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.

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.

Scrumptious, Scenic and Sporty Australia: Eat, See, Cricket. Repeat. 

Discovering destinations through sport creates an emotional connect to the place and its people that few other activities can match.

It has always been the husband’s dream to watch a match in every cricket stadium in the world. Factor in a business trip to Australia, the World Cup with India playing well, plus the fact that I never miss a travel opportunity and well, we were off.

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A waving Indian flag at MCG

Aside from the prospect of engaging in “sport tourism” for the first time, Australia’s scandalous history and ongoing status as the playground for Master Chefs give it unique appeal. The trip taught me a very important lesson: pay attention to proverbs; they are true. So true, that I was inspired to create some of my own variations.

Though there are some incredible places in the country and a host of wonderful activities for all age groups, our trip focused on food, fun and sport in two lovely cities. A taste of Sydney, with a touch of Melbourne.

Travel tip: Americans can enter more than 150 countries without visa. Australia is not one of them.

Well begun is half done; pick your destination. 

Work and cricket clearly motivated our visit to Australia. But, before setting off, we had a crucial decision to make: If visiting Australia for the first time and travelling to both Sydney and Melbourne, where to spend more time? Sydney or Melbourne?

Research, expert opinions and pictures left us nothing but confused and the husband conveniently left the decision to me. Fortunately, while reviewing the events calendar, I discovered that the annual food festival – Taste of Sydney – was taking place around the same time as our visit and the choice was made. Except for match day in Melbourne, we decided to explore Sydney.

FYI: Sydney is much larger and has relatively more of an “Australian” feel than Melbourne, which is kind of like a small big city that is decidedly more European in its bearings and personality.

Standard does not equal special

Despite their added character, boutique properties are often overlooked for the tried-and-tested comfort of chain hotels. In Sydney, stay at the wonderfully wacky and swanky QT Sydney.

Stylish Gowings Bar at QT Sydney
Stylish Gowings Bar at QT Sydney

The location is fantastic – smack in the middle of CBD’s shopping zone and next to the State theatre, the hotel and its Gowings bar are always buzzing. Although there are hotels far more luxurious than the QT, it’s charm, character and style add that “je ne sais quoi” to the Sydney experience. Not to mention, the interesting ‘outfits’ worn by the doorwomen.

Where there is a will, there is a way; if you want to eat it all, you can.

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A Taste of Sydney

There are so many fabulous eateries in Sydney that it is virtually impossible to cover them in one trip. However, a great way to eat your way through the city without breaking the bank, is to visit during ‘Taste of Sydney‘. The event is held in the lovely Centennial park, with tents pitched for restaurants, vendors, drinks, gourmet treats and live demonstrations.

While we had several nibbles and tipples, the most memorable ones were: purple potato gnocchi with wild mushroom, pine nut, chilli and salted dried ricotta by Popolo, carrot, yoghurt and liquorice by Cafe Paci, organic vegetarian celery gratin, pickled black walnuts and Granny Smith apples by Ananas, Tiramisu ice cream with marsala jelly, coffee soaked Savoiardi biscuits and cocoa nib tuile from Otto Ristorante.

Beer break at 'Taste of Sydney'
Beer break at ‘Taste of Sydney’

It’s not just the memory of the food that stays with you, it’s the whole experience…gourmet food in a beautiful park, on a lovely sunny day, with lively music. Bliss!

Tip: Pre-check the menu to ensure there are sufficient options to meet your dietary preferences, approximate cost of ticket and prioritize dishes.

Dining suggestions (vegetarian-friendly):

For fine dining on the waterfront, try Chef Matt Moran’s Aria at Circular Quay. Ask for a table by the window.

For live band music in a relaxed ambiance, head to the oldest pub in Sydney – The Fortune of War (165 yrs and counting). One of few pubs open late on Sunday in The Rocks, it makes up for with character, crowd and entertainment what it lacks in aesthetics. 

Drinks in the Prohibition Era at Palmer & Co.
Drinks in the Prohibition Era at Palmer & Co.

For delicious Chinese food served in a classy ambiance, head to Mr. Wong’s in CBD. Top up your drinks by taking the elevator down to Palmer & Co…a bar modeled after Prohibition era Chicago

For light meals with a view, head to the aptly named Opera bar

For a quick bite, stop by one of the many outlets of Sabbaba falafel

For comfort food served with a view, hop on the ferry to Manly for pizza at Hugo’s followed by dessert at Max Brenner nearby. Don’t forget to request for a table facing the water.

For the love of pancake, head to the nearest Bill’s for the best ricotta pancakes in the city!

For a memorable gourmet experience in CBD, head to Jamie Oliver for dinner, and follow it up with drinks at The Baxter Inn


 Never judge a book by its cover…or a bar by its door.

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The Whiskey Wall at The Baxter Inn (Image Source: TimeOut Sydney)

If there’s only one bar you can go to in Sydney, make it The Baxter Inn. One of the world’s best bars, it is hidden behind an obscure and nondescript door of a rather shady narrow alleyway.

…But once inside, the dinghy alley gives way to a classy up-scale underground tavern, complete with a backlit wall lined with hundreds of bottles of whisky. Talented bartenders whip up incredible concoctions and classics.

Tip: Ask the bartenders to surprise you and prepare to be amazed at how accurately they gauge drinking preferences.

All that glitters is not gold, but it may still be priceless

The glittering Sydney skyline is a treat for sore eyes. No matter which angle we saw it from – and we saw from many – it was always stunning.

