For me, dining is just as crucial and element of the boutique hotel experience as trying out the bed and slipping bath products into your bag when you leave. It’s not just about the hotel restaurant, either: the gastronomic credentials of the surroundings can be enough to turn a good hotel into a great one.
The Smith team has planned holidays to Shanghai in search of xiao long bao soup dumplings, lost countless hours down Barcelona alleyways hunting out the best tapas, and taken unnecessarily long detours because we had heard good things about a lobster bisque. There is a world of food out there, and between us, we’ve tasted much of it.
Picking out my hands-down favourite dining destinations is nigh on impossible, but here are a few culinary hotspots that I’ll definitely be revisiting.
Wining and dining in Napa Valley
If Kent is the garden of England, then Napa Valley is the delicatessen of the Unites States. Its rolling hills (and nowhere has hills that roll quite as picturesquely as Napa’s) produce some of the finest food and wine in the country; no wonder there are so many top-flight restaurants round here. You spend your days hopping from winery to winery, Sideways-style, to sample the great grapes. But forget about snooty sommeliers and their pompous pretensions: here, wine tasting is a pleasure rather than a trial.
My top tip? Skip the wait for thrice-Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant the French Laundry and visit his informal Yountville bistro Bouchon instead. Book a table outdoors and fill up on flawless fruits de mer. If you’re feeling inspired, visit the Culinary Institute of America’s California campus in St Helena for some expert cookery demonstrations. As a base for exploring Napa, I like Poetry Inn, an intimate retreat in the charming Stags Leap District. It is more like a luxurious private holiday home than a stuffy hotel. Nothing beats sitting on your terrace sipping a glass of wine from the hotel’s cellar and drinking in soothing views of the Napa countryside as the sun goes down.
Cooking in the Caribbean
If you’re looking for a stylish but down-to-earth hotel beside the bright-blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, Little Good Harbour in Barbados should be top of your list. It’s much more than a place to turn up and flop out. This place is home to some of the finest Caribbean cuisine I’ve had the pleasure to indulge in. The Fish Pot, in the midst of the hotel’s luxury guest cottages, is one of the premium restaurants on the island, and reservations can be gold dust. Ask for a table on the terrace and treat yourself to Stephen Belgrave’s seafood-dominated selection. Grilled lobster is the signature dish, but the menu isn’t short of stars: tempura-fried crab, straight-from-the-sea shrimp with black bean and red curry sauce, a knockout bouillabaisse. Even the breakfast is excellent; fried flying fish is not something I’d been hankering for, but it was a revelation.
Tasting tradition in Italy
Down in Puglia in south-east Italy, food takes centre stage: fresh fish, melons, figs, olive oils, wines and, of course, pasta. The region produces almost all of the country’s – in fact, Europe’s – pasta (Puglia’s speciality is orechiette, meaning ‘little ears’) and 70 per cent of its olive oil. The olive press of Il Frantolio di D’Amico Pietro near Cisternino offers tours and tastings, and is great for wine buffs looking for a new challenge.
I love Masseria Torre Coccaro, a historic fortified farmhouse on the Pugliese coast. Everyone who comes here, from those who will be forking spaghetti into their lover’s mouth to those who will be mopping sauce off their child’s face, adores the organic cuisine served up in the Egnathia restaurant. Oysters with Parmesan, spaghetti in squid ink, freshly picked vegetables; it’s the sort of food you have daydreams about for months afterwards. If you can manage to drag yourself away, the hotel can also arrange cheese tasting at the nearby Mozzarella Palace (not as kitsch as it sounds) and trips to the coast for fresh fish carpaccio, scampi, sea urchins and other local delicacies.
Gardening in Bali
The sumptuous but unassuming Alila Manggis lies in the shade of Bali’s Mount Agung (held as sacred by locals) though, thankfully, it does get plenty of sun. The resort is surrounded by coconut groves, and has an award-winning cookery school, a beautiful natural spa and some superb snorkelling along the East Bali coast. The hotel’s Modern Asian restaurant gets its veg from its own organic garden ten minutes up the road, and will happily take you along so the Balinese farmers who work there can show you how it’s done. Equipped with boots and a rice hat, you can join in the action in the garden, collecting seasonal ingredients, scaring away the birds or simply watching the rice grow from the shelter of a kubukubu, a small hut built in the paddy fields. Afterwards, you cook up your own Balinese feast in a traditional pavilion. While you’re in these parts, you shouldn’t miss out on babi guling (spit-roasted pig stuffed with chilli, turmeric, garlic and ginger) and you’ll find plenty of roadside stalls (warung) that specialise in it.
