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4 of the Most Mind-Blowing Meals I've Had... in the Most Unexpected Places
Some of the world's best restaurants are in out-of-the-way places worth a special trip.
Everyone knows you can get great meals practically without even trying in Paris, Tokyo, and New York. Sometimes what makes a meal truly special, though, is traveling to far-flung places where you never would have suspected there was phenomenal food just waiting to be discovered. My own travels take me to out-of-the-way destinations on five or six continents each year, and one of the things I most look forward to is uncovering new foods, new cuisines, and new restaurants. Each year, I encounter delightful delicacies in some of the unlikeliest places. Here are some of my favorite recent experiences that are worth the trip to Europe alone. While some meals are to die for, these are meals to fly for.
1. The Airds Hotel & Restaurant
If you’d said even 10 years ago that Scotland would be one of the world’s next great dining destinations, you probably would have been laughed out of the room. Well, the joke’s on the haggis haters because this northern European gem has become one of the world’s, most interesting places to eat. Fresh North Sea seafood that was once sent to the best restaurants in Paris and London, as well as once-forgotten foraged foods, are making a reappearance in restaurants across the land once known as Caledonia. I went on a tasty trip that took me up the west coast of the country last year. During it, I came across the delightful historical hotel Airds Hotel & Restaurant which is a member of a new association of high-end properties in the country called Luxury Scotland.
The Airds is in the coastal hamlet of Port Appin, not far from Oban, which you might know from the famous whisky distillery there, perched above a rugged stretch of coast along Loch Linnhe that looks like it came right out of Braveheart. The cute little hotel dates back to the 18th century, when it was built as an inn for the nearby ferry crossing. After a glass of wine by the fire in the parlor to warm up, I sat down to a multi-course meal showcasing some of the area’s fabulous foodstuffs.
It started with a trio of amuse bouches including a tarte with caramelized onion custard and a cauliflower panna cotta with charred cauliflower and a parmesan crisp. From there, I continued with the cannelloni of crab from the nearby Isle of Mull on a bed of chilled tomato gazpacho and with a cream of oyster emulsion as an accent. The dish was a like tasting life out on one of the fishing boats that ply the local waters.
The area is known for monkfish, so that’s what I had for my main, and I was not disappointed. The fish itself is one of the meatier species, often called “poor man’s lobster.” This version was succulent and tender, though, accompanied by hunks of luscious braised Scottish oxtail, tangy girolle mushrooms, and fluffy smoked gnocchi, like a modified surf-and-turf.
Finally, for dessert, I tried the deconstructed carrot cake, the moist slice topped with pumpkin ganache, a walnut tuile and a tart mascarpone sorbet that was just the right counterpoint. The meal overall was a delicious combination of flavors that could only come from Scotland.
Among the many things that Germany does well are food and cars. So perhaps it should not have been such a surprise that one of the best restaurants (it’s got two Michelin stars) in Munich is at the BMW Welt center and museum. Up in a sophisticated but cozy dining room on the center’s third floor, chef Bobby Bräuer creates culinary magic many nights — get a front-row seat near the window into the kitchen to see for yourself.
My meal there was a four-hour affair that included about a dozen different dishes. First came a trio of starters: quail and hen egg with tamarind and brown bread crumbs, raw char with toasted quinoa with trout roe and cauliflower paste, and a spring pea emulsion with buttermilk. Next came duck liver pâté with peanut cream and passion fruit on a green-tea crisp and se snails with ricotta salata, mushrooms, and celery leaf. For the fish course, I enjoyed skate wing with tomato-caper foam and parsley oil. Then there was… a second fish course. This one of grilled turbot with pumpkin, Brussels sprout, and beurre blanc.
Next up: seared pigeon breast with liver dumplings and crunchy amaranth grains. The pièce de résistance, however, was the cheese cart, which had about twenty options. I did my part by sampling a cross-section of five because I was saving room for the two desserts still to come. The first was a toasted pineapple meringue while the second was a dessert with chocolate three ways: as a mousse, a crumble, and in a delicate strip of bark.