To be specific, we saw it glinting in the morning sun, sparkling at sunset and twinkling in the night from:

  • Atop Harbour Bridge: a view made possible via Harbour BridgeClimb, a 90-min overpriced, but perfect, exercise. The pace was a bit like a brisk walk, but not vigorous enough to cause breathlessness. The facts are fascinating, feat amazing and views fabulous.
  • Outside Sydney Opera House: a view of the afternoon sun or sunset with the Harbour bridge and city in the backdrop is lovely.
  • Upon Mrs. Macquaries chair: the best view in Sydney is from a little rock bench carved by convicts. Located by the Royal Botanical Gardens, the bench offers a gorgeous view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House in the same frame. One, which is even more beautiful at sunset.
  • Over water: a great view of twinkling city lights is from the ferry that crosses from The Rocks to Manly (or vice versa) in the night.

So much sparkle could have been blinding, if it wasn’t so beautiful. Priceless.

The early bird gets the worm…and the early spectator gets the seat.

The husband and I are not Opera fans, but we love plays and decided to catch one at the infamous Sydney Opera House. We picked a show that had received great reviews, “Suddenly Last Summer”, and combined traditional theatre with live video. Paired with a tour of the architectural marvel and topped off by a drink at the Opera bar, it had the makings of a perfect evening.

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The Sydney Opera House

…And it almost was. The tour was vera fascinating (highly recommended) and we loved hearing the story behind how one of the city’s most iconic structures was engineered. The Opera Bar was lovely, but then came the show.

We had procrastinated for buying the tickets, thinking we could buy them on the spot. As it was, the show was standing room only and we ended up watching the play on our feet for a good 90 mins. While the rest of the evening was still enjoyable, it would’ve been far more enjoyable if we had simply booked our seats early.

Tip: Book your seats in advance. Popular shows – even those that may be long-running – can sell out quickly.

Who travels for love (or cricket) finds a thousand miles not longer than one

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Living the dream at the Sydney Cricket Ground

Gastronomy and drama aside, the sole reason for our visit was our (well, mostly the husband’s) love of cricket. Though we spent a longer time getting to Australia than in the matches, the trip was totally worth it. The grounds, crowds, weather, sledging and beer, contributed to one hell of a cricketing experience. Great matches may be played anywhere, but great viewing experiences come with watching the game in world-class venues.

We saw two quarterfinal matches: South Africa vs. Sri Lanka in Sydney and India vs. Bangladesh in Melbourne. Watching cricket from both the Sydney (SCG) and Melbourne Cricket Grounds (MCG) is a cricket lover’s dream come true. Both grounds are incredible, but while the SCG is more of a heritage structure and traditional cricket ground, MCG is a massive stadium.

The spirit of the game extended beyond the stadiums. It was in flags that waved in the most unlikely of places, strangers that hi-fived each other and became friends, or strangers that sledged each other for fun, or TV anchors and cameramen that we bumped into and chatted with (one kind cameraman actually paused his shoot to help us figure out our new camera). Or the lone man that ran across the ground mooning the crowd. All of these elements that add, and in some ways, create, the unique match-viewing experience.

But most of all, it was the crowd. SCG saw a mix of colours, but the sheer number of Indian supporters meant MCG was blue. The noise generated was as loud as that on home ground. Even though the MCG was partly empty for the India-Bangladesh match, the sound level in the stadium made it seem fuller…especially when India won the match and Rohit Sharma hit his century (which seems to happen whenever I’m in the stadium so, maybe I’m the lucky charm!). One of the highlights though, was listening to the national anthem reverberate across the stadium. It was enough to give us goose bumps.

No words can adequately describe the rollercoaster of emotions that accompany a good match, but suffice it to say that I’ve rarely felt as alive as when sweating in the sun, screaming my lungs out in support and cursing the poor opposition.

Slow down and smell the roses…or the ocean

Besides watching a winning game of cricket in the fabulous Sydney stadium and eating our way through the city, we decided to simply enjoy our destination.
For a change, we opted to do the simple things and didn’t try to see and do it all:

  • Drive around the coastline: A friend took us for a drive around the non-touristy parts of the city, so we could get a flavour of how the locals live. It was nice to simply follow the road without being stuck in a traffic jam.
  • Walk from Bondi to Bronte coastal walk: A fun and beautiful walk, that we did backwards (from Bronte to Bondi). Stunning views of the coastline and uninterrupted views of the ocean mixed with some random activities. We spotted Dolphins, worked out in an open air gym, caught a game of boules (Clovelly Bowling Club) and planned our burials (should we decide against cremation) at a cemetery with a stunning view. We followed it up with a hearty meal at Bill’s that likely replenished all the calories burnt during the walk!

…Sometimes, you just need to slow down and enjoy the moment.

Beyond a game…

There are people that travel for sport because it is trendy or fashionable and there are those that do it for the sport itself. Whatever your reason, you must travel for sport at least once in life. Discovering new spaces through sport creates an emotional connect to the place and its people that few other activities can match.

If cricket does not appeal to you, pick your passion. The beauty of sport is how it allows complete strangers to bare and share all emotions with complete abandon for that brief period of time when all is forgotten except what is unfolding before the eyes.

But, while you’re at it, don’t forget to take a step back, soak up the sights, strike up some conversation, savor the cuisine, and slow down and breathe.

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