Michelin and other guides and lists assess restaurants, but our personal views may not always match the official view. Sometimes highly rated establishments can disappoint us, but there are few more satisfying feelings than when there is an unexpected pleasant surprise.
You sit down expecting a meal of a certain standard, and the reality is much better. Perhaps the restaurant has been overlooked or harshly treated by the guides for some reason, perhaps it is yet to be fully recognised. Here is one in a series of restaurants that seem to me to be underrated at present; this one focusing on continental Europe.
Don Alfonso 1890 – Sant’Agata, Italy
Alfonso Iaccarino and his kitchen team make the most of the stunning produce of the Amalfi Coast. Most of the vegetables in the restaurant come from the restaurant’s own farm opposite Capri. Tomatoes are picked daily during the season and taken to the restaurant to make dazzling tomato focaccia.
Technical skill is shown in superb langoustine tempura, the batter airily light, the langoustine magnificent. Risotto with game ragout with perfect rice suffused with rich stock is an example of how cooking does not have to be over-elaborate to be enjoyable. A huge wine cellar will provide something to match your meal, and the staff are very welcoming.
Elkano – Getaria, Spain
Between Bilbao and San Sebastian is the pretty seaside town of Getaria, and within this lies one of the finest seafood restaurants that you will encounter. Elkano is famed for its turbot, the fish carefully selected and grilled whole over open-air charcoal grills just outside the dining room: the quality of this is exceptional, the fish having just a hint of smoky flavour from the grill.
Fish soup here is a world away from the watery concoctions that most of us are used to: here it is a dark, rich broth with deep flavour. Elkano is a simple, old-fashioned restaurant, but you will go a long way before you eat better fish than this.
Ibai – San Sebastian, Spain
Ibai is tucked away in the basement of an unassuming tapas bar in central San Sebastian, a restaurant with just eight tables and no menu, open only on weekday lunches and notoriously difficult to book.
Chef Alicio Garro selects the finest seafood and vegetables from the market daily, as he has been doing since 1983. The quality of the fish is extraordinary, better than at the multi-starred restaurants that abound in this area.
The sole is the best I have ever tasted, the razor clams impeccably fresh and tender. Squid is of a quality I have only encountered in the top sushi restaurants of Japan. Ibai is one of the best-kept culinary secrets of the world. Image credit: Andy Hayler
Jacobs – Hamburg, Germany
This riverside 18th century merchant house in Hamburg is home to the classical cooking of Thomas Martin. The elegant dining room is matched by faultless service, with a wide selection of fine old German Rieslings available to pair with the dishes. This is old school cooking, with sauces of great depth and clarity.
A dish of duck breast with a sauce of dill, celery, cucumber and apple is a thing of beauty, the intensely flavoured sauce perfectly balancing the richness of the duck. Turbot is carved tableside, served simply with a classy beurreblanc sauce and vegetables. A huge dessert trolley appears at the end of your meal, brimming with superb pastries and cakes. Jacobs is the best two star Michelin restaurant that you have never heard of.
Restaurant at The Dolder Grand – Zurich, Switzerland
The fine Zurich hillside setting of the Restaurant at The Dolder Grand hotel is matched by the skills of head chef Heiko Nieder. The highest quality seasonal ingredients are used here, as seen in a dish of superb white asparagus with egg yolk, caviar and watercress. Technical skill is illustrated by a dish of fine tuna with perfectly judged wasabi granita, the spice level just enough to lift the dish but no more.
Your meal might conclude with an attractive and refreshing dessert of rhubarb cake with baby meringues, hazelnut ice cream, rhubarb jelly and lime zest with hazelnut biscuits and shortbread. Dish presentation is attractive, the cooking as precise as a Swiss watch, the standard higher than the two Michelin stars the restaurant currently has.
Sa Qua Na – Honfleur, France
Alexander Bourdas was head chef of the spectacular Michel Bras restaurant in Toya in Hokkaido, perched on the rim of a volcanic crater looking over the Pacific, before he returned to France to open his own restaurant in Honfleur.
His ingredient knowledge picked up in Japan shows in the extraordinarily high standard of seafood used here, whether in perfectly poached monkfish or superb sea bream. Even humble pollack is unrecognisable here, with remarkable flavour I have never encountered before in this fish. Ultra-fresh sweet langoustine is faultlessly cooked, served with dazzling asparagus and pasta cooked in squid ink and a little Mozzarella. The standard of cooking here is higher than the two Michelin stars that it has already earned.
Villa Crespi – Novara, Italy
On a slope overlooking Lake Orta is the beautiful Moorish-style Villa Crespi. Its intricate stonework is matched by the cuisine of Antonino Cannavacciuolo, whose kitchen produces fine Italian dishes that draw upon the magnificent produce of this area.
A skewer of impeccably fresh langoustines and scallop with spring onion and lemon is served with shredded celeriac and a perfectly judged Granny Smith apple sauce; a glorious dish. Mediterranean tuna of tuna is paired with tartare sauce, capers and an intense veal broth. A wine list with over a thousand different selections ensure there is something to match your meal perfectly, and the staff are delightful.
Villa Crespi is less well known than some heavily marketed Italian restaurants, but the combination of the setting, service and superb food are hard to beat.