Food & Drink: The cooks with winning ways: Emily Green makes her choice of the restaurants she visited last year, and sings the praises of one which, alas, is a long way from these shores
Saturday 01 January 1994
Indeed, so far afield was the very best of them - my Restaurant of the Century - that I must disqualify it. Of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, more anon. But first, here are my top British restaurants for 1993.
RESTAURANTS OF THE YEAR
Actually, there are three. Two first: Markwicks in Bristol and The Vintners Rooms in Edinburgh. Their proprietors, Stephen Markwick and Tim Cumming, were inspired to cook by the writings of Elizabeth David. They trained at the Hole-in-the-Wall in Bath, when the kitchen was just opening up to the post-war riches of olive oil, bell peppers, avocado pears and fresh herbs. Since their apprenticeship, Mr Markwick, with his wife, Judy, and Mr Cumming, with his wife, Sue, have been cooking here, cooking there. Both couples have taken over their latest restaurants within the past five years. Both these restaurants are housed in converted cellars, Georgian in Bristol, medieval in Edinburgh. Both are warmly lit and handsomely kitted out.
The impression in both is of understated excellence, an accumulation of small perfections: beautifully cured olives, fresh bread, well-kept cheese. Both serve superb fish soups, with deep, rich liquors. A squid stew at Markwicks had a highly perfumed gremolata to give it edge. At the Vintners Rooms, Mr Cumming uses star anise to give his version a dazzling depth of flavour. Both restaurants offer cheery service and wine lists accessible to oenophile and amateur.
The third restaurant, 21 Queen Street in Newcastle upon Tyne, has no right to be fun. It has a Michelin star, and carpets, and a sofa from which to order before you proceed to the dining-room. By rights, it should be stuffy and soulless. Yet in spirit it could not be less formal. It will, as I discovered, admit a single woman at 10pm on a Saturday night without batting an eyelid, and the room, on the night of my visit, was shaking with laughter. The food, such as mussel and saffon soup with dill pesto, is terrific. The chef, Terry Laybourne, is a blunt Geordie who trained at swanky joints on the Continent, then tailored their ideas. .
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
It is dicey to praise newcomers, and hard to say if this one will continue to serve such extraordinarily good food at ordinary prices ( pounds 25- pounds 30 per person, with wine). But Gordon Ramsay, the 26- year-old chef at Aubergine, enjoys the partnership and patronage of Marco Pierre White, and there is much here that is recognisable from Mr White's repertoire - such as a cool fresh vegetable terrine with an almost floral vinaigrette, and vichyssoise with an oyster.
The cooking, on my two visits, was close to faultless; on my second visit the service, too, was perfect. The sauce with a generously sliced piece of liver might be cut with lime; mash topped with wild mushrooms. I have heard complaints about the risotto. Mine was good, studded with little clams and edged with a rim of light clam liquor. Oxtail, served off the bone with mash and knockout red wine fumet was an ideal winter dish. Go before the prices rise. They are bound to.
CHINESE RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Chinese chef and cookery writer Ken Hom alienated Chinatown suppliers when he declined to use many of them for Imperial City, in the City of London. He insisted on French, corn-fed chicken. Staff, many of them Malaysian Chinese and Thai, were chosen for lack of restaurant experience so they would not import bad habits. Imperial City was set up for City traders from Hong Kong. Chinese friends, including Mr Hom, tell me some of the dishes are unorthodox. I cannot speak for the authenticity of Imperial City's braised aubergine, but it is delicious. Such Chinese restaurant staples as sweet and sour pork and crispy lacquered quail are wonderful.
SEAFOOD RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
The Royal Native Oyster Stores in Whitstable, Kent, is a seafront warehouse touched by a certain Gallic magic. Families in Marks & Sparks jumpers sit at refectory tables eating fried cod and fresh native oysters and drinking cheap white wine. A waitress parks her bicycle in one of the dining-rooms. Owners cheerfully admit that, when business is slow, service is fast, and vice-versa. Last I heard, they were showing movies upstairs.
PUB OF THE YEAR
The Peasant, in Clerkenwell, north London, is an old boozer converted to a pub-restaurant serving robust Italianate food and good beer. The chef, Carla Tomasi, was snowed under before Christmas thanks to rave reviews. An excellent second chef and pastrycook are arriving to help in the new year. Keen prices.
COUNTRY PUB OF THE YEAR
In the small bar of The Rose & Crown in Romaldkirk, County Durham, you will find two essentials of an ideal English inn: a roaring fire and at least one ruddy-cheeked local who will make you feel like a city twit. The cooking - despite a Seventies, dinner-partyish quality to the menu - is honest and surprisingly good. A mutton broth, on my visit, was sweet and meaty. Old Peculier is the local tipple.
BAR OF THE YEAR
All prizes to Banner's in Crouch End, north London, which could just as well be in Bohemia, Brooklyn or Budapest for all of its slightly dotty internationalism. Popcorn is American, plantains are West Indian, ceviches are African, wines are Moldovan, vodka is Russian. The proprietor, Juliet Banner has some way to go to get her waitresses around the room with good food on the plates, but she is a natural hostess. Banner's has the best vibes of any bar in London.
BEST - BUT NOT BRITISH
None of my British nominations, however, can touch Chez Panisse. This quietly impressive Californian place has developed slowly and naturally, growing in confidence. The downstairs restaurant opened in August 1971, the upstairs cafe nine years later, and its co-founder, Alice Waters, has been serving fresh, seasonal food ever since. Her cookery is classical, simple and perfect. Here is a menu from August: fish and shellfish salad with tomato and basil vinaigrette; corn and red pepper soup; beef fillet with potato, onion, anchovy and thyme gratin; plum and strawberry shortcake. Cost: dollars 45 ( pounds 30).
Everything is sourced especially for the restaurant. Its foragers, as important as the cooks, work with dozens of local fishermen and farmers; if food is not certified organic, it is wild. Where Chez Panisse led, local retailers followed. Most now enjoy a supply network of a quality unknown anywhere else in the US. Even Berkeley supermarkets will have fresh chicken livers, day-fresh organic salads, herbs and vegetables and 10 sorts of fresh wild mushrooms. The list of distinguished graduates from the Chez Panisse kitchen makes impressive reading. Its influence can even be felt in London, in Sally Clarke's understated and elegant restaurant and delicatessen. But what is most important about Ms Waters is that she sees her restaurant as part of the landscape: unlike so many Sixties idealists, she has given back more than she has taken. When President Clinton ate at her restaurant in the autumn, she implored him to stop eating junk food in public, to promote the importance of local, organic ingredients and to support schemes such as the San Francisco Garden Project, which re-employs paroled criminals. Her message is one we would all do well to heed.
Markwicks, 43 Corn Street, Bristol (0272 262658).
Vintners Rooms, 87 Giles Street, Leith, Edinburgh (031 554 6767).
21 Queen Street, Newcastle upon Tyne (091 222 0755).
Aubergine, 11 Park Walk, London SW10 (071- 352 3449).
Imperial City, Royal Exchange, Cornhill, London EC3 (071-626 3437).
Royal Native Oyster Stores, Horse Bridge Beach, Whitstable, Kent (0227 276856).
The Peasant, 240 St John Street, London EC1 (071-336 7726). Rose & Crown, Romaldkirk, Teesdale, Co Durham (0833 650213).
Banner's, 21 Park Road, London N8 (081-292 0001).
Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709 (0101 510 548 5525; cafe: 510 548 5049).
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