrupted flow of delicious island cuisine and cocktails.

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Dining over the City of Light (Image Source: http://www.lejulesverne-paris.com

4. Atop a tower: For fine dining with one of the best views in Paris, head to restaurant Le Jules Verne located on the 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower. Helmed by Alain Ducasse, the kitchen focuses on contemporary French cuisine (Vegetarians, beware!). Classic interiors, subtle lighting highlight the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the City of light. The views of the lit up iconic sites across the city, are enchanting and mesmerizing. Ask for a table by the window and be specific about dietary preferences as fish may be considered ‘vegetarian’.

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Fairytale Dining: Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur (India)

5. Like royalty: What better way to script your own foodie fairytale than to feast atop a beautiful and authentic palace? Take a boat to a magical love nest: the Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur (India). Emerging as an ethereal vision amidst dreamy Lake Pichola, this floating palace is royaly romantic. From the elegant jetty, to the lovely lily pond and beautiful marble flooring, the hotel is a treat for the eyes. Dine at the terrace that overlooks the gorgeously lit Jag Mandir Palace and listen to the music of gently lapping waves. The menu, placed as paper scrolls on plates, is curated especially for the occasion by prior consultation with the chef. The repertoire of dishes ranges from oriental and continental to local cuisine. Fun fact: James Bond’s Octopussy was shot here.

6. At one (or all) of “World’s 50 best restaurants“: All the restaurants in San Pellegrino’s list are worthy of pilgrimages by gastronomes. One of the most incredible experiences can be had at The Tasting Room in Le Quartier Française, Franschhoek (South Africa). Molecular gastronomy blends seamlessly with simple traditional cooking to deliver an amalgamation of flavours ranging from fresh and subtle to Umame and intense, with unexpected surprises. For vegetarians, Chef Margo Janse puts together an amazing 9-course meal that is a delight for all senses. Think amuse-bouche of opposing tastes, freshly baked corn bread in a miniature tin, Butter roasted cauliflower, amasi, hazelnuts & currants and an imploding dessert. The menu is a surprise by the chef, so be sure to let them know of any dietary preferences in advance.

It’s not just about the taste, but the complete experience…especially the service. The servers introduce each course, highlighting the ingredients as well as the chef’s thoughts, emotions and memories that are encapsulated in the dish. As a result, the diner feels a connection to food that goes beyond taste.

7. By the water: Life is a beach. Live it up with sundowners that turn to candle-lit dinners under a canopy of stars that overlook sparkling waters. Feast your eyes and feed your hunger with stunning views, bottomless drinks and endless food – perfect for when you want time to stand still.

Dining on the Rocks, Six Senses Samui, Koh Samui, Thailand
Dining with the horizon: Dining on the Rocks, Six Senses Samui (Image source: http://www.sixsenses.com/resorts/samui/dining)

Dining on the Rocks, Six Senses, Koh Samui (Thailand) for 270-degree views that give the feeling of being suspended over water. Have a pre-dinner drink at the bar and watch the incredible sunset. While the vegetarian food is strictly okay, the unparalleled views more than offset the taste.

Ku de Ta, Bali (Indonesia) for dining on lounge chairs overlooking the beach, while enjoying an electric vibe. The relaxed buzz is perfect for a night out on the island, while the wonderful vistas are a scene to remember.

A Touch of Greece In India: Thalassa, Goa
Sublime Sundowners at Thalassa

Thalassa, Goa (India) for a taste of Greece in India. Located atop a clift overlooking the Arabian Sea, the restaurant sport gorgeous views all around. Fluttering white sheers, white cushion-covered chairs and crisp white tablecloths are a striking contrast to the brilliant sky and sparkling waves.  Come before sunset and stay for the traditional plate-breaking jig by the waiters.

 

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Weaving gourmet magic with vales and vineyards: La Petite Ferme (Image source: http://www.lapetiteferme.co.za)

8. Overlooking vales or vineyards: While there are some fabulous restaurants around Napa Valley and other vino-centric locales, one of the most charming ones has to be La Petite Ferme, Franschhoek (South Africa). Recognized as one of the top 15 ‘Best Value’ establishments in the world by Condé Nast Traveller,  the food is fresh, simple and tasty and served with stunning views of the boutique winery and Franschhoek valley. Straight out of a storybook, the restaurant is framed with ivy-covered white trellis and surrounded by pretty lawns with benches that compel you to sit and enjoy the panoramic views. Better yet, stay awhile at one of their 5 luxurious suites, complete with plunge pools overlooking the finest vistas around.

9. By the riverside: The Oberoi Hotels’ Wildflower Hall does a fabulous picnic by the river. Start with some whitewater rafting in the mountains and counter the adrenaline rush with food-induced coma. Fresh pastas, salads, and yummy desserts are nicely packaged and set on a bench along the river. Complete with a white tablecloth, silverware and dinnerware. Set a scene for your own storybook with the some sun, gurgling river, chirping birds and gorgeous blue skies.

