Anyone who's ever felt stuck on a Friday night, deep-diving into restaurant reviews online to find the one good new restaurant to try can attest, it's sometimes hard to judge a book by its cover—or in this case, a restaurant by its review. For adventuring foodies, blindly following the latest It-restaurant trends can be somewhat hit-or-miss. As we are spending more money on restaurants than ever before, it's only natural we want to invest it in a meal that will go down in our memories as one to remember.
So where is the best place to look to find these once-in-a-lifetime meals—the ones that might be for a special occasion, but also the ones that are deceptively casual, and more importantly won't break the bank? Word of mouth is always a good place to start, but the resources can dry out quickly if your entourage isn't particularly epicurean. To give us ideas on where to find our next best meals, we polled nine chefs to share with us the best meal they've ever had. From a 27-course tasting menu to a local patisserie sandwich, here's what they had to say.
The Chef: Sylvain Delpique, 21 Club, New York City
The Restaurant: Cannelle Patisserie, Jackson Heights, NY
The Dish: The Croque-Monsieur
The Memory: "From the pastries to the breads and the jambon beurre sandwiches, it's practically impossible to focus on one favorite dish. But their croque-monsieur uses quality ingredients, house-made bread, and a taste of home that transports me back to France in a single bite."
The Restaurant: The Nomad, New York City
The Dish: "The whole roast chicken for two with foie gras, black truffle, and brioche. It's accompanied by ramps, leeks, and potato écrasé. It is everything a great roast chicken should be. Crispy skin, fatty decadent dark meat, with some truffles and foie gras to add to the luxury. I don't know of a better chicken in New York."
The Memory: "The day after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC, my now wife and I walked from the Lower East Side to the Upper West Side. We made a pitstop at The Nomad, cold and wet. They were just above the loss of power grid. We split the bird to warm us up before starting the second leg of our journey."
The Chef: Richard Blais, James Beard–nominated cookbook author and Recurring Judge on Bravo’s Top Chef and Fox’s MasterChef
The Restaurant: Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York City
The Dish: New England clam chowder or fried clam strips with tartar sauce
The Memory: "As a native New Yorker, this was one of my first meals as a kid where I was in awe—in retrospect, probably mostly by the architecture and the fact that for as large as it is, it feels hidden and exclusive. But clams are my jam, in any which way. I still will pony up to the counter, solo mostly, anytime I'm taking a train to Poughkeepsie or New Haven, and I suggest you do too."
The Restaurant: Masa, New York City
The Dish: The tasting menu
The Memory: "The tasting menu at Masa is an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everything from the presentation to the flavors is truly amazing. It’s certainly a meal for a special occasion and one that is bound to be memorable."
The Chef: Leslie Mialma, Pasty Chef at Winsome, Los Angeles
The Restaurant: Le Procope, Paris
The Dish: Crevettes and Coq au Vin
The Memory: "I was 16 and my parents took us to Europe that summer—a trip my mother had been waiting until we were old enough to really appreciate. It was way before I realized that I wanted to be a chef. My mother told us that Le Procope was one of the oldest cafes in Paris and that the revolutionaries met there to plan the French Revolution. The history of the place made it stand out in my memories, as did the beautifully presented head-on prawns, all facing out around a shallow copper pan. I can't remember exactly what the sauce was, but they were so sweet, and it was probably the first time I sucked the heads. My little brother got coq au vin served in a beautiful old copper pot. I've had many great meals throughout the years, so it's hard to say if it was the best meal of my life, but it was certainly a very memorable one. I hope to be back with my kids some day."
The Chef: Sandy Dee Hall, Black Tree, Brooklyn
The Restaurant: Blanca, Brooklyn
The Dish: Plankton agnolotti
The Memory: "It's made of plankton powder, taleggio cheese and cream filling, pasta water, lemon juice, lemon zest, extra virgin olive oil for the sauce. It's simple and clean with a briny flavor. And it's the best bite I've ever had."
The Chef: Harris Mayer-Selinger, Creamline at the Chelsea Market, New York City
The Restaurant: Keens Steakhouse, New York City
The Dish: The Mutton Chop
The Memory: "The gaminess is something I miss from most high-end restaurants. Keeping the bone in makes the meat tastier. It ages like a New York steakhouse beef; it's cooked expertly, and it’s just extraordinary and unlike anywhere else."
Want to find your own once-in-a-lifetime meal? Try one of our chefs' most memorable dishes, or pick up the guide book below.