Best restaurants of 2011: John Walsh picks this year's most memorable dining destinations
Searching for the finest 16oz steak – or, perhaps, the biggest mirror in Essex? Look no further...
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 19 November 2011
BEST ALL-ROUND FOOD AND DRINK
LITTLE BEDWYN, WILTSHIRE
Roger and Sue Jones's handsome inn picked up a Michelin star in 2007 and deserves a second. Lunch offers a succession of succulent surprises: scallops with their roes attached (a sure sign of hyper-freshness); fillet, faggots and belly of pork on the same plate; almonds that turn out to be wild garlic cloves, boiled and pickled; fillet of roe venison on roesti with black pudding. A pear poached in red pudding wine sitting on white and dark chocolate mousse had me practically in tears. Their selection of British cheeses is a revelation. Their 60-page wine list is reasonably priced and features more fancy Australian reds than you'll find in any restaurant in Australia.
PARK LANE, LONDON W1
Wolfgang Puck's London flagship in Park Lane looks nothing like a steakhouse: it's Las Vegas-meets-Manila fake posh. But conquer your prejudices and you'll discover some amazing things. Principally the steaks. They come in a dozen sizes, nationalities and prices, from US Petit Cut filet mignon 6oz at £28 to Chilean 8oz Pure Breed Wagyu at a hefty £85, by way of the amazingly butch English Bone-In Rib Chop, a 16oz monster aged for 35 days, anointed with salt, pepper and oil, grilled over hardwood and charcoal then flashed under a 1200F broiler for a few seconds. Has such attention ever been lavished on a piece of meat? You have to pay for a trip to Paradise.
Walk through the restaurant to the terrace and your jaw will drop. The view is fantastic. You're looking at the western tip of the Isle of Wight, and the trio of chalk rocks called The Needles that poke out of the sea. It's a beautifully tranquil scene, with Barton Beach on your left, Poole to your right and the millpond of Christchurch Bay in front of you. Gulls fly overhead, barking discreetly, as though reluctant to disturb the calm.
Happily the food (you can eat al fresco, warmed by patio heaters) is just fine. They're big on shellfish: gravadlax, scallops and tiger prawns à la nage, stir-fried lobster tempura. And while waiting for the puddings, take your glass of wine and your date for a stroll as the moon plays hide-and-seek amid the fluffy clouds, casting sudden long shafts of glowing light on the dark lapping sea...
It was the weirdest combination of venue, setting, owner, décor and cuisine I've ever come across. In Ye Olde King's Head, Essex, an ancient Tudor pub name-checked by Dickens in Barnaby Rudge, Lord Sugar of Apprenticeland has opened a Turkish restaurant, whose previous incarnation was as a kebab joint in Buckhurst Hill.
Step inside and you're overwhelmed by the black marble, white tiles, black plates, black-and-white furniture and zebra-print monotones, broken up by his Lordship's restrained choice of gold cutlery. There seems to be no maître d' but the Turkish-Essex waiters will take you into the main dining room, show you the mirror and say, "See that? That's the biggest mirror in Essex".
You may come to laugh, but the food, especially the fish, is far better than you might expect. I wouldn't have missed it for all the slingbacks in Basildon.
POLLEN STREET SOCIAL
This is the glossy showroom of Jason Atherton, a super-talented chef who's survived stints with the toughest alpha males in the profession (Koffman, Ladenis, Ramsay, Pierre White) before going solo.
His cooking is full of visual and gastronomic trickery: the 'Full English Breakfast' gives you the essence of bacon, egg, mushroom and tomato in miniature, combined on a small spoon. But his flavour combinations are original and intense.
His big innovation is the Dessert Bar, where you perch on stools and watch the pastry-chef artisans construct beautiful objets: the 'PBJ' is a peanut butter and jelly confection with parfait of peanut and cherry, while 'Tiramisu' is a symphony of chocolate sheets and twirls, melted with a hot coffee veloute. There's a touch of decadence about gazing on such precision and industry and then eating the result, but you get over it.
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