The year on a plate

Looking back on 12 months of eating out, Terry Durack highlights the delectable and detestable, the tasty and the tasteless
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Indy Lifestyle Online

De-greasing the spoon

De-greasing the spoon

Nosh is no longer posh as a wave of casual chic envelops the nation. The trend heralds a new era of democratic dining, bringing quality produce, attention to detail and a touch of glamour to the hitherto short-order, production-line realms of greasy spoons, delis, cafeterias, take-aways, burger joints and pizza palaces.

At Leon, in London's Great Marlborough Street, words like grass-fed, free-range and fair-trade have been added to the fast-food menu. Pizza goes upmarket at the glittering reincarnation that is Marco ("Mirrorballs") Pierre White and Frankie Dettori's, Frankie's Italian Bar & Grill. It's crisp, it's thin, and it's even sensible (eg, basil, cherry tomato and fresh mozzarella).

It's even better at Centotre in Edinburgh, where in a gracious old bank building, former Valvona & Crolla man Victor Contini serves up exceptional pizze including one with fior di latte (cow's-milk mozzarella as opposed to buffalo), pancetta and wilted cime di rape Italian greens.

Delis will never be the same again, thank the Lord, after the launch of Ottolenghi's smart, communal-tabled, cake-laden bakery/shop/café in Islington, and Helena Hudson's fabulous Real Eating Company in Hove, which sends out jabugo ham and fried eggs for breakfast and cod with chorizo and mussels at lunch.

Burgers get an organic brush-up at the over-hyped and underwhelming Babes'n'Burgers in Portobello Road, and we are definitely getting into the tapas groove, now that Spanish food importer Brindisa has opened a tapas bar in London's Borough Market, Sir Terence Conran has opened Meza in the old Mezzo, and R Garcia & Sons are about to go tapas dancing next door to their Portobello Road food store. Even the good old park café has had a kick up the derriere with the opening of Oliver Peyton's ambitious Inn the Park, in St James's Park, where the fare ranges from a post-ironic prawn cocktail to roast pork with scrumpy sauce, and cakes that are far too good for the ducks.

And the chef of the year is... not in London

Last year it was Tom Aikens. In 2002, Giorgio Locatelli was The Man. In 2001, it was pre- Hell's Kitchen Gordon Ramsay. This year, however, all eyes turn away from the national capital and fix on Leeds, of all places, and a tiny out-of-the-way village in Cornwall, where two adventurous, imaginative and groundbreaking chefs are cooking up a storm - while still in their twenties. At Anthony's in Leeds, Anthony Finn junior (Anthony senior is co-owner) has put his time cooking with John Campbell at Lords of the Manor and Abac and El Bulli in Spain to good use, single-handedly changing the face of the local dining scene. Once famous for its fish and chips, Leeds is now becoming known for Finn's black pudding with salmon cheeks and mango, and fig and black olive tatin with brie ice cream (a full review will appear next Sunday).

Another Campbell protégé, the dramatically named Nathan Outlaw, is busy making waves by the seaside at Rock, where his Black Pig restaurant managed a precious Michelin star this year, just eight months after opening. I haven't yet been, to my shame, but it sounds like a blueprint for the future: young, driven owners; carefully sourced local produce; and peerless technique combined with a modern attitude, resulting in dishes such as crisp pork belly with scallops, cauliflower cream and red onion; and squab pigeon with bitter chocolate, figs and rocket.

One word says it all

Is it a menu or is it a shopping list? The contemporary menu is more terse than verse. The Tom Aikens menu reads SNAILS, subtitled beignet with ventreche bacon, leek boudin and cepe vinaigrette, or LANGOUSTINES, which are roasted with pistachio crumb, pork belly and parsley pomme purée. At Jun Tanaka's Pearl restaurant in Holborn, the carefully constructed food outshines the setting under titles such as RABBIT (warm salad with prunes and smoked bacon) and MONKFISH (thinly sliced with herb risotto and gratin of clams). The trend continues at Adam Byatt's newly relocated and deliciously designed Thyme at The Hospital in Covent Garden, where DUCK is a lovely salad of home-cured breast with truffled potatoes, soft duck egg and beetroot, and LAMB is a confit shoulder, pot-roast rump, turnip tatin and meat juices.

