Are we living in a foodie heaven or a fool's paradise? For the British catering industry, the past year has been something of a rollercoaster ride of mixed reviews and often contradictory reports about the rise or fall of our home-grown restaurants.
At the positive end of the scale, when Restaurant magazine released its annual survey of the top 50 restaurants in the world, no less than 14 were British. Around the same time, the American-based Gourmet magazine devoted its entire 180-page issue to London, with executive editor John Willoughby gushing: "London is the best city in the world to eat right now. Everyone here is amazed at the breadth and quality of the restaurants."
Wow. But if the situation is so great, how come few of us can actually afford to eat out? The new Harden's London Restaurants guide highlighted the cost of dining at restaurants such as Sketch, Le Gavroche, Blakes and Umu, where a standard dinner now costs around £100 a head. And if our food is really that fabulous, how come the people's vote in the new Zagat Survey went for mediocre ramen house Wagamama, which outscored Nobu, Gordon Ramsay, The Ivy, Hakkasan and The Square?
Maybe those pesky Michelin people know something we don't. This month, the company launched its first guide to New York. From outta nowhere, the Big Apple now has four restaurants with three-stars - three more than London currently has. And New York has more one-star restaurants. And one of them is even a gastropub - ouch.
But forget the surveys and the guides. We have always been able to eat exquisitely at the top end, and heartily at the bottom end. It's the middle bit we're bad at, and this is where the real movement has been this year. The new openings show more variety and more value, as three-star chefs open pubs, everyone moves to small plates for greater flexibility, and Asian becomes the new glamour food. So, your table awaits for the Dinner Gongs of 2005.
Chef of the year: Heston Blumenthal, The Fat Duck, Bray
As years go, this one has gone brilliantly for the man who gave the world snail porridge, sardine on toast ice-cream and nitrogen-poached tea and lime sorbet. In January he retained his Michelin three-star rating, and was awarded a massive 19/20 by the Gault Millau guide. Just three months later, Restaurant magazine named The Fat Duck the best restaurant in the world. Blumenthal has also found the time to take over a traditional English pub (see Best Gastropub), pick up a regular TV series (Full On Food) and receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Reading.
Chef of the year: London Brett Graham,
He was Sydney's best young chef in 1999, and Britain's Young Chef of the Year in 2002. Now we can drop the "young" bit, because at The Ledbury, Nigel Platts-Martin and Philip Howard's new restaurant in London's Notting Hill, this talented, driven perfectionist has really come of age. Typical of the Graham style is an immaculate amuse-gueule of crystal-clear tomato tea jelly set around a heart of avocado purée, topped with a jewelled dice of tuna. Special indeed.
Best new restaurant: Maze
Without doubt, the London opening of the year. Not since he opened his eponymous restaurant in Chelsea, has a new Gordon Ramsay establishment caused such a stir. Chef Jason Atherton has created a modernist menu of 20 small and sophisticated dishes, including marinated beetroot with sheep's-milk ricotta, pine nuts (omega) and Cabernet Sauvignon dressing, and lamb with cinnamon sweetbreads and ras el hanout. Maze is fun, dazzlingly good, slick, smart and well-run.
Best gastropub Hind's Head, Bray
Heston Blumenthal's wooden-panelled, oak-beamed pub might be just 35 steps away from the Fat Duck, yet the two establishments are worlds apart. No snail porridge or oak and tobacco chocolates here, although you will find his famous triple-cooked chips. This is Jane Grigson's Guide to British Cookery brought to life, from the verdant pea and ham soup, to the melt- in-the-mouth Lancashire hotpot and the world's best treacle tart.
Best public service: Jamie Oliver
Saint Jamie's halo shines brighter than ever, as he opened the eyes of everyone - including the Government - to the sorry state of the nation's school dinners. At the same time, his Fifteen concept looks set to conquer the world, with a second restaurant already established in Amsterdam and two more planned to open next year in Cornwall and Melbourne. Nice one.
Food precinct of the year: Borough Market
London's Borough Market has not only survived the march of progress, it has thrived. Newly restored, it is now a mecca for both the home cook and the keen eater. In the past 12 months, impressive newcomers have included the casual-but-brilliant Tapas Brindisa; Anna Mosseson's pretty, Swedish-inspired Glas; the beer-fuelled brasserie Brew Wharf; the new Wright Brothers' shellfish showcase, the Oyster and Porter House; and Iqbal Wahhab's long-awaited British restaurant, Roast (see review next week). So why do hundreds of people still stand around outside the local pubs drinking beer all night?
Best wine list: The Greyhound
Everyone calls this south London gem a gastropub, but it ain't. It's a personal, wine-driven restaurant that just happens to be situated in a pub. In fact, it's more of an enoteca, and the care taken in both kitchen and cellar is vastly out of proportion to its prices. Owner Mark Van Der Groot, who was previously sommelier at Greenhouse in Mayfair, has put together a lustworthy 44 pages of wine over two separate lists (one a "fine and rare" list culled from his personal cellar). Let's just say that you'll have no problem finding the perfect match for Tom Martinovic's finely honed contemporary cooking.
