I’ve traveled extensively in Europe for the past seven years and had many delicious meals in pretty places. But some stand out because of the dishes, the presentation and the setting. If you're into fine dining with a side of adventure, put these restaurants on your must-do list in 2016.
Restaurante José María – Segovia, Spain
On more than one occasion, our Spanish friend recounted her foodie tale of sitting by Segovia’s aqueduct and eating suckling pig (cochinillo asado), roasted whole baby pig so tender that it is sliced with a plate. A couple of years and a few trips later, my husband and I had dinner at Restaurante José María, one of several Segovia restaurants serving suckling pig.
We started with foie gras, a favorite delicacy we could not pass up. The waiter appeared with an entire platter, rather than the typical two to three-ounce serving, of buttery liver. We finished a shamefully small portion before the suckling pig arrived. The flaky outer skin complemented the succulent dark meat underneath. If ever we return, we will fast for a few days and forego the foie gras to make room for more pork.
Aman Restaurant at Aman Sveti Stefan - Sveti Stefan, Montenegro
Sveti Stefan is a former walled village on an islet in the Adriatic Sea converted into an exclusive resort, accessible only to patrons of the hotel or restaurants. The rooms were well beyond our budget, so I booked dinner at the Aman Restaurant.
My husband and I were escorted from the resort entrance up winding paths to the upper terrace, where we watched the sunset and listened to classical music echoing from the outdoor stage of a multimillion-dollar yacht floating nearby. Our one mistake was ordering fresh whole fish at the market rate per kilo, instead of something from the prix fixe menu, which made our bill much higher than expected. We paid a premium to step foot on beautiful Sveti Stefan, but I am glad we did it.
La Cloche à Fromage - Strasbourg, France
This unassuming restaurant tucked on a pedestrian-only street in Strasbourg has one of the world’s largest cheese domes. Under that 1,700-pound, six-foot-tall cloche is a collection of more than 80 cheeses. The affordable menu changes each season, but always involves copious amounts of cheese. Gooey melted cheeses in raclette and fondue form, as well as cheese board samplers, are staples year round.
Unlike other restaurants on this list, I’ve been to La Cloche à Fromage many times and had excellent French fare, sans the cheese ice cream. Since then, I’ve stuck to more traditional desserts.
A Personal Chef in Tuscany — Greve in Chianti, Italy
In May 2013, a group of friends, my husband and I rented a villa in Tuscany, near Greve in Chianti. Some evenings we piled into a rented conversion van, affectionately nicknamed Ground Force One, to area restaurants.
Other nights, we requested the services of Chef Mimo, owner of Enoteca Baldi in Panzano in Chianti. He and his daughter arrived late afternoon with bags and boxes. In the villa kitchen, Mimo prepared antipasti, such as stuffed zucchini blossoms, followed by pasta courses, meat or seafood. When two of our friends from that trip decided to get married on the coast of Italy a year later, we booked Chef Mimo for a private dinner and paid extra for him to make the 1.5-hour drive.
Osteria di Passignano - Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, Italy
During the aforementioned Tuscany trip, the girls took a class with Italian celebrity chef Matio Barciulli at the Fonte de Medici, the cooking school near Osteria di Passignano. Chef Barciulli critically eyed my batter for flourless chocolate cakes and teased me for sneaking a taste before pouring it into molds.
Afterward, we went to Osteria di Passignano to enjoy the four-course meal we had just made — this time prepared by the Michelin-starred restaurant. The savory pecorino soufflés and molten chocolate cakes were worth the hours we spent as students in the kitchen.
Restaurant at Andronis Luxury Suites – Oia, Santorini, Greece
My husband and I scoped out many menus and venues in Oia before I saw Andronis Luxury Suites. We stopped at the reception desk to book and were led down dozens of stairs to select the perfect location for our last dinner in Greece.
The following night, we returned to our table, located on a veranda separate from the other diners. The food was a combination of French and Mediterranean cuisine, featuring scallops, pan-fried foie gras, sautéed fish and modern interpretations of classic sweets. From our perch, we could see Santorini’s cascading balconies and infinity pools illuminated hundreds of feet above the caldera.
Nocti Vagus - Berlin, Germany
My friend and I left behind the comfort of a well-lit bar and were asked to close our eyes before entering a world of darkness. From that moment on, I was dependent on a soft-spoken, visually impaired waitress, whom I never saw.
For two hours, we listened to live music and chatted with an English-speaking Dutch man and woman seated across from us, their appearances left to the imagination. We ordered water and wine, which came in pitchers that we had to pour into glasses. I grasped for the bread basket, missed and ended up with a handful of buttery dip. I tried to get bites of food onto a fork but eventually resorted to eating with my hands. I ordered the surprise menu, so I can’t be certain of what I ate either. What I will always remember is not the food nor entertainment, but the gratitude I felt when I could see once again.
Dinner in the Sky – Brussels, Belgium
The biggest adventure of all was dining with nothing but a chair and a harness separating me from the ground… 10 stories below. My palms started sweating before I took my seat. Once everyone was strapped in, we were smoothly lifted toward the sky by a crane. I took deep breaths and watched David Martin, chef of the Michelin-starred La Paix, as he showed his culinary prowess in a space the size of a closet.
I sipped wine, looked at the horizon and repeated a mantra in my head that this was just like any other meal… until the beet-cherry gazpacho arrived, and I had to lean forward in my constricting harness to eat it and try not to drop my spoon. By the main course of kasu sake cod and asparagus with an orange gastrique and burrata, I was relaxed. Would I do it again? Probably not. But I’m glad I did it while living in Europe.