It is perhaps a sign of these credit-crunchy times that, for me at least, 2008 was not quite as chock-full of Michelin starred, multi-course blowouts as 2007. And when I did occasionally push the boat out, results were mixed to say the least. Under the "disappointing and expensive" category are Texture, Quo Vadis, St John, Le Bouchon Breton and Andaman, all of which managed to present a bill of at least £70 a head and serve food which although not exactly bad came far short of being value for money. Only one fine dining restaurant - The Square, in Mayfair - do I consider worthy of the stratospheric prices they charge, and I hope to goodness that they steer a course through the tricky economic waters of 2009 as I intend to visit again as soon as my bank balance allows it. As for the others, well, we may be about to see a kind of culinary Darwinism at work. I would keep a close eye on some of those names above and see how many are here in twelve months time.
But I am not going to make The Square my Restaurant of the Year. Yes, it's served three of the best meals I've ever eaten, with dishes so perfectly judged in terms of presentation and taste that they can scarcely be bettered in the country, but at £100 a head that's exactly what you'd expect. Likewise Hawksmoor, which dishes out beautifully cooked steaks and wonderful cocktails and has become almost a second home for me in the last few months, but again you would damn well hope so too at £30 a plate, plus extra for chips. The Square and Hawksmoor have hit just the right point on the value for money graph and I'm quite happy for them, but perhaps a truly great restaurant needs something more - not just an ability to meet expectations but smash them into a billion pieces, and not just once or occasionally but again and again and again. And with that in mind, there could only ever really be one winner.
I have in the past moaned about the queues at Tayyab's, even going so far as to suggest an alternative to the daily scrum on Fieldgate Street. The crowds start congregating around 6pm, and by 7:30 or so they snake around the inside of the restaurant, past the sweet counter and back again and sometimes even out into the street, hundreds strong, day after day. And if you have to ask what restaurant in the world can possibly deserve this kind of fanatical devotion, then you haven't eaten there. Juicy, spicy seekh kebabs; sizzling hot platters of bright red lamb chops coated in addictive tandoori spicing that stain your hands for hours afterwards; masala fish which manages to be crispy on the outside and fluffy and moist inside, the robust spicing never overpowering the tilapia meat itself; and dry meat - oh, the dry meat. A heavenly concoction of spices and stock, reduced for so long it's become almost a concentrated meat purée, and yet containing chunks of miraculously tender lamb, the Tayyab's dry meat is a monumental achievement. It is also, as far as I am aware, unique to this restaurant.
One of Tayyabs' biggest fans, and this is saying something for a restaurant whose Facebook 'Appreciation Group' has over 1,000 members, is Gavin Baxter, who has been a regular since far before it became trendy amongst bandwagon-jumping foodies such as myself. Along with other members of the Opinionated About Forums he was an early advocate of the then still relatively unknown Pakistani grill house and was there for the ride as it expanded from a tiny canteen in an old newsagents to the former pub next door and subsequent fame and glory. Gavin signs off his OA forum posts with a quote from Benjamin Franklin on beer; it also struck me as an appropriate final word on my 2008 Restaurant of the Year, with one small alteration:
"Tayyab's is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy"
Looking forward to 2009, there are no prizes of any kind for guessing what I'm expecting this year's highlight to be. I'm afraid there are no available spaces for the trip to El Bulli in September, but rest assured I will write it all up in as much detail as circumstances allow, and I'll be thinking of everyone who didn't win the email lottery as I tuck into my spherical olives. I also promise to not be too smug and keep going on about it.
So, final "thank you"s to Simon Majumdar for mentioning me in the Times Online, to Niamh of Eat Like A Girl and Trusted Places, Helen of FoodStories, Lizzie of Hollow Legs, Charles and Joel of Tipped, Andy Hayler, Silverbrow and of course to everyone else following Cheese and Biscuits in such frankly baffling numbers. I hope you find enough here to entertain you in the year ahead. Cheers, and have a Melón con jamón on me: