by Ann Abel Senior Contributor/Travel/I know the difference between expensive travel and the truly luxurious
Last year, when I got tired of reading restaurant obituaries, I decided to write restaurant love letters instead. I’d hoped it was a one-off, but the pandemic hasn’t ended, and neither have the obituaries. But I still managed to eat well, and so I have more love letters.
These ten restaurants (in alphabetical order) came to life for me during the past year. A couple are new, but most are worth celebrating because they adapted and hung on. Some have Michelin stars while others don’t even have menus. They all reminded me of the origin of the word restaurant—to restore, to take care of, to make feel complete.
Agriturismo Ramusè, Ascoli Piceno, Italy
My first night at Agriturismo Ramusè, I watched with delight as owner Paolo Ciccioli spent a full 30 seconds shaving a black truffle—one that I had harvested with him and his truffle hunting dogs a couple hours earlier—over my pasta.
That was just the primo piatto, halfway through a dinner in which all three courses included a luxurious amount of truffles, during a stay in which every dinner and even breakfast included the same.
The rural accommodation is as charming as can be, with natural materials and antique furnishings, but it’s the lavish lashings of truffles that will stay with me. (Thank you to Italycharme for the introduction.)
Alameda, Faro, Portugal
The chef at this relaxed spot honed his craft at the Algarve’s two-Michelin-star Ocean restaurant after he burned out on haute gastronomy. Here is concept is “fun fine dining” in a dining room that’s full of tropical plants, money sculptures dangling from light fixtures and a handsome little front garden.
The technique is still there, along with primo local ingredients, but nothing is too complicated—while I love the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a two-star, Alameda is the kind of place where I could eat every week. Especially because the tasting menus change frequently, depending on the day’s products, but they generally emphasize fish and seafood from the Algarve.
Azores Wine Company, Pico, Portugal
Some context is in order here: The remote and rural islands of the Azores tend to be good places to eat unfussy fresh fish, grass-fed beef and an embarrassment of rich cheeses and butter. They don’t tend to be good places for ambitious, gastronomic menus.
That makes chefs José Diogo Costa and Angelina Pedra’s accomplishment at the new Azores Wine Company all the more impressive.
They offer three six-course tasting menus—served to one group at a time around a gorgeous table centered on a basalt stone—made from tip-top ingredients (the fish is slaughtered the Japanese ike jime technique, said to give it a superior flavor) and paired with wines, of course.
Bar Castañeda, Las Vegas, New Mexico
Whenever I return to my native New Mexico, I expect to feast on green chile. I don’t expect to find a dining room in an old rail road in a small town. And yet, that’s what I found in May, when I tagged along with a fellow journalist and ended up in the Old West dining room of chef Sean Sinclair and his wife, Katey Sinclair. The dishes mix local classics, fresh interpretations, locally raised meats and seasonal produce—and there, in the desert, an improbably tasty fish and chips.
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, Alentejo, Portugal
A ride in a carriage drawn by Lusitano horses to a shaded spot beside the vineyards, where tables are laden with cheese and ham, octopus salad, perfectly fresh tomato, grilled vegetables, smoked fish, codfish salad and dozens of other Portuguese specialties: It could be an advertisement for Alentejo tourism.
It’s also the picnic lunch at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, a soulful, sustainability-minded winery hotel. Those starters are followed by all kinds of things from an oversize grill, presided over by chef Rodrigo Madeira. (Michelin-star chef Joachim Koerper consults and sometimes shows, up along with his pastry wizard wife, Cintia.) Golden, sun-splashed afternoons around those tables with old and new friends are the stuff of memories.
Noor, Córdoba, Spain
“Gastro-archaeologist” Paco Morales has spent years researching, exploring and playing with the culinary traditions of his native Andalusia—or Al-Ándalus as it was known from the 10th to the 15th century, when it was under Arabic rule. Now he describes his project in many ways, but my favorite was that he imagines he’s cooking for an emperor or a caliph.
The tasting menu at his Michelin two-star is a dazzling display of ingredients, flavors and presentation, on custom-designed black-and-white ceramics with in-house, 3D-printed table accents. (That’s how deep the attention to details goes.) Every year he advances a century in the gastronomic history of his native region, and this season has been a significant one, as it reflects the arrival of new world ingredients like tomatoes and corn.
Osteria U Local, Buccheri, Italy
This local restaurant in a small Sicilian city would have been impressive on its own, but it’s extra memorable because it was my introduction to the food historian, cookbook author and local character Pippo Formica.
Before lunch at this restaurant that he runs with his brother, Sebastiano, they made granita from scratch beside a hillside cabin that dates from the days that ice was a sort of cold gold, in terms of value.
The brothers’ restaurant is a lively little place whose walls are covered in newspaper clippings and award certificates. I’ll take their word for it that the wild boar is great—my pasta with the simplest, freshest pomodoro, and a simple truffle-dusted egg certainly were.
Tsaghkunk Restaurant, Tsaghkunk, Armenia
Truth be told, I found myself in this village about an hour from the Armenian capital for a once-in-a-lifetime event, a collaboration between the restaurant staff and Noma founding chef Mads Refslund, which was meant to elevate the local cooking and—equally important—establish Armenia on the culinary map. (I’ll go as far as to call it the new Georgia.) Refslund and his team have long since returned to New York, but the restaurant was plenty appealing before they got there. When I went for breakfast, chef Susanna Guckasyan and her team turned out a feast of fresh and smoked cheeses, fresh herbs, lavash (flatbread), egg dishes, a sort of lasagna, aveluk (wild sorrel) and, my favorite, gaylakhash, a sour yogurt soup with greens.
Vespasia, Norcia, Italy
Although the Relais & Châteaux Palazzo Seneca hotel is upstairs, the brothers who run both the palace hotel and the dining room describe themselves as “restaurant owners with rooms.” Vespasia, one of two restaurants in Umbria with a Michelin star.
The restaurant has two chefs, Fabio Cappiello, who is from in Puglia, and Fumiko Sakai, who was born in Japan. They bring some broader perspectives and influences to what is inevitably (because this is Italy) a hyperspecific regional cuisine. Although Norcia is known for its smoked and cured meats, they didn’t bat an eye at my pescatarian preferences and put together a five-course menu full of interesting flavors and pretty presentations.
Viscri 125, Transylvania, Romania
One of the best things about visiting Transylvania is staying at the rural farmhouse accommodations. Viscri 125 is a centerpiece of the village of the same name, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and place out of time. I loved my adorable room, with its green wooden furnishings and typical Saxon flower-patterned chest. Even better was the dinner, made by cooks from the village, with vegetables from the house’s own gardens, grown from rare seeds.
Their cooks have adapted traditional recipes to make good use of those exotic old vegetables, making sarmale (stuffed cabbage leaves) with kale, bean soup with cavolo nero, Swiss chard quiches or fennel cream soup. A simple dinner of vegetable soup and polenta with foraged mushrooms was one of my favorite meals of a weeklong trip through Romania. (Thank you to Beyond Dracula for the introduction.)