Every food lover has that one little place. Every person obsessed with tasty cuisine will carry around with them the memory of that one restaurant, that one cafe or bar, that one spot somewhere around the world that on one special day achieved the elusive dream: perfection.
Of course when it comes to food there's probably no such thing as true perfection; the joy is in searching for it. Your quest for the ultimate cuisine might not ever reach a conclusion, but it will involve the sampling of an infinite number of delicious treats as you move ever closer to your goal, it will provide fodder for a thousand conversations with fellow obsessives, and it will result in the discovery of all new dishes and destinations.
Chefs and other professional foodies have long taken part in this quest for excellence – they're always searching, always tasting, always looking to be inspired. And they all have that one little place; they all have that one restaurant or cafe or dish or experience that has come closest to providing the ultimate iteration of the thing they love.
Here, some of Australia's best-known chefs and food identities share their ultimate experiences, "that one little place" around the world that represents the pinnacle of their particular culinary passion.
THE ULTIMATE PASTA JOINT
ACCORDING TO ... Tobie Puttock, chef and author
WHERE The River Cafe, London
WHY "The pastas at the River Cafe in London are next level – it's my favourite place to have pasta. What's interesting is that if you go to Italy, most places there will concentrate on just one regional style of pasta, whereas River Cafe is doing an amazing job of covering all the regions of Italy. They will take pasta from Sicily, Tuscany, Rome … and they will do it just as well, if not better, than it's being done in those regions themselves. They stick to tradition like crazy. Everything is based off a regional dish, and they're very sincere in that."
DON'T MISS The River Cafe menu changes daily, depending on the fresh produce the chefs can get their hands on. "As they're not Italian there," Puttock says, "they feel this larger responsibility to be sincere to Italian culture and history. They do everything, but they put a lot of care into their pasta."
ESSENTIALS The River Cafe is at Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, Hammersmith, London. Pasta dishes start from £18. See www.rivercafe.co.uk
Chef and author Tobie Puttock has cooked in Italy, the UK and Australia, and is now the creative director of Jamie's Ministry of Food Australia. See www.jamiesministryoffood.com.au
THE ULTIMATE CROISSANT SHOP
ACCORDING TO ... Kate Reid, director, Lune Croissanterie
WHERE Du Pain et des Idees, Paris, France
WHY "This is the bakery that inspired me to book a ticket to Paris, and ultimately, where I learned how to make croissants. I still vividly remember my first visit there. I was rendered speechless by the beauty of the Belle Epoque boulangerie and the bread and pastries on display. The owner and chef, Christophe Vasseur, generously gave me several pastries. I sat at the long table outside the boulangerie and ate the lemon and nougat escargot and almost died, it was so incredible. It would not be an exaggeration to say this was a pivotal moment in my life."
DON'T MISS Though Vasseur is well known for his pastries, Parisians will also cross town to get hold of the baguettes at Du Pain et des Idees.
ESSENTIALS Du Pain et des Idees is at 34 Rue Yves Toudic, in Paris' 10th arrondissement. Croissants cost €2. See www.dupainetdesidees.com
Former aerospace engineer Kate Reid trained to become a pastry chef at Du Pain et des Idees, and since 2012 has been producing Melbourne's best croissants at Lune Croissanterie. See www.lunecroissanterie.com
THE ULTIMATE DUMPLING PLACE
ACCORDING TO ... Eric Koh, head dim sum chef, Queen Chow, Enmore, Sydney
WHERE Tin Lung Heen, Hong Kong
WHY "I would highly recommend Tin Lung Heen in Hong Kong to those looking for traditional dim sum. It's a Cantonese restaurant in the Ritz Carlton with an incredible view from the 102nd floor over the city. They have a really new way of approaching Chinese food, which is so inspiring to me. Lei Garden is another Cantonese restaurant that has been around for almost 50 years and has really authentic, quality Chinese food at a Michelin level."
DON'T MISS Though the dim sum is amazingly good, Tin Lung Heen also specialises in a la carte seafood: don't miss the signature steamed crab claw with egg white or Huadiao wine.
