Two restaurants, however, that were not reviewed here and are therefore ineligible for our commendation here still deserve special mention. They are The Moorings in Wells, Norfolk, and the Roscoff in Belfast.
With the exception of the former, East Anglia was a Death Valley for restaurants three years ago. Today it is quite the opposite: three of my choices below are East Anglian, and two of them received extraordinary help from Carla and Bernard Phillips, the proprietors of The Moorings, in Freeman Street, Wells (0328 710949). They welcomed young restaurateurs to the area, introduced them to the best local suppliers, sent them customers, and even told guidebooks and critics that the newcomers deserved inspection. If this is competition, show me friendship.
The Roscoff, 7 Lesley House, Shaftesbury Square, Belfast (0232 331532), is the sort of outfit that is rare enough in London and unheard of in Belfast - until Paul Rankin returned home from California in 1989. He was quickly awarded a Michelin star, the first in Northern Ireland.
Much has appeared on these pages about Paul Rankin's food and Jeanne Rankin's baking. They are Roux-trained, well travelled in North America and have innate good taste. Their restaurant is welcoming, and chic enough to cut a dash in London or New York. The food is classical but lightened, with heightened spicing. Produce is the best of Irish: sika venison, mountain lamb, farmhouse cheese. Prices in the new year will reflect their idealism: for a set three-course lunch they aim to charge pounds 13.50; for dinner pounds 18.95.
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
This was one of London's best years for Anglo-continental-style restaurant openings. The crop included La Semillante in Mayfair, The Square in St James's, Pied a Terre in Fitzrovia, the Lexington in Soho, Ransome's Dock in Battersea, the Fifth Floor in Knightsbridge and Harvey's Canteen in Chelsea. It is sheer bad luck that they should have been upstaged in Bloomsbury by the best Japanese import since the Mazda MX-5.
Wagamama, 4 Streatham Street, London WC1 (071-323 9223), is more refectory than restaurant, a sort of Oriental tuck- shop. Technically, it is a ramen restaurant, a Japanese spin on Chinese peasant dishes of noodle soups, enhanced by various ingredients. The name, however, means 'greedy' and it is the only place in town where 20 chopstick- wielding Londoners can be seen at refectory tables devouring noodles from oversized bowls.
Designed by John Pawson, Wagamama decor is minimalist to the point of invisibility. Hip young waiters punch your orders into calculators that zap them direct to the kitchen. Beer and wine are available, but the most popular tipple seems to be a 'raw' drink that tastes a bit like liquefied carrots and courgettes.
Hiyashi chuka, meaning 'cool Chinese', consists of cold noodles with a bit of soup, roast chicken, sliced cucumber, sliced carrots and a good dab of what seems like Colman's mustard. It was delicious. Light meals start at pounds 5; heftier ones cost from pounds 10- pounds 15.
RoCoCo, 11 Saturday Market Place, King's Lynn, Norfolk (0553 771483). It sounds a somewhat silly name for a restaurant in a handsome Elizabethan house, opposite a 12th-century church. The restaurant, however, is very solid.
The (handsome and un-Rococo) decorations are by Anne Anderson, who must have learnt about this sort of thing when she was in art school before marrying a chef.
She married a good one. Nick Anderson knows that the Finnan Haddie, a Scottish smoked haddock, is as delicious as food can get. He makes soup with it. When he roasts chicken, it is cooked a point, producing crisp skin and moist, flavoursome meat. No sawdust. The only thing he could not do was make a decent green salad. Prices (dinner approx pounds 25- pounds 30) are democratic, and the serving of light lunches from pounds 4 is inspired.
The Japanese-owned Les Saveurs, 37a Curzon Street, London W1 (071-491 8919) is grand, ghostly and perilously empty for a new restaurant. Its French chef, Joel Antunes, seems oblivious to London. Instead, his cookery is loyal to the great French houses of Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers, where he trained, and to the spices of South-east Asia, where he graduated to head chef of the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. He seems to be waiting for London to come to him.
