Thursday, 19 December 2019

Restaurant of the Year 2019 - The Fordwich Arms, Canterbury

If you're reading this, then somehow you made it through 2019. For that much at least, we should all give ourselves a pat on the back. In the face of crumbling democracies, looming autocracies, climate catastrophies and Sketch Mayfair winning 3 Michelin stars, we've somehow kept our heads, steeled our hearts and got on with the business of living, and eating, and drinking, as if it was our last chance to do so. Because God knows, maybe it is.

Yes, it's been a difficult year alright and it seems (from my own particularly biased perspective) that the restaurant industry itself, and those of us that spend our time enjoying the fruits of their labours, have more to worry about than most. And yet somehow, in these uncertain times and facing a frankly terrifying future, British food continues to adapt, innovate and improve. In London, exciting waste-free concepts like Silo are fighting the good fight against environmental armageddon, while out in the countryside places such as the Small Holding grow everything they need in their back garden farm or forage from the surrounding fields. If this is the future of British food, then maybe there's hope for us all yet.

But while environmental impact of a restaurant is an increasingly important, indeed planet-saving, consideration, to make my best-of-year requires an extra sprinkling of pixie dust. I've had some genuinely astonishing meals all up and down the country, but since a long, laughter-filled and legendary meal in November my mind, despite a couple of late challengers, has been made up. But before I get to that, I hope you'll indulge me as I introduce a few completely arbitrary categories so I can revisit as many of the year's highlights as I can get away with.

Best in London: Alyn Williams at the Westbury
Poor old Alyn faces a bit of an uncertain future following a falling out with his hotel restaurant's owners, but no external forces in politics or hospitality (or the politics of hospitality) can change the fact I had a truly exceptional meal here in August, and I'm happy to go on record to say that whatever the future holds, he is one of the very best chefs the country has to offer. A tasting menu in a five star hotel in Mayfair stands every chance of being, well, everything that's bad about tasting menus in five star hotels in Mayfair, but thanks to a youthful team, a dextrous command of technique and a blindingly obvious enthusiasm for the work, dinner here was equal parts joyful, impressive and surprising. Oh, and that langoustine consommé was out of this world.

Best in Liverpool: Pilgrim
I said last year, almost apologetically, that "Best in Liverpool" sounds rather like damning with faint praise, but at the rate the city's restaurants are improving, Best in Liverpool is actually now something to be exceedingly proud of. Pilgrim, very much against the trend in thrusting new restaurants in trendy new developments, draws most of its inspiration (and most of its ingredients) from the North West of Spain, but thanks to a kitchen that knows exactly what its doing with such extraordinary produce and a front of house that make you feel like the only diners in the room (even when, as is usually the case, the place is rammed to the hilt), it all still feels genuinely innovative. Oh and I'm sure Röski is still great too, I've just not been in 2019...

Best in Lancashire: The White Swan at Fence, the Parkers Arms (tied)
I can't choose between them, I won't choose between them, and you can't make me. I said in February that eating at the Parkers was as if someone had climbed inside my brain, made a note of all of my favourite things and then served them all, one after the other, until I had to beg them to stop. Smoked teal, langoustines with aioli, mutton pie, triple-cooked chips, a procession of the finest pub food in the country, chef Stosie is a magician with a charcoal grill, and would be a shoo-in for the best food in Lancashire as well if it wasn't for the White Swan, who in their very different, Michelin-friendly style have managed to make the finest ingredients of the North West of England sing to a different, equally magical tune. So I really hope they don't mind sharing this category; they're both death-row restaurants for me.

Best for pasta: Sugo Pasta Kitchen, Manchester (runner up: Bancone)
Since Padella burst onto the scene in 2016, London was supposed to have officially become, as a city, Good For Pasta, and yet the truth, as is so often the case, is more complicated than that. Trullo was doing top-quality sage & ricotta ravioli, for not much more money, years before that, and if you want to really dig back into the past it was the River Café in Hammersmith that got the first ball rolling. And in 2019, sure, there are plenty of pasta restaurants but how many are actually any good? Not many. But Bancone is the real deal - their silk handkerchief pasta a signature dish and work of culinary art - and up in Manchester, Sugo are, incredibly, even better (and, it goes without saying as it's in the North, cheaper).

