Oct 4, 2021
BEFORE COVID-19, FEW OF US could’ve imagined a time when we wouldn’t be able to dine in at a restaurant. Socializing with friends and family over great food or traveling to indulge in epic meals—or perhaps a childhood favorite prepared at home by mom—was par for the course. But with pandemic-era lockdowns and social-distancing requirements, going to restaurants has become quite the privilege. Many of us have embraced our inner masterchef, whipping up—or perhaps ordering in—favorite foods at home for a boost. We started to wonder, What have actual chefs been eating during the pandemic? So we asked the culinary masters behind some of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, and they revealed a global array of dishes that share one important attribute: comfort.
Thitid Tassanakajohn, Le Du
The menu at Le Du changes regularly, but the constant is chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn’s dedication to seasonal Thai ingredients prepared in the French culinary tradition. His signature dish? Khao kluk kapi, river prawn served with a brown rice risotto brightened with shrimp paste.
Unable to travel during Thailand’s lockdown, chef Ton (who has generously given us his recipe for pad Thai) sought comfort in his favorite northern Thai delicacies. “Khao soi is one of my favorite foods, and I’ve eaten it a lot during the pandemic. I usually travel to the north of Thailand a lot [but because I can’t now], having khao soi makes me miss [the north] a little less.”
Photos courtesy of Le Du (2)
Peter Cuong Franklin, Anan Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City
Inspired by chef Peter Cuong Franklin’s mother, who runs a noodle shop in Dalat, central Vietnam, Anan Saigon offers a compelling array of dishes that marry Southeast Asian street food with contemporary global cooking techniques. A highlight? The One Bite Pho, a molecular spin on Vietnam’s classic noodle soup.
Franklin used the pandemic to focus on revitalizing Anan’s menu, drawing on Vietnamese culinary staples for inspiration. “Noodles are comfort food in Vietnam [so] I’ve been eating noodle dishes that aren’t well-known outside [the country]. Mi quang, a pork turmeric noodle soup from Central Vietnam, has been especially comforting for me.” Franklin’s mi quang will be available at Anan when the restaurant reopens.
Photo of chef by Pierre Semere; dish courtesy of Anan Saigon
Prateek Sadhu, Masque
Winner of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020 One to Watch Award, Masque delights Mumbai’s discerning foodies with tasting menus that highlight seasonal, local ingredients and traditional recipes while offering a sophisticated, modern interpretation of Indian cuisine. The atmospheric setting— a defunct cotton mill jazzed up with industrial-esque aesthetics— allows the food to take centerstage.
During Mumbai’s lockdowns, chef Prateek Sadhu turned to a beloved classic dish for a reminder of home. “Many of us turned to comfort food this past year, and for me, that meant yakhni, a yogurt-based gravy spiced with fennel, cardamom and ginger that’s usually cooked with mutton and served with rice. I grew up eating this dish in my mum’s kitchen and it’s still one of the first things she cooks for me when I visit.”
Photos courtesy of Masque (2)
Matt Kirkley, Belon
Belon has ranked on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for several years, but in 2021 the restaurant got a full revamp. Matthew Kirkley’s now in charge of the kitchen—his wife, Lauren, is the general manager—and there’s a new location, too. While staying true to Belon’s ethos of premium local ingredients handled with restrained elegance, Kirkley adds his own flair in dishes like the foie gras tartlet with Sauternes.
Midwestern home-cooking has become a staple in the Kirkley household during the pandemic. “At home, my wife Lauren is the one that cooks… she makes these delicious, hearty casseroles that were a source of comfort throughout the pandemic,” Kirkley says. “The one I really look forward to is her creamed chipped beef. She uses her grandfather’s recipe, but my family also grew up eating this dish. The first time she made it, I was so surprised, but it became one of the dishes that brought us together. Over the past few years, where we haven’t been able to travel to see family and friends and were in need of comfort food, this was our go-to dish.”
Guillaume Gaillot, Caprice
Arguably Hong Kong’s most exquisite—and lauded—restaurant, Caprice impresses in every detail, from the Versailles-inspired dining room and sweeping harbor views, to the white-glove service and hefty wine list. The showstopper, though, is chef Guillaume Gaillot’s elegant, luxurious French dishes. But what does a Michelin-starred chef eat amid a pandemic?
“Since we haven’t been able to travel to my wife’s hometown of Singapore for two years, I’ve been eating nonya chicken curry made with my mother-in-law’s recipe. It’s a one-pot meal with veggies—whatever’s in season—and chicken. It reminds me of classic homemade French dishes that are also one-pot meals and very comforting, like a cassoulet.”
Photo courtesy of Caprice
Garima Arora, Gaa
Gaa began receiving accolades almost as soon as it opened in 2017. By 2019, the restaurant was the Highest New Entry on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, while chef Garima Arora was named Asia’s Best Female Chef. All for good reason. Gaa is a modern-Indian restaurant specializing in tasting menus, and the setting—a design-forward traditional Thai house—experimental drinks, and robust wine list with a strong focus on natural and organic vineyards all just add to the charm of the experience.
During Bangkok’s pandemic-induced lockdown(s), Arora seized the opportunity to prioritize her personal wellbeing. “The only thing I could control was my health and how I chose to respond to everything,” notes Arora. “I decided to focus on myself…the combination of exercise and macro-tracking has transformed my physical and mental health. I eat this power bowl for breakfast almost every day now. It’s got good fats, plenty of protein, and complex carbs to sustain me throughout the day.”
Photos courtesy of Gaa (2)
Manish Mehrotra, Indian Accent
New Delhi, India
Holding the title of India’s best restaurant in Asia’s 50 best for eight years straight is no mean feat. But with decadent tasting menus of Indian cuisine embellished with international ingredients and techniques—and authentically warm hospitality—chef Manish Mehrotra has kept Indian Accent at the top of India’s culinary scene.
India’s lockdowns made sourcing ingredients problematic. So Mehrotra began relying on his baby idli and beetroot salad, a dish made with ingredients he had access to. “During the pandemic, when access to a lot of things was challenging, we’d get fresh organic vegetables from our farm. So making a salad was the ideal choice. I ate this dish a lot during the pandemic because it’s healthy, easy to make, and tastes delicious.”
Photos courtesy of Indian Accent (2)
Jordy Navarra, Toyo Eatery
Toyo Eatery’s raison d’être is to showcase the best of Philippine gastronomy and culture through a menu that puts an erudite spin on local cooking techniques and flavors. Even the décor is inspired by old Manila, with elements like woven lampshades and artwork created by local craftsmen.
For Navarra, lockdown meant more time for breakfast. “I always find breakfast food comforting…it signifies a fresh start. Restarts were a constant theme during lockdown, so breakfast food was my way of finding hope. I chose silog [a portmanteau for sinangag at itlog, or fried rice and egg] because I love Filipino breakfast food. I enjoy it with a runny egg, garlic rice, and a side of coconut vinegar with whatever ulam I choose to eat it with.”
Photos courtesy of Toyo Eatery (2)