Food & Drink

Japan dominates 2019's Asia's 50 Best awards

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Japanese chefs and their restaurants continued to dominate at the seventh Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. But once again they fell short when it came to the ultimate prize, the number one position on the list.

The annual awards ceremony returned to Macao’s glitzy Cotai casino district on March 26 for a second year, hosted again by the plush Wynn Palace hotel complex. With its red carpet entrance, gaggles of photographers and lavish warmup and afterparties, the event continues to live up to its own billing as the “Oscars of the regional food world.”

With 12 restaurants on the 2019 list — all but two of them in Tokyo — Japan maintains its customary strength in numbers, ahead of Hong Kong (with nine), Thailand (eight) and Singapore (seven). In the 50 Best voting groups, Hong Kong and Macao are considered separately from mainland China.

After its second-place ranking in 2018, there were high hopes that Den, chef Zaiyu Hasegawa’s innovative Japanese restaurant, might go one better this year after losing out to Bangkok’s four-time winner, Gaggan. However, both were leapfrogged by Odette, the modern French establishment helmed by Julien Royer, who became the first ever winner from Singapore.

Perfectly presented: Seiji Yamamoto
Perfectly presented: Seiji Yamamoto’s elegant seiko gani (snow crab). | GODA MASAHIRO / ASIA’S 50 BEST RESTAURANTS

Den was pushed down a peg to the No.3 place, with chef Hiroyasu Kawate’s Florilege also dropping back from No. 3 to No. 5. Narisawa (No. 8) and Nihonryori RyuGin (No. 9) have been perennial incumbents of the top 10 since the very first edition of the Asia’s Best awards. But to date, Narisawa, in 2013, remains the only Japanese restaurant to have topped the list.

However, there was richly deserved compensation for Hasegawa, in the form of the Chef’s Choice Award, reflecting the respect of his peers throughout the region. Wearing a look of astonishment, the popular, charismatic chef made his way onto the stage to reveal an array of badges on his jacket in the shape of the letter P, for his beloved chihuahua mascots, the original Puchi and successor, Puchi Jr.

Celebrating a career of achievements: RyuGin
Celebrating a career of achievements: RyuGin’s Seiji Yamamoto won the innaugural American Express Icon Award. | COURTESY OF ASIA’S 50 BEST RESTAURANTS

RyuGin’s head chef Seiji Yamamoto also received an individual honor, picking up the inaugural American Express Icon Award in recognition of his status and achievements. Also on stage to celebrate with him were several of Yamamoto’s colleagues and former sous-chefs from around the region, including Tomoya Kawada of Tokyo’s Sazenka (No. 23), Ryohei Hieda of Shoun RyuGin in Taipei (No. 31) and Hideaki Sato of Ta Vie (Hong Kong, No. 50).

Sazenka, which serves a modern Japanese take on Chinese cuisine, was the second highest of the 10 new entries on the list. The other new face from Japan, Sugalabo (No. 47), is a surprise inclusion in that chef Yosuke Suga’s innovative Japanese-French restaurant in Azabudai remains strictly introduction-only — and just about as hard to book as the sublime Sushi Saito (No. 25).

Winning pair: Luca Fantin (left) and Fabrizio Fiorani of Bulgari Il Ristorante had a second reason to celebrate after Fiorani won the Asia
Winning pair: Luca Fantin (left) and Fabrizio Fiorani of Bulgari Il Ristorante had a second reason to celebrate after Fiorani won the Asia’s Best Pastry Chef award.

Rounding out the strong Japanese presence in the 50 Best were Osaka’s La Cime (No. 14), Bulgari Il Ristorante Luca Fantin (No. 18), Fukuoka’s La Maison de la Nature Goh (No. 24), L’Effervescence (No. 26) and Quintessence (No. 45).

Bulgari Il Ristorante Luca Fantin had further cause for celebration, as the title of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef went to Fabrizio Fiorani, whose creative, witty, delicate and invariably delicious desserts make a brilliant complement to Fantin’s superbly inventive modern Italian cuisine.

Elsewhere, there was much excitement as Malaysia made its first entry onto the list through Dewakan of Kuala Lumpur (No. 46); the Philippines returned thanks to Manila’s Toyo Eatery (No. 43); and Bali’s Locavore (No. 42) picked up the Sustainable Restaurant Award.

Looking ahead, the venue for next year’s ceremony remains a closely guarded secret. However, confidential murmuring suggests that Tokyo is unlikely to be picked, given the city’s overriding focus on the 2020 Olympics.

For more information about Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and awards, visit theworlds50best.com/asia/en.