Thursday, 14 December 2017

Restaurant of the Year 2017 - The Holborn Dining Room

Well, we survived. This time in 2016 I was typing with trembling fingers in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, unsure of what it meant for the health of the UK's restaurant industry and the continued survival of the human species generally. I still don't know exactly how things will play out (if you do, for the love of God let someone in authority know), but though I still do occasionally wake up screaming at night, cutting the TV news out of my morning routine and blocking anyone with a flag next to their name on Twitter has helped with the panic attacks. I can thoroughly recommend doing both.

And to be fair, so far - so far - life appears to continue somewhat as normal. From the pace, and quality, of new restaurants appearing over the last twelve months you wouldn't know Armageddon in any form looms in the next couple of years, and whether this is simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic or a genuine belief amongst restaurateurs that things will indeed be OK In The End, well, the effect is the same - lots of genuinely brilliant places to eat, in London and all up and down the country. So, without further ado...

Best Newcomer (London) - Xu

A huge amount of competition for Best Newcomer this year - again - so I've decided to split the category into inside and outside the M25. Runner-up mentions must go to Jamavar, a swanky restaurant in Mayfair which continues to push the possibilities of high-end Indian cuisine and serves food of such exquisite flavour and precision that it almost makes you forget the prices you're paying for it. Also, just nipping in at the end of 2017 is Parsons, which manages to be some kind of platonic ideal of the seafood restaurant. Great ingredients, treated well, served at a decent mark-up. Nothing much not to love.

But overall, the best new restaurant needs not to merely be good, but groundbreaking. Xu serves the kind of food I'd not seen before in London - high-end Taiwanese - and is as good as ambassador for it as you can possibly imagine. Flavours are bold, but balanced, and full of interesting twists and turns; presentations are as careful and geometric as architecture, colourful and clever; and you'll enjoy it all in a cosy, clubby space that makes the most of its small Chinatown footprint. I'm baffled that not everyone loves the place; maybe they just don't deserve to be happy.

Best Newcomer (outside London) - Where The Light Gets In

If someone had told me when I was growing up in North Merseyside/West Lancashire - a part of the country that could charitably be described as "beige" - that there would one day exist there a Michelin-starred fine dining modern British restaurant in the l'Enclume vein, set in acres of kitchen gardens and with its own cheese and charcuterie rooms, I'd have assumed you were as detatched from reality and sense as the customers I regularly served at the Ormskirk Abbey National during my teens. But there Moor Hall is anyway, and I somewhat suspect despite its location rather than because of it, it's utterly wonderful.

But wonderful though Moor Hall is, there's a bright little spot in Stockport that somehow managed to upstage even that temple of gastronomic achievement. Where The Light Gets In is everything that's good, and decent, and rewarding about eating out in this country, all in one beautiful package. The food served is exciting and technically proficient without being difficult; they wear their environmental waste-free credentials on their sleeves without being preachy or - crucially - without the product suffering at all, in fact if anything it seems to make more sense that certain ingredients crop up in various different forms throughout the menu. But mainly it's just impossible to sit down for dinner here and not have the time of your life.

Best Restaurant 2017 - The Holborn Dining Rooms

First, some runners up. I split the newcomers category into London/Outside London mainly because I wanted the excuse to list more places, but in all honesty there's no point any longer in pretending that Not London needs any kind of advantage any more. Anyone who's ever eaten at any of the restaurants immediately above, or at the glorious Parkers Arms serving ingredients gathered from the surrounding fields, or the Rat Inn with their giant, generous hug of a menu of seasonal beauty, or indeed the magical Coomebshead Farm with its mangalitza pigs and rural idyll, will conclude that these are just as deserving of national attention as anywhere down south. We are all the richer for their existence, but residents of Lancashire and Northumberland and Cornwall in particular should be intensely proud of these gems on their doorstep.

And so too at l'Enclume, which is still the standard-bearer of modern British food, and where far from settling for their two Michelin stars and international fame have expanded their test kitchen Aulis into London, expanded their horticulture and animal husbandry operations up in Cartmel, and drawn up plans to have a kind of California-style outdoor BBQ operation in the middle of their farm (can you imagine how much fun that will be).

But as much fun as I've had at these places, my overall favourite restaurant of 2017 is closer to home. Closer to home, and closer to work - about 30 seconds walk from the office, in fact. You'll have heard all about Calum Franklin's wonderful pastry work, and I imagine your Instagram feeds have, like mine, been enriched with his mahogany brown pâté en croûtes and gleaming game pithiviers. You probably feel like you know his work inside out, even if you've never been to Holborn. But there are two points worth making while I have your attention.

