'What we've learnt in 2012': Our restaurant critics recall what has enchanted (and irked) them

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

From joyous junk food to Scandi sensations and rip-roaring ramen...

AMOL RAJAN

Ollie Dabbous is the most talented young chef in Britain

You've heard this one before: exceptional young talent trains with culinary master for years, sets out on his own, gets a decent building, blazes a gastronomic trail and eventually conquers said master. It tends not to be true. In Dabbous' case, it is. When I somehow bagged the chance to inspect the 29-year-old's booked-out venture, he had been widely discussed by foodies both online and on the street, and heartily recommended by Raymond Blanc, the man whose kitchen he spent countless hours in. His eponymous restaurant's £50 tasting menu was not just instantly the best of its kind in the capital; it was astonishing value for money, innovative, flawless.

Nearly two decades after opening St John, Fergus Henderson's influence continues to grow

From "nose-to-tail fortnights" to the general tenor of the food blogosphere, Henderson's imprint is deeper than ever. Eighteen years after he opened St John, and a year after he opened in Chinatown, young chefs everywhere revere his basic philosophical observation that if a beast must die for your benefit, the least you can do is not let any of it go to waste. Partly this is a product of Henderson's very large personality; defiant in his battle with Parkinson's, he can still be seen most days gambolling between his restaurants in trademark pinstripe suit.

Scandinavian food is even more fashionable than Scandinavian drama

Scandinavia is having a moment, on TV and on our tables. What The Killing and The Bridge have done for drama, Scandinavian restaurants are doing for grub. Mikael Jonsson's new place, Hedone, caused one hell of a Scandi-stir and René Redzepi's Noma ants popped up in Claridge's; but the trend is by no means confined to London. Peter's Yard in Edinburgh and KRO, a Danish chain across Manchester and Cheshire, are thriving. Waitrose and John Lewis added Nordic lines, Marks & Spencer tried Swedish buns, and imports of Swedish food are up 30 per cent across Britain over the past five years. The two sides of this food – hearty dishes of fish or meat, and sexy delicacies you eat with your eyes – have never been more available.

Tapas restaurants are never as cheap as you think

A disproportionate number of this year's openings have been tapas restaurants. There's a logic to it: in times of austerity, it's reassuring to see small numbers on the menu rather than big ones. But this can lull even the most experienced diner into a false sense of security. Instead of buying a starter, main and dessert for, say, £7, £12 and £5 respectively, you end up buying six little dishes at £6 each, on the grounds that each sounds delicious, and why scrimp when none are that dear? Alas, that of course means spending £36, when the three-course version would be a mere £24. When you add service on top, that's a recipe for what the Chancellor calls prolonged austerity.

Authentic Indian cuisine exists in Britain

A constant concern of mine over the past few years has been the discrepancy between Britain's alleged favourite dish – curry – and the quality of it in most restaurants. Generally speaking, curry houses across Britain serve satisfying food – fatty, spicy, full of MSG – rather than delicious or authentically Indian cuisine. But such food, I discovered, does exist in Tooting, where I grew up. A bevy of newish places serving Tamil meals (distinguished from other Indian cuisines through its dependence on rice rather than wheat as a staple) serve the most extraordinarily classy grub, and for next to nothing, too. My hope is that curry in Britain, for so long dominated by Gujarati and Bengali dishes, will soon better reflect the diversity of the country from whence it came.

The more you notice the décor, the worse the restaurant you're in

It was at an excellent restaurant called The Curlew in Sussex last year that I first noticed the inverse relationship between attention to décor and enjoyment of food. Décor matters, of course, because it creates atmosphere and ambience; but many restaurants seem to either put so much effort into it that they forget about delivering a good meal; or do so because they can't. Conversely, many of the best restaurants – all of Henderson's, for instance – have a minimalist approach to décor, and let the food speak for itself. The meals I've most enjoyed this year were consistently those where, had you asked me later the colour of the walls, I'd have to confess I didn't know.