Chef Rego, Vivanta by Taj - Holiday Village, Goa
Chef Rego, Vivanta by Taj – Holiday Village, Goa. (Image Source: http://www.vivantabytaj.com/holiday-village-goa/dining/chef-profiles.html)

10. At a Chef’s Table: Guests of Vivanta by Taj – Holiday Village, Goa (India) are in for a treat when they sign up for a private dining experience with Chef Rego. Having a chef cook live is a special experience in itself. When the chef concerned is a 30-yr veteran specialising in authentic Goan cuisine, that experience is divine. The mango curry (seasonal) is made from mangoes freshly plucked from on-site trees just before the meal. A thorough gentleman, the chef is more than happy to talk about each dish he prepares. Fairy lights around a make-shift tent, crashing waves and a gentle sea breeze complete the experience.

On my wish list: Too many, but a list-topper has to be “Dinner in the sky” 

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Dinner in the sky: Brussels (Image source: dinnerinthesky.com)

The last byte…

Dining is a necessity, fine dining a pleasure and experiential dining an adventure.

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Walls no bar: Dining at Ladera, St. Lucia

Where there’s a mood, there’s a mode. Find unique dining experiences around your location or destination. Whether it is a food festival, food tour or fine dining, there are options for all purses and personalities.

Or, cook up your own delicious experience – explore an exotic locale, taste a mind-blowing concoction or discover an unusual experience. Meals do not need to be expensive to be memorable. Sometimes, the simplest and spontaneous ones are the best. Find a gourmet food store or local market, pick up fresh bread, cheese, fruit, dessert and a bottle of wine. Walk or drive around and set your picnic at a spot that makes you happy.

Great dining experiences have the power to transform an ordinary meal into an extraordinary sensory and emotional experience.

That, I suppose is how a meal becomes memorable and a memorable meal, unforgettable.

Paris For All Senses

Explore Paris through its sights, sounds, scents and textures. Tips and reviews of unique experiences, tours, activities and vegetarian-friendly eateries.

Let me just get this out of the way: I love Paris! No matter how many times I visit Paris, the city continues to enthral me with its fabulous architecture, culture, glamour, luxury and gastronomy. Through different seasons, stages of life and experiences, Paris can be vibrant, stark, resilient, vulnerable, romantic, risqué, rich, or any number of dimensions, but she is always remarkable. With each trip, I saw a different Paris. With each trip, a different dream came true. While I love the touristy and glitzy sides of Paris, the “hidden” Paris – which I began to discover on my most recent trip – is my favourite.

…This trip was special as it was a spontaneously planned rare getaway from the kids. The husband and l were determined to make the most of it while building in some R&R time. For the sake of fairness, each of us picked activities we wanted to experience, which is how we ended up discovering Paris under the lens, through the nose and by the mouth.

Along the way, we learnt a few things:

Lesson #1: Zooming “in” is as important as zooming “out”.

For his pick, the husband chose a 3hr Randy Harris photo tour of the city. While I initially had some reservations, we got lucky with a beautiful day. We saw the same sights in a new light. We noticed the play of light on the Louvre…how art installations in the Jardin des Tuileries transform the space from pretty to pretty surreal. We also discovered Montmartre – the Paris seen in movies…complete with cobblestoned streets, quaint cafes/restaurants and random musicians in lively squares.

Although we wished our guide (an American ex-pat living in Paris) were a professional instead of amateur photographer, the tour was a great way to: enjoy the rich fall colours, view iconic sights from unique perspectives, learn to use our new camera and capture some flattering snapshots.

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couple photo at the Louvre
A moment at the incredible, iconic and unbelievable Louvre

Most importantly, the tour made us realize that while we remember to “zoom in” on ourselves (or the subject) when we take pictures, we often forget to “zoom out” and notice the surrounding sights, sounds, scents and textures. Adjusting our zoom, is the key to taking the “perfect picture”…looking at which, lets us not only remember the place/event, but also relive the moment.

Lesson #2: The simplest experiences may be the most magical.

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower. Although it is simply a tower to a lot of Parisians, it is the icon of Paris for the rest of the world. While the view from the top is fabulous, what is truly incredible is watching it light up. Post our photo tour, we hauled ourselves across town for a mandatory photo session with this icon from Champ de Mars as well as Place de Trocadéro.

After successfully photographing ourselves with the Eiffel Tower from every possible angle, we waited…Nutella crepe in hand of course…at Place de Trocadéro for it to light up. Even though I’d seen it before, the sight of thousands of lights suddenly twinkling in the evening sky was just as sensational and magical as the first time I saw it.

Lesson #3: Solo travel need not be solitary travel; strangers that share food become friends.

Cheese in St. Germain Market Paris
Say Cheese!

