Emma Bartley scours the globe for dishes that combine flavour and presentation to mouth-watering precision.
At first glance, the premise of this list may seem suspect. Does anyone really lie on their deathbed thinking, “I wish I’d eaten a Cronut”? The dying might, in certain circumstances, wish that they hadn’t ordered fugu – the famously poisonous Japanese pufferfish – but otherwise, food is probably the last thing on their minds.
That said, eating well is part of enjoying life, which is why dishes such as Gary Rhodes’s rich yet homely braised oxtail with mashed potato have been included here. Moreover, with global cuisine at an all-time
innovative high, dining can be a real experience – there’s a thrill to slicing into a trompe l’oeil Heston Blumenthal dish such as the meat fruit.
Food can teach us about other cultures, which is
the approach taken by the team at Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, whose ‘hommage à Dubai’ mingles French and Middle Eastern influences. Or, it can take a
concept that’s been around since the imperial era – and is currently the staple diet of over a billion people – and transform it into something exotic by simply switching the meat, such as Gastón Acurio’s Peking guinea pig.
Sometimes a dish can become a craze, and this is both a blessing and a curse for its creator. The master patissier Dominique Ansel betrays a slight frustration as he points out that those trademarked Cronuts are “just one of our inventions; we create new things at the bakery all the time”. Perhaps his magic soufflés or kouign-amanns should be on this list, instead. But, as with Combal.Zero’s deconstructed zuppizza, there’s something about the croissant-doughnut, a kind of wit,
a sense of fun, that captures the imagination. So, with our time on this earth strictly limited, let us eat Cronuts. And snow eggs. And oysters and pearls…
1. Meat fruit ¬
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, London
This starter was an instant hit with critics and bloggers when Dinner, Heston Blumenthal’s first restaurant in London, opened in 2011. Since then, an estimated 85,000 meat fruits have been served, and its fame is such that few diners will now be surprised to find that what looks like a little jellied mandarin actually contains an ultra-smooth chicken liver parfait.
“It’s inspired from a dish from the 1500s called ‘pommes’, a ball of minced pork and veal cooked on a spit roast and drizzled with a parsley custard once cooked,” explains head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts. “With the addition of a twig and leaf it resembled an apple, yet inside was cooked meat.”
While taking an idea from history is relatively unoriginal by the standards of the man who invented snail porridge, Palmer-Watts insists there’s a lot of Blumenthal’s trademark technical precision involved. “The meat fruit looks simple, yet has a lot of technique behind it, with the mandarin jelly pitted like a mandarin. It takes our cold larder team three days to make it, working for around five hours per day,” he says. “Because of its finished appearance and taste, we thought it would go down well, but never could have imagined it to be so talked about.”
2. The Cronut ≤
Dominique Ansel Bakery, New York
Is it a croissant? Is it a doughnut? No, it’s a Cronut™, a creation of the pastry chef Dominique Ansel that consists of layers of delicate French pastry, injected with creme pâtissière, deep-fried and iced. This is not so much a snack as a food phenomenon: customers queue outside Ansel’s New York bakery for hours every morning hoping to buy them, but the maestro refuses to bake more than 200 per day, saying that he does not want his establishment to become “a Cronut shop”.
Perhaps, inevitably, supply has met the insatiable demand with a variety of imitations, with Blossom Sweets in Abu Dhabi being the latest to create “cronuts” rose and Nutella. But Ansel, who spent two months and created 10 recipes to perfect his product, doesn’t think much of copycat products. When Victoria Beckham recently tweeted a picture of what she thought were her breakfast Cronuts, he was quick to inform her that she had been fooled by “knock-offs”.
To avoid similar embarrassment, visit Ansel’s New York bakery – and get there early. Although if you don’t, Ansel reckons he has something even better. “The kouign-amann is my favourite thing on the menu,” he reveals. “It is a type of caramelised croissant that comes from Brittany and is lightly salted. Sugary and crispy on the outside and very moist and flaky within – it’s my breakfast every morning.”
3. Braised oxtail with mashed potato ≥
Rhodes 44, Abu Dhabi
After 35 years of working in kitchens, Gary Rhodes has lost none of his enthusiasm for food: “It is my love and my life,” he says. So the chef and restaurateur’s own pick from his many menus must be worth a try. “At Rhodes 44, we have braised oxtail with creamy mashed potato, which is selling unbelievably well. If I had to choose my last dish from the menu, it would be that one.”
This traditional British dish is typical of Rhodes’s approach to cooking, which involves carefully balancing flavours and textures. “I think the secret is the long, long slow-cooking of those oxtails so they become so tender that you bite into it and it melts,” he says. “It also adds to the richness of the sauce. You can just imagine mopping up any sauce left in your bowl with the creamy mashed potato or maybe a nice bread roll and making sure that you almost leave your plate spotlessly clean.”
Well, you could imagine. Or you could go there and try it for yourself.
4. Zuppizza ≤
There’s no end to the fun that chefs have had with pizza toppings – from squid ink (try Skinny Pizza in Singapore) to smoked reindeer (developed by Kotipizza in Finland). But the two Michelin-starred chef Davide Scabin is surely the first to make one into a soup.
Worry not, there are no blenders involved. This is deconstructed pizza, with a milky buffalo mozzarella soup forming a base for tomato confit and pesto toppings, with a delicate slice of lightly toasted bread balanced on top.
Scabin’s work is unapologetically conceptual – which is perhaps why he has chosen to serve up his culinary masterpieces in a restaurant in the Castle of Rivoli, right across from the Museum of Modern Art.
5. Peking guinea pig / cuy Pekinés ≤
Astrid y Gastón, Lima
If you ever had a guinea pig for a pet, the memory of the animal’s high-pitched squeal may put you off the centrepiece of your meal at Astrid y Gastón, the restaurant run by Peru’s most famous chef, Gastón Acurio, and his German wife, which is ranked 14th in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But if you can find a way to ignore that echo ringing in your ears, this dark, rich and perhaps somewhat stringy meat is one to tick off your gastronomic to-do list.
Traditionally the “cuy” was deep fried or served in a stew on the Peruvian hillsides. But, fortunately for pet lovers, Acurio, who is famous for his novoandino (new Andean) cuisine, has disguised it here as Peking duck, serving it sliced up into chunks with a rocoto pepper hoisin sauce. Once it’s wrapped up in a purple corn pancake, you won’t even think about Fluffy.