Wednesday, 1 January 2014
Cheese and Biscuits Restaurant of the Year 2013 - Burger & Lobster
It feels like I say this every year - in fact I probably do say this every year - but choosing just one restaurant as better than any other in London is a horribly reductive, completely thankless task that gets yet more reductive and thankless every time I do it. 2013 was packed with so many not just great but unique and groundbreaking restaurants that I can think of at least twenty off the top of my head that would make a completely uncontroversial top pick, and having set myself to task of narrowing down such a talented field to just one seems deeply insulting to everyone that isn’t somewhat arbitrarily nominated “the best”.
But I’ve made my bed and I’ll lie in it, and so for no other reason than to continue the New Year tradition on this blog and to generate a bit of healthy discussion (or as it’s more commonly known on these pages, “a shitstorm of abuse”) I will pick my favourite place to eat in 2013. First though, a list of restaurants so accomplished I won’t do them the disservice of calling them ‘runners-up’. You really can’t go wrong with a meal at any of (and in no particular order):
The Clove Club
They don’t need the publicity; they’re already booked out most evenings. And they certainly don’t need the praise; they’ve had Londoners falling over themselves to rave about the place almost since the first day of opening. But there’s no escaping that the Clove Club has, in a ludicrously short period, established itself as one of this city’s all-time great places to eat. If you’ve had one eye open to the London restaurant scene over the last eight months you’ll know all about Isaac McHale’s idiosyncratic tasting menu which treads a line perfectly between experimentation and accessibility, always surprising but never less than impressive, served by a young team that give the impression they’ve finally found their calling in life. But don’t ignore the bar menu which includes selections of their house-cured charcuterie, and a classy cocktail list.
The lazy way to describe Peckham Bazaar is the “best Greek restaurant in London” but that’s unfair on two counts. Firstly, the standard hitherto of Greek food in the capital has been so low that being the best is really not much to boast about. And secondly, chef John Gionleka’s food is not strictly Greek - he’s from Albania himself, but the menu takes influence from all over the Balkans with the occasional Turkish twist. All you need to know is, there’s nothing this man doesn’t know about how to grill meat, fish and vegetables, and if you recognise all of the weird and wonderful ingredients he meticulously sources from local markets and delis you should probably put yourself forward as a candidate for Foodie Mastermind. A similarly eclectic and very fairly priced Balkan wine list seals the deal.
To stand above the crowd in Clapham Common requires little more than to not be a completely hideous, booze-led hellhole selling frozen chips to the pre-Infernos crowd. The Dairy could have made a very tidy living doing just that, but instead we have one of the most exciting new restaurants in town, a recognisably British take on fine dining served in a refreshingly informal fashion and bursting with personality. Remember to leave room for the petits fours - the citrus jellies are worth a trip alone.
Most restaurants are happy to receive more positive reviews than not from the critics and public. Only a very few are so good that they receive universal praise. But only once in recorded history (as far as I know) has a restaurant received a set of marks quite as unambiguous as Gymkhana, with five stars and 10/10s from nearly every critic to pass through the doors. And if you think this hype can’t be matched by the reality, you haven’t eaten there. Delicate pastry puris filled with tamarind juice, kid goat methi (with added brains for £3 - mmm brains), a venison biryani that may just be the most perfect thing ever done to rice - this is food of the very highest order, from a menu you want to take home and frame.
Galvin at Windows
One of the rules I decided upon in the very early days of this blog was to never delete or alter the original body of a post even if I changed my mind about a restaurant at a later date. My original 7/10 review of Galvin at Windows, based on a set menu birthday meal in the early days of the then-new head chef is still there somewhere, a relic of a hotel restaurant finding its feet, and of a then-new food blogger trying hard to justify spending £50 on lunch. Since then, I’ve enjoyed some of the finest French food in London in this wonderful spot overlooking Hyde Park, and a recent meal with my housemate to celebrate various different events (Galvin is the quintessential celebration restaurant) was - and I don’t use these words lightly - utterly faultless from start to finish.
Five highlights there, but it’s only the lack of space and time that’s forced me to drop the likes of Mayfields, the Bull & Last, Tartufo, Toast, Hutong, Apollo Banana Leaf, Elliot’s, Grain Store, Story, SushiSamba, Duck and Waffle, One Leicester Street, Sabel, Goodman, Bob Bob Ricard, Newman Street Tavern, Quality Chop House, Zedel, Clockjack Oven, and who knows how many reliably wonderful trips to MeatLiquor and Tayyabs. As I said, any of the above could have won, and whichever I decided as the overall Best In Show would have left me just as guilt-ridden about the places I left out.
Here goes anyway. My top restaurant in 2013 wasn’t just a great meal, or an impressive display of logistics, or a wallet-pleasing exercise in extreme good value. It’s all of these things, but more importantly it’s somewhere that I always take visiting friends, recommend to as many people as ask me about it, and even went so far as to book it for a group on my birthday. Burger & Lobster.
Yes, it’s a chain - there are five of them now, and there will certainly be more. It’s traditionally foodie suicide to lay even mild praise on a chain or proto-chain never mind nominate it for a best of the year award, so this choice is not likely to be uncontroversial. It’s also hardly going to please every section of society - there’s no vegetarian option (unless you really are desperate to spend £20 on chips and green salad), the queues for the more popular branches can be absolutely insane, and they are never likely to be on the PETA Christmas card list.
But every time I go to any of the Burger & Lobsters, I have a really really good time. Every time. I don’t know whether it’s my age, but increasingly I find I’m gravitating towards restaurants that are consistently excellent rather than occasionally sublime, and while “occasionally sublime” makes for good copy, it’s “consistently excellent” that more often sees a chunk of my paycheck. Each time I sit down to that lobster roll, in its sweet brioche bun and gentle fresh dressing, drizzled with lemon-butter and accompanied by a neat little pot of crunchy fries, not to mention a perfectly made martini, I know everything for the next few minutes is going to go exactly to plan. And after all said and done, there’s hardly any greater praise than that.
Anyway, I’ve prattled on long enough. Well done everybody mentioned above - you make London a better place, and you make my life in London immeasurably happier. If 2014 in London is even half as dynamic, innovative, remarkable and downright enjoyable as 2013, then we’re in for a hell of a ride.