My Top 9 Peak Experience Meals

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As we enter a new decade, it’s natural for our minds to reflect on the decade that was. I realize that 2020 marks the 10 year anniversary of Call Me A Food Lover. I’m not sure what I expected when I started documenting my eating adventures 10 years ago, but I remember my reason was, “that it would be my excuse to eat very well”.

That simple sentiment that got me started doesn’t begin to describe my good fortune in incredible experiences I’ve had the last 10 years. Not only have I eaten very well, but I learned push myself in my travels. I experienced changes, not only in my palate but also in my expectations of what a great meal consisted of. I grew from being shy to outgoing, growing confident in the possibility of amazing and because of this, I gained access to incredible adventures and met (and befriended) many talented people.

Over the years, I have sought after great dining experiences, and eaten glorious meals in magical settings. I can attribute my success to careful research and a positive attitude. On top of this, I’ve come to realize I have amazing dining karma, where I’ve encountered (and even eaten with/beside) legends of the culinary world. 

I’ve realized that the best thing about Call Me A Food Lover, is that it’s a place I can return to, my “Dear diary” of travel and food. It’s made taking the trip down my memory lane of food loving in the past 10 years a delightful journey.

The first post of my “Best of” series, is My Top 9 Peak Experience Meals. All of these meals have been ones where I’ve researched, reserved well in advance and involved a multi-course extravaganza. What they all have in common is that from the moment I’ve sat down, the restaurant has understood that I was there for something special, and they delivered. These meals stand out in my mind for their outstanding food and drink, impeccable service geared towards the mood and energy of me and my dining companions and all were delivered in beautiful spaces that helped to compliment the magic of the meal.

The French Laundry (2010) : I started Call Me A Food Lover because of this meal. My inspiration for this dining experience came from Anthony Bourdain in A Cook’s Tour (the book and tv show). Dining at the French Laundry seemed like a culinary fairy tale and I wanted more than anything to experience it. When the possibility of dining there opened up, I immediately jumped at the opportunity.

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I didn’t know enough back then not to be intimidated by the “jackets-required” policy. Other than a few kaiseki meals in Kyoto I’d had as a kid, I’d never dined like this before.

I’m happy that I experienced The French Laundry with my in-laws. They helped teach me that even though the dining room was formal, it didn’t mean we had to be and that the diner has the right to set the mood and pace of service. I learned that engaging the staff was integral to a satisfying meal and that asking questions or having requests, were not unreasonable. These lessons were valuable and have helped me in all my peak meals to follow.

If The French Laundry was anything other than extraordinary, perhaps I never would have continued Call Me a Food Lover. I think back to my last 10 years of eating and wonder how different my life would have been if this were the case. I feel overwhelmingly fortunate when I think of this meal and its importance to me is the reason it continues to sit at the top of my peak dining experiences.

41° (2012) : I was introduced to Ferran Adria through Anthony Bourdain’s, No Reservations (I see a common thread and perhaps a future post here).

There were a few years in the early 10’s that I ate up everything Adria and El Bulli. I read and re-read Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and The Sorcerers Apprentice. It was a morbid fascination though, as I knew as I read these books that El Bulli would be closing and I’d never have the opportunity to sample the magical dishes created by Ferran and his brother Albert.

The books inspired me to arrange a trip to Barcelona to seek its flavours. And as luck would have it, as I was researching the trip, I found out that the Adria’s had not only opened the super engaging carnival-themed Tickets, but were also presenting a 41-course, “best of” El Bulli experience. At the time, these restaurants were deemed two of the “the toughest reservations in the world” to obtain, and I was able to score reservations for both.

To describe this meal as mind-blowing would be an understatement. My brain worked to connect the wizardry of what my eyes were seeing and my palate was tasting throughout this 4 hour extravaganza. It was a peak experience pushed further over the top because I was able to meet and dine beside Ferran Adrià at Tickets the night before.

Kikunoi (2013) : I have had incredible meals in Japan in the past 10 years. I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred sushi, tempura, and yakitori restaurants, but Kikunoi stands above all the other as one of my top 10.

Kaiseki, is a traditional multi-course Japanese meal that is tied to the seasons and uses the best of what is available at that moment. Each course is meticulously prepared and served gracefully.

Kaiseki was never anything I’d sought in Japan in my adult life, but when I watched David Chang wax poetic during his kaiseki meal at Kikunoi on a Mind of a Chef episode, I was reminded of a similar peak experience I’d had as a child with my mom in Kyoto. It only seemed right to have her as my dining partner for this meal.

We dined at Kikunoi during cherry blossom season, and we were presented am extraordinary meal that was delicate and tasted as delicious as it was pretty.

"Kikunoi Kyoto Hassun"
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Alinea (2013) : Yet another restaurant visit inspired by a book, this time, Life on The Line. Chef Grant Achatz’s story was compelling because of his passion, creativity and determination to fight through adversity. What attracted me the most to dining at Alinea though, was that the meal was said to engage the diner to participate in the experience.

Unlike the other Peak Experience meals that came before this one, I didn’t scour sites in advance to see photos to prepare myself for the meal. I had visions of what was to come from the book, and wanted that, rather than images of what others experienced to be my story for the meal. By the time I entered through the doorway to Alinea, my anticipation was so great, I feared it would be impossible to live up to my expectations. 

