Post-Lockdown Restaurant Hit List : First Meals by Asia's Food Stars

Post-Lockdown Restaurant Hit List : First Meals by Asia's Food Stars

Under new norms, Asia's chefs and personalities head out for their first meals since lockdowns eased. From Manila to Japan, Hong Kong and more, read on for their post-lockdown restaurant hit list that you should plan for.

Been to a restaurant yet? Well, as soon as lockdowns eased, some went out to do just that. It's not quite business-as-usual though, as celebrity chef and restaurateur Anton Amoncio describes eating through newly installed plexi-glass panels at his favourite ramen shop in Manila. Still on noodles, a top ramen expert in Japan writes about his post-lockdown adventures in Tokyo.

Meanwhile in Malaysia, one of the earliest countries in Southeast Asia to come out of lockdown, chef Ili Sulaiman returns to her favourite restaurant, where she tucks into one of the country's best-loved dishes. And in Hong Kong's summer, Debbie Wong muses about a delightful beachside eatery with fresh eggplant salads, sunny crab omelettes and the scent of the sea at the city's scenic Repulse Bay.

Read on for AFN Foodies' post-lockdown restaurant hit list of local eats, posh places and award-winning names. 

Manila: "The best ramen ever" and a Mexican taco haven in the buzzing Makati district

We begin in Manila - as the Philippine capital inches their way out of multiple lockdowns, celebrity chef and restaurateur Anton Amoncio describes his return to a ramen house which he vows is "the best ever" in the country.

Plexi-glass dividers as part of new norms at Mendokoro Ramenba, where Anton gets his favourite ramen fix. Photo: Anton Amoncio 

"The line is not as long, but the restaurant is packed. I had to wait outside for quite a bit because they only allow 20 people in at a time. They also sanitize each table allowing ten minutes to pass before they seat anyone. Inside, they have plexiglass panels all over the restaurant to prevent the spread of the virus.

I am a huge Ramen lover and I have been in constant search of the best ramen places in and out of the Philippines. In my personal opinion, Mendokoro Ramenba serves the best ramen here in the country. Their menu is simple with less than 15 items in their selection – revolving only with four basic ramen flavors. My go-to order is their tantanmen ramen. It is known for its perfectly cooked noodles served with a flavorful and rich broth. It also has hints of sesame seeds that give the dish a nutty flavor. Their gyoza is also a crowd’s favorite. Be sure to order it as it complements well with any of your chosen ramen flavor. 

I look forward to the day I visit them again, and enjoy a hot bowl of awesome ramen sans masks, plexiglass shields, and Covid-19."

Also in Manila, host Matthias Rhoads finds a downright delicious Mexican meal at a grungy street taco eatery.

Photo: El Chupacabra

"I decided to make my rounds about the area to see what’s open. Using precautions, I gave my old stomping grounds a shot: Poblacion, Makati - a well known art and gastro-pub scene, with a little party on the side. When I visited my beloved El Chupacabra, I was happy to see that not much had changed besides the allowed seating arrangements and of course the number of people at the restaurant. I kept it simple with the deliciously juicy shrimp taco and carne asada taco. Upon biting into the soft shrimp taco, the juices spilled into my mouth and out of the other end, reminding myself that it’s always fun to get a little messy. The shrimp are always seasoned to perfection and have a fresh cilantro cream sauce with a punch of garlic that makes it a hit on the menu. The steak taco is a safe bet for fellow Pinoys or anyone else who loves the flavor of adobo (soy sauce and vinegar)."

Singapore: Hajah Maimunah's nasi padang, a Sri Lankan Michelin-meal, and award-winning dim sum

Nutritionist Charlotte Mei savoured her first meal at Michelin-listed Hajah Maimunah, the 90s go-to place for nasi padang, or rice with mixed dishes. The self-service eatery at the arts and culture district of Marina Bay was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2019 for good-quality, good-value cooking.