Firstly, these extraordinary examples of savoury pastry work taste even better than they look - this is by no means a purely visual endeavour. The jelly that binds the meat is packed full of flavour and dissolves in the mouth to silky, porky heaven, and the ingredients (pork, duck, rabbit, whatever he thinks will work) are top notch. Secondly, while it's true that certain hotel staples that lurk on the menu are mainly to keep the tourists happy (the burger is a bit half-hearted), Franklin has gradually been shaping the menu to his own image over the years and there are some real non-pastry gems to be found now as well. Try the lobster thermidor tart, or the octopus, or the elderflower jelly dessert - all of which are outstanding, superb advertisements for British food both in that gleaming dining room and, via Instagram, the wider world.

While the grand Rosewood hotel on High Holborn has, it's true, had a lot of my custom this year because it's so handy, I suppose it could be argued that gave them something of an unfair advantage. On the other hand, the fact I go there so bloody often and have a consistently wonderful time (the staff are so friendly you'll want to invite them home for Christmas) is testament to just how impressive an operation this is. It's the most Cheese and Biscuits stress-tested restaurant in London, and I still look forward to going back every time. So, last year's runner up is this year's winner. And thoroughly deserved, I'm sure you'll agree.

So, where do we go from here? Time was I'd use this opportunity to make some grand prediction about the future of London dining, or what crazy new trend or fusion experiment I hope to see the next time the Just Opened newsletter (subscribe here) drops in my inbox. I have a wishlist of places I need to get round to - Clipstone, Westerns Laundry, even Le Gavroche still eludes me. And I'd like to visit a few more super-gastropubs up in Lancashire; the Freemasons at Wiswell, and the Swan at Fence to name but two.

But you know what? In the current climate I have a horrible feeling planning anything much at all would be tempting fate; I'll settle for continued survival. So I'll just say thanks to all of you for reading, and following, and sharing, and making whatever contribution - large or small - to the joy of eating out in the UK, for however long it may continue. Happy Christmas.


Martin said...

Happy Christmas!

Holborn dining room has been at the top of my list to try for a long time! Seeing this makes mrs even more determined to try it in 2018!

Anonymous said...

I really wouldn't bother with Le Gavroche. It's food from another era, that I don't actually think is particularly tasty and you'd only leave wishing you'd spent that money on two dinners at The Holborn Dining Room.

Anonymous said...

I had two of most disappointing meals I've eaten this year at Where the Light Gets in and Xu. Maybe I was unlucky and went on bad nights, but I just could not see what all the fuss was about.

WTLGI struck me as the most cynical restaurant I've ever eaten in. It was a tasting menu that consisted of some crisps, one piece of cavolo nero with a dip, a celeriac terrine (which was the dish with the most craft in it), one scallop on a little puree, five mussels (in a very nice broth), some lovely bread, which it should be when served as a "a course" (and which came 10 mins before the mussel broth and was devoured because you're so hungry, so you then couldn't dip it in the broth), two slices of venison, a weird frozen ice thing with some fruit under it, and a slice of cake. It was ungenerous bordering on austere. It's as if they've tried to strip every dish back as far as possible, and in the end just thought "fuck it, why bother serving people any food at all?" The main, as I say, was literally two small slices of venison fillet with a little pile of salt and a tiny spoonful of coulis on the side of a massive plate. By the time you've had the (compulsory, if you want to have a drink) wine flight with five small glasses of massively marked up wines (with your glass empty for significant amounts of time during the meal), added four tiny bits of cheese each (as you're so hungry) and a tip you're at over £150 a head. That is inexcusable outside of London, particularly when the ingredient spend cannot be more than £10 per person (in a £75 tasting menu). They've clearly invested a lot in the building, and probably have big bills to pay. But still, we came out of there feeling that we'd been completely fleeced.

Xu was bizarre. The carabinero was tiny. Every single dish was a one-note hit of chilli and/or cloying sweetness. The mapo tofu was ludicrous: it was just like the nasty baked mozarella in tinned tomato sauce that my local dodgy Italian used to do. And you're reminded constantly by the pace at which the dishes are thrown at you that you have, like, 47 minutes remaining until they've extracted £80 from each of you and you have to be out the door to get the next people in. Take away the wood panelling and fancy cocktails, and you've basically got an eccentric Chinese restaurant catering to the Instagram crowd that doesn't actually do very good Chinese food.

Sorry for the rant. I really enjoy your blog. But I hated these two restaurants, and felt pretty cheated by the uncritical fawning over them in much of the food media once I'd eaten in them. By contrast, I've eaten in Jöro in Sheffield multiple times this year: it's functioning on another level to WTLGI, at half the price.