Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Restaurant of the Year 2020/2021 - Mangal 2, Dalston


Apologies - yet again - for the lack of recent activity on the blog. I kept December deliberately quiet because I couldn't afford to test positive before flying to California to spend Christmas with my family, and so the diary was pretty empty. Once safely in the US I made the absolute most of it though, and managed amongst the various different festivities to make it to Carlsbad at to Jeune et Jolie, the first genuinely world-class restaurant I've found in that part of the world that isn't Mexican or Japanese. I will eventually get around to writing that up. But first, I have two years' worth of restaurants to wade through.

Yes I find myself in January 2022 having to pick a winner from two full covid-blighted years of home deliveries, shivery outdoor openings and nervous indoor socially-distanced dinners. Fortunately thanks to so many months of lockdowns, the total number of places to choose from adds up to only about the same number as in one normal year, but the timescales involved make objectively choosing a winner across 24 months of activity (or rather lack of it) rather tricky. How can I objectively compare a fading memory of a wonderful Madre in Liverpool back in January 2020 to an astonishing lunch at Tallow in Kent which burns bright from a couple of weeks ago? I can only try. In these strange times, nobody can seriously expect any more than that.


Best restaurant home kit runner up - Burger & Lobster

I have my own particular set of criteria for restaurant home kits, namely if in my cackhanded way I can manage to create something even vaguely resembling the offering from the actual restaurant, then this minor miracle should be applauded. The Burger & Lobster home kit is not only a pretty reasonable price (£34 for two, making it a few quid cheaper than eating in the restaurant in normal times) but the instructions so clear and idiot-proof that I managed to create an attractive warm, buttery lobster roll in hardly more time than it took to unwrap the packaging. Throughly recommended, and still available online.


Best restaurant home kit winner - Parkers Arms

It's more or less a given these days that everything this team turns their attention to ends up a knockout success. Their (lockdown only, and sporadic at that) Chinese New Year home kit was a riot of fun and flavour, definitively Chinese spicing and technique married with foraged Lancashire funghi and hedgerow fruit, and absolutely one of the highlights of lockdown 2021. In a different non-Covid timeline this could easily have been winning best restaurant overall, but thanks to two separate cancelled trips with my extended Californian family, sadly was not to be. However, with naive optimism we have rebooked for a third time in June 2022. Here's hoping.


Best Liverpool restaurant runner up - Madre

A return trip to Madre last summer reminded me that these guys are still serving vibrant, exciting Mexican food that's far better than you've any right to expect in the middle of Tourist Liverpool with its gangs of stag and hen do's in matching t-shirts and inflatable sex dolls. To this often rowdy crowd the staff seem to somehow always be attentive and always pleasant, with food brought on time and never any waits for drinks. It's an enormously satisfying operation, and still my favourite place for Mexican food outside of the Americas. Their margaritas are cracking, too.


Best Liverpool restaurant winner - Nama

I spent my evening at Nama blinking in disbelief that high-end Japanese food was being served in a location so completely inappropriate for the cause. I have nothing against shopping malls, or associated food courts, but to be sat in wipe-clean canteen surrounded by people eating fried chicken and milkshakes while being served dish after dish of stunning quality seafood, meticulously presented and for seriously reasonable amounts of money created a cognitive dissonance so severe I began to think I was part of some elaborate reality TV scam. But I'm happy to report that whatever you think of the venue (and I'm reliably informed they won't be at the GPO food court forever), the food is so good as to transport you to a tranquil raked zen garden in Kyoto after your very first bite of red prawns dressed in a lime & ginger ponzu.


Best UK (non-London) restaurant runner up - littlefrench, Bristol

Perhaps it was just the utter joy of seeing friends and travelling again, of being served intelligent bistro food in the warm spring air, or maybe it was the bottle of pet nat we'd consumed at 10am on the train there. Perhaps it was a combination of all these things. But I loved littlefrench, its attractive menu of seasonal loveliness and the opportunity to share a whacking great turbot between four people. It seems like a lifetime ago now, August 2020, when we assumed it was all over...


Best UK (non-London) restaurant winner - Tallow, Kent

I'm trying very hard to distinguish recent memory from lasting memory, but looking back over the Tallow post from last month I'm increasingly convinced that this was no fluke, and despite being the very last notable meal out of 2021 it was still one of the best of the last 24 months. Whatever atmosphere and old English charm has been lost in the move from the ancient Compasses pub in Crundale has been made up for in spades by even more elevated gastropub cooking (which I'm going to have to find a name for, maybe "gastropub+"?) in the vein of the always sensational Fordwich Arms, which only doesn't make the list this year because the menu was about 80% the same as the previous visit. Still, if it ain't broke and all that.


Best London restaurant runner up - Temaki, Brixton

It's not often a restaurant comes along that completely changes the way you think about a cuisine, but Temaki have done to, er, temaki (that's sushi rice rapped in nori and topped with raw fish) what the Meatwagon did for burgers, or Hawksmoor for steak. In a cool, pleasant corner of Brixton Market, friendly and easygoing staff serve an omakase-style procession of bitesize delicacies, hand-made to order with lovely warm, fluffy rice and an interesting and insanely reasonably priced (the cheapest set is £17) set of toppings including smoked eel and the ever lovely otoro (fatty tuna). Add in a good selection of sake and some Japanese-tinted cocktails (e.g. yuzu negroni) and you have yourself all the ingredients for a fine evening out.


Best London restaurant winner, and best restaurant overall - Mangal II

It's hard to overstate the vast risk the Dirik brothers took in reinventing their family restaurant on Kingsland Road. In the face of committed local opposition (just read their Tripadvisor reviews... in fact don't, that website is poison) they nevertheless quite reasonably decided that Dalston wasn't short of cheap and cheerful ocakbasi grills, but what it and the wider city didn't yet have was an intelligent and modern take on Turkish food, blending new Nordic techniques with the very best British ingredients (such as Matt Chatfield's astonishing cull yaw, above) and yet recognisably Turkish dishes (kofte, shish, manti, etc.).

Mangal 2 would have been the favourite contender for restaurant of the year even if it had opened on Shoreditch's Great Eastern Street with a flashy tiled frontage, a single-word Nordic/Turkish name (maybe "Køfte") and a moody lighting scheme. But to do all they've done in the same no-nonsense dining room that used to serve pink tarama with flatbread out of a packet (look I can enjoy that stuff as much as anyone, but you know) and - most of all - to run the risk of antagonising artist regulars Gilbert & George, is an act of profound culinary bravery that deserves to be rewarded. And so rewarding, in my own small way, I am. Well done those guys. Well done indeed.


As for 2022, all we can hope is that it's not as profoundly distressing as the previous 2 years, but given I've been saying that for 3 years now I'd better hold my tongue. God knows it's been hard to stay positive at times, and we've been given 150,000 reasons (and counting) not to, but London and the UK is, despite everything, still going, and restaurants are somehow still open, and I can only plead with you to go and visit them, and drink in your local pub, the very second you feel able to do so. Because life without pubs and restaurants, well remember what that was like? Didn't it completely fucking suck?

A happy new year, then, and best wishes for 2022. If it helps cheer you up, I'm doing my first public vote in 2 years next month and the chances of my being sent to Saltbae's place in Kensington is about 99.9%. So that's something to look forward to (for you, at least). Until then, have a very big glass of sherry, dust off those "going out" shoes, and to quote General Melchett from Blackadder, "If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through." Cheers.