Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Top 10 restaurants of 2012

As we bid farewell to 2012 and usher in 2013, it seems like an apt time to revisit my top 10 meals of last year. It was a spectacular year for food that saw the rise of gourmet junk food through joints like Bubbledogs in Fitzrovia and Wishbone in Brixton. Meanwhile, our obsession with burgers led to two new Burger & Lobster sites and the openings of MeatMarket in Covent Garden, Honest Burgers in Soho and Dirty Burger in Highgate, proving the trend is showing no sign of slowing. Londoners also got ravenous for ramen, with Bone Daddies and Tonkotsu in Soho leading the noodle charge. Finally, Nuno Mendes of Viajante's prediction that Peruvian cuisine would make waves in the capital came true in the form of dynamic duo Lima London and Ceviche, with Pisco Sours and mouth-puckering ceviche taking centre stage.

Rather than focusing on new openings, I've rounded up my top 10 meals of 2012. While the majority are in London, two were enjoyed in Champagne and one in Modena in northern Italy. Each earned their place on the list by offering an all-round experience, from the setting and the ambiance to the food, wine and company. While exemplary cooking can be enjoyed in isolation, it is the unique dining experiences of my top 10 that sets them apart. 

10: Davíd Muñoz at Ibérica Canary Wharf

Mohawk-sporting Spanish chef Davíd Muñoz set London alight for one night only at Ibérica Canary Wharf in October, when the restaurant was closed to showcase the experimental food from the young chef''s 2 Michelin-starred restaurant DiverXO in Madrid to a cherry picked group of food writers. From amuse bouche to petit fours, Muñoz's adventurous menu was filled with outrageous flavour combinations, the majority of which he pulled off with aplomb, from a crispy oxtail sandwich with baby eel and japapeños (pictured), to wild boar "civet" of black cod with parsnip and liquorice. Beg, steal or blag your way to a reservation at DiverXO for a ringside seat to the Muñoz magic

9: Bob Bob Ricard

Owned by immaculately attired Russian, Leonid Shutov, Bob Bob Ricard is a restaurant for suffers of Golden Age syndrome. Ushered in by a black cloaked doorman, a night in its clutches is a transcendent experience. Bob Bob's lavish interiors evoke an Edwardian Orient Express carriage, from the plush midnight blue booths complete with pleated lampshades and velvet curtains, to the smoked Venetian mirrors and brass railings – I could dine out on the interiors alone. 

But what of the food, you cry. Portions are small and perfectly formed, from the signature three cheese soufflé  and textured venison tartare to a bath bomb-like exploding Eton mess and divine salted caramel ice cream. BBR is a one off – a flight of fancy back to an age of elegance. 

8: Salt Yard 
Salt Yard makes up a third of Simon Mullins and Sanja Morris’ Spanish restaurant empire, with Dehesa in Oxford Circus and Opera Tavern in Covent Garden completing the trio. On my visit one drizzly Sunday lunchtime, head chef Andrew Clark – a towering figure with a sailor’s beard, heavily inked arms and a smile that stretches to Gibraltar, whipped up an eight-course menu highlighting Andalusia’s rich culinary history, including numerous hat tips to the Moors.
Highlights of the feast included lip-smackingly fresh sea bream ceviche with a scoop of gazpacho sorbet hovering atop the dish like a frozen egg yolk, and soft shell crab with saffron aioli that danced on its black slate atop squid rings, spindly legs splayed. Perhaps the most Moorish of the octet was chargrilled quail with molasses and pomegranate seeds that glinted like rubies. Like Davíd Muñoz, energetic young Clark is one to watch on the Spanish food circuit.

