In the latest edition of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings, Singapore’s Odette retained its No.1 position for a second straight year, ahead of The Chairman in Hong Kong and Tokyo’s Den. But the announcement on Tuesday was overshadowed by the escalating coronavirus pandemic that has swept the continent.

Normally the annual awards ceremony is one of the highlights of the spring season, an international jamboree that presents itself as the Oscars of Asia’s hospitality industry. This year, however, nothing is normal, and the 2020 countdown took place in very different circumstances.

For the first time, the ceremony was due to take place in Japan. Saga Prefecture in northwestern Kyushu was the chosen venue, and it was being feted as an opportunity to showcase an area of the country that rarely gets a chance to shine in international news.

But just one month before the scheduled date, in the face of growing travel restrictions and the obvious health risks entailed by holding large-scale gatherings, it became clear to both the organizers, William Reed Business Media, and the hosts in Saga that the event would have to be rethought.

It was decided that the usual red-carpet gala of chefs, industry luminaries from across the Asian continent and assorted guests from the wider 50 Best Restaurant “community” was just not viable. In its place there would simply be a pre-recorded video streamed online.

The 40-minute broadcast was preceded by a short statement from William Drew, Director of Content for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, in which he acknowledged the wider context for the event. This year’s announcement, he said, “is not a celebration; the objective is one of recognition… recognizing the hard work and talent of teams and individuals remains valid.”

“The decision to proceed,” he continued, “was made after consulting with chefs, restaurateurs and leading figures in gastronomy across Asia. (It) is about supporting Asia. The list and awards aim to offer some small rays of positivity even in these dark days.”

The lockdowns mandated in many countries meant that a lot of people had to watch the countdown from the security of their own homes. But in Tokyo, at least, a private viewing event was organized for the Japan-based chefs and media representatives. There was plenty to raise their spirits.

Just as last year, 12 Japanese restaurants made it into the top 50, including two new additions to the list: Inua at 49; and Ode at 35. Both are in Tokyo and both relative newcomers. Inua (modern Nordic cuisine) opened in the summer of 2018, and Ode (French) the previous year.

Others included L’Effervescence (Tokyo, French, No. 48); Sushi Saito (Tokyo, sushi, No. 46); La Maison de la Nature Goh (Fukuoka, French, No. 40); Sazenka (Tokyo, Chinese, No. 29); Nihonryori RyuGin (Tokyo, Japanese, No. 24).

Il Ristorante Luca Fantin (Tokyo; innovative Italian, No. 17) inched up one spot, while Osaka’s La Cime (French, No. 10) cracked the top 10 for the first time. Japan’s contingent was rounded out by three more Tokyo restaurants: Narisawa (innovative French, No. 9); Florilege (French, No. 7); and the ever-popular Den (innovative Japanese, No. 3) was the host country’s top representative.

Head chef: Yusuke Takada of La Cime in Osaka won this year's Chefs’ Choice Award. | CHRISTOPHER JUE
Head chef: Yusuke Takada of La Cime in Osaka won this year’s Chefs’ Choice Award. | CHRISTOPHER JUE

Japanese chefs also picked up three of the individual awards. Natsuko Shoji of Ete (in Tokyo’s Yoyogi-Uehara district) is Asia’s Best Pastry Chef for 2020. La Cime’s Yusuke Takada won the Chefs’ Choice Award, which was voted on by his peers throughout the region. And kaiseki (high-end Japanese) chef Yoshihiro Murata was recognized with the Icon Award, for his legendary Kyoto restaurant Kikunoi and his longtime devotion to spreading awareness of Japan’s traditional cuisine.

Besides Japan, this year’s 50 Best list was again heavily weighted towards the continent’s three other powerhouses: China, with 12 restaurants (including eight in Hong Kong and two in Macau); and seven each in Thailand and Singapore. Also represented were Taiwan (four), South Korea (three), India (two) and Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines (with one each).

Although the online format and its backdrop meant for a more somber event than usual, that didn’t stop the chefs in Tokyo from saluting their achievements. Once the viewing event was over, they moved on for a joyful after-party at the unranked (but much admired) Anis in Hatsudai.

With stricter social distancing likely to cast a severe shadow over Japan’s restaurant industry in the coming weeks, it was time for one last celebration. The future may be uncertain, but the emotion seemed in keeping with Drew’s concluding words: “Let’s keep our community connected, united, and prepare for an eventual recovery once the situation improves.”

See the full Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings online at theworlds50best.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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