New sensations: Our critics nominate their favourite restaurants of the year
Saturday 15 November 2008
Best reinvented classic: The Walnut Tree Inn
Under the original owners, Franco and Ann Taruschio, the Walnut Tree was one of the most famous restaurants in Britain. It closed last year but has reopened under the stewardship of Shaun Hill, the universally admired former chef/patron of Ludlow's Merchant House. A subtle refurbishment has taken the restaurant's facilities up a notch or two and the Italian influence is confined to a couple of dishes, including pappardelle with hare sauce. Otherwise, the style is modern British. There is nothing showy, but each dish is composed with an instinctive feel for how to extract the maximum flavour from every element. Parsnip and morel pudding, a light, steamed mousse that delivered a huge hit of parsnip flavour, was saved from over-sweetness by a truffle-rich morel cream sauce. The subtlety of calves' sweetbreads was given a jolt by a huge-tasting red-wine-braised sauerkraut. Roast partridge with a pork and chestnut stuffing was a discreet masterclass. Puddings, fans of Hill's trusty repertoire will be glad to hear, include his version of somloi, the Hungarian trifle made with apricot, walnuts and apricot brandy. Impressive as the cooking is, it's easily matched by the super-competent front-of-house team. TM
Llandewi Skirrid, Abergavenny (01873 852797)
Best for gastropub food to the max: York & Albany
York & Albany was Angela Hartnett's second restaurant to open this year. Murano was very bright and classy but disappointingly unadventurous. This is, by contrast, depressingly lit but the food is terrific. Hartnett's instincts for hearty fry-ups do her credit. The pumpkin risotto with 18-month-matured gorgonzola was brilliant, the pongy Italian cheese complementing the nutty rice with an odd sweetness. The swordfish carpaccio was much lighter, tangy and fresh-tasting with pickled fennel draped over it in tagliatelle-sized strips. The mains were charmingly served in a casserole and one of those ancient, heavy brass dishes you covet in stately home kitchens. Red-leg partridge was a treat: the rough-textured legs cooked in a fine stock, the breasts pan-griddled to a firm but yielding consistency, both served on celeriac purée with curly kale. I couldn't resist the prune and Armagnac tart served with clotted cream. The tart was moistly overwhelming, the prunes redolent of grapes soaked in honey. I've waited a while to experience the much-vaunted brilliance of Hartnett in her own space. It was worth the wait. JW
127-129 Parkway, London NW1 (020-7388 3344)
Best for ambitious modern cooking: Purnell's
With Glynn Purnell's cooking you find yourself making comparisons with masters of modernism like Heston Blumenthal and Hibiscus's Claude Bosi, under whom Purnell once briefly worked. This is food that's designed to draw attention to itself. Take his starter of salmon, marinated for 24 hours in coriander seeds and orange juice, then cooked sous-vide for seven minutes, leaving it with a butter-soft texture. Presented on a plate striped with a miso/caramel reduction, flanked by clusters of salmon roe and a Martian posy of enoki mushrooms, the dish achieves a Zen-like harmony, both to the eye and the taste buds. This feel for texture was even more marked in the main course, which partnered duck breast with glossy black rice containing an admixture of deep-fried kernels, to create smoky, crunchy explosions. Black pools of liquorice purée and a silky, melt-in-the mouth cube of foie gras butter demonstrated Purnell's idiosyncratic but instinctive feel for flavour combinations, while tamarind purée picked up on a recurring theme, the use of ingredients from the sub-continent, so intrinsic to Birmingham's food scene. TM
5 Cornwall Street, Birmingham (0121-212 9799)
Best for crazily imaginative flavour combination: The Bath Priory
Bath Priory's head chef, Chris Horridge, is simply masterly at combining unusual flavours. A bonne bouche of scallops on puréed caper was a heavenly marriage; a palate-cleansing sorbet of red pepper and mandarin with fennel hit the tongue like a Haliborange tablet, but the flavours spread out with miraculous logic. A warm salmon confit with Bramley apple, slow-cooked for hours on (I'm guessing) gas mark 0.0001, was soft and intense and magically lifted by an angel's breath of apple purée and a whisper of ginseng. The mains were mostly fantastic. My "flash smoked duck, chicory, liquid aminos and Xeres vinegar" sounded baffling but was nicely cooked, velvety in texture, and accessorised, rather than smothered, by a chive and garlic purée. The dishes are handled with infinite subtlety; they take you on a little journey, from sweet to savoury to something beyond both. Among the puddings was a quartet of crèmes brûlées flavoured with garden produce, of which rosemary was outstanding. It was the most imaginative cooking I've encountered this year. JW
Weston Road, Bath (01225 331922)
Best for a steak: Hix Oyster & Chop House
Mark Hix, this magazine's revered food writer, left his job as chef-director of the Ivy, Caprice and Scott's, and opened two restaurants this year. His new HQ is a modest dining-room, tucked away near Smithfield meat market. The daily changing menu reads as temptingly as Hix's recipes, and showcases many of the same passions: young pea shoots, the first Cornish asparagus, to be dipped like soldiers into a soft-boiled Gladys May duck egg, Jersey Royals and wild St George's mushrooms. Reworked versions of forgotten British dishes include mutton-chop curry, Welsh onion cake and water souchet, a local version of soupe de poissons. Hix looks kindly upon unfavoured cuts of meat – he's particularly proud of the hanger steak, or onglet, which appears here with baked bone marrow. Simple presentation and trencherman portions are what you expect from a place calling itself a chop house, and only our shared pudding bore traces of a cheffier hand: in a slightly girlie arrangement of honeycomb ice-cream encircled by Yorkshire rhubarb on a buttermilk drop scone. Tasted great, though. TM
