If 2012 was the year of the steakhouse in London, 2013 will be remembered as the year of the brasserie, with seasoned French chef Eric Chavot scooping a Michelin star mere months after opening his eponymous Brasserie Chavot in Mayfair and Bethnal Green-born father of five Keith McNally upping sticks from New York to open the hotly anticipated London outpost of his hugely successful and oft star-studded brasserie Balthazar in Covent Garden, where diners have been going wild for his lobster and truffle risotto.
Last year also saw London strengthen its claim as the culinary capital of the world. In addition to McNally, two other top international names opened their first London outposts in 2013: self-styled "Demon Chef" Alvin Leung and father-and-daughter duo Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, but more of them later. Despite finally emerging from five years of recession, the capital continued to embrace the casual dining movement, with "no choice" restaurants like Tramshed in Shoreditch and Burger & Lobster thriving – it's just opened its fifth site on the fifth floor of Harvey Nichols, proving that casual and chic needn't be mutually exclusive.
With the pace of new openings in the capital at an all-time high, Londoners were spoilt for choice for exciting new places to explore last year. A few high profile openings like Restaurant Story, Gymkhana and Berners Tavern remain on my wish list, but, as has become customary, read on for my top 10 restaurants of 2013. Unsurprisingly, eight of them are in London, one in the wilds of the English countryside and one in Paris. I've listed them in alphabetical order. Bon appétit!
Named in honour of Napoleon's favourite emblem (the bee), the 40-cover, two Michelin-starred L'Abellie at the jaw-droppingly beautiful Shangri-La hotel in Paris, is small in size but lofty in ambition. Decorated in hushed grey tones with splashes of yellow adding flashes of life, the space is so small and welcoming it feels like you're dining in a rich relative's front room overlooking a flower-filled landscape garden in full bloom. Head chef Philippe Labbé's signature attention to detail is evident in every dish, from amuse bouche to teddy bear-shaped petit fours. His cooking is playful, marrying flavours as if plucking names from a hat, like langoustine and raspberry, that shouldn't work but do, creating a vivid edible experience.
Highlights of a magnificent meal at L'Abeille during an idyllic stay at the hotel last September, included the aforementioned langoustine tartare with verbena oil, fresh raspberries and raspberry vinegar. The sweetness of the plump, juicy scampi was offset wonderfully by the sharpness of the raspberries and the citrus tang of the lemon verbena, the flavours pirouetting across the palate like one of Degas' ballerinas. Labbé's legendary mille-feuille meanwhile, was the stuff of childhood dreams. Shaped like a stretched out accordion and topped with edible gold, the pastry tasted like a freshly toasted waffle.
Ametsa with Arzak Instruction
Last April, father-and-daughter duo Juan Mari and Elena Arzak opened their first franchise outside of Spain – Ametsa, a sister site to the three Michelin-starred Arzak in San Sebastian, at The Halkin hotel in Belgravia. Thousands of spice-filled test tubes hang precariously from the ceiling like some frantic experiment to preserve the sands of time. Rooted in the traditions of New Basque cuisine, Ametsa, which means "dream" in Basque, prides itself on working with locally sourced ingredients, and, in homage to Arzak, dishes are modern in execution, offering diners painterly plates brightened by the use of edible flowers.
A night in its clutches takes you on a dizzying journey of tastes and textures, from crispy scorpion fishcakes encased in an intricately-weaved pastry nest, to king prawns and sunshine yellow sweet corn nestled beneath a mad mass of fried noodles that looks like Juan Mari's overactive brain on a plate. A tiny portion of pink pigeon meanwhile, was poetic in its perfection and served with silver stones that exploded in the mouth, coating it with balsamic vinegar. Each dish on the tasting menu is paired with a different Spanish wine taking in saline Sherries from the south and steely whites from the rain-soaked north.
Self-styled "Demon Chef" Alvin Leung landed in London in no uncertain terms last year via his envelope-pushing Bo London in Mayfair, which scooped a Michelin star soon after opening. A sister to his two Michelin-starred Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, a night at Bo takes diners down the rabbit hole with edible theatrics served around the framework of two main tasting menus; the 14-course chef's special and slightly more modest 12-course "Ode to Great Britain" menu, which tips its hat to Brixton-born Leung's homeland. This is food that commands a Buddhist monk's concentration levels.
My memorable meal at Bo early last year had many a highlight, from the morbid sounding Dead Garden formed from emulsified avocado and green onion in a soil bed of powdered morels punctuated by sprouting stalks of enoki, to Bed & Breakfast (pictured) crafted from a smoked quail egg wrapped in a crispy taro next crowned with a generous dollop of oscietra caviar and glinting flecks of gold leaf.
A canapé fit for Catherine the Great, what it lacked in size it made up for in flavour, exploding in the mouth in a thrilling burst of salty caviar, gooey yolk and crispy nest. "Cloud" meanwhile, poked fun at the dismal British weather, formed of tiny squares of mackerel hidden under a grey cloud of black sesame, ponzu and ginger served atop a silver bowl billowing with rose-scented dry ice.
A cavernous temple to tiraditos and anticuchos brightening up the desolate end of Piccadilly near Hyde Park Corner, Arjun Waney's Coya flies the flag for Peru along with the now Michelin-starred Lima London and Martin Morales' Ceviche in Soho. The 100-seater restaurant is cleverly partitioned to give the illusion of intimacy. Mustard velvet chairs and mint green shutters bring warmth to dove grey stone walls, one of which is framed by a giant purple door that appears like a gateway to some ancient Incan kingdom.
Focused around sharing plates, among the highlights of my plentiful Peruvian feast were moreish chicken wings smothered in spiced salt and tamarind glaze and crispy prawns in a piquant aji limo dipping sauce. Swimming in an orange aji limo sea dotted with sprigs of coriander, shimmering scallops (pictured) were cut into paper-thin, pearl white slithers.
The apogee of the meal came in the form of a simple sea bream ceviche, the fish cut into lime-drenched cubes and floating in a tiger's milk broth with amarillo chili, crispy corn and coriander. A beautifully balanced composition, from the fiery chili to the cooling lime, meaty bream and textured corn, it was like showering under a lime juice waterfall while munching on a mouthful of chili.
Duck & Waffle
Housed on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower, on arrival at Duck & Waffle, a doorman ushers you into a Willy Wonka-like great glass elevator that whizzes you up at giddying speed, forcing London's concrete labyrinth to unfold in front of you like a pop-up book. Everything from St Paul's to Tower Bridge is brought into sharp focus in the most heart-stopping and life-affirming way. Once inside, floor-to-ceiling windows make the view the star of the show. Open 24/7, the British and modern European menu devised by heavily inked head chef Daniel Doherty focuses around sharing plates including the likes of crispy pig's ears with a spicy barbeque coating recalling bacon Frazzles.
Dishes are comforting and decadent. A giant, sugar-coated spicy ox cheek doughnut looks like an ostrich Scotch egg, its paprika-laced russet shell revealing a fluffy interior generously stuffed with tender beef cheek. Doherty is not shy of bold flavours that whack you around the chops with punchy combinations, such as those found in his signature Duck & Waffle dish featuring a fried duck egg balancing sunny side up on top of a hefty, crispy-skinned confit duck leg perched on a pair of fluffy waffles. Served with mustard maple syrup, it's ideal for assuaging killer hangovers at breakfast time.
Part two of my top 10 restaurants of 2013 round up to follow later this week...