Dining Down Under
In Australia, every serious gourmet makes the pilgrimage to the Royal Mail in the Grampians, a three-hour drive west of Melbourne, sooner or later. Touting three chef’s hats (the local equivalent of Michelin stars), the Royal Mail is regarded as one of Australia’s best restaurants, with a months-long waiting list to prove it. Manning the pans is Dan Hunter, one-time head chef of acclaimed San Sebastián restaurant Mugaritz, and Chef of the Year in The Age Good Food Guide Awards for 2012. That’s serious business Down Under.
For menu dawdlers, the dining options at Royal Mail are blissfully straightforward: omnivore or vegetarian menu, with or without matching wines. What follows is ten sublime courses, crafted using herbs, flowers, fruit and vegetables from Hunter’s kitchen garden, and seafood, eel, duck and beef from Victoria’s best producers. Worth the trip? Absolutely.
Foraging in the New Forest
Since it opened in July last year, everyone has been raving about The Pig in Hampshire. I thought it might be a bit overhyped, but after visiting, I can’t help but join in the chorus. It has upped the bar on the country-house hotel. Gone are the stuffy uniforms, paisley carpets and mismatched furniture; in is incredible local food, a relaxed, laid-back feel and effortless grandeur. The Pig’s restaurant is the fanciest feather in its hat, a glorious garden-y place with a conservatory feel: old wooden school chairs, plant pots on every table, foliage-covered trellises and a colourful mosaic floor. The menu changes suddenly, based on what the forager returns with each day, and much of the food comes from the on-site walled garden and smoke house and from within the New Forest’s boundary lines. Outside, there’s a wood-fired oven cooking pizzas and flatbreads over the weekend. Even better, the hotel can arrange for the forager to take you out on a field trip. Food simply doesn’t get fresher than this.
Making it in Morocco
Behind a discreet door in the Marrakech medina is Dar Les Cigognes. With the help of architect Charles Boccara, the owners have turned two riads into a beautiful boutique hotel with a strong culinary leaning. You’d be missing a trick to not take advantage of the hotel’s daily cookery classes, run by the head chef or one of the dadas (although cookery is generally a masculine pursuit in Morocco, there’s a tradition of female cooks, known as dadas, who catered for the wealthier families). Most courses include preparing Moroccan staples, such as tagine, couscous and grilled meat, but they’ll happily tailor the class to more specific requests such as how to make bread, pastries or yoghurt. My favourite thing about Marrakech is the markets, so take the opportunity to accompany the head chef on his daily rounds of the souk. A wander around the spice market is quite simply eye-opening, and gives you the chance to pick up a few piquant souvenirs. Dar les Cigognes has its own cookbook, too: be sure to pick up a copy of Tanjia Marrakchia: Culinary Adventures at Dar Les Cigognes.
Picnicking in Provence
Alain Ducasse has been a leading light on the global dining scene for so long that he barely needs an introduction. In restaurant terms, if it’s got Ducasse’s name on the door, you can bank on it being a corker. La Bastide de Moustiers is Alain Ducasse’s romantic hillside hideaway in Provence and, along with its obligatory wow-factor eatery, the hotel showcases the best local craftsmanship from the sheets to the teacups. The surroundings are spectacular: verdant fields, a dramatic gorge, limestone cliffs and a turquoise thermal pool nearby.You could easily lose a day in the Bastide’s gardens.
Alain’s restaurant, headed by one of his protégés, Wilfred Hocquet, is a foodie’s fantasy. Vegetables, herbs and flowers are plucked from the gardens to ornament delectable dishes such as roasted young pigeon with polenta, beetroot and turnip. The hotel has just introduced a luxury picnic service – I love this idea – whereby the kitchen rustles you up some gourmet fare, the sommelier chooses a wine to complement each course, and the chauffeur drives you out to the old oak tree where you’ll find a table already set for your feast.
Whether it’s three-star fine dining or grilled seafood in a paper-table-cloth taverna, the world is full of opportunities to expand your gastronomic horizons (and your waistline). There’s nothing better than a great meal with loved ones, so get out, explore and worry about the diet when you get home.
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