Photo: Hajah Maimunah

"The first place I headed to was Hajah Maimunah for Nasi Padang. It was one thing I craved the most as I don’t really cook any of these dishes at home! My go-to selection is pucuk ubi masak lemak (tapioca leaves), sambal goreng tempeh (spicy fried tempeh) and sayer lodeh (vegetables cooked in coconut milk)."

Another restaurant she's hoping to try in Little India is Kotuwa, helmed by Michelin-starred chef Rishi Naleendra. The physical opening of the city's first Sri Lankan restaurant was halted by Circuit Breaker lockdowns in April.  

Photo: Kotuwa

"Sri Lankan cuisine is one of my favourites, and I was really excited when Kotuwa opened up during the circuit breaker. I had their food delivered, but nothing beats eating it fresh on the spot! The kottu roti, which is chopped up roti cooked with vegetables and curry - a popular Sri Lankan street food - was one of my favourites, and I can't wait to have that and many more soon!"

Meanwhile, celebrity chef and host Sarah Huang Benjamin is hoping for a return to big family meals at her favourite dim sum place at Imperial Treasure. Singapore lifted major restrictions weeks ago, but continues to limit each table to a maximum of 5 diners. 

Sarah at Imperial Treasure Nan Bei. Photo: Sarah Huang Benjamin

"During the lockdown, I was amazed by the variety of dishes that we could get delivered right to our doorstep, so that definitely helped with getting my fix of restaurant food. BUT dim sum is one of those dishes that has to be eaten fresh out of the kitchen, still steaming in the little bamboo basket, so I knew it wouldn’t do well as a delivery dish. I’ve been really looking forward to going back to my favourite dim sum joint in Singapore, Imperial Treasure, for a really authentic, delicious dim sum meal. It’s where my family always goes for Sunday lunch, so I especially look forward to big family meals together again, with steaming hot parcels of dim sum!"

* Note: Imperial Treasure Nan Bei closed during the lockdown period after 16 years at the shopping belt of Orchard Road's Ngee Ann City. The menu's big sellers were dim sum, Chinese dishes such as stewed pork belly and poached clams in rice wine. It is part of Imperial Treasure's mighty restaurant empire

Jakarta: Renowned nasi padang and a 5-star hotel brunch in the city's South

In Southeast Asia's biggest city, celebrity chef and host Yuda Bustara spends an afternoon brunch at InterContinental Hotel Jakarta's Sugar and Spice, where he recommends a signature noodle soup.

Signature BLT SOUP (Bakso, Lidah Tunjang or Meatball, Tounge and Tendons). Photo: Sugar and Spice

"I spent most of my Sunday brunch at InterContinental Hotel Jakarta's Sugar and Spice, dining on their unlimited cheese platter option to vegan buffet, but there is one dish that I always have in this eatery, it’s their Signature BLT SOUP, (Bakso, Lidah Tunjang or Meatball, Tounge and Tendons). They actually re-opened their restaurant recently, following all the social distancing protocol, so you might need reservation to dine in. For those still quarantined at home, they do food delivery to your doorstep!"

In the vicinity, he recommends humbler, but equally tasty food at renowned nasi padang restaurant Pagi Sore. His go-to? Cow brains curry, it's totally tasty, he says!

Photo: Pagi Sore

"I'm looking forward to dining in Padang restaurant! There are plenty padang establishments all over Jakarta, but my favorite is the one in South Jakarta, called Pagi Sore Restaurant. They do online delivery in this quarantine, but I miss the feeling eating nasi padang (padang rice) with all the menu serve in front of you, that authentic experience and to see various dishes stacked on your table is only available on Dine in. Choosing what to eat can be confusing but I always go with Cow Brain curry, rendang, ayam pop (fried chicken) and Sambal hijau (green sambal). I know it sounds weird to eat brain but padang cuisine use almost all the parts of a cattle, make the most of everything and trust me it tastes good, best food ever actually."

Kuala Lumpur: Banana leaf rice that's "just so good!" 