7: Madame Bollinger's house 
In March, I was lucky enough to be invited to Bollinger to take part in the Champagne house's annual vin clairs tasting. During the visit, a small group of us dined at Madame Bollinger's house, which has been kept the same since her death in 1977, from the wild boar heads on the walls (the forests in Champagne are full of them), to her mint green dining room. The food was exquisitely presented and packed with flavour, from red mullet in a creamy sauce to a tart  raspberry mille feuille, all expertly matched to different wines in the Bollinger range, proving that Champagne can be enjoyed throughout a meal. 
The highlight chez Lily Bollinger were two chunks of vintage Comté from cheese maestro Bernard Anthony, France's Comté king. Rich, grainy, creamy and nutty, it proved a sensational match for Bollinger R.D. 1996, the cheese echoing the intense, nutty power of the wine in perhaps the most inspired food and wine match of the year.

6: Viajante

Two of my top 10 meals of 2012 took place on the same day. Dinner at Viajante, Portuguese-born Nuno Mendes’ Michelin-starred restaurant at the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, is an edible journey taking in a kaleidoscope of colours, textures, temperatures and flavours from the safety of your pale blue chair. The softly spoken, raven haired, generously inked, contagiously passionate Mendes has been christened the Heston of Hoxton due to his fondness for molecular techniques.
Hightlights of this 14-course feast (if you count the amuse bouches) were plentiful, but those that stand out most vividly in the mind include a salty and scandalously moreish godal olive soup served as chilled as a Bond Martini – a triumph of style and substance. Potato with yeast meanwhile, attacked the taste buds with razor-thin fatty folds of intensely porcine Ibérico pancetta wrapped gossamer-like around a small potato, while squid with pear caramel and swooshes of squid ink was reminiscent of both Japanese calligraphy and Spanish Surrealist painter Joan Miró. 

To cap off an unforgettable experience, an ice-cold chunk of vanilla and extra virgin olive oil the size of a toffee was presented to me by the magician himself on a white stone. Told to eat it straight away, despite its sub-zero temperature, in the mouth it rewards with an unctuous texture and rich, creamy flavour perfectly marrying sweet and savoury. I can't wait to see what Mendes does next. 

5: Hibiscus
While he may have caused a storm in a saucepan late last year for laying into food blogger James Isherwood for deigning to criticise his food and giving him a 3 out of 5 rating, there is no denying that tempestuous and exuberant French chef Claude Bosi has talent. The only thing that lets his Mayfair restaurant Hibiscus down is its airport lounge decor - a sea of beige and wood panelling, but this is soon to change as the restaurant is currently closed for a makeover.

Bosi's dishes are daring and unapologetic, from yuzu and miso croquettes so addictive, I'm suspicious they might have been laced with crack, to mackerel tartare with a layer of button mushroom cream prettified with edible flowers amid shards of almond sticking out of the top like shark teeth. When eaten together, the result is a rich, creamy and perfumed mouthful given texture by the almond shards. A pleated ravioli stuffed with spring onion and aromatic Kaffir lime served with a buttery, broad bean and mint purée proved equally intriguing.

4: The Ledbury

In December I spent a heavenly night at two Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury in Notting Hill, run by indefatigable Australian cheff Brett Graham, at a Krug dinner hosted by Olivier Krug and Bordeaux Index. Unoriginal as I might be, I can't praise The Ledbury enough. There is something magical about it. When I walked through the door, the affable manager remembered my name - it's little touches like this that turn great restaurants into outstanding ones.  
And so to the food. As it was a Champagne dinner, a lot of thought had gone into the food and wine matches, from a citric roast scallop dish with pumpkin, clementine and ginger, which matched incredibly well with multi-vintage blend Krug Grand Cuvée, to a meaty hunk of native lobster in a nutty Amontillado sauce and an unapologetically decadent chicken breast with Parmesan and generous shavings of white truffle, which paired perfectly with a glass of dessicated coconut and lemon sherbet-fuelled Krug 1998. It will be interesting to see where The Ledbury lands in this year's World's 50 Best Restaurant list.

3: Les Crayères
In November I was sent into orbit courtesy of Dom Pérignon and its ebullient cellar master, Richard Geoffroy, who invited a select group of wine writers to sprawling 19th century, 5 star château hotel Les Crayeres in Champagne for the night to test the effect of temperature on the flavour profile of DP at the hotel's 2 Michelin-starred restaurant, a magnificent, chandelier-filled room boasting verdant tapestries, swagged curtains and a grand dining table cutting through it.