ESSENTIALS Tin Lung Heen is at the Ritz Carlton, 1 Austin Road West, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. The executive set dim sum costs $HK668 a person. See www.ritzcarlton.com
Queen Chow's head dim sum chef Eric Koh is regarded as one of the dim sum masters of the world, and has 30 years' experience in the industry. See www.merivale.com.au
THE ULTIMATE PIZZA PARLOUR
ACCORDING TO ... Michael Nihill, head chef, SPQR, City, Melbourne
WHERE Il Camino de Kociss, Italy
WHY "I spent some time in Calabria, in southern Italy, the year before last, and there was this one pizzeria in a town called Mileto. It's a real small-town pizzeria, in an old house, where they feed like 20 or 30 people a day. Super local. They make pizza, a little bit of antipasto and some beer, and that's about it. The pizza there is in a classic style, not Neapolitan or Roman specifically. It's quite crispy, thin, with minimal ingredients. Definitely try the nduja [a spicy Calabrian sausage], red onion, tomato and mozzarella pizza. It's perfect."
DON'T MISS Though Il Camino de Kociss specialises in simple, local pizzas, it also does grilled chicken with roast potatoes, which is hugely popular.
ESSENTIALS Find Il Camino de Kociss at Via Gabriele Barrio 4, Mileto, Italy. .
Melbourne-based Michael Nihill has worked in kitchens for 20 years, and is now at the helm at restaurateur David Mackintosh's new pizza restaurant SPQR. See www.spqrpizzeria.com
THE ULTIMATE CHICKEN RICE STALL
ACCORDING TO ... Ross Lusted, head chef, The Bridge Room, Sydney
WHERE Boon Tong Kee, Singapore
WHY "I lived in Singapore for about five years, and I used to eat at Boon Tong Kee literally once or twice a week. It's a hole in the wall on River Valley Road, it's open till three in the morning, and it's just one of those places. The chicken they use there is bred specifically to make chicken rice. And instead of giving you a bowl of soup, Boon Tong Kee cooks its rice in the broth. So ultimately this chicken is so white and clean, and because they cook the rice using the chicken fat as well as the poaching liquid, you get this rice that's incredibly fragrant and rich. It's hard to explain the point of difference, but when you eat it, you understand."
DON'T MISS Though the restaurant has extended its menu to include several Chinese classics, Lusted is a fan of the originals. "They do chicken rice, and a deep-fried bean curd, and a bean sprout salad," he says. "In terms of a combination of three dishes to have … It's phenomenal."
ESSENTIALS The original and best Boon Tong Kee outlet is at 425 River Valley Road, Singapore. The Hainanese chicken rice costs $S5.30. See www.boontongkee.com.sg
Ross Lusted has been executive chef at Sydney's Rockpool, as well as Mezza9 in Singapore. He's now head chef and owner of the award-winning Bridge Room. See www.thebridgeroom.com.au
THE ULTIMATE SANDWICH SHOP
ACCORDING TO ... Danielle Alvarez, head chef, Fred's, Paddington, Sydney
WHERE Versailles, Miami
WHY "For the ultimate sandwich you absolutely have to go Cuban-style at Versailles in Miami, it's an institution. Everyone from businessmen and women in suits, to little old ladies, to families with kids, to club-goers going for late-night supper – everyone goes to Versailles. They do their Cuban sandwiches classically, with roasted pork, sliced ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles, all sandwiched and pressed between two slices of buttery Cuban bread. It's heaven."
DON'T MISS "Versailles is great not just for a real, delicious and authentic Cuban meal," Alvarez adds, "but every time there is a political rally or some news occurring in Cuba, Versailles is the meeting point for the community. You can get your cortado [coffee], tostada [toast], ropa vieja y arroz [mince with rice] along with the local gossip, but my favourite item is the Cuban sandwich."
ESSENTIALS Find Versailles at 3501 SW 8th Street, Miami, Florida. Cuban sandwiches cost $US6.50. See versaillesrestaurant.com.
Cuban-American chef Danielle Alvarez trained at the French Laundry and Chez Panisse before opening Fred's in Paddington, Sydney. See www.merivale.com.au
THE ULTIMATE PAELLA PLACE
ACCORDING TO ... Adam Wolfers, head chef, Etelek, Darlinghurst, Sydney
WHERE Vuelve Carolina, Valencia, Spain
WHY "A guy I worked for in Spain made the best paella I've ever had in my life. This is at Quique Dacosta, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in a place called Denia. The chef, Quique, would use all of the scraps and trimmings from the day – lots of mussels, clams, prawns – and make a paella as a staff meal. His paella is all about the 'soccorat', the stuff that gets stuck to the bottom of the pan. He'd peel it off and roll it up, so the whole paella was like this crispy sausage roll. Quique also has a restaurant in Valencia called Vuelve Carolina that serves his rice dishes, so people can get it there."