The thing celebrity chef and host Ili Sulaiman missed the most during the lockdown was banana leaf rice at Vishal Curry House in Brickfields. The South Indian rice platter served with curry, pickled vegetables and other small dishes is one of Malaysia's most popular meals at lunch.

Ili Sulaiman (pictured)

"Everytime I head to Vishal, I look forward to the three vegetarian dishes they serve because the vegetable option changes with the seasons and is cooked fresh everyday. As you sit down, a big piece of banana leaf is placed in front of you to act as your plate. In the banana leaf rice set, traditionally you are served, three types of vegetable dishes, a combination of gravy or curries and sambar (lentil curry) of your choice, papadom and anything else you add is additional. When I went after the MCO the three dishes that were served were a sweet pumpkin like stir fry with dried chilies, curry leaves, mustard seed and light coriander spices, some fresh and tangy cucumber raita and a potato masala. You are then served an option of three types of rice, normal steamed rice, Indian rice (which is less starchy) or biryani rice. The add on dishes vary from fried fish, chicken and all types of curries from crab curry, fish masala, mutton varuval or chicken curry but I personally go there for the fish cutlet and the deep fried bitter gourd! Just SO GOOD!"

Hong Kong: a summery Thai eatery by the beach 

As the days get warmer and sunnier in Hong Kong, celebrity chef and host Debbie Wong knows where she'll go to eat. And that's to the beach at Sip Song, an eatery by the city's scenic bay where she'll get all the fresh flavours of Thailand. 

Photo: Sip Song 

"For me, a great meal is just as much about the setting as it is about that food; so my restaurant pick for ‘post-lockdown’ in Hong Kong would be Sip Song, a vibrant, lively Thai restaurant on Repulse Bay beach. It’s summer in HK now, and all I am craving in this heat are the sour, spicy and herbaceous flavours of Thailand. My favs are the roasted eggplant salad (served with a soft boiled egg), their perfectly balanced Tom Yum Soup, and the crab omelette… mmmmm, sunshine, ocean, and Thai food."

In Hong Kong, social distancing measures have largely been lifted in the past two months. 

Japan: Two ramen picks by a top ramen expert

Frank Striegl of 5 AM Ramen is someone who eats over 350 bowls of ramen a year. Afterall, he's Japan's expert authority on all things ramen. Through Tokyo's lockdown, he satisfied those cravings by eating takeout and instant ramen (he's writing something on that which you'll read here real soon!). Fast forward to now - Tokyo has cautiously reopened, and he's back to his visiting ramen haunts again, under new norms. He tells us two post-lockdown ramen picks.

Clam Shoyu Ramen at Ramen Ichiro Photo: Frank Striegl/5 AM Ramen

"In the glitzy Ginza neighborhood, Ramen Ichiro serves ramen with shijimi. These freshwater clams provide an earthy flavor to their signature shoyu (soy sauce) ramen. Alongside the shijimi, the broth is a cordial blend of chicken bones and fish. Compared to Tanaka Shoten, this ramen shop unfortunately didn’t have any barriers between seats. But I’m glad I visited at an odd hour (3 pm) - there was no one there."

Away from Ginza lies what's widely agreed as the country's top tonkotsu ramen house outside Kyushu.

No. 1 ranked Tonkotsu ramen. Photo: Frank Striegl/ 5 AM Ramen 

"Tanaka Shoten is often regarded as the no. 1 Tokyo tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen shop outside of Kyushu (where this ramen style originated). Their greasy, rich pork bone soup only contains pig’s head. This creates a gamey, intense flavor. Not a light meal by any means! I hadn’t been here in ages (it’s way up in North Tokyo). It was nice to see that they set up plastic sheets between the counter seats and between customers and staff."

Related: 5 Delicious Halal Ramen Shops in Tokyo

Had your first restaurant meal yet? Or planning for one in the not-so-distant future? Tell us where you'll go in the comments below.

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