Tuesday, 29 December 2015
Cheese and Biscuits Restaurant of the Year 2015 - The Newman Arms
The traditional way to start an end-of-year post, based on Cheese & Biscuits past (he says scanning the few previous years' posts in an effort not to repeat himself), is to praise the dynamism and ingenuity of the London restaurant scene, pick out a few notable new entries alongside reliable old stalwarts, and repeat once again that there isn’t another city on earth that can match it for diversity, energy and innovation.
And certainly all these things are still true, and yet in 2015 it all - impossibly - seems to have stepped up another gear again. The old stalwarts are still there, of course; at least, most of them. I’ve had yet more excellent dinners at Bob Bob Ricard, Tayyabs, Silk Road etc. etc and however proud of the pace of change in London we should never become so obsessed with the new and improved that we take for granted the enormous achievement of brilliant consistency. They may make it look easy; don’t be fooled.
But she sheer number and quality of new openings just can’t be ignored. I could list at least 20 restaurants that are not just enjoyable and good value but in some way unique or groundbreaking, and have all opened in the space of the last twelve months. And these just the ones I’ve managed to visit; from what I hear about The Hour Glass, Oldroyd, Shuang Shuang, The Ninth and god knows how many others listed on the Hot Dinners New Openings, this number could be a lot higher.
Perhaps it’s not sustainable. Maybe we’re living in some hyper-inflated, self-obsessed bubble that’s on the verge of bursting, and we’ll look back on these crazy times and wonder how we ever thought it would last. Or maybe - and this is just as likely - we’re still only just getting started. What a thought. Anyway, however impossible a task this is, I’m going to pick out a few highlights amongst highlights and do my best to come up with a favorite...
The “Believe the Hype” award - Kitty Fisher’s
In a Venn diagram of “restaurants serving world-class food” and “celebrity hangouts”, the intersection would not contain very many options. Filter that yet again with “restaurants you won’t need to remortgage your house to be able to pay the bill” and you’re really left with just one. This charming little spot in Shepherd’s Market built up a loyal following in that most old fashioned of ways - no PR, no grand launch party, just serve good food (expertly sourced grilled meat & fish, and the occasional stroke of genius like Burnt Onion Butter), treat each customer like family, and hope it works. And if you’ve been, you’ll know - it really does work.
The “Best outside of London” award - The Black Swan, Oldstead
Quite a few candidates for this category, but I’ve settled on this idyllic spot in the North York Moors because it feels to me like it encapsulates everything a regional restaurant should be. Experimental where it matters, though never at the expense of enjoyment, with a maturity and confidence that comes with this amount of time running a Michelin-starred restaurant, the kitchen team at the Black Swan would I’m sure be a hit wherever in the country they happened to settle. But here, surrounded by the most extraordinary natural larder, they construct a seasonal symphony of the very finest British (or rather Yorkshire) dishes.
The “Fusion Fever” award - Chick’N’Sours
It wasn’t long ago that “fusion” ranked just below “carvery” in the list of restaurant description warning signs. But this isn’t some shallow PR stunt, mashing together wildly inappropriate cooking styles for the sake of a few headlines. It could have been that, quite easily. But in the hands of Carl Clarke we have probably London’s finest fried chicken served alongside a variety of SE Asian salads and sauces that soothe the soul, lift the spirits and make you wonder why nobody’s done this kind of thing before. Oh, and try the wedge salad with crispy chicken skin, it's a knockout.
The “Where Have You Been All My Life” award - Hoppers
Yeah yeah, I know, you’ve probably read a million words on this place already, and know all about the bone marrow varuval with roti like the finest French patisserie, the black pork kari with its dense sticky spicing, the egg hoppers themselves with their gently tangy casings and soft egg base. But beneath the hype and the queues there is no con-trick here; Hoppers is talk of the town because it deserves to be. Sri Lankan food given a Soho makeover from the team that brought you Gymkhana, Trishna, Bao, Lyle’s... and basically every other memorable meal you’ve had in 2015.
