By Chris Dwyer
May 25, 2022
WE KNOW YOU’RE HUNGRY, so get off Foodpanda and get on a plane. Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have opened their borders to fully vaccinated travelers from all countries without quarantine (and in some cases without a Covid test). Which makes this the perfect time to pack your bags and look at what you’ve missed since the pandemic era in arguably the region’s favorite pastime—eating. From flawless Japanese in Manila to the best creative Thai in Bangkok and flamboyant Indian in Singapore, here are a dozen of the most dazzling new restaurants in Southeast Asia that you want to visit before everyone else gets there.
FROM LEFT: Akami sushi; carabinero with fresh tarragon risotto. Courtesy of Wakuda (2)
Celebrated Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda needs no introduction to food fans in Southeast Asia, with two Michelin stars for Singapore’s Waku Ghin and one of the best restaurants in Oz (another is coming to the U.S. this summer), so his new platform at Marina Bay Sands is sure to prove popular thanks to his reputation and insistence on using only the finest global ingredients. He and the team craft them into perfect renditions of sashimi, sushi and tempura through to soba, yakimono and rice dishes such as carabinero prawns with fresh tarragon risotto. Throw in some of the world’s finest beef—from Japan, natch—and add creative Japanese mixology for a meal to take you straight to the land of the rising sun.
This Chinatown spot is an homage to the Technicolor intensity and flamboyance of India, both on and off the plate. Head chef Raj Kumar reworks Indian classics through a whole new lens with dishes like ‘This Is Not Aloo Gobi’—i.e., cauliflower served three ways—and Beirut Bhatura, a sort of hummus crafted from celeriac. Our favorite dish, ‘Grogu’s Roast’, takes Iberico pork to South Asia through a heady, fragrant Mangalore spice mix and the smooth mouthfeel that only ghee – clarified butter – can produce. It’s a great spot for vegetarians, too, with more than half the menu being plant-based.
Charmgang Curry Shop
FROM LEFT: Grilled tiger prawns with southern style curry; Thai crispy pancake. Courtesy of Charmgang Curry Shop (2)
With three alumni hailing from the Michelin-starred Thai icon nahm, Charmgang Curry Shop boasts the best possible culinary pedigree. Since opening just pre-pandemic, these talented young chefs have been winning new fans of their own (celebs such as Lena Headey have been spotted here) thanks to their dishes that celebrate Thai comfort food, fading traditions and hard-to-find ingredients to intoxicating effect. Whether it’s grilled tiger prawns with southern style curry, a more mellow curry of smoked king fish with sour tomato, or braised beef cheek curry, everything is unashamedly flavor-forward. The fluffy omelette? You’ve never seen one of the like; order two. The menu also changes monthly, meaning even more of an excuse to become a regular—if you can find it, and get a reservation, that is.
We love culinary couples, few more so than Napol “Joe” Jantraget and Saki Hoshino. After meeting in Canada, they opened 80/20 to great acclaim and now have a new spot right down the road from their former home. Samlor—Thai for ‘three wheeler’—is actually three different culinary concepts in one: one week per month they do a fine-dining, East-meets-West tasting menu called Coalescence; another week it’s delicious takes on Thai grandma classics; and the rest of the time elevated comfort nosh that’ll change how you think of drinking food (don’t forget the chili dips). Our most recent visit championed sustainable seafood to dazzling effect in dishes such as the intriguing ‘Where’s the oyster?’ and lobster with sato beans and lime. Desserts from Saki are another real draw, especially the sublimely decadent ‘coconut and caviar.’
The Malaysian coast is not the first destination you’d think of for restaurants featuring the flavors of Greece and Lebanon, but Ambara at One & Only Desaru (one of the best new hotels to debut in Southeast Asia during the pandemic) ensures that authentic tastes of the Mediterranean are delivered in style. Breads baked in a wood-fired oven are never a bad start, especially to accompany their heaving platters of mezzes and dips. Seafood and meats on the grill add to the tempting waft of aromas, especially in their spiced lamb served over couscous, while those seeking something less heavy can choose from a ‘Bio Light’ menu.
Set smack in the heart of KL’s CBD, Brasserie Fritz channels authentic, traditional French brasserie cuisine to hungry locals and visitors. While we all love a laksa and a rendang, when the urge for global plates comes calling, Brasserie Fritz have you covered with towering seafood platters, sauerkraut and steaks, mussels and some of the best fries in town. Save room—as ever—for desserts like the slightly insane semolina cake stack with crème brûlée, house-made ice cream and flaming Cognac for tableside pyrotechnics.
The first Regent resort to debut under a fabulously luxe rebranding effort is this spanking-new elegant retreat on the east coast of Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island. Its signature restaurant Rice Market celebrates an ingredient that defines much of Asian cooking, but especially Vietnamese and Chinese. Rice features across the menu in multiple forms, from banh pho noodles bubbling in sensationally fragrant chicken or beef pho soup, to enveloping marinated local tiger prawns in rice paper rolls. Phu Quoc blue crab fried rice is just as good as it sounds, while their take on Cantonese cheung fun steamed rice rolls are a match for any in Hong Kong.
Talk about destination dining. OK, so it may be a restaurant on wheels, but The Vietage train offers a serious gourmet experience, with the considerable added bonus of watching the bucolic Vietnamese countryside unravel before you. Things start early as you’re welcomed on board with Prosecco at 8:30 a.m., the start of a free-flow option where you hopefully don’t come off the rails in the six-hour trip from Da Nang to Quy Nhon. Lunch could commence with foie gras or Quy Nhon seafood salad, before braised wagyu, salmon or barley risotto. And if the drinks continue to flow? Your dining table doubles as your private cabin for a siesta.
Young British-Filipino chef Josh Boutwood is a culinary dynamo with an impressive portfolio of restaurants that span from exquisite tasting menus to casual dining where open flame is the star. His latest opening Ember sits in the swish Greenbelt mall in the heart of Makati, with the majority of dining tables al fresco. They’re soon filled with classic dishes that are beautifully executed. Think smoked shrimp to drag through garlic emulsion, fabulous tartare on rye, or impeccably cooked turbot with brown butter and capers.
Yamazato at Hotel Okura
Yamazato is a legendary name in Japanese cuisine, especially in Southeast Asia where the brand’s partnership with Hotel Okura has resulted in some of the best kaiseki restaurants in several cities, so we were really excited to visit this new one in Manila. The stunning new space shows that no expense has been spared on decor, design or ingredients. Whether you’re sitting in one of their private dining rooms or at the omakase chef’s counter, a dazzling procession of dishes are beautifully presented. From the finest sushi and sashimi we can recall ever tasting in Manila to expert tempura or grilled fish and wagyu, every dish reflects the highest level of Japanese kitchen craft.
As Bali continues its welcome return to the Southeast Asia travel fold, new hotels and restaurants have been rolling open, among the best is Wok Wok at Andaz Bali in Sanur. Wok Wok stands out thanks to its great renditions of Indonesian comfort foods, with the perennial favorite of babi guling—aromatic roast suckling pig—the definition of a must-order. Elegantly decked out in carved wood, the space blends indoors and outdoors, while their weekend Bubbly Breakfast more than lives up to its name.
Santanera has quickly developed a reputation as one of Bali’s hottest new dining destinations, thanks to its mash-up of Latin American and European dishes from Colombian chefs Andres Becerra and German Rincon. They won serious acclaim in Melbourne and now lead the way in this relaxed but sexy Canggu spot. Perusing the menu, you’ll end up torn between plates like hamachi ceviche, pork tomahawk with tamarind glaze, or dry-aged duck with charred kale and caramelized yogurt.