Wednesday, 2 January 2013
Cheese and Biscuits Restaurant of the Year 2012 - Bob Bob Ricard
A little while ago I wrote a short piece for lovefood.com about the best meal of my life. In it, I rather clumsily attempted to make the distinction between great meals, which can happen more or less randomly and independently of whether a restaurant is regularly enjoyed by anyone else, and great restaurants which have consistency on their side as well as the ability to knock out a decent dish or ten.
In 2012, I had many, many great meals. L'Enclume in July was an obvious highlight, a tour-de-force of modern British cooking that marked Simon Rogan out as a supremely talented chef with a unique style seemingly plucked from thin air. And thank God, too, for Medlar, finally a Chelsea restaurant worth the money they're asking and one that has, by all accounts, only improved since my visit.
But these are, after all, just meals. I don't live close enough to be a regular at l'Enclume, or work close enough to take advantage of Medlar's cut-price lunch menus, and even if I wanted to go back to another one of 2012's high points, a tasting menu at Ben Spalding's John Salt, Ben and his team up and left Islington just before Christmas, leaving in their wake a rather bemusing press release blaming "different directions" and a good few months worth of cancelled reservations. Look out for Ben opening his own place very soon, but in the meantime his residency at John Salt is being handed to Neil Rankin of Pitt Cue, who if the meals I've had in his Soho BBQ joint are anything to go by, is one of very few chefs who could follow that act.
A great restaurant, then, isn't just where you happen to have a great meal, it's a place you look forward to going to more than anywhere else because you always enjoy the time you spend there. It's a home from home, a comfort blanket of great food and great service, reliable but never predictable, where everything on the menu looks like something you want to eat, and everything you do eat you would happily order again. There aren't many truly great restaurants in London, at least not yet, but there's one spot in Soho that I've spent far too much time and money in over the last year and which still, despite the explosion of quality all around it, has the capacity to surprise and delight every time.
Bob Bob Ricard is my Restaurant of the Year because I've just had too many brilliant times there in the last year for it not to be. I've taken friends, family and colleagues for lunch, dinner, aperitifs and digestifs, and it has not once put a foot wrong. If you were to attempt to describe the look of the place you might begin with something like "Russian-American bistro crossed with Orient Express dining car" but in truth, the singular design vision of owner/managers Leonid Shutov and Richard Howarth (aided and abetted by interior designer David Collins) is like nothing that has appeared in London before or since - it's a marble-clad, velvet-lined palace of pleasure, a surrealist wonderland where - brilliantly - there are no bad tables (everyone has a booth) and illuminated "Push for Champagne" buttons attract the attention of waiters clad in pastel pink and waitresses in sky blue.
The menu makes equally attractive viewing. The Russian influence is reflected in items like the Zakuski Taster Plate, a bijou arrangement of jellied ox tongue, truffled Russian salad and the like, accompanied by frozen vodka in a crystal shot glass. Pelmeni are a silver bowl of beef & pork dumplings served with sour cream, and if you've ever wondered what caviar tastes like and didn't have the hundreds of pounds to throw at places like Caviar House, £25 gets you a taster portion of 12g of genuine Sturgeon roe served in a pearl-like glass pot. The attention to detail - and whatever you think about spending £25 on 12g of anything, the value - is admirable.
BBR's inexhaustible drive for invention and re-invention has created some truly memorable signature dishes that you can't get anywhere else in London. The lobster burger, for example, is a whole breaded, fried tail of lobster in a brioche bun, presented hilariously with the shelled end of tail poking out of the side to let you know which end to eat from. Venison steak tartare is in danger of sounding like something you might be able to find elsewhere until you notice it comes with the option of 10g of sturgeon caviar dumped on top for an extra £15 (either version is superb). And Chateaubriand for one is another dish unique to BBR - the single-portion version of this usually two-person cut down to the sourcing of beef from special miniature cows. You couldn't make it up.
Of course, none of this style and spectacle comes cheap, but BBR is not a place where you ever feel like you're being taken advantage of. The extra rhubarb gin and tonic, the extra dollop of caviar, the irresistible second push of the Champagne Button, they're all good ideas at the time, and it's why a quick pit-stop on the way back from Oxford Circus can so easily leave you staggering out onto Beak Street at midnight, £70 lighter with your pockets stuffed full of complimentary chocolate truffles. It's a place in which to lose yourself, to eat and drink and ignore the problems of the world for a few precious moments. And that, in a sugar-coated nutshell, is why it's my favourite restaurant of 2012.
In no particular order, these ten other places have shown me joy and fun times in the last year:
Duck and Waffle on Bishopsgate, and not just for the stunning views - the food is always worth the journey.
José, Bermondsey. There's still no finer Spanish tapas joint in London, and there is plenty of competition.
Tonkotsu, Soho. The signature dish is unmatched in town, a thing of pure and balanced beauty.
Burger & Lobster, Soho, Mayfair and Farringdon. Lobster and chips, £20. Lobster and chips, £20. No matter how many times you say it, it doesn't get boring. Lobster and chips, £20.
MeatLiquor, MeatMarket and MeatMission, Fitzrovia, Covent Garden and Shoreditch. Still the best at this kind of thing.
Tramontana, Shoreditch. The fourth restaurant by the Spanish food specialists manages to be as impressive as ever.
Rita's Bar and Dining, Dalston. Good value, delicious and inventive American comfort food. The hipsters never had it so good.
Lima, Fitzrovia. Finally fulfilling the promise made by other lesser joints that Peruvian fine dining was worth getting excited about.
Patty and Bun, Marylebone. Doing almost everything right when it comes to burgers.
Tayyabs, Whitechapel. Well it had to be in here somewhere didn't it.
Of course it wasn't all good news.
Chooks, Muswell Hill. A concept and franchise opportunity in search of food worth eating.
Jamie's Italian, Union Jacks, Barbecoa, Fifteen, various places. Will people please stop giving this man money to open restaurants. He's rubbish at it.
BRGR.co, Soho. The exception that proves the rule - the one new burger joint in Soho not worth bothering with.
Skylon, Southbank. The kind of thing we desperately need a lot less of.
Pret a Manger, EAT!, pod, etc. etc., fucking everywhere. For making London worse.
There we are then, and whether or not you agree with all, any or none of the above, I hope you had a good 2012 and you'll find enough of interest to keep reading. Feel free to nominate your own best and worst in the comments - as ever, this blog would be nothing without discussion, disagreement, argument, and finely-tuned lunacy. And you can be sure there'll be plenty more of all that to come in 2013. Happy New Year.
Bob Bob Ricard photos courtesy of the extraordinarily talented Paul Winch-Furness, via the BBR website. Photos of Medlar and l'Enclume are mine. As you can probably tell.