In a revitalizing part of downtown Los Angeles, a chef who grew up in suburban Detroit is cooking food influenced by her Chinese heritage, but also by Nashville hot chicken and Outback Steakhouse. In Tokyo, a baker has returned home to open a shop after spending time in Scandinavia perfecting his sourdough recipe. In London, a guy from Wales has expertly taken his cue from open-fire cooking in Spain’s Basque country to create dishes with English ingredients. There are countless more examples of such successful culinary crossovers, and we invite more.
Because although cultural appropriation in restaurants is a hot topic, we found that as we selected our Best of the Best winners, some of the most outstanding food you’ll find today is made by people inspired by the idea of eating without borders.
NEW RESTAURANT, UNITED STATES:
Atomix, New York City
When you’re dining at Atomix, it’s easy to feel like Junghyun and JeongEun Park, the husband-and-wife duo behind the innovative restaurant, have welcomed you to a private dinner party. Sure, it’s located in a converted townhouse in New York’s NoMad neighborhood. But the real reason for the sense of intimacy is that they’ve made that house feel like a home with their tribute to where they’re from, where they’ve journeyed and where they hope to take Korean fine dining.
Atomix’s experience begins with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the subterranean lounge before you take a seat at a U-shaped counter downstairs. There, JeongEun greets you and presents an array of beautifully painted chopsticks from her personal collection, from which you choose your utensils for the night. Then Junghyun’s cooking appears, guided by the idea of traditional banchan—that signature spread of small dishes served with Korean barbecue. Instead of coming all at once, though, they form a sequenced tasting menu, each course arriving with a card that explains the components of the dish, the artisan who made the plate on which it’s served and the history of the ingredients.
Junghyun’s cuisine focuses less on the heat and sweet associated with Korean fare than on fermentation, which he believes is the cuisine’s driving force. In the steamed fish course, jjim, he deploys doenjang, a fermented bean paste, to accompany halibut with foie gras and butternut squash. He also looks beyond his heritage to his travels. You learn from the card for another course that he found inspiration in the mole at Mexico City’s Pujol to create one with gochujang, served with Korean melon and perfectly seared duck breast. With each course, the voyage through the couple’s personal exploration of Korean food progresses, and where it goes is both delicious and endearing.
Chris Shepherd, Houston
Perhaps in the year a chef shuts down the restaurant that made him famous, he’d be an odd person to call out as the best. Except Chris Shepherd closed Houston’s beloved Underbelly not as a retrenchment but rather as a result of his Texas-sized ambition.
Shepherd opened Underbelly back in 2012 as an ode to his adopted hometown. He drew on the immigrant communities of America’s most diverse city: flavors of Vietnam, Germany, Korea and elsewhere gathered under one roof in dishes created with local ingredients. He also gave back, providing diners a list of restaurants to try before they returned to Underbelly.
Well established as one of the city’s top chefs, Shepherd’s next act was bold: In 2017 he started his One Fifth project, setting out to open and close five distinct restaurant concepts in one space in five years. He said that no matter how successful the concept became, he’d close it down and start anew. He faced that hypothetical immediately, when the first restaurant, One Fifth Steak, was a massive hit. Shepherd shuttered it anyway but came up with a grand plan so it could live on: He closed Underbelly last year to make room for the modern steak house, which he renamed Georgia James. There, he cooks in cast iron and over fire, while serving creative sides like an uni panna cotta and creamed collard greens.
Along the same street in Houston’s hip Montrose neighborhood, Shepherd also unveiled the third iteration of One Fifth, exploring the Mediterranean and becoming excited about making hummus, merguez, khachapuri and kataifi. And, to keep the spirit of Underbelly alive, he opened UB Preserv, so his devotion to Houston’s cultural melting pot could live on in dishes like Vietnamese short rib fajitas. Considering the delicious, creative food he serves and the scale of his ambition, you won’t find a better chef around right now.
