Tracey MacLeod presents her highlights of the year

El Bulli

The Spanish restaurant - a two-hour drive from Barcelona - is the crucible of the extraordinary and influential gastronomy of Ferran Adria. It's open for just six months of the year, for dinner only. In winter, the entire team decamps to a laboratory in Barcelona to work on new ideas. This year, a predicted 500,000 enquiries will come in for just 8,000 places. Each of the 15 tables gets a different meal, usually consisting of around 30 dishes. A meal at El Bulli is a synaesthetic experience; Adria's kitchen plays with texture, taste and temperature, often using techniques developed in the lab, such as his pioneering of the now inescapable foam.

There are no menus to anchor you, and no idea of what's coming next: a spoon holding a single green olive that isn't an olive at all but a smooth olive-coloured meniscus; wobbly white "marshmallows" of Parmesan; ruby-coloured communion wafers that dissolved on the tongue in a vivid burst of raspberry and thyme; a "foie gras soil", an unattractive looking assortment of coloured powders and grains which exploded in a firework display of taste and textures, from sweet to nutty, via a rubble of freeze-dried foie gras. Desserts include a giant, honeycomb-like chocolate confection that magically shrinks to nothing in your mouth. It's a roller-coaster ride, encompassing humour, surprise, expectation, nostalgia, trust, inspiration and happiness.

Cala Montjoi, Roses, Spain, 00 34 9 7215 0457, www.elbulli.com

Galvin - Bistrot de Luxe

This is a sophisticated, upscale brasserie - the Marais by way of Manhattan - with a shortish menu that celebrates classics such as confit of duck and a charcuterie maison with slightly more directional offerings, such as grilled cod with coco beans. Starters are wonderfully prepared and presented; the portions of the mains are light, the flavours autumnal, in this pared-down and rarefied interpretation of French brasserie fare. Service is efficient, if slightly lacking in the human touch; the French-leaning wine list short and reasonably priced.

66 Baker Street, London W1, 020-7935 4007

Automat

A high-concept American brasserie in old-money Mayfair: a casual shop-front café area narrows into a long, dimly lit corridor of a room, designed to feel like the dining car of an old American train, which gives way to an airy, Dean & Deluca-style brasserie. The menu offers a mix of diner classics - seared steak and cheese sandwiches, spaghetti with meatballs, chicken noodle soup - and slightly fancier dishes such as grilled Portobello mushroom salad with mozzarella and beets. And to show that the kitchen is equally comfortable with the really fancy stuff, there's a superb sea bass, baked en papillote with spring vegetables and clams. Service, from an all-female team, is helpful and well informed.

33 Dover Street, London W1, 020-7499 3033

The Hand & Flowers

Taken over earlier this year by the husband-and-wife team of Tom and Beth Kerridge, who are on a gastronomic mission. Main courses are presented with the confidently minimalist style of a chef who trusts his instincts and doesn't feel obliged to pad out each dish with vegetables and boring carbs: for example a crisp-skinned fillet of sea trout with puréed cauliflower, fresh peas and a tangle of pea sprouts. The interior has been given an unusually sympathetic modernisation, retaining exposed beams and brickwork, but adding raspberry suede banquettes and interesting artwork. Mr K makes his own sausages from pork he buys from a Suffolk estate, where Gloucester Old Spots feed on windfall apples.

126 West Street, Marlow, Bucks, 01628 482277

Apicius

A small, storefront restaurant, named for the Roman gourmet. The menu is short (just five choices per course), elegant and sprinkled with premium ingredients, including lobster, foie gras and guinea fowl. Amazing, then, to note that the prices are set at £19.50 for two courses, and £23.50 for three (and it's £4 cheaper at lunchtime). Starters range from the intricate - a tessellated assembly of saffron new potatoes and truffle-oil-infused leeks, each enfolding a cube of lobster and tarragon - to the brilliantly simple - a glossy cep risotto, intensely flavoured with mushroom stock and finished with veal glace. Where possible, the produce is local, right down to the mineral water.

23 Stone Street, Cranbrook, Kent, 01580 714666

Brosh

This husband and wife-owned fledgling has a Middle Eastern menu, where everything, right down to the cheese, is made from scratch on the premises and uses local free-range or organic suppliers whenever possible. The cooking encompasses the various cuisines of the Jewish diaspora: salad of roast beetroot with yoghurt and mint; golden chicken soup; slow-cooked oxtail, butterbean and spinach with caramelised onion; duck breast roasted with pomegranate molasses. For dessert, the baclava is a loose, hazel-nutty affair lightly bound in honey; ice cream, flavoured with fennel seeds, cardamom, honey and nuts, is also good. Full of heart and soul, Brosh is the kind of small place with a quirky menu that restores faith in eating out.

8 Suffolk Parade, Cheltenham, 01242 227277

Comments