Seven wonders of the gastronomic world

What are the best restaurants? It’s a question I’m frequently asked though one I find almost impossible to answer.

But I’ll say this much:  Like the “best” hotels, great restaurants always reflect their wider environment. They are of the moment but they are of the past and future, too, and they are comfortable in their own skin. They also display a developed sense of noblesse oblige, meaning they’re as gracious to the one-time, out-of-town visitor as they are to their local, loyal fan base. Most important of all, they leave you not just satisfied in the gustatory sense but also a little wiser and better informed about their locale. Yes, that’s really it: They have a sense of time and place.

For WAG’s food issue, here are my eclectic Lucky Seven, by which I mean seven of the “best” I’ve been lucky enough to eat in over the past year:

LE GABRIEL, PARIS

Opposite the Palais Royal on the Avenue Gabriel in the heart of diplomatic Paris, La Réserve Hotel, Spa and Apartments — which looks like a grand 19th-century private club but has none of the rules or stuffiness — is home to the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gabriel. Helmed by chef Jérôme Banctel, it offers an extraordinary weekend brunch, a kaleidescope of breads, patisserie, charcuterie, soft-boiled eggs with chanterelles, blue lobster with onion carbonara, veal sweetbreads with sage gnocchi and exotic fruits and desserts, with each dish exquisite and jewel-like. And with its marble columns, Beardsley-esque etched windows and Pre-Raphaelite art, Le Gabriel is not just a bonne-bouche, but a seriously beautiful one. Count me in. (lareserve-paris.com)

ARNAUD’S, NEW ORLEANS 

You haven’t lived until you’ve tried the piping hot soufflé potatoes served as hors d’oeuvres at Arnaud’s. How on earth can anyone do something as extraordinary with a potato, I asked myself, as I recently singlehandedly worked my way through a plate of them, the plate, I think, intended for the entire table. Located in the heart of the French Quarter and at nearly 100 years old, Arnaud’s isn’t the oldest restaurant in New Orleans, but it’s still one of the best, a classic and a survivor. The paneled rooms are formal but the vibe is utterly friendly. As for the food, it’s right up there — shrimp Arnaud, with a Creole remoulade dressing, and Veal Chantal, in a wild mushroom sauce, being two standouts. And though the wine is good and relatively inexpensive, I go another route, washing it all down with a couple of the signature French 75 house cocktails instead. (arnaudsrestaurant.com)

SPAGO, LOS ANGELES

Spago is not new, which in Tinseltown, the land of disposable everything, is precisely what makes this restaurant so special. Talk about a scene:  You could sit at Spago all night without eating or drinking a thing and still go home buzzed. My dear, the people: Taylor Swift is sitting diagonally opposite and Bradley Cooper almost sends the butter dish flying as he edges past our table. But it’s rude to stare, so we stare at the food instead, including wonderful bluefin tuna poke with seaweed and fava beans, Wolfgang Puck’s amazing wiener schnitzel — the size of an atlas — and those brilliant mini-pizzas. (Try the smoked salmon and crème fraiche.) And this being LA, there’s kale, of course — lots of it. I don’t really do kale, but at Spago I make an exception. (wolfgangpuck.com)

INDIAN ACCENT, NEW DELHI

Indian Accent is the most-talked-about restaurant in India. Adjoining The Manor, a hotel-cum-spa retreat in the frenetic city’s sequestered Friends Colony, chef Manish Mehrotra reworks classic Indian dishes using carefully sourced produce, much of it local and all of it seasonal. The result is sparkling modern Indian cooking, lots of it vegetarian, which effortlessly crisscrosses the subcontinent. And if you’re not passing through New Delhi any time soon, there’s good news: Earlier this year, a branch of Indian Accent landed in Manhattan. So now you can head to West 56th Street for wonderful sweet pickle ribs and duck chettinad with foie gras and pearl onion chutney, along with extraordinary desserts like crispy seviyan, rice pudding with coconut jaggery ice cream. (indianaccent.com)

DIN TAI FUNG, TAIPEI 

Nowadays you can eat xiao long bao, those heavenly, ravioli-like filled dumplings at branches of Din Tai Fung throughout Asia and even in California. But earlier this year, I was lucky enough to visit the original Din, in Taipei, and this joint takes some beating. Talk about no-frills: You eat on Formica tables under bright lights, with paper napkins. But heavens do you eat well. Even with seating for 300, you’ll still find long lines here almost around the clock, because the Taiwanese know a thing or two about good food. And you will never eat dumplings this good anywhere else, I promise you. So go pack a bag. EVA Air will get you to Taipei from New York in 16 hours. I’m telling you this because some things are worth crossing a continent and an ocean and then waiting on line for. (dintaifung.com)

AUBERGINE AT THE DAVID INTERCONTINENTAL, TEL AVIV

Take quinoa and acorn squash salad, or seared fillet of grouper with arugula and pickled lemon tahini sauce, add top-drawer, prize-winning Israeli wines and throw in a major political figure for a bit of razzle-dazzle — former President Shimon Peres was at the next table — and you have the makings of a wonderful lunch or dinner.  Aubergine chef Alon Hinterstein, believes everybody can incorporate healthy dishes into his everyday life and his Health & Harmony menu, a celebration of superb local produce, leads the way. Although Tel Aviv’s restaurant scene is now known as one of the hottest in the Middle East, for me Aubergine has to be a first stop to take the pulse of this extraordinarily vibrant city, of which good food is such an integral part. (aubergine.rest.co.il)

AZZERA RESTAURANT AT FOUR SEASONS RESORT, MARRAKECH

Those clever Four Seasons people are at it again — this time in Marrakech, the Red City of the Moroccan south. Chef Sylvain Nicolas’ first job was as a pastry chef before being appointed executive sous chef at Four Seasons Resort Marrakech, so it’s not surprising that he totally gets pastilla, the exquisite Moroccan dish that coalesces elements of the classic French mille-feuille (the Napoleon) with an English game pie. Rich with pigeon meat, the werqa dough is also filled with cinnamon and almonds and dusted with confectioner’s sugar, the sweet-savory elements combining to almost ethereal effect. Chef Nicolas does superb Turkish and Lebanese dishes, too, but for me pastilla is always the star. To eat a freshly made one in the hotel’s Inara lounge or at the shaded poolside restaurant Azzera under the date palms, must truly rank as one of life’s great sybaritic experiences. (fourseasons.com)

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