DON'T MISS As well as Vuelve Carolina, Quique Dacosta is about to launch an international chain of paella joints called InPaella; however, his flagship is the three-Michelin-starred, eponymous Quique Dacosta in Denia. See en.quiquedacosta.en.
ESSENTIALS Find Vuelve Carolina at Carrer de Correus 8, Valencia, Spain. The "A banda" paella costs €20.50. See www.vuelvecarolina.com
Adam Wolfers is a former head chef of Sydney restaurants Yellow and Monopole, and now runs the pop-up restaurant Etelek. See instagram.com/a.wolfers
THE ULTIMATE STEAK HOUSE
ACCORDING TO ... Lennox Hastie, head chef, Firedoor, Surry Hills, Sydney
WHERE Bar Nestor, San Sebastian, Spain
WHY "Bar Nestor is pretty unassuming – they don't try to break the mould, they don't do too many things. You order a steak, and it's either the sirloin end or the rib-eye end, and it's only cooked one way. There's no asking how you want it done. It's just that simplicity of high heat and salt, that juxtaposition of crispy, crunchy crust on the outside, and almost jellified meat on the inside that's super rich, with buttery fat … That's a tough one to beat. It's a real assault on the senses."
DON'T MISS Choosing is easy at Bar Nestor, given the restaurant only does four simple dishes. "They do steak," Lennox says, "they do tomatoes, they do padron peppers, and very occasionally they do a tortilla, and that's it. It's great."
ESSENTIALS Bar Nestor is at Arrandegi Kalea 11, San Sebastian. The steak is priced by weight, but is usually around €35 and will feed two.
Chef Lennox Hastie trained at the Basque restaurants Etxebarri and Martin Berasategui, before opening Firedoor in Sydney. See www.firedoor.com.au
THE ULTIMATE TACO OUTLET
ACCORDING TO ... Dan Hong, executive chef, Mr Wong and Ms G's, Sydney
WHERE Los Cocuyos, Mexico City
WHY "This place is literally a hole in the wall with two guys. One is in charge of chopping all the meat and the other is in charge of cooking the tortillas, collecting the money and getting the drinks. What I love about it is that there is this huge cauldron of bubbling beef drippings there which contains all parts of the cow, from the brisket, intestines, tongue, cheeks, brains and even eyeballs. The menu is on the wall in Spanish and you can choose whatever part of the cow you want inside a tortilla. I managed to try the 'sesos' last time which was a thick slice of cow brains. Delicious!"
DON'T MISS "I always get the 'lengua', the tongue," Hong adds, "but my favourite is the 'campechano' which is a mixture of brisket, longaniza sausage and tripe all chopped and crisped up on the grill. There are three types of salsas to choose from; pair it with a Mexican cola and it is heaven."
ESSENTIALS Los Cocuyos is at 7 Calle de Bolivar 54-56, Centro Historico, Mexico City. Tacos cost about $1 each.
Dan Hong is the executive chef at Mr Wong and Ms G's, and was also behind Merivale's Mexican restaurant, El Loco. See www.merivale.com.au
THE ULTIMATE SAUSAGE ROLL SHOP
ACCORDING TO ... Darren O'Rourke, head butcher, Victor Churchill
WHERE Ginger Pig, London
WHY "I was just over in Spain, England and France recently, and out of all of those experiences, there's one sausage roll that I can't stop thinking about. That was at the Ginger Pig butchery in London. They make the biggest, chunkiest, most generous and incredible sausage roll I've ever had. It's all pork belly in there, plus they don't make them long and skinny like we do, they make them double or even triple the thickness. So your meat-to-pastry ratio is 30 per cent pastry and the rest is meat. In Australia it would be half-half. It's super rich and delicious."
DON'T MISS "There's eight Ginger Pig outlets," O'Rourke adds, "some fancier than others. One of the older ones is in Borough Market, it's kind of rough and ready, and it's pumping on the weekends. They do lots of sausages, lots of house-cured bacon, lots of steak, and loads of pies and sausage rolls. They're really, really good."
