2003 was the year of the gastropub. Or so I'm told. Looking back over the past 12 months, I realise that I haven't kept pace with gastropubs. So New Year's resolution number one is to take a day off and a hedonistic friend and visit the Coach and Horses in Farringdon and the Anchor and Hope in Waterloo.
Morgan M and Tom Aikens are a long way from gastropubs, even though they're housed in converted corner boozers. They're sophisticated French restaurants, run by perfectionists who are doing things their own way with their names proudly displayed over the door. Morgan Meunier's sophisticated riffing on cuisine du terroir and Tom Aikens' obsessional wizardry are enough to rekindle the most jaded diner's love affair with haute cuisine.
The most extraordinary meal I ate this year, though, wasn't in London, but in Cartmel, in the Lake District, where L'Enclume's Simon Rogan conjured up the gastronomic equivalent of a son et lumière display in the shadows of the old Priory. Inspired by Ferran Adria at El Bulli, Rogan's playful creations (langoustine, truffle and artichoke cooked in clay with mad barberry bark infusion, for example) only tip occasionally from eccentricity into chaos, with their foams, jellies and test tubes. And you have to love anyone who would top an 18-course tasting menu with something called "Celestial Potion".
Beacons of experimental excellence in Wales also provided some of this year's nicest surprises. Having only visited the country once before in my life, this year I made five trips in as many months, all food-related, and all well worth the journey. Reinterpreting the country-house hotel experience in different ways, Tyddyn Llan, Plas Bodegroes and Ynyshir Hall all put food at the very heart of their business, while Hurst House, part-owned by the actor Neil Morrissey, is like a louche Soho club beamed down on to the marshes of Camarthenshire.
This time last year I was bemoaning the lack of similarly stylish retreats for get-away-from-it-all weekends within easy driving distance of London. I did find one this year, Cowley Manor near Cheltenham, though the food was a lot less stimulating than the fabulous indoor and outdoor swimming pools. Barnsley House, near Cirencester, also looks promising, and with the Walnut Tree Inn's Franco Taruschio involved in the catering, the food should be a lot better. But why do all these new-generation country-house hotels seem to be in the Cotswolds?
Talking of geographical clustering, in London, the Shoreditch/Hoxton area has far more than its fair share of great new restaurants. Most neighbourhoods would kill to have their own Modern Brit canteen, serving fine, unpretentious food all day with a great deli attached. Well Shoreditch has two of them, in St John Bread and Wine and The Rivington Grill Bar Deli. And while EC1 is spoiled for choice, it seems increasingly hard to get a decent, cheapish meal in W1. Of the two West End openings I particularly enjoyed, Osia and East@West, neither of them could be said to be cheap. Alan Yau is my hero of the year, for ensuring that the Thai-inspired food at both branches of his canteen-style Busaba Eathai is always so much better than it needs to be. Anda, Yau's new Italian restaurant on Baker Street, is also shaping up to be another favourite.
Another complaint last year was my inability to find a consistently good restaurant in London's Chinatown. This year I avoided the problem by heading for one of the Royal China group of restaurants whenever I wanted Chinese food. I recently chose the St John's Wood branch, a marvellous lacquered box of a room, as the venue for a special birthday lunch for my mother. The food was superb. Unfortunately, I couldn't really enjoy it, due to the glowering, simian presence at the next table of Ian Brown, lead singer of the Stone Roses, who when I last encountered him, was loping around behind me on live television bellowing "Fooking Amateurs!"
Still, you can't hold a restaurant responsible for its clientele. Nor for being too popular, I suppose. This time last year, I nominated Jamie Oliver's Fifteen and Locanda Locatelli as the two new restaurants I was most looking forward to revisiting. I should have booked then, because they've been much too busy since for me to get a table.
Still, there's always The Wolseley, easily London's most beautiful restaurant, which opened in November to reviews which all seemed to say the same thing. "The food's not great. The service is patchy. I love it!" Now it's not as if a place like that is going to get all booked up, is it? E
Coach & Horses, 26-28 Ray Street, London EC1 (020-7278 8990)
The Anchor & Hope, 36 The Cut, London SE1 (020-7928 9898)
Morgan M, 489 Liverpool Rd, London N7 (020-7609 3560)
Tom Aikens, 43 Elystan Street, London SW3 (020-7584 2003)
L'Enclume, Cavendish Street, Cartmel, Cumbria (015395 36362)
Tyddyn Llan, Llandrillo, Wales (01490 440264)
Plas Bodegroes, Nefyn Road, Pwllheli, Wales (01758 612363)
Ynyshir Hall, Eglwysfach, Wales (01654 781209)
Hurst House, East Marsh, Laugharne, Wales (01994 427417)
Cowley Manor, Cowley, Glos (01242 870900)
Barnsley House, Barnsley, Circencester, Glos (01285 740000)
St John Bread & Wine, 94-96 Commercial Street, London E1 (020-7247 8724)
Rivington Grill Bar Deli, 28-30 Rivington Street, London EC2 (020-7729 7053)
Osia, 11 Haymarket, London SW1 (020-7976 1313)
East@West, 13-15 West Street, London WC2 (020-7010 8600)
Anda, 66 Baker St, London W1 (020-7224 0808)
Royal China, 68 Queen's Grove, London NW8 (020-7586 4280)
The Wolseley, 160 Piccadilly, London W1 (020-7499 6996)
2003 was a truly memorable year - for many reasons. It was the year I discovered "naked sushi" in New York. I don't like to worry you (or the Health and Safety Executive) but naked sushi is coming to Britain. And soon. Before you know it, models will be covering themselves in clingfilm, and making like serving platters for raw fish - in a town near you. Be careful with those chopsticks.
