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.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Silo, Hackney Wick

Silo is a restaurant founded on the idea of not having a bin, and is apparently - their words - the "world's first zero waste restaurant". At first glance, this seems to raise more questions than it answers. What do they do with used teabags? What happens to milk cartons, egg boxes and string, are they donated to a local craft workshop or primary school? More importantly, what happens to actual leftovers from customers' plates? Do I even want to know?

It's very easy to be cynical about somewhere whose environmental credentials are so radical and so unapologetically stated (just ask Greta Thunberg) but the fact is, the world needs more restaurants like Silo. Not just because they're serving fantastic food for not very much money - I'll get onto that shortly - but because the planet is dying, food waste in particular is a huge problem and if somewhere like this, a smart, modern fine dining restaurant in central London can go waste-free without sacrificing any of the things that make for a successful evening out, there's absolutely no excuse for the rest of us not to at least make a bit of effort.

And speaking of effort, it's clear that the team behind Silo have really thought hard about the environmental impact of every aspect of the restaurant experience. Instead of printing menus for every service, the list of dishes is projected onto a huge whitewashed wall, which as well as saving paper also provides a dramatic design statement and striking backdrop to the events on the floor. The décor more generally, by the way, is tasteful Scandi-minimalist, and all feels remarkably high-end considering most of it is up- or recycled (I think we were told the napkins used to be curtains, or something).

All of which would be a complete waste of time had the food not been any good, but fortunately head chef Doug McMaster (who you may end up chatting with if you grab a seat at the bar, and I very much recommend you do) has put together a sophisticated, Nordic-leaning tasting menu of strictly seasonal British ingredients, and much like the décor, if it's largely composed of offcuttings and surplus stock, well, it certainly doesn't taste like it. The first snack is a little roll of chilli-pickled radish containing soft cheese, which was sweet and crunchy with a gentle heat, a great start.

Silo make their own bread - but of course - and it's wonderful, right up there with the best sourdough in town. They also (it goes without saying) churn their own butter, and that, too, is quite lovely, a nice healthy-looking yellow and soft texture. Both very much brought to mind the bread offering at Where The Light Gets In in Stockport - in fact the whole operation bears more than a passing resemblance to that Jewel in the North.

The first proper course was a kind of optical illusion, a culinary sleight-of-hand. These aren't actually normal red beets but white beetroots which had been glazed in something they called 'beetroot molasses' (essentially an incredibly thick, sweet reduction of beetroot peel and various other waste vegetable bits), the end product having an almost luminescent glow, like someone had put a lightbulb under them. And alongside the extrordinary visuals, they tasted fantastic too - lemon verbena adding a nice floral note, and what I think was rapeseed oil a gentle pepperiness.

Next, artichokes that had been cooked if not on coals then very, very near to them - charred and crisp on the outside, but soft and sweet within, an addictive combination. They were served with an outrageously salty and powerful - in a good way - Stichelton blue cheese sauce, and then to offset all that umami a neat dollop of "ruby" saeurkraut (maybe involving port?) which cleansed and sweetened.

I imagine cuttlefish makes quite a good waste-free ingredient as most of the animal can be eaten without much processing, and the bits you can't eat such as the beak can presumably be repurposed as, I don't know, trendy cutlery or hung up in a budgie's cage. This particular example, with its char-grilled tentacles and bed of turnips and kimchi, had a spectrum of colour and range of texture that made the absolute best of this (very sustainable indeed) animal. Very impressive stuff.

Even better was braised beef from ex-dairy cows, a cut I think they said was from between the ribs which is usually thrown away or used for cheap mince. Slow cooked to a dreamily soft texture more akin to sweetbreads than rib meat, they were glazed in another one of Silo's signature reductions - dark and salty and densely flavoured. A chunk of celeriac did the job of carbs, overhung with an evocative fug of charcoal smoke and it was all finished with a kind of buttery/herby affair.

If I'm going to be brutal, after the fireworks that had come before the dessert at Silo seemed a bit unambitious. It was a perfectly nice blob of goat's milk ice cream - not overly goaty, which was a relief - but the miso caramel didn't really have any flavour other than 'sweet', and the pine snow was pretty bland. That all said, I always appreciate a good smooth ice cream - I don't know much about the environmental credentials of a Pacojet but they'd either used that or something very similar to it possibly upcycled from freezer parts and a hand blender - and did quite happily eat it all.

Usually, when a restaurant experience goes as smoothly as this, and when you're treated to food this good, the cliché is that those responsible make the whole operation look "easy". And it's true there's a natural poise and balance to everything Silo do, from the layout of the room to the presentation of the food, and every aspect of the service including the procession of wines (natural, of course), beers (unpasteurised, darling) and cocktails (by Ryan Chetiyawardana) is effortlessly easy to enjoy. But for a waste-free restaurant, where almost every aspect of the dining experience needs to be reconsidered and in some cases rebuilt from the ground-up, the skill and effort that must have gone into it all is all the more heroic. It's a commitment to the cause bordering on obsessive - quite rightly, too, considering what's at stake.

So Silo is not just a great restaurant, it's an extremely important one. You can sneer all you like at the concept, these bunch of worthy Hackney hipsters breaking their backs to serve a sub-£50 tasting menu and save the planet at the same time, but for all their talent and labour and attention to detail all they're asking you to do at the end of the day is enjoy your dinner, and there's very little chance you won't be doing that. That extra glow of smugness from doing the right thing for the planet? Well, that's just a nice little bonus.


I was invited to Silo and didn't see a bill - but you can see the prices on the menu there. Very reasonable I'm sure you'll agree.

Thursday 12 December 2019

The White Swan at Fence, Lancashire

It's hard to imagine now, but on the run-up to my latest trip to Manchester it was the Bull & Bear I was certain was going to be the weekend's rip-roaring success of a flagship meal, whereas the White Swan at Fence I was more uncertain about. Michelin stars tend to do strange things to rural gastropubs - prices creep up, service becomes more formal, menus more elaborate and fussy. I'd heard good things, of course - I'm not about to waste good money on a complete gamble - but I'd been trying to keep my expectations in check, and if nothing else the previous day's Sky-Sports-Sponsored weirdness certainly helped with that.

I needn't have worried. From the moment we stepped inside this handsome Victorian building, given the warmest of welcomes and shown to our cosy table next to the fireplace, it was clear everything was going to go very well indeed. It's often a tricky balance to get right, holding on to your soul as a community pub while acknowledging the kind of expectations (and prices) that the Michelin accolades bring, but the team at the Swan have created an atmosphere of easy grace and geniality that feels absolutely right for the occasion, and the kind of food they're serving.

Food, by the way, that's amongst the very best I've ever eaten in the country. The menu - at lunchtime anyway - is charmingly short, just two choices each for starter, main and dessert, plus the option of a tasting menu featuring presumably slightly smaller portions of all of the above. It's a mini work of art in itself, with suppliers namechecked, premium ingredients highlighted, and yet accessible - there's nothing too clever-clever or pretentious. The whole operation, in fact, from the décor to the menu to the Christmas decorations, speaks of a group of people with absolutely exquisite taste.

Bread came out first. Warm crusty buns, with an interesting scone-y texture, with a neat quenelle of room-temperature butter (good) and a portion of chicken liver parfait with shaved foie gras (so, so good). For a kitchen to come up with a parfait this notable and give it away as an unadvertised extra to every table shows both a generosity of spirit and a determination to impress in every given moment.

Then, a pretty stoneware beaker containing a tomato consommé covered with basil foam and topped with a few bits of crunchy pancetta. I had forgotten to advise that one of our party was pescatarian, but a replacement consommé was whipped up in less than a minute (the same, minus the pancetta presumably) which just show you how smooth the front of house are and how efficient the kitchen. It had a good deep tomato flavour, the basil as good a match for it as you would hope, and it all added up to a very pleasant, warming little introduction.

I'd like to tell you about the warm smoked salmon starter - with wasbi buttermilk, apple, yuzu and herring roe - and I'm sure it's lovely, but nobody on our table wanted to sacrifice their celeriac 'risotto' with Perigord truffles, so I'll have to tell you about that instead. Once it arrived, nobody regretted their decision. Tiny rice-grain sized chunks of celeriac actually make a better base for a risotto than most risotto rice I've tried, the parmesan came both as a kind of super-tasty hollandaise and shaved on top, and of course a few huge slices of winter truffle added extra seasonal cheer. Refined without being boring, attractive without being prissy, this was an absolutely great dish.

Fortunately, thanks to the pescatarian, I can tell you about both mains, although having tried the Isle of Gigha halibut with spiced onion fondue, saffron, red prawn and tarragon, I can assure you the fish option was hardly a runner-up. Beautifully cooked, meaty halibut, skin gently bronzed, was topped with a single plump red prawn, sweet and satisfying, and all sat in a frothy sauce that was so superbly balanced between dairy and umami seafood that it drew gasps from all of us, one at a time, as we tried it.

Suckling pig came as a tender medallion of pink loin, and a neat section of belly, a delicate layer of skin crisped up like the finest pastry. With it, silky-smooth blobs of cauliflower purée, roast shallot (or pearl onion, not sure) filled with some kind of light mayonnaise, little sprigs of I think broccoli, look it doesn't matter, all you need to know is that it was elegantly presented, technically stunning, and tasted so good you never wanted it to end.

By this point, despite the fact our appetites were beginning to fail us (a portion of super-crunchy triple-cooked chips had plugged any gaps left by the starters and mains) we asked if we could cheekily share one cheese course between 3. They obliged, of course, and proceeded to wheel over what is surely the most impressive cheeseboard in the North West of England. All bases were covered, from washed-rind to blue, and though local makers were featured there were a couple from the continent too. In the end we settled on a Langres, a creamy English blue which I've forgotten the name of (sorry), and the best cheese in Britain bar none, Martin Gott's St James. They were, in case you even needed to ask, perfectly kept and the perfect temperature.

Desserts continued the theme of just being blindingly good in every way. A pre-dessert of caramel custard was like eating a melted Mars bar - this is of course a good thing - and Sticky Toffee Pudding came arranged as a kind of festive tart, topped with winter nuts and berries and a very nice ice cream.

Mango soufflé, an impressive enough bit of work by itself having risen beautifully, came with more top ice cream work, this time coconut flavoured, and a generous jug of heavenly white chocolate sauce. Like everything that had come before, it was sophisticated, elegant and a masterclass in technique but also, most importantly, a riot of flavour.

You'll have probably guessed where I'm going with all this. The White Swan at Fence has, in the dying days of 2019, leapt straight into my own personal top 10 restaurants and may even have nudged the top 5. Everything that's life-affirming and joyous about eating out has been studied, worked at and executed flawlessly, a perfect dance of harmony between a charming (there's that word again, but they really are) front of house and a world-class kitchen, everyone seemingly having the time of their lives. It's deeply infectious, and utterly wonderful.

And so for a restaurant that does everything right, and nothing wrong, it inevitably follows I have to give it my highest mark. For only the second time this year, I've been lucky enough to be served a flawless meal by a small, passionate team that love what they do and communicate that love in spades. You'd have to have a heart of stone to not utterly fall for everything about the place, and I just can't say enough good things about it. But maybe I'd better stop for now, and give you a second to get on the phone and book a table yourself. It'll be the best decision you'll ever make.


Wednesday 11 December 2019

Northbank, St Paul's

You've probably never heard of Northbank. I say this with some confidence because I'd never heard of it, and as I spend most of my waking hours thinking about where to eat next and have the Hotdinners' "Recently Opened" list as my homepage, for somewhere to sneak under my radar for so long (it's been around since 2007) takes some doing. But even the most restaurant-spoddy of us (Zeren Wilson I'm thinking of you) have our blind spots, and I know for a fact there are a good number of good, solid places that are quietly getting on with the business of feeding people straightfowardly decent food without the distraction of having to appeal to the Instagram crowd, or even (ahem) fickle, trend-chasing bloggers.

But it's no good being a decent, mid-priced restaurant if you can't make the numbers work, and so Northbank have very wisely (and fortunately for me) invested in a bit of PR. And it's at their invite I set out one cold, rainy evening to this welcoming space on the Thames Path near the Millennium Bridge, to find out what all the lack of fuss is about.

The first thing I should say about Northbank is that their bar is knocking up some absolutely great cocktails, and has a nice comfortable place to drink them in (plus an outside terrace), so if nothing else it should probably feature on your list of places to pop in for a classy drink in the Blackfriars/St. Paul's area. Above is an Old Fashioned flavoured with cigar tobacco, one of the best twists I've enjoyed on this classic in many months. It's also £9, about half what you'll pay in some joints.

Northbank is (mainly) a seafood restaurant, and so the only sensible thing to start with is a great big tray of oysters - natives, as well, always a nice surprise to see. They were great, although I do prefer it when restaurants serve oysters on ice; there seems something risky about eating a room-temperature oyster although I'm sure there was nothing to worry about. The mignonette was nicely made, too.

Just to be contrary in a seafood restaurant, and on the advice of my waiter, I went for venison for a main course. It arrived rosy pink, with a faintly underpowered but still pleasant game jus, and some roast winter veg, and was in every way straightforwardly enjoyable.

Less successful was a bowl of mash, which had been over-whipped and was rather sticky and glue-y. It contained a good amount of butter, and the potatoes had a nice flavour, it was just a shame that the technique had let them down. Still, I did eat it.

Crab linguine was fantastic, though. A huge bowl of it (which you might hope for, for £22), and well made pasta that had a good bite without being too crunchy, this was a great vehicle for a generous proportion of fresh crab, with just enough chilli to create a gentle heat and a little dash of lime for acidity. There was also a lot of garlic, perhaps too much for some but I like garlic. 2019 truly was the Year of the Pasta restaurant, and it seems even places that don't have it as their main feature are upping their pasta game. It's good to see.

Desserts were a treacle tart, which was warm and bubbly and comforting, presented with some nice smooth ice cream...

...and a slightly-less-successful summer fruits and chocolate cake thing which could have done with a bit more sugar. However, the sorbet was lovely, so it was worth ordering it just for that really.

So, no eye-catching concepts, no explicitly 'grammable content, no fuss, no fanfare. But Northbank deserves your time and your money because it does what it does competently, quietly, and elegantly, and with views over the Thames. I hesitate to mention service on an invited review, but I'm sure such enthusiasm and efficiency can't just be magicked up when they know they're being reviewed, so I'm going to give them thumbs up for that too. In short, they're doing plenty right and not much wrong and that should be more than enough for most people. Even the fickle bloggers.


I was invited to Northbank and didn't see a bill.