Lawrence Osborne: For World's Best Restaurants, Look to Asia

Asian Restaurant
“I’m not averse to a bit of swashbuckling cultural chauvinism, provided there’s a wink in eye along the way.” Photographs by Christopher Wise for Newsweek

Every year, Restaurant Magazine assembles what it calls "800 international restaurant experts" and asks them to make a list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants. "What constitutes 'best,'" they coyly concede, "is left to the judgement of these trusted and well-traveled gourmets." The magazine then proceeds to reassure us the list can never be definitive, but nevertheless "we believe it is an honorable survey of current tastes and a credible indicator of the best places to eat around the globe."

"Well-traveled" is a fatty compliment to our trusted and honorable gourmets, and they have certainly winged their way around Europe and the far-flung tables of New York and even Rio de Janeiro. Noma in Copenhagen is given first place, as is by now predictable, and after it come the likes of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, Per Se in New York, and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London. L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, in Paris ... comes in at No. 12.

It is not until No. 26 that we get to Iggy's in Singapore and 27 to Narisawa in Tokyo. In all, there are six Asian restaurants in this Top 50, and No. 50 itself is a place that I happen to love: Nahm, in Bangkok's Metropolitan Hotel. The other 44 are all in the West; the relentlessly ordinary Momofuku in New York rates above all but three restaurants in the whole of Asia. And therein, if you'll excuse a bad pun, lies my beef.

One can always quibble with lists. The exercise is as futile as it is gratuitous. We all have our own lists. We fume over them internally. We gnaw at them. We think we have the best list. "In all matters of opinion," Oscar Wilde once said, "our adversaries are insane."

I could throw a little tantrum explaining why I think Nahm is a more sublime restaurant than L'Atelier Robuchon could ever be (when I was working as a booze columnist for Vogue I would be put up at the Montalembert next door and told to eat there every day—it was not torture, admittedly, but it was not No. 12 in the world either.) But we get it. Most readers of Restaurant Magazine eat out in New York and London and Paris, and not in Bangkok or Tokyo or Hong Kong. They have no idea that Bangkok's wild street food—$15 a head maximum—blows fancier places out of the proverbial water.

I'm not averse to a bit of swashbuckling cultural chauvinism, provided there's a wink in the eye along the way. No such luck here, however. Food "experts" take themselves very seriously, especially when they are making lists of the "world's best." Of course, all the restaurants here are good. But the hierarchy into which they have been slotted is as dated as, say, Occidental financial supremacy pre-2007.

Tokyo, for example, has aggregately more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, and by a vast margin. The Michelin inspectors, moreover, have only been rating Tokyo food—about which they know next to nothing—for a couple of years. Tokyo has more restaurants, it is anecdotally said, than New York and Paris combined (though no one has the heart to actually count them). The inspectors have barely scratched the surface of this gastronomic orgy, but it's pretty obvious to any casual eater who is "well-traveled" that Tokyo has the best food on the planet.

My son, who speaks fluent Japanese, has often told me that Tokyo contains eateries that no outsider can fully penetrate; restaurants with one table, or specializing in a single fish, hundreds and hundreds of places with food that would destroy the pretensions of many Western competitors. I feel the same way about Bangkok, a city I have long lived in—its food is largely missing from the radar of international gourmandise for reasons that are pettily obvious: the ingrained insularity and self-regard which all humans seem to be afflicted by, and which afflicts food professionals in direct inverse proportion to their intellectual rigor.

Naturally a restaurant is graded on qualities that are not identical to those of a city's or country's overall food. Do you seriously think that Denmark has better food than Singapore or Thailand, let alone Japan? But Noma is not Denmark. And yet it is Europe. If it were located in Kuala Lumpur, I wonder if any of its accolades would still make it supreme.

Imagine if René Redzepi were an ethereal Malay chef roaming the paddies of his native land with a pair of herb scissors, adhering to the principles of prehistoric "wildculture" and concocting the tropical equivalent of woodruff sauce and bulrush dipped in goat's curd and hazelnut praline. Yeah, it would be delicious and weird and all that, but we wouldn't much care. I'm not sure I care when it's in Copenhagen.

Asian Restaurant
A favorite Vietnamese joint in Bangkok: Xuang Mai Photographs by Christopher Wise for Newsweek

Noma's food is delicious and spare and, to me, sort of blandly moralistic and "environmental." I can't help it. I'd rather be seated at my favorite Vietnamese joint in Bangkok, Xuan Mai, run by self-taught Meyung Robson, ex-Miss Saigon 1973 and a war refugee, who is the greatest cook I know. A woman who actually does roam the paddies of rural Vietnam with a pair of scissors looking for arcane herbs and who runs a restaurant plastered with images of baby cats. Yes, I'd rather be there, blinking at neons and eating sublime whole Mekong catfish and a passion-fruit crème brûlée that knows no reason and that is—to my mind—better than many of the severe oddities that you'll find on the tables of the world's Top 50.

It's just one example, and, of course, I am sane and you are not. But try it the next time you manage to leave the Western Hemisphere and the damp Occidental extremity of Asia: your own list will change.

Lawrence Osborne is the author, most recently, of Bangkok Days. His novel The Forgiven will be published by Hogarth later this year.