LISA MARKWELL

I have reservations about 'no reservations'

Still the trend continues for restaurants where customers can't book – they must turn up and hope for the best. Which is fine if you get hungry at 6.15pm or 10.45pm, but most of us don't (or rather, most of us older folk who aren't bookending an Aperol-fuelled party night with some food). When a place is white-hot and the crowds flock, it's a no-brainer for the owners – tables turn quickly and a queue suggests slavish devotion. But if the crowd moves on, how do they control pace and (more importantly) produce ordering? Interestingly, Scott Collins, owner of the MeatLiquor/MeatMarket burger joints and the brand new Wishbone fried-chicken café, told me the other night that his next restaurant, MeatMission, will be taking bookings.

Junk food isn't junk when there's a chef cooking it

Burgers, hot dogs, pizzas, fried chicken – if someone had told us a couple of years ago that we'd be willing to queue up to eat hot dogs (see Bubbledogs' sausage and champagne restaurant for details), we'd have laughed. Who's laughing now? Catering suppliers the country over must be running low on deep-fat fryers as food start-ups realise there's big money in guilty pleasures. But whereas the likes of Chicken Cottage, Domino's and McDonald's just make us feel guilty with little pleasure, when there's a proper chef using well-sourced beef and chicken, junk food becomes joy food. Just remember that pretty much all still have one thing in common: you'll be eating out of a container, not off a plate.

Ramen wars are on the rise

One of the most unexpected thrills of the year was born from disappointment. Finding that the first three restaurants I wanted to visit in Soho one night were either closed or full with a queue (see above), I remembered a tweet about a new little ramen bar on Dean Street. The tiny interior was full, so we sat outside. Aside from multiple interruptions from Big Issue sellers (a regular city-centre al-fresco hazard), Tonkotsu was damned near perfect. From a menu that comprises just three soups and a handful of side-dishes, the Tonkotsu ramen (rich with pork stock, slices of pork belly, soft-as-silk noodles and a wobbly soft-boiled egg on top) makes my mouth water at the memory. At the start of the year I mentioned that ramen was a "thing"; now I can't get enough of it. New London arrival Bone Daddies, and others, promise more of this intensely satisfying comfort food.

Paintbrushes should stay in the tool shed

I have eaten some spectacular, inventive dishes this year (Noma, Ardanaiseig, The Ledbury, Sat Bains) and one or two that were just puzzling (Tom Aikens), but whatever the dish, my heart sinks a little when I see a plate with a streak painted across it. Chefs are, I suppose, looking for new ways to deliver grace notes of flavour and to gussy up their presentation but it always has a hint of "malfunctioning dishwasher" to me. Ditto grains of unidentified matter (which are there to add texture but send my tastebuds on a fool's errand to identify the flavour).

Is this the beginning of 24-hour dining in Britain?

OK, so I said at the start that I like to eat dinner at dinner time, but it comforts me to know that there are places I can get a spicy lamb slider at 4am should I want it. Duck & Waffle, on the 40th floor of London's Heron Tower, is an insomniac/clubber/Asian markets trader's dream and now the old favourite Vingt Quatre is reopening. It's about time Britain caught up with New York and Hong Kong.

The loo is as important as the table

This year, restaurateurs divulged what gets nicked from their establishments – napkins (30k a month from Jamie Oliver, apparently), ashtrays, cutlery are the usuals. But Russell Norman of Polpo fame said the groovy vintage fittings in his restaurant's loos get unscrewed and carted off. FFS, as the Twitter parlance goes (Norman is great on Twitter: follow him at @ape451). Best loo of the year goes to the Japanese-imported beauties at Chrysan, the stratospheric and bonkers Asian in the City. They give you a, er, wash and blow dry. Much more fun than the beef with candy-floss dish they serve… Less happily, my entire evening at new meatfest Beard to Tail was ruined by multiple splinters from the "edgy" raw-wood door on the ladies' loo. Here's a thing: make it clean, make it work and we're happy.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
ebookAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup