Thursday, 27 December 2018

Restaurant of the Year 2018 - The Parkers Arms, Bowland

Looking back over the candidates for Restaurant of the Year from the last 12 months, it's glaringly obvious that I've had far more successful meals outside of the M25 than within. On the one hand this is merely a continuation of a trend which began many years ago, with the rise of Cornwall, Yorkshire and Lancashire as mature food destinations and the inevitable rise of London rents forcing independent restaurants there to get clever, or get out.

But somehow, this year, the growth of regional fine dining (or at least good dining) feels more substantial, and more significant. It seems whenever I spot a likely candidate in Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester or Liverpool (usually though by no means always in the pages of the national newspapers), and hop on a train up North, I'm not only stunned by the quality of the restaurant but increasingly spoiled for choice - so much so that narrowing it down to just a final few for this post was a genuinely distressing process. Still, here we are, and with the greatest of apologies to anyone I've left out, here are my favourite restaurants of 2018:

Best in the South - The Fordwich Arms

At the time of my last visit I said that there was an argument to be made that this handsome mock-Tudor building in the Kentish countryside houses the best restaurant in the country. Maybe one day I will make that argument, but for now I hope they'll be happy in just being one of the best. Confident, ambitious cooking that never sacrifices flavour for technique, if you don't leave Fordwich beaming from ear to ear you haven't got a heart. If it wasn't in such a bloody awkward location, served by such a terrible train company, I'd go every week.

Best in London - Perilla, Newington Green

One of the few London restaurants that have really impressed this year, Perilla started at an already impressive level and just got better and better and better. The lamb fat bread is already a thing of legend, but these guys never sit still, and in two visits it was the only element that remained unchanged - everything else was brand new, inventive, big on flavour and served with heart. The local restaurant everyone wishes they had.

Honourable mention: The relaunched Tamarind, Mayfair whose 'Pink peppercorn chicken' will live long in memory, and Kutir, Chelsea, the latest success in chef Rohit Ghai's already impressive CV.

Best in London (runner-up) - St. Leonard's, Shoreditch

Though the names behind St. Leonard's already had a pretty good pedigree when it came to running restaurants, nobody (least of all me) was prepared for quite how good this place ended up being, and quite how boldly different it dared to be. Best described as seasonal cooking with the odd Asian influence, nowhere else in town is anything like it, and there's hardly a thing on the menu you wouldn't want to order, eat, and order again, from the exquisitely constructed dressed oysters to vast sharing portions of Challans duck, or monkfish bronzed with sea buckthorn molasses. Add in an interesting wine list (I know it's interesting because I don't recognise any of the names) and sparkling service, and you have one of the best places to drop a chunk of your dinner money.

Honourable mention: Anglo, Farringdon, which served a cracking tasting menu in October and can cook a bit of fish better than most I can think of.

Best in Liverpool - Röski

OK, so 'best in Liverpool' sounds rather like damning with faint praise, but please take my word for it that there's nothing qualified about my praise for Röski. A tasting menu full of passion and skill and, yes, local humour (the 'Scouse' served on a glass skull still makes me smile), that there is finally - finally a fine dining restaurant worth recommending in town would make this Liverpool-born blogger proud enough, but that I left this handsome Rodney Street location having had one of the best dinners of 2018 made me want to shout from the rooftops. Come to Liverpool, foodie thrill-seekers and restaurant junkies. They're ready for you now.

Best in Manchester - Mana

When I said on Twitter that Mana was a better restaurant than Noma, I was perhaps being a little hyperbolic. I'd had a lovely evening in great company and quite a few matching wines. But I will say this - I enjoyed Mana, the experience of eating there and the exhausting effort that they put into all their dishes, much more than that place in Copenhagen, because perhaps all that food needed, intelligent and influential though it undoubtedly is, was to be treated to a bit of Manchester heart and soul. Dishes that at Noma left me cold and confused were transformed in this beautiful, energetic space into something much more relatable, and relevant. Noma was impressive, Mana is joyous. But you don't need to worry about comparisons and rankings from nerds like me - just go, you'll love it. I promise.

Best in Sheffield - Jöro

Another restaurant inspired by New Nordic cuisine, and another restaurant in a smart, friendly space in an industrial Northern town. From the very first bite of the artfully-constructed snacks to the final sip of sticky wine, Jöro seems determined to make you fall in love with it at every turn, not just from the incredible food or sparkling service but that at the end of it all they'll give you a bill for about half what you might expect to pay elsewhere (the tasting menu is £45) and they don't even ask for a tip.

Restaurant of the Year 2018 - The Parkers Arms, Newton-in-Bowland

I love fine dining, I really do - I'll cross continents for it, organise entire holidays around it, pay through the nose for it. I'm lucky to have had some truly exceptional meals that a great deal of very talented people toiled long hours to make, and I consider every one of the places above to be more than worthy of the money they're asking. But the very best food I've eaten all year is made by a chef working in a kitchen alone (I think) out of a pub buried deep in the Lancashire countryside, whose every plate of food is touched with utter magic.

The Parkers Arms is, on one level, "just" a pub. It serves pints of beer, it has a nice log fireplace in winter, it does pies and fresh fish and steak and chips. It does these things because it is a pub, and people expect these things from a pub, and if people expect pies and chips then why not just make the best bloody pies in the country, and gorgeous, golden-brown triple-cooked chips to go with them.

But don't stop there, because the menu at the Parkers is both a hymn to the seasons, and a hyper-local tribute to the bounty on their Bowland doorstep. Many ingredients are gathered from the surrounding hills and farms, and indeed one in dish of grouse I had a year or so ago there wasn't a single ingredient from further than a mile away, including the bird itself. Cooking like this, making the very best of what's available that day, requires a dexterity and imagination in the kitchen very few restaurants at any level possess - to find it in an otherwise unassuming country pub filled with a happy mix of locals, hikers and dogs is something truly special. It's the platonic ideal of a country pub, that somehow surpasses my extraordinarily high expectations every time I go, and I really can't praise it enough.

So, let's have more of the same in 2019, please - at least, for as long as we can. Along with the rest of the world I'm hoping to God some of the more dire predictions concerning Brexit don't come true - but I guess we'll know soon enough. And if we do end next year foraging for tinned goods in a post-apocalyptic wasteland well, at least we could say it was good while it lasted, and it was a pleasure to have all of you along for the ride. So many thanks, once again, for reading and following, and have a very Happy New Year.


Beggarsbelief said...

Don’t worry we had fine dining before the Eu and will again. This is GB !!

Matt said...

I can't find your review of The Parkers Arms?