36 Greenhill Rents, Cowcross St, London EC1 (020-7017 1930)
Best for real provincial French cuisine (in Croydon): Le Cassoulet
Malcolm John, a Croydon-dweller, is clearly taking a risk in opening a top French restaurant in his insalubrious backyard. But when you stop admiring his nerve, there's much to admire about his food. The menu is so French, it practically has leetle twirly moustaches in zer margins. Starters were a little predictable, but intensely flavoured. Escargots de Bourgogne were fat and hot and reeking with garlicky butter. The endive tarte tatin was a revelation, the endive caramelised until it was sweet as apple, but with a lingering ghost of bitter chicory, teased out by some creamy goat's cheese. My children ordered a 28-day-hung chateaubriand to share and went into raptures about its succulence. My duck confit definitely was a thing of beauty, a big alpha-duck leg, its skin crisp as Cellophane, the flesh poking out tiny, steaming fibrous fingers, the whole thing dotted with fat puy lentils and served on a creamy mash that curled round the leg like a persistent seducer. Le Cassoulet is the perfect local restaurant. How fortunate you'd be to have such a place on your own doorstep. JW
18 Selsdon Road, South Croydon (020-8633 1818)
Best for food adventurers: Vatika
Vatika opened in August under the direction of Atul Kochhar. But while his London restaurant Benares serves a sophisticated, European-influenced version of Indian food, here the emphasis is reversed. This isn't Indian food, but cutting-edge cooking, using local ingredients and state-of-the-art techniques. Local squab pigeon was marinated in garam masala and cooked in a tandoor, giving the pink and tender breast a savoury bite to play against the sweeter notes of the accompanying pigeon and beetroot consommé. Monkfish poached in a tamarind broth came with yoghurt and cucumber parfait; a rewritten raita that worked brilliantly. This reworking of familiar Indian dishes is a recurring theme, though it never becomes gimmicky. There's a nod to sag aloo in the spinach gnocchi, flavoured with Parmesan and cumin seeds, that accompany a main course of spiced shoulder of lamb, the meat cooked at a low temperature for 24 hours, emerging so soft it would yield to a spoon. Vatika is rewriting the rulebook, and doing it with confidence and the lightest of touches. This is Modern British food at its best, and it's thrilling. TM
Wickham Vineyard, Botley Road, Shedfield, Southampton (01329 830405)
Best for super-chic "spiritual" Italian style: L'Anima
Francesco Mazzei has the right credentials for offering authentic grub: he's from Calabria, where he grew up making olive oil with his mother and ice-cream with his uncle; but he is an experienced London cook, having cut his teeth at the Dorchester and at St Alban. Claudio Silvestrin, the architect, has designed a stunning interior and it's all frightfully symbolic – brown and white, earth and clouds, body and soul. My "aged beef tagliata, marrow bones and mash" was dramatically presented – floppy slices of super-rare manzo came draped like smoky tarpaulins over a thick marrow bone, to resemble a fat mushroom. The fish stew with Sardinian fregola – a version of couscous – was crammed with clams and mussels (the latter spiced like a Thai dish) with thyme, oregano and zest of lemon. This is a ravishing addition to the London restaurant scene. JW
1 Snowden Street, London EC2 (020-7422 7000)
Best for a romantic dinner: Magdalen
Magdalen glows out incongruously from a grimy strip of highway fringed by riverside developments and railway arches. But the menu is a thing of beauty. A starter salad winningly combined nuggets of duck ham with pickled pears, walnuts and bitter treviso in a walnut oil vinaigrette. Sea trout got the gravadlax treatment, sweet-cured in dill and partnered with chunks of pickled cucumber in a sweet mustard sauce. In a refreshing departure from the austere, meat-and-no-veg school of modern British cooking, Magdalen's main courses are served appropriately garnished. The sweet unctuousness of braised veal shin needed the bite and bitterness that came from baby turnips and broad beans. Wild turbot was cooked whole with samphire, leeks and potatoes in a creamy velouté. Magdalen offers several wines from its ungreedily priced list by the half-bottle carafe. That policy, and the presence of dishes to share creates an impression of conviviality and generosity that places it more in the French tradition than the British. Why can't more restaurants be like this? TM
152 Tooley Street, London SE1 (020-7403 1342)
Best for south-west English cooking: Northbank
Christian Butler has reinvented an old restaurant by the Millennium Bridge and it features almost exclusively ingredients and dishes from south-west England. The result is an almost unmitigated triumph. The menu is one of the rare sort, on which you feel you could eat practically everything. Could you resist hog's pudding with honey roasted apples? Of course not. Or Falmouth crab with clotted cream tart? Steamed mussels with cider and smoked bacon offered a butch alternative to the usual marinière treatment. The fat bivalves were succulent, the bacon-shallots-and-cider soup a brilliant invention. Braised oxtail ravioli with creamed leeks and truffle was miraculous. The home-made pasta melted in the mouth, while the leeks added an onion-y asperity. The starters were a tough act to follow and, truth to tell, the mains offer more prosaic delights: rib-eye steak and chips, Dover sole with caper and shallot butter, roasted pheasant breast with braised red cabbage. But Northbank is a delightful addition to the London restaurant scene. JW
1 Paul's Walk, London EC4 (020-7329 9299)
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