Restaurants of the year 2006

Our critics choose their favourite places of 2006

Saturday 25 November 2006 01:00

Best for peasant cuisine: Arbutus

Charming, flavourful, fags- and muzak-free Arbutus breathes the atmosphere of a foodie shrine that knows exactly what it's doing.

The chef here is Anthony Demetre, who used to cook on the same site when it was the Bistro Bruno. His forte is French peasant cuisine: you can tell by the ruthless paysan way he exploits the pig - braised pig's head, pig tripe, pig's trotters and belly of pork all show up on the menu (everything, as they say in peasant circles, bar the squeak). John Walsh

63-64 Frith Street, London W1 (020-7734 4545)

Best for crab-cracking: Crab House Café

Such a cornucopia! Such an epic, Homeric, three-ring spectacle of fishy magnificence! The anglo-Norman chef, Christian Lohez, does not stint on flavour or portion size. My sand soles with lemon butter, caraway seeds and guacamole were two big creamy soles, their about-to-melt flesh post-orgasmically draped over lumps of perfectly cooked courgette and baby new potatoes. One taste told you that Monsieur Lohez is a magician, not just at adding sexy flavours to bland pieces of fish, but at drawing out the hidden juices of his raw materials. The skate with chorizo and onions was spicy, steeped in sinful flavours, reeking of decadence. There is no fish connoisseur in the world who wouldn't benefit from a trip to this beachside shack. JW

Portland Road, Weymouth (01305 788867). Shut from 20 December to 9 February 2007

Best for tapas and cocktails: Pintxo People

Pintxo People is both achingly cool and warmly friendly. The tapas dishes were, in the best sense of the word, revelatory. The lamb was coated in coconut crumbs and served with a fruit chutney of pumpkin, carrot, mango, apricots and sour yoghurt. It sounds awful - like a really pretentious Moroccan tagine - but tasted fabulous. A touch of cumin in the yoghurt responded to the coconut and danced among my taste buds like Zizi Jeanmaire. The black pudding surprise in morcilla filo parcels was a yummy quartet of party sociables perched on a spinach purée, the earthy whiff of pig's blood sweetened by apple sauce.

This destination restaurant is worth a considerable detour. I suspect we will hear much in the future about the head chef, Miguel Jessen, who came here from El Amparo in Madrid. I'm quite serious when I say his Pintxo dishes could give Gordon Ramsay's Maze a run for its money. JW

95-99 Western Road, Brighton (01273 732323)

Best for venison, locally shot by the chef: The Pot Kiln

Just down the road from Reading, a mile from the M4, is The Pot Kiln. The chef is Mike Robinson, a dark-haired, handsome TV chef who can be seen on the UKTV Food channel enthusing over local produce and his fondness for shooting wildfowl and any other fauna that stray into the crosshairs of his hunting rifle.

My main course of pavé of wild fallow venison was wonderful - thin slices of pink pavé steak draped like exhausted dancers over a bed of mash and accompanied by a chorus line of long skinny carrots. Across the table, my date's braised leg and roasted saddle of rabbit was going down fast. JW

The Pot Kiln, Frilsham, Nr Yattendon, Berkshire (01635 201366)

Best for rice-noodle spring rolls: Viet Grill

You can see the Grill's frontage for miles, a horrible plastic, pistachio-green abomination like the Abrakebabra chain of kebab shops in Dublin. Inside, a tiny bar and several blue tubs of nasty foliage masquerade as atmosphere. The menu cheered us up no end, though. We started with bo tung xeo or feudal roasted beef, named, apparently, after an old method of torture by flaying human flesh (charming). It was very flat, very tender and darkly marinated with a "mystery ingredient" that turned out to be horseradish. An odd starter, but explosive. Like everything in this restaurant, it was intriguing, unusual and crazily palatable. JW

Viet Grill, 58 Kingsland Road, London E2 (020-7739 6686)

Best for Argentine steak: Santa Maria del Buen Ayre

The first authentic Argentine grill-restaurant in the country is a small, crowded, friendly local eaterie with minimal decor, a buzzy atmosphere and a heady pong of garlic and hot basil. Gen-u-ine Argentinians do thatthing with tequila, salt and lemon while fantastic steaks are turned on a parilla over hot coals by chef and co-owner John Patrick Rattagan. The steaks are sublime. My bife ancho con morrones y guarnicion was a lovely round 11oz ribeye, nicely accessorised by fat, seared to an almost-burn at the edges, crimson as sin inside. My companion's bife de lomo (8oz fillet) was a sexy, thick tranche that melted and swooned away at the touch of a knife. JW

50 Broadway Market, Hackney, London E8 (020-7275 9900)

Best for ladies who lunch: La Noisette

The retro-looking interior that has borrowed its colour scheme from a coffee éclair is very Knightsbridge - not an entirely good thing in my view, but no doubt highly congenial to the poor exhausted ladies who will stagger across the road with bags full of bags.

An almond gazpacho with smoked paprika shrimp and tomato sorbet looks wonderful - a puddle of pale green, dotted with the blush of the sorbet and the spice-flecked shrimps - and tastes even better, all kinds of delayed sweetnesses layering themselves into each mouthful.

