Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Cheese and Biscuits Restaurant of the Year 2014 - The Dairy
Whether I found a home in this city because I'm naturally a reckless idiot, or whether my adopted home made me one, London is a city of risk takers, and this is why it's always been such a fantastically exciting place to eat out. Street food, burgers, hot dogs, ramen, foraged Modern British, whatever trend you may have leapt upon, enthusiatically devoured for as long as it was a novelty then haughtily dismissed as soon as soon as it reached the pages of the Observer Food Magazine, the fact is, this pace of change would hardly be tolerated anywhere else. And whilst innovation still very often comes at the cost of some truly bizarre and completely unworkable "concepts" that have popped-up and fizzled out recently (it's the Shoreditch Cereal Café that's become the latest object of mainstream eye-rolling but I swear I've seen worse in the past), it has, after all, also given us MeatLiquor, Burger & Lobster, Bob Bob Ricard and a few other past winners of the Cheese & Biscuits Restaurant of the Year. This is a city of innovators.
Clearly, too, there is still an awful lot of rubbish around. It's still possible to buy a really bloody awful burger, lobster roll or bowl of ramen in London in 2014, either because the owners have checked out the competition and still honestly believe their product is better, which means they don't have an ounce of talent in this area and really shouldn't be running a restaurant at all, or perhaps they haven't bothered checking out the competition and just think that by scanning a few trade articles on the latest trends they can dupe enough people that their lazy slice of commodity garbage is worth the logo-emblazoned greaseproof paper it's presented on, in which case they also really shouldn't be running a restaurant at all. Lots of people who shouldn't be running restaurants are somehow still running restaurants, but then I guess that's true of every industry. At least hospitality does better than rail transport.
So I won't dwell on the bad. It may be easy and amusing to have a "worst burger" award or "most incompetent PR campaign" or "most viciously incompetent service in a restaurant" but to draw attention to these things would cloud the fact that most of the time, London food people get it right. And my goodness, how right. I know I say this every year but it really is nearly impossible to narrow my favourites down to a short handful, never mind choose an overall best. But I hope at least you appreciate my reasons for this shortlist, and can at least forgive me for the winner.
The Culinary Trailblazer award - Peckham Bazaar
Also known as the "where the hell did this one come from" award. It's not just that the dishes at Peckham Bazaar make liberal use of obscure and exciting ingredients sourced from parts of the eastern Mediterranean you never knew existed. It's not just that the wine list is worth an award all by itself (and in fact very nearly won one), being a list of incredibly fairly marked-up and entirely unpronouncable Balkan oddities with literary footnotes from people who not only know what they're talking about but can communicate it well to us mortals. It's also that for all this, in a room hung with the smoke from a vast real charcoal grill and at a budget that only a converted pub in SE15 could manage, you can eat dishes of flair and flavour for not very much money at all (£7 starters, £16 mains).
Peckham Bazaar is a one-off, but even that label doesn't do it justice - it is one of London's true innovators, the kind of place requiring not just oodles of talent but nerves of iron and real determination to pull off. A labour of love, and you will love the fruits of its labour.
The Moment Where We Finally "Got" Ramen award - Kanada-Ya
I may never be able to persuade everyone to queue up in the freezing cold outside a tiny, sweaty little noodle shop in St Giles. But for those who are willing to suffer most kinds of hardship for a bowl of frothy, creamy pork bone noodle soup, neat slices of salty pork belly as soft as jelly, and perhaps an extra of cured egg with a yolk the colour of Christmas clementines, this is absolutely the very best you can get. It's definitely not the most comfortable dining experience, but what it lacks in elbow room it makes up for in attentiveness and a pleasant environmental authenticity - the steamed-up windows and largely Japanese clientele mean that you can imagine just outside are the streets of Nagasaki rather than central London. Now just hurry up and open a few more branches, please - food like this deserves to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
The Future of Fine Dining award - Fera
I have to acknowledge that there are people in the world, nice, intelligent people, who don't enjoy Simon Rogan's food. A very good friend of mine walked away nonplussed from Roganic (a popup that existed briefly in Marylebone a couple of years back), yet another wished he'd never booked L'Enclume (still the pinnacle of the art, in my opinion), and none other than Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard couldn't find many nice words to say about Fera. But sometimes you have to shrug your shoulders and tell yourself, well, you can't please 'em all. Rogan's food may be experimental, it may occasionally overwhelm with texture and colour and bizarre confrontations of seafood and raw beef and bright green goo. But I have never found any of it less than entirely thrilling, and he has, against all odds, shifted effortlessly from the understated charm of a medieval Lake District blacksmiths to the grandest of grand London hotel dining rooms without (in my opinion - others are available) sacrificing anything of what made his product so special.
And if you want just one example, the grilled salad with truffled custard; leaves from a dozen weird and wonderful plants some of which don't even have non-Latin names, made brittle and smoky from some fiendishly clever technique possibly involving charcoal, all forming a canopy over a mind-blowingly heady truffle mousse, the kind of thing which will haunt your dreams for years. There is still hardly a mouthful of food from my meal at l'Enclume two years ago that I still can't taste if I close my eyes. Fera is a deeply worthy successor.
The How On Earth Do They Make Any Money award - Silk Road
In most restaurants, the phrase "that can't be right" uttered on presentation of the bill at the end of the meal means beans on toast for a week and an apology to everyone else on the table for that extra bottle of Chablis. But at Silk Road, no matter how many rounds of beer, no matter how many delectable portions of cumin-spiced lamb skewers or pork dumplings or bowls of steaming belt noodle chicken, no matter how every inch of your table groans with dishes of fire and invention and sheer pork-laced generosity, the bill per head will never come to much more than the price of a trip to the cinema.
Nobody is entirely sure why this should be the case. Sure, many of the ingredients are hardly premium, but they are fresh and treated well, and in many cases require either careful slow-cooking in vast stockpots overnight, and someone's got to pay the gas bill, or are fiendishly labour-intensive and highly-skilled, like those hand-wrapped dumplings. Everything is made on-site, by the family owners, and is - and believe me we've tried everything on the huge menu at least once - invariably wonderful, packed with beguiling spicing and uncompromising levels of Northern Chinese chilli. Silk Road is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a handmade pastry casing, but nobody is complaining. A wonder.
The Fusion Fever award - A Wong
The second Chinese restaurant in the runner-up list, but A Wong deserves a spot firstly (and mainly) because it's brilliant, but secondly because it very handily highlights one of the dangers that food blogs like this one can run in to by making a decision about a place based on one visit. I can't apologise as such for writing up most if not all of these pages after a single lunch or dinner; I don't have the time or budget to do it any other way, and in fact 90% of the time even if given the chance I wouldn't need to - barring an errant point here or there, once is enough.
But in 2013 I got it wrong, so completely and utterly wrong that A Wong has leapt from a barely creditable 4/10 straight to one of my favourite restaurants in town. The food is nominally Chinese, but really Andrew Wong's cooking deserves a whole new category of its own - Chinese techniques are married with the very best of London's ingredients (steamed Scottish langoustine with Chinese herbs, for example, or chilli-roast pineapple with Sichuan pepper) to produce a inticing (and huge) menu that impresses at almost every turn. There's nowhere else like it, and for about £40 a head there's certainly hardly anywhere better value.
The Overall Winner - The Dairy
With my earlier whinge about bandwagon-jumping and creative bankruptcy neatly out of the way, I am free to point out - for the umpteenth time - just how good we have it in 2014. In almost every conceivable style and budget, there is a team of people somewhere working their socks off to make sure you enjoy your dinner - surely only New York can challenge our availability of such variety, passion and talent. You want it, you got it.
In the end though, a winner cannot reward either strict authenticity OR no-holds-barred experimentalism that alienates too much of its potential target audience to ever be a hit. The most successful proponents of any art produce groundbreaking invention whilst simultaneously taking along a huge amount of people along the journey with you. Be unappreciated in your own time if you like, but I'm pretty sure most people would rather be the Beatles than Frank Zappa.
There are a number of reasons why I think the Dairy is the best restaurant in London right now. There is of course the the food - they relentlessly push forward what it's generally accepted you can offer customers in a £40/head restaurant on the edge of Clapham Common, and they are working hard to increase the amount of ingredients they produce themselves on in their rooftop allotments not because (or at least not just because) it looks good on their CV but because the taste of the resulting dishes is demonstrably better for doing so. They are also accessible, unpretentious and charming, just as comfortably serving snacks and cocktails on a Saturday afternoon as pulling out all the stops for a ten-stop tasting menu with matching wines; there are no waistcoat-clad waiters flocking to your table every 30 seconds, but neither are you ever ignored. It's service reimagined for modern London, neither haute-cuisine-obsequious or lackadaisical.
I'm not about to suggest that the Dairy is a revolution. Its influences range from Simon Rogan to the Eagle, Farringdon and prehaps its only a few steps ahead of your own favourite local gastropub. It's also half an hour's walk from my house, and that is a factor, I mean I'm only human. But you'll have to take my word that it's my favourite restaurant of 2014 mainly because of what it represents about London. It's barely been there for a year and a half but it already feels as solidly part of what modern British food IS as what Parisian bistros or tapas bars in Madrid do for their respective host cities. Though I love ramen and belt chicken noodles and - yes - burgers, I am after all a Londoner, and we need something we can call our own. If all goes well and this kind of thing becomes our gift to the world, well, what a marvellous thing to be proud of. And if it doesn't? At least we can say we were there for the ride.
Anyway congratulations the Dairy, the other runners-up and pretty much anywhere on these pages that won 7/10 upwards over the last 12 months, and deep apologies to anywhere I've not mentioned by name; there are spots in Dorset, my beloved Cornwall and Somerset that are more than worth a few paragraphs of gushing prose but perhaps I'd better leave you all to your mince pies. I'm off for a brandy, a slice of Cornish Blue and a lie down, and then I'll be up bright and early in 2015 to start the whole thing all over again for - it hardly seems possible - the ninth year running. Thanks so much - as ever - for still reading, have a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year.
All photos my own except the one of the Silk Road Belt Chicken noodles which is by Lizzie.
EDIT: For more London restaurant ideas, why not spend a couple of quid on my Top 100 Restaurants map? Ideal Christmas present etc. etc. App coming early 2015.