Scene and heard

In eight words or less, who put the buzz back into London dining? Answer: Arrigo Cipriani, Jan Woroniecki and Sir Terence Conran. These seasoned campaigners haven't just given London three important new restaurants this year, they've given us three fully fledged, bona fide Scenes. Judging from the mixed bag of reviews, you either love Cipriani or you hate it. I love it for the same reason others hate it: it's Italian, it's mad, and it's filled with very rich people with no taste, which always makes great perving for very poor people with good taste.

In Hammersmith, Jan Woroniecki of Wodka and Baltic turned a failing corner site into a right little charmer, called Chez Kristof. The French bistro cooking is fair to very good, and the room is always jumping with interesting people.

And, finally, to London's newest Latin quarter, Floridita. Is Cuban really going to be The Next Big Thing? Do we really want to drink daiquiris all night? Can you understand a word the band is singing? None of these things are important. What is important is that we have a grown-up club with great music, great food and no rules. You can dress up or dress down, smoke a cigar, dance with your waiter, eat Cuban lobsters and Aberdeen Angus steaks, and yes, even drink daiquiris all night.

Can't buy me love

This year proved once again that throwing a bucket-load of money, years of experience and a lot of detail at a site does not necessarily a great restaurant make. Le Cercle, from the highly esteemed Club Gascon team, looks a million dollars, but the idea of serving a succession of small plates just doesn't gel. The dishes bear little relationship to one other and over the course of the evening fail to build into a coherent meal.

Refuel too, has the looks, feel and style that come with being part of London's newest, most exciting designer hotel. While the Soho Hotel has a strong sense of style and harmony, however, the restaurant is flailing around in a sea of fusion rubbish. The food is uneven and over-priced, the flavours mostly skewed, the staff contradictory, and the noise levels high.

The new Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, in what was once the English Garden in Chelsea, is an Indian with a good chef and good produce, compromised by a misplaced need to be mannered and modern that only succeeds in dating it.

Then there is Umu, the new Kyoto kaiseki restaurant from the Marc group, which has already made a big impression on the upper echelons of London dining with The Greenhouse and the private club, Mortons. Umu is a very beautiful dining-room, but not even Tony Chi's impeccable design makes up for the lack of harmony in the menu, the overcooking of the fish and the unjustifiable prices - a set-price kaiseki menu can go to £240 per person.

Best new dishes

1. Choucroute at the Anchor and Hope. A mound of comforting cabbage, carrots and potatoes, smoky caraway-flavoured Montbeliard sausage, good mealy white pudding, shreddy house-cured ham and a slab of gorgeously tender Middle White pork, it's the sort of dish that makes you wish winter would never end.

2. Lamb-shank curry at Amaya, the new grill restaurant from the team behind Veeraswamy, Chutney Mary and Masala Zone. With its acutely balanced, deeply complex, tan juices and cute little cross-sections of shank like miniature osso buco cuts, every mouthful is an exercise in delicacy and harmony.

3. Kani no kama meshi at Roka. This is a charming dish of glossy, soupy Japanese rice tossed with crab and topped with a bejewelled ball of this year's hottest ingredient: wasabi-flavoured flying fish roe (tobiko), which pops in the mouth like a space-age breakfast cereal.

What were they thinking?

1. The vatapa paraiba at Made In Brasil in London's Camden. Fish, prawns, nuts, dried shrimp and coconut milk are whizzed into a gloopy stew that could be the love child of tuna mornay and chicken à la king.

2. The tandoori rabbit kebab at Mehek in EC2 with its nightmare of squiggles surrounding rabbit that is so eerily tender and mulchy, it is as if someone had invented rabbit extender.