And Welsh lamb with sweetbreads "à la bouquetière" has wonderfully tender meat and yielding glands served in a sauce that renders even the bitterness of baby turnips palatable. Thomas Sutcliffe

164 Sloane Street, London SW1 (020-7750 5000)

Best for scallops: Hipping Hall

The chef here, Jason Birkbeck, is a former winner of The Restaurant Association's Young Chef of the Year and one of a growing diaspora of northern cooks who've passed through Nigel Haworth's Northcote Manor. And he apparently aims to do it with a menu that mixes Michelin-style refinements with the kind of local ingredients that are esteemed for their ability to put hairs on your chest.

Although the confit belly of Gloucester Old Spot, served with roasted langoustine, choucroute and a crispy pig's ear, is very good, it also takes up occupancy in my stomach like a Yorkshire farmer sprawling out in front of a fire. Trying to add a fillet of veal with glazed sweetbreads and black pudding tortellini on top is simply asking too much of an appetite that has already been given a thorough work-out by an array of canapés and amuse-bouches.

My wife's pan-fried scallops, served with pea purée and smoked bacon, is probably the best of the starters, a really good balance of heft and lightness. TS

Cowan Bridge, nr Kirkby Lonsdale, Lancashire (01524 271187)

Best for all-day eating: High Road Brasserie

The interior looks great at Nick Jones's new Chiswick brasserie, a cool, modern expression of brasserie conventions with a lovely, exuberant twist - a patchwork of colourful, encaustic tiles on the floor that makes you feel as if you're walking across a Shaker quilt. The style of the cooking is post-enlargement European Union - stretching from Imam Baildi and merguez sausages, through choucroute and fruits de mer, to the odd outpost of British insularity, such as sardines on toast (£7) and mutton chops with a parsley and caper sauce (£14).

A meal here, whether it's breakfast, brunch or dinner, is likely to be solidly pleasurable. In fact, the only really serious drawback to the place is that it isn't a lot closer to my home. TS

162 Chiswick High Road, London W4 (020-8742 7474)

Best for views: Galvin at Windows

On the 28th floor of the Mayfair Hilton, the location might be big on vertical elevation but the food is pointedly horizontal - classic French cooking with very little in the way of attention-seeking flourishes. In a rather literal sense, there's no froth. A pavé of organic salmon, served with crushed potatoes, salsify and asparagus, is hardly elaborate in terms of its technique but it is beautifully done - the fish like polished coral at its heart and the skin crisp and brittle. The poché-grillé Anjou pigeon is a more elaborate affair, first poached in a pigeon stock and then grilled. It is served, feet on, in a Damien Hirst bisection of the whole body and the double cooking results in a flesh that is tenderlypink, its offaly gaminess nicely complemented by a little copper saucepan of stewed petit pois. TS

London Hilton, 22 Park Lane, London W1 (020-7208 4021)

Best for Sunday lunch: Vennell's

Main courses are Sunday lunch stalwarts - but the roast rib of beef is of excellent quality, a trim of ivory fat stitched to generous folds of blushing meat. Fish pie keeps the essential promise of fish pie - to fill you up in a comforting, boneless kind of way, and a confit of belly port flops languidly backwards over a hillock of fine mash, a deeply acceptable face of flab. TS

Vennell's, 7 Silver Street, Masham, North Yorkshire (01765 689000)

Best for Manhattan without the transatlantic flight: Village East

There's still a huge difference between South of Houston and South of the River as territories of the mind - but Village East clearly hopes to narrow the gap. Push through its modishly featureless slab door on Bermondsey Street and you find yourself in Manhattan - or as near as a 188 bus will take you.

It's not American as such, but it has a transatlantic tendency to look both East and West, mixing touches of Pacific-rim fusion with English revival and French classics. So you could start with deep-fried soft shell crabs, watermelon and wasabi sauce (£7.80) and go on to roast suckling pig, roasted onions, apples and sausages - which crosses enough time zones to induce jet lag - or you could just take a day trip to the other side of the channel with confit rabbit and celeriac purée (£6.80) followed by a châteaubriand and Béarnaise sauce (£34.80 for two).

Wherever you look, though, the view is pretty enticing. TS

171-173 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 (020-7357 6082)

Best for trysts: The Wallace Restaurant

Lunchtimes at the Wallace just got a lot more interesting, thanks to that clever entrepreneur Oliver Peyton, who has added the museum's courtyard restaurant to his already distinguished roster. Taking his cue from the château-like building and the French art it contains, he has recreated the space as a Parisian café-jardin, and installed a former head chef from Le Gavroche to oversee it.

If the museum is romantic, the restaurant is positively tryst-tastic. A formal tree-lined garden enclosed in the heart of the building under a glass atrium, the setting is a CenterParcs Versailles.

It's one of those rare places that makes you feel like you're on holiday in your home city. You want to grab French tourists in from the street and say, "Look, we can do it too!" Tracey MacLeod

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London W1 (020-7563 9505).

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