I preferred the more classical presentation of Chapter One in Locksbottom - beyond Bromley - which I happened upon one dull and dreary Tuesday. I wasn't the only person to discover it. Shortly afterwards it was voted the AA Restaurant of the Year 2004. The AA has awarded it four rosettes which puts it in the same league as London eateries Sketch, Pied à Terre and Le Gavroche. Who would have thought it of Locksbottom?
With heavy glass dinner plates, and whittled vegetables, the presentation was pleasing. But, as Thurber said, seeing is deceiving. Eating is believing. My ravioli of lobster was stuffed with sweet claw meat, and smothered in a light cognac mousse. I didn't stop to breathe. I had to eat the ravioli before the mousse disappeared.
Even so, Whitstable is more of a destination than Locksbottom. The honest-to-goodness Kent seaside town is a pretty place, dominated by sweeping views of the Swale estuary. Once you've walked out past the old weather-boarded fishermen's cottages, and enjoyed the sunset immortalised by Turner, it's time for tea. And in Whitstable, that can really mean only one thing - Wheeler's.
The shopfront is still pink and blue - like sugared almonds. It is the most photographed shopfront in town, and there's always a queue for the diminutive oyster bar - and its four stools. But the main restaurant is out back. I say "main" - there are only four tables, with space enough for 14 people. But that tiny room, like Ena Sharples' parlour, was where I had my Dish of the Year. It's extraordinary how many places forget that skate has to be hung - like meat. Straight from the sea, it's too fibrous. It needs a couple of days for the flesh to break down. Chef Mark Stubbs didn't need reminding, and his skate in a five-spice batter (£6.50) was just right. It came with an Arabic salad. It was what I would call a Greek salad, but I didn't want to get the UN involved.
I won't forget the Parmesan and herb risotto with a potage of spring vegetables at The Talkhouse in Pontdolgoch. It resolutely refused to be claggy. Or the confit of duck, kumquat and roast orange, celeriac and potato purée at the Artichoke in Amersham. That huge flavour is with me still - as is my dining companion, clapping at the way the duck fat rounded off the sharpness of the fruit.
It was a disappointing year for applauding truffles on menus. Lots of dishes leant heavily on truffle oil (and I would eat shoes if they came with truffle oil) but that's not the same thing. Truffles grow in moist terrain under oaks, poplars, willows and lime trees. The hottest European summer in at least a century - and its accompanying drought - has cut truffle supplies in half.
That doesn't seem to bother the kitchen at The Wells in Hampstead. They just make do. The London suburb has always been a tiresome place to live because it's had nowhere decent to eat. That has all changed with the arrival of The Wells. And, although Derek Creagh has moved on to pastures new, I count it my Best Newcomer of the Year.
Worst Newcomer of the Year? No contest. Ashbells in Notting Hill. Described as "simple food, cooked slow - but with soul", Ashbells was soulless. And no course showed the lack of soul more clearly than the dessert of fresh fruit cobbler that contained what appeared to be tinned peaches.
I don't have one Restaurant of the Year. I have two. First, St John Bread And Wine - a new bar, bakery, restaurant and wine shop in Shoreditch, east London. I will always remember that bread. I am still amazed at the flavours a baker can pull out of a grain. Especially when you consider that flour has no real flavour to start with. It was delicious, simple and elegant. Like the place itself.
Then there's Agaric in the Devon town of Ashburton. Just re-reading my review starts me salivating. I remember the thick green spinach pancakes arriving in a stack - just like they do in an American diner. They weren't pretty or fussed over, but the shiitake mushroom sauce melded them together to form a comforting union. They missed a trick by not serving them on a naked woman. But who knows what 2004 will bring? E
Chapter One, Farnborough Common, Locksbottom, Kent (01689 854848)
Wheeler's Oyster Bar, 8 High Street, Whitstable, Kent (01227 273311)
The Talkhouse, Pontdolgoch, Powys, Wales (01686 688919)
The Artichoke, 9 Market Square, Old Amersham, Buckinghamshire (01494 726611)
The Wells, 30 Well Walk, London NW3 (020-7794 3785)
Ashbells, 29 All Saints Road, London W11 (020-7221 8585)
St John Bread & Wine, 94-96 Commercial Street, London E1 (020-7247 8724)
Agaric, 30 North Street, Ashburton, Devon (01364 654478)