Over the course of two hours, eight different dishes, from bracing saline oysters in a seawater granita, and a creamy mussel soup, to tea smoked basmati rice with mushroom tobacco, and an almond-flecked lamb tagine, were served to compliment the aroma and flavour differences in Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1996 at eight different temperature stages, starting at 8 degrees and ending at 15/16º

Fascinatingly, there were tangible differences in the wine at each of the eight stages, moving from mineral at 8º, honeyed at 9º, zesty at 10º, buttery at 11º, earthy at 12º, truffly at 13º, smoky at 14º, and nutty at 15-16º. To Geoffroy's delight, I offered that the wine's evolution could be compared to the different stages of seduction, as it moved from being shy and tight to gloriously expressive.

2: A Taste of Noma at Claridge's 
A close contender for the top spot, Rene Redzepi's 10-day stint at Claridge's last summer was met with much fanfare. Under pressure to create a headline-grabbing dish to keep his fans happy and silence his critics, Redzepi didn't disappoint. On arrival, guests were offered a kilner jar filled with cabbage, which, when popped open, revealed an army of ants crawling across the lime green leaves, the odd ant or two getting stuck in globules of creme fraiche. Having mustered the gumption to put one of the critters in my mouth, I'm rewarded with a pleasing taste of lemongrass, as they share a chemical compound.

Meanwhile, a plant pot filled with edible flowers, carrots and radishes indulges the inner child. Told to use our hands, I feel like Peter Rabbit running riot in Mr. McGregor’s garden as I delve into the pot and unearth chunks of edible soil made from hazelnuts, rye, malt, beer and butter. Slow roast celeriac in a dense truffle sauce as black as squid ink, is one of the most delicious things I've ever put in my mouth. The ensemble is comfortingly autumnal, like shoving your nose deep into the forest floor and breathing in a lungful of earthy air. 

The main event: Romney Marsh neck of lamb marinated for 24 hours in pea miso, then cooked for a further 24 – is achingly tender, falling apart at the sight of a knife, and unashamedly rich in flavour, the sweet, fatty meat served with cooling milk curd and crunchy vegetables smoked Noma-style on Claridge’s roof. Technically immaculate, charmingly playful and exquisitely presented, while a trip to Noma remains a distant dream, my taste of Noma lingers sweeetly in the mind.

1: Osteria Francescana
There could only ever be one winner. My number one meal of 2012 was a bizarre and beautiuful expeirence I'll never forget. During a press trip to Modena, I was taken down the rabbit hole at the 3 Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, voted the fifth best restaurant in the world at this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Headed up by the excitable, bespectacled, ever-playful Massimo Bottura, the 11-table, 28-seater restaurant is so tiny, it feels like you’re in Bottura’s front room, having been invited to a surreal dinner party. Though Bottura’s dishes are inspired and informed by Italian produce, with Emilia-Romagna his faithful muse, they’re light years away from the rusticity of an osteria.

Highlights of the magical meal were plentiful, from a gleaming fillet of Po River eel and a hunk of swan-white Alaska black cod with a soot black roof fashioned from vegetable ash swimming in a pool of squid ink broth so opaque it looked like glittering crude oil, to signature dish Five Ages, Textures and Temperatures of Parmigiano Reggiano, an ethereal composition of Parmesan sauce, mousse, foam, crisp and air aged between 18 and 50 months and served at varying temperatures, from stone cold to womb warm. 

Meanwhile, fleshy folds of  soft, supple and sweet five-year-old Culatello ham paired with an amber bottle of 1971 Château Gilette Sauternes fragrant with almond, quince and apricot was divine. Ever the sourcerer, Bottura ended the feast on a savoury note with a hazelnut-coated foie gras lollipop fashioned into a mini Feast. If only Mr Whippy vans served them...

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