Did I mention there were wine pairings with each course? I got to sample a variety of German whites including Riesling and Muller Thurgau as well as reds from Spain and France. It’s a good thing dinner guests get complimentary chauffeur service home in a brand-new BMW model, or I would have had to roll myself back to the hotel.
3. Hiša Franko
A few years ago, you might not have heard about this farmhouse-style restaurant and inn tucked away in Slovenia’s remote Kobarid region. (Hemingway is rumored to have convalesced near here during World War I.) But the place is booked out every night now thanks to chef and co-owner Ana Ros’s appearance on the cult Netflix series Chef’s Table. Her philosophy is familiar: Take the best local, seasonal produce, craft it into carefully considered dishes, and let the ingredients shine. Luckily, she has quite a larder to loot thanks to Slovenia’s varied terrain, ranging from a temperate Mediterranean coastline to the verdant interior forests and the dizzying heights and fresh air of the jagged Julian Alps. Ros also has her own cheese aging room and a stream-fed pool filled with native mountain trout.
On my summer visit there, I was treated to a panoply of palate-pleasing plates. I started with crispy parmesan “lollipops” and Mediterranean mussels in potato foam with white garlic sauce, lemon zest and bright green nasturtium oil. Along with it, I was poured a full-bodied glass of white Rebula made by Slavček winery by Ana’s husband Valter, who’s in charge of the cellar.
From there, we went a little more exotic with beef tongue in oyster cream with tomato consommé and more nasturtium oil before a dish of fresh pasta filled with mild local sheep cheese and dressed with chanterelles in an Adriatic shrimp reduction. This time paired with a Sutor winery Chardonnay.
Next was another taste of the sea: trout with bits of anchovy, sea asparagus and a squid ink crisp for crunch, while for the next savory, it was crispy pan-seared duck with celery cream and beets marinated in orange-grapefruit “water.”
That dish was like a last taste of summer. For a palate cleanser, there was a white peach-cucumber salad with elderflower meringue before a dessert of rhubarb-strawberry sorbet with hazelnut-cinnamon cookies. The meal was like taking an edible itinerary through the whole country.
4. Pädaste Manor
When it comes to new Nordic cuisine, you might think of Noma in Copenhagen or Fävika in Sweden, but don’t forget about Estonia to the east. This former Soviet republic has made a dramatic reappearance on travelers’ must-hit lists thanks to the charming cobblestoned streets and gorgeous medieval buildings of its capital, Tallinn, its beautiful wooded archipelagos, and one of Europe’s trendiest design scenes. However, innovation is also taking place in restaurants across the country as chefs rediscover, reintroduce and reinterpret traditional foods into completely contemporary cuisine.
Though most visitors stay in Tallinn, I headed south to bucolic Muhu Island and this former manor dating to the 16th century for one of the region’s finest dining experiences. As soon as I entered through the restaurant's doors, whose handles were silver soup cups, and sat in the glassed-in winter garden, I knew I was in for something special. Even the bread was interesting, especially the traditional island black bread with its semisweet malty taste, served over warm stones with salted butter from neighboring Saaremaa Island.
Little tastes came fast and furious after that. There was braised goose liver with marinated rhubarb and lemon verbena, Muhu island ostrich with crunchy buckwheat kernels and juniper-smoked ramson greens, and tender slices of eel with spicy mustard ice cream and cabbage foam. For my main, I had slow-cooked guinea fowl with celeriac mousse over a bed of lentils and ramson oil.
Then for pre-dessert — yes, there was a dessert before dessert — I had tart sea buckthorn sorbet with nutty marzipan foam. Dessert itself was an earthy Jerusalem artichoke mousse with vanilla and caramel accents, anise ice cream and a tangy apple-pesto gêlée that gave the dish a fresh, green note.
Each of these experiences was a memory unto itself, but together they prove that you never know where you’ll find your next great meal — often it’s in some of the places you least expect. But that’s what makes those destinations the ones most worth visiting... as long as you come hungry.