ESSENTIALS Ginger Pig is at Borough Market, London Bridge, London. Sausage rolls cost £4. See www.thegingerpig.co.uk
Darren O'Rourke trained as a chef at Bathers Pavilion and Bird Cow Fish, before taking up butchery at Sydney's Victor Churchill. See www.victorchurchill.com
THE ULTIMATE DRINKS
Bridget Raffal, sommelier, Sixpenny, Stanmore, Sydney
"Verona in Italy is a perfect place not just for the wineries that are close by, but also the bars in the town itself. There are lots of little wine bars there with casual vibes, where everyone stands up and mingles and spills out onto the streets. This is the Veneto wine region, so it's the place to drink prosecco, but there's also valpolicella if you want a quaffable red wine, or amarone for something bigger. In terms of white, there's soave, which is super accessible. But really, you can just ask any bartender in Verona for a glass of something and it will be pretty delicious and almost certainly local." See www.sixpenny.com.au
Chris Sheehan, head brewer, Eumundi Brewery, Queensland
"Beer is a bit like wine, there's Old World and New World. For Old World beers using traditional methods, I'd choose somewhere like Brussels in Belgium. It's very old school there, so much history. For New World though, it's Portland in the US. There are bucketloads of breweries there. The pale ales and IPAs we drink in Australia are very much in the Portland style. They're trying a lot of new things over there, but still respecting the traditions of the Old World breweries." See www.imperialhoteleumundi.com.au
Marcus Tschuschnig, general manager, Kisume, Melbourne
"Of course, Japan is a sake heaven; however, I was lucky to call New York City home for six years, and outside Japan it is the largest market for sake. Japanese restaurants, food, and culture became a huge part of my life there. One of my favourite places to go was an izakaya called Sakagura, which has the best sake selection in town and, quite frankly, anywhere I have seen. Sake Bar Decibel is also a fun place to go to for a nightcap." See www.kisume.com.au
Carlo Russo, head bartender, Nour Restaurant, Sydney
"From where I've travelled, the ultimate destination for cocktails is definitely London. The nightlife and the culture behind the drinks there is just on another level. It's full of bars with such unique character too, from the flair bartending at Road House, to the Night Jar, which will leave you astonished with the creativity and presentation of their drinks. There are incredible bars inside hotels in London too, like the American Bar in the Savoy Hotel, one of the longest surviving cocktail bars in the world, and Dandelyan in the Mondrian." See www.noursydney.com
Jason Scheltus, co-owner, Market Lane Coffee, Melbourne
"There are some great cafes in Sao Paulo in Brazil, and Adelaide's got some great spots … but I'll say Melbourne [has the ultimate coffee]. There's a lot of variety here, I think we've got more roasters per capita than almost anywhere in the world. There's a lot of independent coffee shops, too. In terms of the type of coffee you can get, we serve coffee in the pour-over method, there's a cafe that just uses the stove-top method, there's still a strong culture of drip coffee, plus a lot of cold coffee options, and espresso, of course. We're more diverse here than a lot of places." See www.marketlane.com.au
WORLD'S BEST CITIES FOR MULTIPLE CUISINES
NEW YORK CITY, USA
NYC has a rich heritage of immigration, and even now about 37 per cent of the city's residents were born outside of the USA. This has resulted in a seriously diverse food scene, with pretty much every national cuisine you could imagine – from standards such as Italian and Indian to the likes of Cuban, Barbadian, Yemeni and even Scottish – available here.
There are more than 200 different ethnic groups represented in the Toronto population, and of course that diversity is reflected in the city's food scene. Check out one of the city's six Chinatowns for Asian cuisine, hit up Little Italy, Little India or Koreatown, or check out areas that specialise in Greek, Portuguese, Hungarian, Japanese, Caribbean cuisine, and so much more.
There are plenty of restaurants in the German capital that specialise in the country's native cuisine; however, in Berlin you'll also find sensational Turkish food, thanks to a wave of post-war immigration, as well as Russian specialties, and plenty of vegetarian- and vegan-friendly fare, thanks to a rise in popularity of those diets.
This inclusion will come as no surprise to most Australians, who've long known Melbourne as a vibrant hub of cuisines from around the world. You can get great Ethiopian food in Footscray; excellent Burmese cuisine in Richmond; Somali food in Kensington; Nepalese in Fitzroy; Iranian in Brunswick East; and even Polish in Windsor.
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Given a phenomenal 83 per cent of Dubai's residents were born outside the UAE, it's no surprise that the food scene is so diverse. Yes, there are the celebrity chefs doing Michelin-starred Western-style cuisine; but Dubai is also home to great food from Lebanon, Iran, Jordan, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Iraq … and even Australia.