The “Will Someone Please Give Her A Restaurant” award - Darjeeling Express
Asma Khan’s popup at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho is, at time of writing, still going, and therefore there is still time to get yourself down to enjoy the finest homestyle Indian food ever served in London outside someone’s actual home. The terrifying thought that once her residency is over she may decide to do something else is therefore reason for my plea to her now - please find a way of making this work long term. Because this food is too good to lose even for a day.
The “No Choice, No Problem” award - Pidgin
The relationship of absolute trust between a restaurant serving a no-choice, four course menu and a public willing to pay for it must be profound and unbreakable. But if there’s one chef capable of such unshakable faith it’s Elizabeth Allen, whose flair for modern British food and magical lightness of touch across a multitude of disciplines (fish, game, desserts, you name it) has turned weeny restaurant Pidgin into a destination almost from day one. You go to Pidgin, you put yourself in their hands, and you have the time of your life. It’s that simple.
The Runner Up - Galvin @ Windows
As ever with these kind of things, there’s very little to choose between the winner and runner up, and very little to choose between the runner up and any others in the list above, for that matter. But after having chosen a largely cutting-edge shortlist, and sung the praises from the rooftops of our Modern British talent, the contrarian in me feels duty bound to say that my two meals at Galvin this year, one with the parents in September and one for a friends birthday a couple of weeks ago, were as memorable and accomplished as almost any other meal I’ve had in the last twelve months.
Sure, the Galvin tradition is solidly french, but head chef Joo Won has kept the spirit of the menu that won them the accolades while injecting the odd enticing bit of Asian seasoning, ending up with a menu full of excitement and intrigue. Service, overseen by Fred Sirieix of First Dates fame, is as good as ever, and of course faultless. But Galvin @ Windows is more than just a hospitality show. The food is world class, the attention to detail breathtaking.
The Winner - Newman Arms
There are many things to love about the Newman Arms, from the Dickensian charm of its dining room and downstairs bar, to the lovely thick-crust pies they do on Monday lunchtimes served with buttery mash and fresh parsley sauce, to the astonishing Modern British food cooked up by their superstar chef Eryk Bautista the rest of the week, who seems to have completely bypassed the ‘one to watch’ list and nestled firmly in the ‘one to shortly win every award under the sun’ list. Everything about the Newman Arms is wonderful, and owner Matt Chatfield, whose Cornish connections mean Bautista is never short of the country’s finest ingredients to work with, should be very pleased with himself.
But what lifts the Newman Arms above its many competitors is that it has, over the last few months, turned into somewhat of a testing bed for young talent, hosting popups and special evenings from supper club stars wanting to spread their wings in the capital. Recently I ate lovely home made laksa by the Sambal Shiok guys, matched with Riesling chosen by wine expert Zeren Wilson, a collaboration that would have been hard to envisage least of all organise were it not for the generous intervention of Chatfield. So it’s this sense of community and charity that - much like Islington’s Drapers Arms - mark it out as much more than a (top notch) gastropub. It’s the beating heart of London’s place in the world, and is everything that’s uplifting and gratifying about eating out in the city distilled into one quaint pub in Fitzrovia. It is, in short, my favourite restaurant of 2015, and I look forward to visiting as often as I possibly can in the months to come.
And there’s plenty more to look forward to in the months to come besides, not least the 2016 version of my app which will be out very soon, as well as the usual slew of new openings that will no doubt be jostling for a spot in the 2017 version. I won’t preempt the final 100 now; lord knows enough can happen in a week to make a list obsolete never mind the time it takes to publish a new app, but expect to see most of the above and a few more besides. It’s been a very, very good year, and keeping the app to just 100 entries is a challenge on the level of writing the 100 brand new reviews to go with them. You’ll just have to wait and see for yourself who made the cut.
Anyway, with that I’ll leave you for this year. I hope you had as much fun as I did scooting around the capital for dinner, and if you didn’t then I hope 2016 is more to your taste. There are few better ways to lift the spirits than a glass of wine and a meal out in a great restaurant, and I’m convinced there are no better places in the world to do just that, right now, than London.