Friday, 16 December 2016
Restaurant of the Year 2016 - The Quality Chop House
There’s no point avoiding the obvious, so we may as well start with it. For anyone even remotely invested in the business of eating out in this country, anyone who appreciates sparkling service, great food, wonderful cheese, fine wine; anyone who’s involved in the restaurant trade either as a genial host or a grateful guest; certain events of 2016 have conspired to stun, depress and terrify. Looking back over the first few months of the year it seems like a different, kinder world, where even an enforced trip to the JRC Global Buffet in a car park in Croydon seems tinged with the warm glow of pre-apocalyptic naivety. I look back on those miserable plates of deep-fried brownfood eaten in a hospital waiting room with discarded chips trodden into the floor and think “what I wouldn’t give to be back there now”.
Well, not quite. But the whole business does make you look with new eyes upon the restaurants and bars, and food producers and importers of London and elsewhere, anywhere that clever, passionate people are doing the thing that they love and to the benefit of us all, and think that to lose even the tiniest bit of that would be a complete and utter tragedy. And I hope to the very ends of hell that I’m worrying unnecessarily and everything will be OK In The End but it’s going to take an awful lot of good news to stop me waking up screaming in the middle of the night never mind feeling positive again about the future.
So perhaps, in the meantime, before it either is OK In The End or we just start hurtling screaming towards the apocalypse, we should just make the most of what we have. Because what we do have, right now, in December 2016, for however long it lasts, is the most exciting, dynamic, exhilarating and rewarding food and drink scene on the entire planet and I’ve felt uniquely privileged to have been able to make the most of it. Here the places that have in the last twelve months, above all else, made me happy – not to mention relieved – to be alive.
Best Newcomer – Kiln / Padella / Smokestak (tied)
Look, I know it’s a bit of a copout to choose two never mind three equal winners in a single category, but the fact is I could not, even with a gun to my head, choose between these equally technically accomplished and sensationally exciting operations, and so I’m afraid a joint win it is. First to Kiln, who like so many of the very best restaurants, came up with a completely new twist on a familiar cuisine, adding sparkle and invention while keeping all of the flavours and traditions that make Thai food so special. The short, daily-changing menu is packed with unusual ingredients, and the no-reservations turnover means you can enjoy it all for far less money than you might expect.
Turning the same level of passion and skill to Italian food, Padella made London realise that however much we thought we’d had good pasta, up until this shiny, marble-decked spot opened in Borough Market in April, we really, really hadn’t. The whole menu is a joy, as is the experience of ordering it, but you’d have to have a heart made of stone not to fall instantly head-over-heels for the pici cacio & pepe, a minimalist masterpiece of stark, pepper-spiked beauty.
And finally Smokestak, who proved that there’s no style of cuisine that can’t be saved from the dumbing-down effect of chains and supermarket shelves given a true pit-crafter’s eye. Their brisket is the supreme example of its kind, marbled with fat and with a dark, complex bark, and worth the journey alone. But further unusual delights lurk in the rest of the menu, such as the mushrooms on beef dripping toast which is already gathering a fan club of its own.
Best Outside of London – The Royal Oak, Paley St (special mention the Sticky Walnut group)
Outside the “anything-goes” culture of central London (and with a few notable exceptions elsewhere in the country that exist in their own creative bubble), restaurants often have a very difficult job to do in balancing cutting-edge cuisine – and all of the time and effort and expense that entails – with the demands of a local audience. This is why places such as Sticky Truffle in Chester and its sister restaurants in Heswall and Manchester (and soon – joy! – Liverpool) are so crucial for the future dining health of the nation, because they tread that fine line between value, quality and accessibility and prove that when all those things are right, people will pay for it. And so a very honourable mention goes to Gary Usher and his teams up in the North West, from which I hope and expect you’ll be hearing a lot more in the coming months.
But while Sticky Walnut is the local restaurant everyone wishes they had, and could have, the Royal Oak is the kind of place that is necessarily a one-off. Yes, in true local restaurant style the menu is welcoming and accessible, with things like Scotch Eggs and pork chops and triple-cooked chips meaning there are few people with a working digestive system that couldn’t find something to enjoy. But what’s hard to accurately convey using mere blog posts is just how perfect everything is that they set their mind to, from the service, the surroundings of this ancient building in the Berkshire countryside, to – of course – the food, every bit of which you’d happily order again given the first opportunity. Even the journey to get to it (a combination of unreliable trains and rather expensive cabs in most cases) just puts the reward of eating there into sharper relief.
Runner up – the Holborn Dining Rooms
Before you get trapped in a fruitless Google search, let me stop you – I have never given the Holborn Dining Rooms its own blog post. This is a terrible omission, and they certainly more than deserve one, but I do have an excuse. The thing is, the HDR is right next to the office, and rather than make one or two comprehensive visits with my camera like I’d do to most restaurants, I have visited this grand dining room with its phalanx of helpful staff countless times over the last couple of years, from anything so simple as a bowl of soup to the latest and greatest of chef Calum Franklin’s creations.