NEW RESTAURANT, EUROPE:
Doing the simplest things beautifully appears to be the culinary mantra of Tomos Parry at Brat. The modest and soft-spoken Welsh chef has excelled at a stripped-down style of cooking that seems basic until you taste it. Inspired by the famed grills of Spain’s Basque region, Parry cooks over an open fire to stunning effect in the upstairs of a former East London pub.
Brat is an old colloquial name for turbot, and the flat fish slow-cooked over lumpwood charcoal in full view of diners is the star of the show. Sourcing the fish from Cornwall in England’s southwest, Parry keeps it moist by basting it with an emulsion of the fish’s own juices whipped together with garlic, guindilla pepper and olive oil. His technique creates a sensationally light, almost creamy texture and mouthfeel, underlining why the dish has quickly become a London favorite in less than a year since Brat opened.
Parry carries on the Basque tradition of not messing with great ingredients throughout his menu. Using impeccable beef from northern England, he creates an unbeatable steak tartare that’s judiciously seasoned and flecked with sesame seeds. And his glistening langoustines arrive flavored with lardo and dressed with a fresh rosemary sprig. For once, the hype about one of London’s most talked-about restaurants is absolutely merited.
An hour’s drive from the Peruvian city of Cusco finds you in the Sacred Valley, at the base of the country’s jagged, snow-capped Andes Mountains. The area’s appeal? A spectacular landscape interspersed with ancient sacred sites, hiking trails and now, Mil, a new restaurant from Virgilio Martínez, the acclaimed chef behind one of the world’s best restaurants, Central, in Lima.
Set above the Inca agricultural terraces of Moray in a humble adobe building with a grass roof, Mil is Martínez’s tribute to Andean cuisine. Don’t be thrown by diners clad in hiking boots and zip-at-the-knee pants—this reservations-only restaurant is as swanky as Central. Inside the cool, earthy space, the multicourse menu celebrates Andean ancestors by using their techniques for cultivation and preparation of the ingredients that grow 11,500 feet above sea level. And at the adjoining food laboratory, which collaborates with local communities to document Andean produce, the inner workings of Mil are on display.
What results are complex but unfussy dishes such as a variety of corn with queso fresco, and duck with black quinoa and algae, that arrive on wood and stoneware, with courses accompanied by herby infusions and wines. It’s a thoughtful dining experience that makes the long, scenic journey to get there all the more worth it.
NEW RESTAURANT, ASIA:
Aulis, Hong Kong
British gourmands are well aware of Simon Rogan’s talent. Now the rest of the world is catching up, thanks to his first overseas restaurant, Aulis, in Hong Kong. At his intimate, 12-seat tasting-menu experience he combines local produce with his contemporary British cuisine. And though Rogan holds multiple Michelin stars at his UK restaurants, including L’Enclume and Rogan & Company, there’s nothing stuffy about his dazzling succession of courses in Hong Kong.
Early on in the meal, he serves a humble yet excellently executed soda bread with cultured butter. It gets more complicated from there. There’s a sea urchin pudding with house caviar, Cumbrian beef with celeriac purée atop a sweet onion that’s crowned with caramel-colored jus made with the beef bones, and desserts featuring unexpected ingredients like yellow beetroot sorbet. The food, combined with the small space—which allows for interactions with the chefs preparing the meal—has made Aulis one of the toughest seats to grab in Hong Kong. And rightly so.
Mei Lin, Nightshade, Los Angeles
Mei Lin made the long wait for her first restaurant well worth it. America originally got to know Lin as the laser-focused and wildly creative cook who won the reality-TV competition Top Chef in 2015. The victory prompted her to leave her job at Michael Voltaggio’s LA restaurant Ink to strike out on her own.
But it wasn’t a straight line from Ink to her downtown LA jewel, Nightshade. Taking nearly four years to make her solo debut, Lin bided her time until she found the right space. In the interim, she had no problem filling her schedule. She bounced around the globe doing collaborative dinners and going on self-guided culinary journeys, eating everywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants in South Korea to hot chicken joints in Nashville. When she returned to LA between gigs, her pop-ups drew lines out the door and around the block. And in an unexpected cameo, she turned up on Oprah’s Instagram, cooking alongside the mogul and contributing to her cookbook.
