Another year, another Asia’s 50 Best list. Last week marked the release of the Asia’s 50 Best list, with Gaggan of Bangkok clinching top spot in Asia. Superficially, this would be an impressive achievement, but the 50 Best list in general (which comes in 3 flavors: World, Asia, and Latin America) is beset with major problems. The first is that voters don’t actually need to visit the restaurant to vote for it, and the second is that each geographical area (e.g. Southeast Asia North, Southeast Asia South) has an assigned bloc of voters. The first problem is obviously a breach of basic integrity, and the second problem has led to perennial conundrums, as V. Milor mentions, where Scandinavian judges will all cast their votes for Noma and French restaurant critics will split their vote amongst at least 15 different restaurants. In the first year of Latin America’s 50 Best, a surfeit of Argentina voters led to a puzzling amount of Argentinian restaurants on that list, the highest ranked of which, Tegui, served me the worst fine-dining meal I can remember, and a good but not special parrilla (La Cabrera) being promoted to the top 20.
Fundamentally, the flawed methodology of these 50 Best lists make them of limited value, and I would only use them if I had little prior information on a city’s dining scene. I’ve spent some time in Bangkok and Singapore, and have also eaten in a handful of HK and Tokyo restaurants. I think the first 10 or 15 of the Asia’s 50 Best are reasonable enough, but the rest of the Asia’s 50 Best are merely decent restaurants that lack a spark. For example, I would pick Candlenut or Wild Rocket over any of Burnt Ends, Tippling Club, or Osteria Mozza, just since they represent something unique to Singapore, whereas you could imagine any of latter 3 restaurants opening anywhere in the world. In Bangkok, how Bo Lan and Issaya Siamese Club rank ahead of the Water Library or Supanniga mystifies me.
Taking a detailed look at the restaurants I’ve been to:
- #1 Gaggan: Proof you can apply cookie-cutter techniques from the Modernist cookbook and be praised as an innovator. Below Michelin star standard.
- #4 Ryugin: Yes, absolutely deserves its position.
- #5 Restaurant Andre: Deserves its position.
- #6 Amber: Good French. Deserves a high position.
- #7 Nahm: Deserves its position.
- #11 JAAN: Refined French cooking. No fireworks, strong 1 star.
- #25 Eat Me: Nice bistro, but nothing special.
- #28 Bo Innovation: Something quite unique and could only exist in HK.
- #30 Burnt Ends: Okay.
- #36 Tippling Club: Lacklustre. Below Michelin star standard.
- #37 Bo Lan: Terrible.
- #39 Issaya Siamese Club: Nope. There are two very good things on the menu: the rum baba and the coconut crepes, the rest is blah.
- #45 Osteria Mozza: Quite good pastas, and decent antipasti and has a terrible atmosphere (looking out into the MBS mall). It’s a fairly good but cookie-cutter Italian restaurant. One of Asia’s 50 best restaurants? Really?
To be honest, revelatory fine-dining experiences in Asia are rare. High-end restaurants are still a nascent market especially in Southeast Asia. In Singapore I’ve only had a 3-Michelin level experience once – my second Restaurant Andre meal in 2013. I’ve not had it in Bangkok or Hong Kong, and as much as I enjoy kaiseki, in Japan only Ryugin (twice) and Kojyu (and Noma, but that’s not a typical experience) have blown me away. That means I’ve only had a truly impressive fine-dining meal from start to finish only five times in Asia.*
Because these revelatory dining experiences are rare, a useful 50 Best list should be geared towards exploration – perhaps like a 1970s Gault-Millau, which championed nouvelle-cuisine specifically as a counterpoint to Michelin’s championing of haute-cuisine. It needs editorial focus to provide something valuably different from a Michelin guide, perhaps to champion chefs in second-tier cities, or modern local food that isn’t a lazy molecular remix of indigenous ingredients. Right now, the Asia’s 50 Best list functions like an unprofessional and hype-driven Michelin guide in the absence of an actual Michelin guide covering Asia ex-HK and Japan. As a consequence of the flawed rating system, the first 10-15 restaurants approximate a pan-Asian Michelin ranking (due to a general agreement on merit), and the rest are wildly unreliable. (probably due to PR horse-trading and I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine-ism).
- I reviewed the Bangkok dining scene in October last year.