It is worth it, at least once. Mr Antunes's kitchen produces some weird but wonderful food. Raviolis of langoustine proved to be sweet cuts of crayfish covered by spicy tomato puree and the skins of sun-dried tomatoes. These were accompanied by small dabs of a mild pineapple and apple chutney and a delicate sweet and sour sauce. For relief, in the centre of the plate sat a small salad of undressed herbs.
The more conservative dishes, such as lamb with parsley puree, garlic confit and pommes Anna, proved consistently excellent. It would be quite easy to drop pounds 80 each on dinner at Les Saveurs, but there is a snip of a three-course set lunch on now at pounds 18.
This year, three talented young chefs willing to knock out good food in casual surroundings moved into London pubs. They were Margot Clayton and Fergus Henderson at The French House Dining Room, 49 Dean Street, W1 (071-437 2477) and Amanda Pritchett at The Lansdowne, 90 Gloucester Avenue NW1 (071-483 0409). My favourite pub meals, however, were in the countryside. No doubt this owes as much to country air and scenery as the food or hospitality. So the Three Horseshoes Inn in Powerstock, Dorset (0308 85328) had an unfair advantage. It also had lovely bustle, congeniality and tasty cod in spicy tomato sauce.
My outright favourite must be the Fox & Goose Inn, Fressingfield, near Diss, Suffolk (0379 86247). In truth, it is more restaurant than pub. You need to book. Dinner should cost from pounds 25- pounds 30. But the feel is pure pub, at least an idealised version: cosy bar and a dining-room with a blazing fire in another great hearth.
Such a setting might seem a strange place to find the best salad in Britain, but the proprietor, Ruth Watson, keeps a tunnel planted with sharp greens. The chef, Brendan Ansbro, is first class. Lightly seasoned halibut might come with saffron, potato and garlic mash. My mussels got the Thai treatment, with lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime. Puds, such as a sumptuous chocolate tart, could trigger sudden regression to infantilism.
You would not pop out for a curry to the eight-month-old Spices, 110 West Bow, Grassmarket, Edinburgh (031-225 5028). You would probably book. You would find yourself in a small dining-room hung with intense watercolours and fine fabrics. It would feel gracious and correct. In fact, it could possibly relax a bit, but just now it is a restaurant with a message: Asian food merits respect.
The name refers to the spice route, and the menu follows it, with dishes from the Cape Malay community in South Africa, to Persia, Pakistan and regional capitals of India. All the spice mixes - most revolving around the classic core of coriander seeds, chillis, cayenne, cumin, mustard, cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric and so on - are freshly roasted and ground. The produce is fresh, good quality and retains its flavour after spicing.
Some dishes I sampled were remarkably subtle. Plump wedges of kitchen-made milk curd cheese, paneer, were smoked in a tandoor. Tropical fruits were mixed with lightly spiced fried potatoes and married with a tamarind sauce. Chicken might be served with spinach sauce, building from a spice mix encompassing garlic, chilli, coriander, fenugreek, mustard, cumin and so on.
Bistro cooking is solid and salty. You can recognise what you are eating, and should be able to afford to pay for it when you finish. Special praise goes to Le Petit Max, 97a the High Street, Hampton Wick (081-977 0236) for their fines de claire oysters, baked goat's cheese salads, flageolet bean soup, roast rabbit with mustard sauce, dense and highly seasoned Lyonnais sausages, all part of a set pounds 15 three-course dinner.
I adore this place and the eccentric twins who run it, but this year's best bistro award must go to a seasoned professional, Nico Ladenis. He is most famous for his haute cuisine outfit, Chez Nico. Yet to my mind his great service to London during the last several years has been slowly to dot it with immaculate bistros.
It began in 1989 with Simply Nico in Pimlico then, when he moved the posh outfit to Park Lane late last summer, in its stead he left a second bistro, Nico Central, 35 Great Portland Street, London W1 (071-436 8846). Visit in August and you can opt for a light and ladylike summer salad of ripe, peeled plum tomatoes, remarkably fresh young feta, rocket and orange segments, pointed up by a hazelnut dressing. Good for winter is duck confit, a signature dish of Nico's and bistro classic. The skin should be crisp, meat melting. To the side, perhaps potato salad in a mustardy vinaigrette. After three courses, a young rhone, mineral water, coffee, service and VAT, you can easily escape for pounds 35.
