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There are plenty of good reasons to hop on a plane and fly halfway across the globe, but should food really be one of them? For people whose taste buds guide them through life, the answer is a resounding “yes” followed by a snort of disbelief — how could anyone possibly think otherwise?
For these pleasure-seekers, next-level culinary experiences aren’t merely activities to be crammed into existing plans. They’re the centerpieces of an entire trip, or perhaps even the reason they travel to begin with. Through food, travelers can experience the distinct flavors and nuances of another place, people and culture.
But what qualifies as a food experience worth all that hassle? The Points Guy caught up with a handful of the country’s top jetsetting restaurateurs and chefs to find out what makes the cut.
Japanese-French Fusion in Tokyo
When Niki Nakayama first heard about the Japanese-French restaurant Florilege in Japan’s capital city, the chef and owner of Los Angeles kaiseki restaurant n/naka knew she had to experience it herself. “They make such a great use of Japanese flavor combinations, but prepare them in interesting and unique ways,” said Nakayama, who also starred in season one of the groundbreaking Netflix show, “Chef’s Table.”
The most memorable dish on the tasting menu was a simple plate of fresh pan-fried pike mackerel, blanketed in a Japanese-influenced chrysanthemum sauce. To Nakayama, it was mind-blowing. “It always comes down to the way Japanese people interpret European cuisine — it’s exciting to me when it’s a little clever and personal at the same time,” she said.
Nakayama isn’t Florilege’s only superfan; the restaurant’s No. 14 spot on “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants” list means its seats are among the most coveted in town.
Zeppole in Sicily
“My husband [and fellow chef] Scott and I would definitely fly to Catania, Sicily — my grandfather’s hometown — just for a plate of zeppole,” said Angie Rito, the chef and co-owner of modern red-sauce Italian joint Don Angie. These sugary puffs of fried dough aren’t just any zeppole, though. They’re made by a tiny trattoria in the city center called Nuova Trattoria del Forestiero.
“[We] chose to go [here] because we found the polarizing reviews to be very interesting,” Rito said, describing how people either loved the food or were exasperated by the slow service — the result of one single woman carefully preparing all the food for the entire restaurant. “… When we heard that part, we were immediately sold.”
Every part of the hours-long meal was extraordinary, Rito said, but the dessert finale stands out in her memory. The zeppole “were very rich, but somehow extremely light and airy at the same time, and coated in a ton of granulated sugar,” she said. “The dish was rustic and simple, but really, really delicious.”
Shola Market in Addis Ababa
On a recent trip to Ethiopia, chef Amy Brandwein of Centrolina in Washington, DC, fell head over heels for the country’s rich market culture.
“A real highlight from my trip was visiting Shola Market in Addis Ababa,” she said. Brandwein was floored to discover that many Ethiopians from the countryside drive several hours to the market to buy and sell goods like rosemary, ghee, thyme, dried figs, shallots, garlic and more.
“We received an in-depth look into the spice-making process, from the first, raw stage, to the finished product,” she said, adding that she was “surprised to learn that each Ethiopian cook has their own berbere blend:” a powdered spice mixture that often includes chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, nigella and fenugreek. “I really identified with the respect that the people of Ethiopia have for ingredients,” she added.
Durian Soufflé in Singapore
Chef Daniel Boulud oversees an empire of French-inflected restaurants that span the globe, but they’re far from carbon copies of one another; most pick up inspiration from the cities in which they operate. Boulud may be a bit biased, but after a recent trip to his Singapore restaurant db Bistro & Oyster Bar, he’s certain that one dessert on the menu is worth a transcontinental flight.
“One of the things that surprised me during the trip was a durian soufflé by our pastry chef, Mandy Pan,” Boulud told TPG. Durian — a large spiky fruit with a custard-like texture — has a polarizing flavor to say the least: Some people moon over its pleasant sweetness, while others are nauseated by its pungent aroma.
Boulud, however, is apparently in the former category. “The idea of durian is pretty remote for a French guy, but it was delicious,” he said. “I would never have thought we could make a soufflé with durian.”
“Half and Half” Clam Chowder on the Jersey Shore
You’ve likely heard of New England clam chowder, with its creamy base, and Manhattan clam chowder, with tomato-y one. But have you ever heard of half and half clam chowder, a Franken-soup that marries the New England and Manhattan varieties in one bowl?“It works brilliantly,” swears Greg Vernick, the James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Vernick Food & Drink in Philadelphia. The dish is a specialty of Smitty’s Clam Bar in Somers Point, New Jersey — admittedly not such a long trip for Vernick at present, but he’d hop on a plane for a visit even if it were. The no-frills restaurant itself, too, is high on atmosphere.
“It represents the Jersey Shore in all the best ways,” he said. “People tailgate out of their trunks while waiting for tables. It’s right on the water and smells of the sea … I have been going since I was a young kid. I love that now I can bring my own kids.”
Dinner at Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque Country
Early in Johnny Spero’s career, the chef and owner of modern fine-dining spot Reverie in Washington, DC, became enamored with modernist Spanish cuisine. He even spent a season training at Mugaritz, the adventurous restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain, that consistently tops the World’s 50 Best list. (It’s currently ranked No. 9 in the world.)
“It was incredible seeing the kitchen and food that had been a constant source of inspiration from afar for so long,” he said. A year after his stint there came to a close, Spero returned to propose to his then-girlfriend. “I wanted to take her to the place that had changed my life,” he said.
With only limited funds, Spero found the cheapest flight to Spain possible, “which took about a full day of flying and layovers to get us to San Sebastián,” he said. The day before their scheduled dinner, he successfully proposed — thank goodness! — and they dined the following evening at Mugaritz. It was, “an experience I will never forget,” Spero recalled. “From the clams glazed in a sauce made of beef tendon [to] the strawberry kombucha mother with cream, it challenges your perception of food, flavor and textures.”
“Every diner gets a different menu so each experience progresses differently,” he continued. “After nearly four hours, the meal was done and we were sitting outside in the garden reminiscing. I would travel all the way back to Spain again just to walk into that dining room.”
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Feature photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
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