The time away helped Lin find her voice. In January of 2019, Nightshade opened, presenting her take on comfort food at a high level. The menu plays off of nostalgia with dishes such as her version of a Bloomin’ Onion and Nashville-inspired hot quail. “Our ethos is to evoke food memories, things that are comforting as well as fun and super tasty,” Lin says. “Honestly, two years ago I don’t think I would have done a dish like the Bloomin’ Onion. More and more, I just want to go to a restaurant where you have a good experience and have fun with friends.”
Emília, Mexico City
In Mexico City, a metropolis deeply rooted in local food culture, Emília is offering up some unexpected cuisine. Inside the polished white dining room, hidden on the second floor of a building in the Cuauhtémoc neighborhood, chef Lucho Martinez Burelo weaves together Mexican and Japanese ingredients and flavors.
Japanese food is not new to Mexico City, but Burelo’s effortless take on it is. The best seat in the house is at the bar, where diners watch a bevy of diligent chefs dressed in coordinated attire based on the staff’s mood, prepare 12 courses of plates like creamy rice with enokitake mushrooms, and tuna with wakame and shiso. There’s also an à la carte menu, but it would be a disservice not to sample the gamut of intricate flavors Emília offers up in the set menu—and wash them down with biodynamic Mexican wines, of course. The glossy space, with its thick marble tables, gleaming floors and leather seats, tells of an upscale restaurant, but the thundering music (mostly Indie and rock) tells the opposite: of a cool, underground haunt.
Vegetarian Shawarma at Noma
When Noma reopened in a new location on the outskirts of Copenhagen in February 2018, the restaurant began a program of transforming every few months. Winter focuses on seafood, in the summer it becomes a vegetarian restaurant, and in the fall it’s all about game and produce foraged from the forest. Chef René Redzepi created the new structure to push the four-time World’s Best Restaurant out of its comfort zone. No season does that more than summer.
“When you have meat on the menu, it’s almost a given how the menu will flow. But when it’s all vegetarian dishes, you can mix it up in a whole different way,” says Mette Søberg, Noma’s head of research and development. “Then still creating a main course—I think that was one of the biggest challenges.” They met the challenge in their first meat-free summer with an ingenious solution. Redzepi, Søberg and team created a vegetarian shawarma on a spit that looked just like one you’d find in a street food stall in Istanbul.
To build the shawarma they thinly sliced celeriac and stacked it as if they were making a meat version. In between the layers, they coated the celery root with a truffle puree and also a reduction made from mushrooms, linseed oil and pureed celeriac. The shawarma slowly cooked
on a makeshift barbecue to impart a smoky flavor. Noma’s flair for the dramatic meant every night a cook presented the entire shawarma spit to the table, causing people to grab their phones for Instagram. Moments later, servers returned with thin, grilled slices of the veggie shawarma, which had a meaty texture and deep umami flavor. It was theatrical, clever, delicious and proved the new Noma still had the capacity to surprise like the old one.
The Japanese have long been perfecting the art of Parisian pastries, but at Tokyo newcomer Vaner, baker Tsukasa Miyawaki is focusing on Scandinavian sourdough. After a year honing his craft in Norway, Miyawaki opened the humble bakery in Tokyo’s leafy Yanaka district. Totally off the tourist track, Vaner’s location may be obscure, but Miyawaki’s pastries sell out fast. From across the city, hungry customers journey for loaves of fragrant bread and bags chock-full of pastries.
Inside the spare wooden space, there are few items on offer: simple bread, aromatic cinnamon and cardamom rolls, buttery croissants and pains au chocolat. All are worth the trek. Coffee from Norwegian roaster Fuglen is available to accompany the baked goods. Otherwise, the neighboring beer hall serves craft brews. Could there be a better pairing for a hunk of chewy, thick-crusted sourdough than an icy ale? We think not.