Silliest restaurant concept: Silk
This was never going to be a good idea. First you set a restaurant in a former courthouse, complete with judge's bench, dock and witness stand. Then you throw a few buddhas around and give the food a Silk Road theme, on the tenuous courthouse-equals-silks association. Then you do three different cuisines, none of which were done particularly well on my visit. A new kitchen is now in place, but it's still a silly idea.
The special service award: Locanda Locatelli
If there's a more simpatico maitre d' than the tall and gentle Roberto Veneruzzo then I haven't found him. The smile is genuine, the care heartfelt, and the advice invaluable. If he tells you that you really must have the cured pork with potatoes and black truffle, or the risotto with Barolo and Castelmagno cheese, then you really must. Similarly, there is no better guide through Locanda Locatelli's vast Italian wine list than this London restaurant's sommelier, Max Sali.
The not-so-special service award: Galvin Bistrot de Luxe
There's no doubt that the brothers Galvin can cook, and the room of their London restaurant is quite lovely. But over two visits, the floor staff seemed plagued with short- and long-term memory loss. Orders were forgotten, the food on the plate was a mystery to all, and I grew tired of having to fight for a menu, a wine list and water. Do the food a favour and get people who know what they are doing.
Ingredient of the year: Mutton
Prince Charles wants us to eat it, and so do restaurants around the country, from the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow to Northcote Manor in Lancashire to London's La Trouvaille, The Greyhound, The Ivy, The Goring and Butler's Wharf Chop House. Having fallen out of favour with the British public in the period since the end of the Second World War, this rich, long-flavoured meat is back with a vengeance. Keep an eye out for Herdwick mutton from Cumbria, Ayrshire-raised Soay mutton, and Welsh mountain mutton. And you can forget about the old-fashioned caper sauce; this mutton is dressed as lamb.
Best food chain: FishWorks
Mitchell Tonks' Bath-based network of fish shops/fish restaurants/ cookery schools has been a breath of fresh sea air to the high street. This year saw new London openings in the Harvey Nichols food hall, and Islington, while the Marylebone branch claimed the best fish restaurant award at the ITV Tio Pepe London Restaurant Awards.
Best coffee: Flat White
Is this Berwick Street, Soho, or Victoria Street, Sydney? Antipodean partners James Gurnsey, Cameron McClure and Peter Hall have brought a much-needed triple shot of down-under café culture to London. The caff is cute, casual and carefree, but the coffee is serious - a special blend from Monmouth Coffee is intense and clean-tasting, with a hint of sweetness. Can we yet be saved from the mint choc-chip frappuccino? (omega)
Trend of the year: Dim Sum
Five years ago, Britain couldn't tell its har gau from its siu mai. All that changed in spring 2004 when Alan Yau opened Yauatcha, and steamed dumplings became the new darlings of the lychee cocktail set. This year, everyone's picking up chopsticks, at the designer chain Ping Pong, at the look-at-me Cocoon, at fusionista Pengelley's, at Chinatown's bright-and-light Chinese Experience, at the seductive China Tang, at the upmarket Shanghai Blues, and at Nottingham's Orientally groovy Geisha.
Best vibe: China Tang
In the basement of The Dorchester hotel in London, Hong Kong-born entrepreneur David Tang has created a magical netherworld of Art Deco combined with Oriental aesthetics. There's a cocktail bar you could live in, private rooms that shimmer with lacquer and lush art, and a dining room full of cushioned banquettes, and silken murals. Chinese comfort food dominates, the Peking duck is a hit, and the crowd is so lively that every night is a party. If I had to pay admission to get in, I would.
Best value: Le Comptoir
London's Le Comptoir used to be the patisserie, food shop and bottle shop of the Club Gascon boys. Now they've moved in tables, chairs and a mighty menu focussing on the earthy flavours of south-west France. The bistro's most expensive main course is £12, and the most expensive red wine is £26. One of the best meals I had all year cost just £60 for two, including a bottle of wine.
* The earthy, grassy, nutty trofiette al pesto at Giardinetto.
* Steamy, stewy, oyster-laden Lancashire hotpot at Hind's Head, Bray.
* The Ledbury's tiny-tot Spring vegetable salad with truffles.
* Maze's outrageously compatible beetroot with sheep's milk ricotta.
* The glazed, gooey, gorgeous hot fig tart at Le Champignon Sauvage.
* The wan chorizo and potato taco at Taqueria.
* The tongue-burningly salty house-made pork sausages at Matilda.
* Distinctly uncrisp, spongey "crisp" gram flour cake at Soho Spice.
* Silk's greasy, fall-apart vegetable samosas.
* The oil-oozing Vietnamese spring rolls at Ping Pong.
Possible highlights in the coming year:
* Richard Corrigan moves into Bentley's in London's Swallow Street.
* Tamarind goes casual with Imli in Soho.
* The Russians arrive in Paddington Basin with Yakitoria.
* The Caprice Group take over Scotts in Mayfair.
* Parisian Joël Robuchon changes the direction of East @ West in Soho.Reuse content