Because this is no normal hotel restaurant. True, they serve an enticing, elegant menu of modern British dishes, from dressed Cornish crab and native oysters to an award-winning Scotch egg and a rich, buttery chicken & girolles pie. They do all these things with style and a smile, alongside fine wines and (with the help of Scarfe’s Bar next door) a very comprehensive spirit collection. But this is the Rosewood, the classiest of classy five-star hotels, and we’re in the middle of London, so you’d expect them to have spent a bit of money on the place.
What sets the Holborn Dining Rooms apart are the side projects that chef Calum occasionally embarks upon, and announces to the world via his Instagram feed. What first had my jaw dropping to the floor was a grouse pithivier that appeared as an off-menu “special request” in August, and you’ll have to take my word it tasted every bit as good as it looked, complex and powerfully gamey, with a meaty Madeira jus that could bring you to tears. Then, in early December, his Christmas pâté en croûte appeared, a breath-taking work of pastry genius, an entire posh Christmas dinner containing turkey and bacon around a sage and onion stuffing centre, a truly astonishing thing. To do this kind of work under any conditions would be impressive; to fit them around his full-time job as head chef of a busy all-day five-star hotel kitchen is utterly staggering, and deserves every bit of recognition that will surely come his way.
Restaurant of the Year 2016 – The Quality Chop House
Quality Chop House was always in the running for the top prize, as anyone who’s ever eaten there will understand. It is one of London’s leading examples of the restaurant craft, a classy and comfortable spot a few steps away from the foodie hub of Exmouth Market that makes the most of its historic setting and gorgeous period detail (it’s been a restaurant for the best part of 150 years) with warm and attentive service and the kind of menu that you want to take home and frame.
Quality Chop specialise in game, and while supply of the most interesting stuff can be – necessarily – erratic, if you have even the slightest interest in this country’s incredible bounty of feathered food, this should be your first port of call. Woodcock, snipe, mallard, teal, grouse (obviously), diver (a new one on me, pictured above, like mallard but with a more powerful flavour), partridge, pheasant, you name it – if it has a beak and you can eat it, it’s made an appearance on the QCH menu at some point, always cooked perfectly, served with God’s Own chicken liver pâté, bread sauce with delicate, greaseless potato crisps, and various other delightful accompaniments.
Of course, it’s not all about the game. Their seafood is top-notch too, a crab and Jerusalem artichoke dish being particularly knockout on a recent visit, and I’ve heard their white truffle risotto is a thing of wonder. With so much invention and risk-taking going on, it’s inevitable that some dishes will end up noble failures – I still shudder from the memory of a cod chitterlings dish from a couple of years back, though quite why I ordered fish guts and then complained about being given fish guts is perhaps an issue for my therapist. But where else would even attempt a dish this mad? It’s all part of the place’s slightly eccentric English charm.
So far so excellent, and certainly one of London’s greatest restaurants, no question. But why the best? Well perhaps little more than in these deeply troubling times I find myself increasingly looking for restaurants to make me feel settled and welcome as well as serving incredible food, where I can do old fashioned things such as book a table at a particular time, and not have to queue up in the rain or have it wrestled back off me before I’ve finished my post-dessert brandy. Quality Chop is the kind of place where you want to spend all day, but crucially it’s also the kind of place where you can spend all day, working your way through that extraordinary menu, cossetted by fine wines and capable staff and gradually sinking into a boozy afternoon coma as if I were an elderly patient in a nursing home.
As a final example of how highly I regard the place, I took a small group of friends there for my birthday. They had a “game-hung chicken” menu on special that day, which turned out by general consensus to be one of the most brilliant things any of us had eaten this year. Decadent chicken consommé poured into fine china, fluffy bread rolls made with schmaltz, a very clever terrine made with pressed chicken skins topped with a roast heart, it was all utterly brilliant. A highlight of the year. So here is my thank-you, Quality Chop House, and expect to see me darkening your doors many times more over the next 12 months.
Oh, and one more thing. The confit potato. ‘Nuff said.
So that was 2016, and yes, some of it was bone-chillingly terrifying but still, plenty of it was lovely, and always amidst the doom and gloom there are good people doing good things who deserve our appreciation (and custom) more than ever. As long as there are good restaurants there are good times to be had, and I’m buggered if I’m going to let the collapse of liberal western democracy and impending global nuclear war spoil it any time soon. So chin up, best foot forward and until it all collapses around our ears let’s make the most of it. Because when it’s all over and I’m queuing up at the pearly gates the least I want to be able to say is that I had a bloody good dinner.