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Cuisine and culture are on the menu at Asia's 50 best restaurants

TOKYO   Asia's rich mix of food cultures makes the region an irresistible target for travel-minded gourmets. But with so many genres, flavors and locations to choose from, where is the hungry traveler to start? Why not with the best?

     U.K. publisher William Reed Business Media recently released the 2016 edition of "Asia's 50 Best Restaurants," an annual ranking seen as an alternative to Michelin rankings.

     Now in its fourth year, the ranking features restaurants in 13 nations and regions, the highest number ever. 2016 also saw 10 new entries: Mingles of South Korea; Corner House and Wild Rocket of Singapore; La Maison de la Nature Goh, Den and Kikunoi of Japan; Gallery Vask of Philippines; Raw of Taiwan; Ta Vie of Hong Kong; and Locavore of Indonesia. Thirteen of the top 50 restaurants are in greater China including Hong Kong and Macau, while Japan and Singapore boast 10 apiece.

     The restaurants were chosen by the Diners Club Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Academy, an influential group of over 300 leaders in Asia's restaurant industry.

     The Nikkei Asian Review takes a look at the top three restaurants: Gaggan in Bangkok, Narisawa in Tokyo, and Andre in Singapore.

     Gaggan is a progressive Indian restaurant tucked away in a small alley off the high-end residential street of Langsuan in central Bangkok. Set in a white-walled colonial house, the 5-year-old restaurant serves creative dishes that please the tongue and delight the eyes.

     Owner and chef Anand Gaggan entertains his guests with the mysteries of "molecular gastronomy" -- from mysterious bubbles and ambience-enhancing liquid nitrogen fog to edible plastic and foil.

     Anand, an Indian national, worked at several restaurants in Bangkok before going to Spain to work with the pioneer of molecular gastronomy, chef Ferran Adria, at his Michelin three-starred restaurant El Bulli. El Bulli is now closed, but Anand has applied the inventive techniques he learned there to revolutionize the cuisine of his home country.

     There is only one course at Gaggan: "The Gaggan Experience," consisting of 18 to 19 dishes and priced at 3,500 baht ($98). Menus for vegetarians and those with special dietary needs are also available. Most of the dishes are bite-size finger foods that do not require cutlery. Adding to the whimsy of the meal, each plate has a playful name like "Brain Damage," "Magic Mushroom" or "Who Killed the Goat?"

     Getting a table isn't easy. Gaggan is always bustling with tourists and locals, and reservations for Fridays and weekends often need to be made several months in advance.

     Stepping inside Narisawa transports diners to an oasis of calm in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Its interior is modern, and the decor is decidedly Western-inspired. What goes into each dish, by contrast, is pure Japan.

     Fresh ingredients are sourced from all over the country to let customers "feel the bounty of Japanese nature with all five senses," said owner Yoshihiro Narisawa. His dishes, usually prepared in the Japanese style, embody the idea of satoyama, a way of living that is close to -- and in harmony with -- nature. 

     Narisawa's life as a chef has been one of constant exploration. In the late 1980s, at the age of 19, he headed to Europe to hone his cooking skills. He worked a total of eight years at top restaurants across the continent.

     His exploration has continued even since his return to Japan. In search of the best ingredients, he regularly visits local farms, fisheries and breweries all across the country. He also seeks out artisans making traditional Japanese tableware.

     The menu only tells customers the raw ingredients and where they are from. This is because each dish is prepared to order based on the customer's preferences and their previous experiences at the restaurant. 

     To ensure customers do not feel rushed, only two reservations are accepted per day for each table, one during lunch and one during dinner. Lunch is priced at 20,000 yen ($175) and dinner at 25,000 yen.

     Nestled in a quiet neighborhood off the streets of Singapore's Chinatown, Andre is the work of Taiwan-born chef Andre Chiang. Since its opening in 2010, the restaurant has taken Singapore's culinary scene by storm. It has made it onto Sanpellegrino's "World's Best Restaurants" list every year since 2011, and The New York Times even named it one of the 10 restaurants in the world worth a plane ride.

     Chiang first learned to cook from his mother in Japan, where he spent his early days. At the age of 15, he moved to France to learn French cuisine, which he viewed as the most difficult to master. During his 15 years in France, he worked at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, including as head chef at Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier.

     Chiang and his team come up with the menu at Andre every day, depending on the seasonal produce they have obtained for the day. The menu includes a list of eight words: pure, salt, artisan, south, texture, unique, memory and "terroir," a French word that refers to the environment where a particular ingredient was grown. These are the eight elements -- what he calls his "Octaphilosophy"-- that make up the dishes at Andre.

     Chiang's style is heavily influenced by nouvelle cuisine, a French culinary technique that emphasizes bringing out the natural flavor, colors and textures of fresh, quality ingredients in an artful way. Lunch at Andre is priced at 198 Singapore dollars ($143) and dinner at S$350.

Nikkei staff writers Yukako Ono in Bangkok and Tomomi Kikuchi in Singapore contributed to this article.

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