Wednesday, 21 December 2011
Cheese and Biscuits Restaurant of the Year 2011 - Roganic
Having been asked by Toptable a couple of weeks ago to come up with a Top 5 restaurants of 2011 (and somehow managing to pick not a single one bookable on Toptable...oops), I thought the job of picking an overall winner for the blog would be easier. In fact, it's been a bloody nightmare. For some reason, my favourite restaurants of previous years have, in their own ways, been shoo-ins - obviously Tayyabs had to win at least once, Rules another, and there will always be a special place in my heart for the astonishing Ledbury. But this year it sometimes felt like all my food wishes had been granted at once - each month brought yet another exciting new opening or dangerously obsession-forming discovery and keeping up with it all was as exhausting as it was thrilling.
It's a strange phenomenon that in an economic climate that you'd expect to limit the scale and ambition of London's restaurants, the opposite seems to have been the case. Russell Norman's restaurants (including my personal favourite Spuntino, above) are often spoken about as "recession-busting", thanks to their focus on informality and tasty comfort food served at reasonable prices, but actually the top end - "fine dining" for want of a better phrase, and believe me I do want - has seen just as much activity. People don't mind splashing out occasionally if - and only if - they feel they are getting their money's worth; this is why it's near impossible to get a table at Goodman of an evening but fusty old temples of silver service like the Rib Room are suddenly feeling rather anachronistic. Customers are fussier when times are hard, but the best places realise that and not only meet their expectations but regularly exceed them.
So, yes, settling on an overall winner has been nearly impossible. The temptation to cop-out and declare a joint or shared 'best' is huge, but in the end that would be a cop-out, so I've had to be brutal and pick just one. It would have been satisfyingly topical to choose a restaurant formed in the fires of London's street food scene but MeatLiquor, dive bar, burger joint and den of iniquity, only missed out by a whisker. Deservedly rammed from the moment it opened, this is the kind of restaurant I'd open if I ever could - fast food as recreated by people who understand everything that's good about it and are obsessive about every detail. Despite some fierce new competition, there still is no greater burger in London than MeatLiquor's (I'd go for the bacon cheese pictured below if it's your first, but they're all great), and the buffalo wings and chilli cheese fries are as addictive as they are messy - which is very. Special mention too should go to the guys at Soulshakers who match the food with inventive and very reasonably priced drinks. Once inside - and at busy times, that takes a while - you simply will enjoy yourself. It is always worth the wait.
It tells you everything you need to know about the drive, ambition and sheer talent of Roganic head chef Ben Spalding that I have been to his restaurant three times in the space of six months and the menu has changed completely on every visit - not a single course of a 12+ stage tasting menu has been repeated, not even once. In addition, everything I have eaten has been not only remarkably well executed, presented immaculately and using unusual and exciting ingredients, but served with the kind of practiced ease that hardly any restaurants anywhere have, never mind one opened so recently. The food at Roganic may be amongst the best in London - it probably is the best in London - but it's the pacing and charm of the front of house that makes it sing, and it's a credit to everyone there that it all comes together so beautifully. I love a dirty burger as much as anyone, but the fact that in 2011 of all years some people are prepared to put their necks on the line and make unapologetically high-end cuisine that is somehow still fresh and relevant and recognisably British makes me very happy indeed. Now if they could only sort out that décor...
I've rambled on long enough even without mentioning gems like José (below), Zucca, Silk Road, Bob Bob Ricard, Dinner, Soif, The Heron, Amici Miei, Magdalen and God knows how many other fantastic restaurants in this extraordinarily diverse city so I had better stop while I still hopefully have your attention. Thanks, as ever, for reading yet another year's worth of rants, misinformed opinion and hyperbole; I'm sure there'll be plenty more where that came from in 2012. Meantime, have a very happy Christmas and New Year, and I only hope you're looking forward to the next twelve months as much as I am. And if you're not yet, then how about this - Pitt Cue are opening in Soho in the first week of January. You're welcome.
Thanks to Lizzie for the Goodman and José pics