3. The steak with special sauce at Relais de Paris in South Kensington. It should have been a pleasure - a simple, grilled steak with a butter-based sauce. Instead, the sauce was badly split and the steak was as dead as a dodo with no sizzle, no juices, no point.

Smoke screen

The future is definitely smoke-free, although sometimes it is hard to see it through the, er, smoke. Several restaurateurs, including Gordon Ramsay, have banned smoking altogether in their dining establishments. This has led to the birth of various cigar bars, big daddy of which is Sir Terence Conran's new cigar lounge, La Casa del Habano, where eating is frowned upon. Even the adjoining Floridita brandishes special cigar ashtrays, designed by Sebastian Conran.

And The Next Big Thing is...

No señor, it is not tapas after all. What we really want to eat is British. This is a critical time for British dining. Can we reclaim it from the doldrums, stop copying the French, and build our own cuisine without the food being unthinkingly dismissed as "retro" and "comfort"?

Leading the charge is Sir Terence Conran (The Man Who Never Sleeps), both at his brand new Paternoster Chophouse (Barnsley chop with onion sauce, steak and kidney pud), and the newly reinvented Bluebird Club and Dining Rooms, now overseen by his son Tom Conran, who has planted ex-Isola chef Mark Broadbent in the kitchen to turn out pot-roasted salt marsh lamb and Lancashire black beans, and dandelion salad with Kentish cobnuts.

In the meantime, The Quality Chophouse's Charles Fontaine has opened the newly restored Throgmortons, serving up jellied eel, and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to mixed reviews, while Heston Blumenthal, Britain's newest three-star superchef, has just taken over a pub in Bray, The Hind's Head, where he intends to serve potted shrimps, pea and ham soup and treacle tart. Next up, Iqbal Wahhab of Cinnamon Club fame, will open a very British "roast" restaurant in the Floral Hall of Borough Market early next year, highlighting the best of British produce.

Imagine a future of great British food - not retro, not comfort, but modern, real, imaginative, energetic and informed by the cultural reality of modern Britain - served in our restaurants by skilled British staff. (I give in gracefully when it comes to wine.) The alternative? More of the same ersatz, outdated French restaurants, cheap ethnic shops and another great opportunity missed.

Best new restaurants

1. Anchor & Hope. Everything a gastropub should be and nothing it should not be.

2. Anthony's. Not only great food for Leeds, but great food for anywhere.

3. Yauatcha. Alan Yau's new Soho dim sum cellar provides for my hitherto unrecognised need for dim sum at night.

Missing you already

1. Damien Hirst's Pharmacy because it was such a symbol of the 1990s.

2. The long-serving 192 in Notting Hill, because it was such a symbol of the 1980s.

3. Alan Yau's Italianate Anda in Baker Street. Not so much because it was a symbol of the Noughties, but because it means no more involtini of calves liver.

The chef to watch

Brett Graham is very young, very gifted and very driven. He has been voted best young chef both in his native Australia and here in the UK, where he has been cooking with Philip Howard at the Square in Mayfair. Howard, whose brigade has included some of the capital's most talented chefs over the years, calls him, "the greatest young cook to come through the place". I particularly like his cooking because he never forgets that the enjoyment of the diner is paramount (many chefs, unbelievably, do). Graham's plunge into the big time comes in late February when he opens the very latest Nigel Platts-Martin restaurant (no name yet) on the old Dakota site in Notting Hill.

Future food. Coming up fast

Pengelley's. In January, ex E&O chef Ian Pengelley will open in the old Monte's site in Sloane Street, dishing up the light, modern flavours of South East Asia.

Maze. In February, Gordon Ramsay will be taking a break from terrorising people on television to open Maze at the London Marriott Hotel, with Jason Atherton from Ramsay's Verre restaurant in Dubai heading up the kitchen.

W'Sens. Look out for the new restaurant in London's St James's, from France's three-starred Pourcel twins of Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier.

In the pipeline: a new chop-suey bar from Alan Yau. A new steak house from E&O's Will Ricker. A new two-storey Japanese (Nobu Too) from Nobu Matsuhisa.

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