'What we've learnt in 2012': Our restaurant critics recall what has enchanted (and irked) them
From joyous junk food to Scandi sensations and rip-roaring ramen...
Amol Rajan is Editor of Independent Voices, a comment, campaigns and community platform across print and digital. He was earlier Deputy Comment Editor, Sports News Correspondent and news reporter. He writes a restaurant column for the Independent on Sunday, and has a column in the Evening Standard (Mondays), Independent and i (Fridays). He used to work on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff, and at the Foreign Office; and is a trustee of Prospex, a charity for young people in Islington. He also wrote a book called Twirlymen: the Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers.
Sunday 25 November 2012
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.
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.
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