COUNTRY HOUSE HOTEL
It is a pleasant modesty of scale and respect for local produce that distinguishes Morston Hall, Morston, Holt, Norfolk (0263-741041) from any number of country house hotels. But what really sets it apart is the cooking. When I visited they were serving superb crab cakes, the meat moist and lightly seasoned, the crust good and crisp, in a red pepper sauce. Loin of venison was partnered with a generous crouton and mushroom pate.
The produce may be East Anglian, but the style to their pounds 19.50 four-course set dinners is Cumbrian. The young hoteliers, Tracy Blackiston, her chef-husband, Galton, and Justin Fraser, trained with John Tovey at Miller Howe in Windermere. They adhere to the clockwork formula that has become synonymous with Lakeland. It can feel a touch institutionalised filing dutifully into the dining-room with the other guests, then watching the meal rhythmically paraded past - like 'doing a dinner' at the Inns of Court. (If the food there was anywhere near as good, more solicitors might become barristers.)
By contrast, Gidleigh Park, near Chagford, Devon (0647 432367) is utterly about luxury: about country landscapes normally only seen in Merchant-Ivory films, about wine lists as thick as the Bible, and about some of the best restaurant food in Britain. This is no charity. It is twice the price of Morston Hall.
The most imaginative thinking by Shaun Hill, the chef, seems to go into the starters. The first, lightly sauted scallops, was served with a fine coriander sauce, like a Thai beurre blanc, speckled with lentils. The second had sheets of melting pasta housing judicious portions of griddled foie gras. This was deftly seasoned with julienned and grilled lemon zest, garlic, parmesan and chives. A three-course lunch is pounds 33, four courses pounds 43, and four-course dinner pounds 43.
Londoners endlessly demand where they should go to eat fish. The answer is painfully obvious: the seaside. The Seafood Restaurant, Riverside, Padstow, North Cornwall (0841-532485) is probably the best fish restaurant in Britain. It follows, then, that when its sous-chef of seven years, Paul Sellars, set up the Pig 'n' Fish, Norway Lane, St Ives, Cornwall (0736- 794204), that it would be promising.
St Ives, now ravaged by recession, has proved hostile territory for a new restaurant. But the Pig 'n' Fish is very good. Salmon might go into a spicy sashimi, served with horseradish, ginger and soy sauce. I had cod served with a thick basil crust on a bed of white haricot beans, fresh tomatoes and flowery olive oil. House wine is awful: order up the list where prices are still fair. Approx pounds 20- pounds 30 for three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT.
Special mention should go to a chap camped on the banks of the Fleet in Dorset. Neville Copperthwaite, founder of Abbotsbury Oysters, Ferry Bridge, Weymouth (0305 788867), had the wit to seed oysters in some of the cleanest water in Britain. You can stop by and consume a dozen Pacifics for about a fiver, take them away, or order as many as you wish by post.
This could, and I think should have been the Criterion Brasserie on Piccadilly Circus. Its reopening this autumn by the Forte organisation and American theme restaurateur Bob Payton promised to be a grand event. Daringly turned out and well run, that beautiful vaulted room could have invigorated a piece of the West End more or less abandoned to tourists and teenagers.
But the Criterion has not been a great success. It reopened without its famous bar, and was rendered useless as a rendezvous. Instead, it was reinvented as a vaguely Italian, vaguely satisfactory and far from cheap restaurant.
Brasserie of the year goes instead to Kensington Place, 201 Kensington Church Street, London W8 (071-727 3184). Regular readers may groan 'Here we go again' or even swear, 'Dammit, enough]'. There has, indeed, been a lot of KP. So, at least for my part, I will make a deal. I will cease praising the owners for working the floor, the food for being excellent, the design for being delightful, the buzz for being loud and the prices for being fair. I will do this when and if a space like the Criterion's comes up again, and it is anywhere near as good as KP. Until then, it is KP or bust.
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