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:
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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”
The last byte…
Dining is a necessity, fine dining a pleasure and experiential dining an adventure.
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.