As the husband was busy with a conference, I signed myself up for a dream experience – a food tour of Paris. Organized group tours can be a great way to meet like-minded people.  I joined a group of six ladies – that I had never seen or met before – for the “Taste of Saint-Germain” tour from “Paris by Mouth“. I chose this option as: 1) It was a top-rated food tour on TripAdvisor and 2) it included a couple of my wish-list toppers: Poilâne and Pierre Hermé.

Our guide – Sara – was fantastic and was coincidentally a part-owner of two of the bars we visited on our first day in Paris. The tour was everything I’d expected and more. A fabulous gastronomical adventure that involved tasting pastries and picking up miche (type of bread) from Poilâne, devouring macaroons and croissants from Pierre Hermé, selecting fresh cheeses from the local market and collecting chocolates from Patrick Roger.

Wine bottles in Paris

We then walked over to a wonderful little wine shop, where a wooden table was set up in an intimate stone-walled room for us, to eat the cheese paired with miche and delicious wines. We capped off the meal with our amazing chocolates and a stop-over at a little place specialising in fresh choux pastries.

Pierre Herme Paris
Picture perfect display at Pierre Herme

The highlight of my Paris trip, the visions, scents and tastes that I came across during this tour were enough to drive me into food-induced coma. I could have – and did – learn about most of these establishments on my own. However, I would never have uncovered the fascinating stories, noticed the little details (bread chandelier, anyone??!), tasted some crazy flavours (lime and basil chocolate? Ispahan croissant?), discovered the different wines and cheeses or had an absolutely wonderful time with complete strangers. Sometimes, just connecting with like-minded people transforms the solo travel experience.

Lesson #4: Integrate meals into the itinerary to achieve repeated gastronomical ecstasy.

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Unwind with some fabulous wine and cocktails at Le Mary Celeste

Travel itineraries often tend to include activities and logistics, with little emphasis on meals (usually the terribly bland, tasteless and touristy kind). So, we end up picking random restaurants. Spontaneity may be fun, but for vegetarians like us, it can be rather problematic and expensive. Having had one too many unsavoury experiences and because good food is central to my mental/emotional well-being, I spend considerable time researching restaurants before our trips. Reservations are made ahead of time for wish-list toppers and options built-in for some spontaneity.

Ladurée pastries and coffee
Fabulous raspberry tart and hazelnut coffee at beautiful Ladurée

As a result, besides the food tour and chocolate extravaganza, the husband and I managed to cram a good number of culinary delights in this trip: yummy sandwiches from Cosi (reputed to be one of the city’s best, with lines out the door), sublime macaroons from Pierre Hermé, city’s best hot chocolate at Angelina, fragrant and flavourful Kusmi Tea, delicious coffee, croissants and raspberry tart at exquisite Ladurée (not to be missed), amazing savoury crepes at Breizh café, lovely drinks at Candelaria (on the list of world’s best bars; hidden behind a tiny taqueria) and Le Mary Celeste, fabulous baguettes from Le Grenier á Pain (winner of Best Baguette 2015) with truffle pecorino cheese from the fromagerie nearby, people watching with coffee and pastries at Les Deux Magots (a Parisian institution), incredibly “cheesy” romantic fondue dinner at Pain, Vin, Fromage, tasty street side Maoz falafel and gourmet food shopping at Le Grand Épicerie.

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Pierre Hermé Ispahan macaroon, coffee and people watching at café Les Deux Magots

Yet, we were not on some gourmet tour (aside from the 3hr one that I took) – we’d simply included meals into our itinerary. For example, since we wanted to explore the Marais, we had pre-dinner drinks at Candelaria, followed by dinner at Briezh Café and post-dinner drinks at Le Mary Celeste.

As the husband will testify, the strategy is not foolproof. Nevertheless, for this trip, it was absolutely perfect. The kind of perfect that, when I close my eyes, not only makes me smile, but my mouth water.

Lesson #5: Chocolate is the solution. Always.

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I strongly believe that everyone should have some “me time”. I chose to spend mine surrounded by a girl’s second best friend: chocolate. So, I treated myself to Le Salon du Chocolat, which is an annual event in France that coincided with our visit there.

From intricate chocolate sculptures and tastings of the finest and wackiest bars, to exquisite wine pairings, unusual accompaniments, live demonstrations and delicious pastries, this event was every chocoholic’s dream come true. As a lover of fine/artisanal dark chocolate, I felt like all my chocolate fantasies suddenly came alive under one roof and at the same time – Cluizel, Le Roux, Chaudun, Chapon…you name it.

It was crowded, mind-boggling and insane. I didn’t know where to look, what to smell, what to taste…what to do. For once, I simply enjoyed being totally lost.


The real lesson…

Sometimes, to truly discover a place, we have to lose ourselves in its sights, scents, sounds, tastes and textures. Find your happiness – be it music, dance, art, photography, food or any other interest – and let it pave your path to uncovering your Paris or for that matter, any destination you choose. Maybe, we need to connect with ourselves and be open to connecting with other people to truly connect with a place.