Of all of the restaurant experiences on this list, Alinea was the most life changing/influential. It was the first experience meal where I found that my knowledge in dining at this level was appreciated, and I came out of my shell because of it. I engaged more with the servers than ever, and the day after the meal, this continued when I had the chance to speak to the Chef Achatz about the meal while I was attending an event at the Aviary.

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Empellon Cocina (2015) : After meeting Chef Alex Stupak at an event at Origen restaurant in Oaxaca, I knew I had to visit Empellón in New York. The 4 seat Chef’s tasting experience was prepared and served by the Chef himself. My dining companions for the evening included James Beard award winning journalist Francis Lam and then Eater editor (now New Yorker editor) Helen Rosner. The meal was a whimsical journey, shared with the best people possible. While this entry in my top 10 is a surprise (even to me) this was a meal where I felt all the stars collided on this evening to present me the best Mexican meal I’ve had outside of Mexico.

Willows Inn (2015) : Feeling oversaturated by fine dining, and disappointed by more than one uber expensive, Michelin-starred meals, I took a bit of a hiatus from experience meals. But when the Willows Inn, located on a tiny island an hour from my home, was recognized as one of the best restaurants in the world, I was hopeful it would deliver a meal that would revive my passion with experience meals.

Going to Willows Inn on Lummi Island is a journey that involves a ferry and a commitment to stay for the night. But as I always say, the fun is in the journey.

Willows Inn was exactly what I needed to restore my faith in fine dining. The meal was like a love letter, focussing on the bounty of deliciousness of local ingredients, with flavours I associate with the place I call home. But on top of that, I loved that service was executed by the kitchen staff including Chef Wetzel which helped make me feel a comfort that had been missing in a world of eating that was becoming far too pretentious for my liking.

"Willows Inn Lummi sunset"

Single Thread (2017) : After Willows, I knew it would take an absolute superstar to satisfy me on the same level, but Chef Kyle Connaughton and, Single Thread did just that. Their farm driven California cuisine with subtle Japanese influences, was a meal that had me feeling like Alice in Wonderland from the moment I walked through their door.

Singlethread Farm Healdsburg Sonoma shun

I was attracted to Single Thread because of Chef Connaughton’s connection to Japan. The meal was an interpretation of kaiseki dining using the best from locally farm-sourced ingredients. The presentations were spectacular without being fussy and I loved that meal was presented with passion.

Single Thread Healdsburg dinner

Pujol Taco Omakase (2018) : I have dined at Pujol 3 times. My first two visits, I did the full Chef’s menu, once at the old location and once in the new. On my third visit, I chose to do the taco omakase, which was the one that I include on my top list as it sits far above the other two experiences in my memory.

Pujol taco omakase corn chicatana

Course after course, I declared each to be my favourite, only to have that thought pushed aside as the next was served and then I declared that more delicious. . I loved that I could pick up the food with my hands and finish each course in 2-3 bites. Unlike most tasting meals where I become uncomfortably full by the end, I was able to enjoy the full meal in all it’s glory.

Pujol taco omakase amberjack avocado
Pujol taco omakase mole madre

Origen (every meal from 2012 – present) : If you know me, or follow Call Me a Food Lover, then it’s no surprise that Origen would be included on this list. It’s a bit of a cheat, because I can’t name just one meal to include on this list but it’s the catalogue as a whole. When I look at my last 10 years of eating, no restaurant has provided me with as many stellar meals and impacted my life more than Origen. My meals at Origen always rank in my tops of the year but more than that, from my first meal at Origen in 2012 to now, I’ve developed a friendship with Chef Rodolfo, and through this I’ve had amazing opportunities present themselves which has been one of the reasons why Mexico has become my passion place.

It’s hard for me to pick one meal at Origen that is “the meal” to include on my top 10. There was the first meal which piqued my initial interest of modern Oaxacan cuisine. Then the meal that we made together in a cooking class in his kitchen where I had the best chile relleno of my life. There was the incredible meal right after he won Top Chef where I watched the Chef, happy in the kitchen with a spring in his step serving his “winning” Chichilo mole. There have been many meals in between and now, I’m spoiled getting to eat at Origen at least twice a year, each time messaging with the Chef in advance to ensure I’ll be served my favorite flavours. I’ve proudly witnessed Chef Rodolfo’s evolution as a chef as he’s learned to know my likes and ability in quantity for maximum enjoyment of a meal. It’s a fabulous relationship in my opinion.

Looking back at 10 years of eating and the meals that I’ve included on this list, I can’t help but again feel so fortunate that I documented it all through Call Me A Food Lover. If this is what 10 years of dining looked like, I can’t wait to see what the 20’s deliver.

While it wasn’t difficult to chose my Top 9 Experience meals, it was hard to pick a 10th amongst so many other incredible meals, which is why I cut the list where I did. The meals in consideration of being included as the Top 10 included meals at El Destilado (Oaxaca), Fauna (Valle de Guadalupe), Criollo (Oaxaca), and Burnt Ends (Singapore).

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