Best Indian: Jamavar
A fair few contestants for best Indian restaurant this year, with Indian Accent, Kutir and Kahani all within shouting distance of the prize, but all things considered, and as much as I wish my favourite Indian restaurant wasn't an ultra-swanky ear-bleedingly expensive Mayfair joint, well, sometimes you've just got to admit when you're defeated. I love everything that Jamavar does, from the classy chutneys to the interesting bits of game they introduce in the autumn months, to the sparkling décor and slick service. But most of all I love their stone bass tikka, absolutely the best fish dish in London bar none. And if you don't agree with me, you haven't tried it yet.

Best chain: Shake Shack
To make my life easier, and save myself the agony of deciding which is my favourite burger out of the various mini-chains that exist in the capital, which would probably drive me completely loopy, I've decided to define a "chain" as anywhere with 10 or more branches. So ner. Anyway, I've been to Shake Shack far more times than is healthy in 2019 - there's one 10 minutes' walk from the office - and every single time I've come away happy. Consistency is only part of what makes their offering so good though - the burgers are carefully made, tastefully presented, and as long as you order correctly (that is, with all the salad, which provides much needed crunch and cuts through the slappy cheese) contain every single pleasure point of a good burger, including beef that's always seared to order to a lovely crunch. They're not cheap, but you get what you pay for - the best chain burger in the UK.

Best restaurant overall (runner-up): The Moorcock Inn
Before you go any further, I recommend you follow the Moorcock Inn's Instagram feed. A timeline of the insanely wonderful ingredients those guys get hold of and serve in their isolated pub high up over the Calder Valley, it will be home-grown velvet shank mushrooms one day, 300 year old mahogany clams the next, spider crab, sea urchin, local mutton, ingredients chosen with care and love, and presented with style. And this is exactly what you get when you sit down to dinner at the Moorcock, a parade of seasonal invention that costs a ludicrous £39 a head. Yes, you read that right, £39 a head.

Best restaurant overall: The Fordwich Arms
No matter how good the food was in the early days at this handsome 1920s pub on the outskirts of Canterbury, and believe me it started off fairly magnificently, each subsequent visit has been better, and better, and better. But even in late 2019, dining here is an experience akin to what it must have been like to go to the Fat Duck in the early 2000s, after the award of the first Michelin star (which Fordwich already have) but before it all went molecular - there's a feeling that they're only just getting started, that every new twist and turn of the menu points at much, much greater things to come.

But let's not dwell on the future. Fordwich Arms is, right now, arguably - and I'm here to make that argument - the best restaurant in Britain. Previous visits have all rewarded remarkable meals, but on this most recent trip some of the dishes - citrus-sharp chickpea fritters with wild garlic aioli, white truffle shaved onto creamed potato and maderia sauce, duck consommé steeped in autumn herbs - provoked something close to a religious experience; we were literally in raptures. Eating here is a profound, and lasting privilege, and it is, unambigiously, my Restaurant of the Year.

This is the part of my final 2019 post when I try to make some point about the grand state of things, of British food in general and the restaurant industry in particular, but to be honest this year I'm at a bit of a loss. There are just so, so many reasons to be deeply pessimistic about the future that the fact we're not already all gibbering wrecks trapping wild rats for food is a daily bonus, so maybe the best way of approaching the coming year is just to enjoy each day as it comes, in the best way we know how. Cherish your favourite eating spots, bestow custom on your local pubs and bars, reward anyone making the world a better place and encourage them to carry on doing so. For as long as it lasts, there's an awful lot around to enjoy, and if - when - one day finally it all goes tits up, and you're sat on the roof of your flooded home watching the fascist gunboats approach on the horizon at least you can look back and say you made the most of it. Or maybe, just maybe, it will all be alright in the end. I guess there's only one way to find out.


Cubbie Cohen said...

Oh come on old boy, I know you despair at the thought of Brexit, but I can assure you we are not facing a "frankly terrifying future". We'll have a wobbly ride for a while but we're a tremendously resilient country. Our restaurant industry will continue to delight us, however it will probably mean the less competent will fall by the wayside sooner. The best eateries will continue to thrive as they always have. Thank you for the blog, it's always entertaining and well written. I wish you and yours a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Andrew Stevenson said...

Great stuff, Chris. Really enjoyed reading that.

Cykler said...

Looks very yummy