Saturday 31 December 2022

Restaurant of the Year 2022 - The Bridge Arms, Canterbury

Since the madness of the Covid Times, you may have noticed that the rate of posting on this blog has slowed down a bit. Where I used to try and do 6 or 7 posts a month, and with that obviously stopping completely while there was nothing open to review, I have since found that 2 or 3 entries a month is a more realistic target for the new, more cautious restaurant landscape.

If we ever manage to see the end of the cost of living and energy crises, and confidence returns to restaurateurs and consumers alike, perhaps I'll pick up the pace again but then again, maybe writing up a smaller number of better, more interesting places is altogether a more sensible approach for the medium term.

Anyway, for the reasons I've mentioned, the pool of candidates for my favourites of 2022 is a bit smaller this year, but glancing through the list I can hardly say the quality has dipped. In fact if anything, the standard of food being produced up and down the country seems to be higher than ever, and is all the more remarkable considering the incredibly difficult circumstances in which it is produced. So with a general "thank you" to anywhere that's fed me over the last twelve months, here's a few of the highlights.

Best in London runner up - Bouchon Racine, Farringdon

You're either fans of Henry Harris' food, or you haven't tried it yet, and since the sad closure of Racine all those years ago it feels like nowhere has managed to live up to the gallic-shaped hole it left. Sure, the Coach and Horses (Harris' next venture) was - is - a very fine gastropub, but was hardly exactly unique in the UK, and not quite the perfect vehicle for his talents. Bouchon Racine, in a lovely bright space above the Three Compasses in Farringdon, takes up where Racine left off, yet seems to be charging a whole lot less than was necessary on Brompton Road for the same unapologetically French, exciting and mature food. This is undoubtedly one of the best French restaurants in London and - whisper it - probably a whole lot better than most French restaurants in France, too...

Best in London winner - Manteca, Shoreditch

Manteca is the kind of place that, if you only had the menu to base your opinion on, you'd quite reasonably decide it's just another mid-range Italian-British restaurant to slot in next to Padella and Bancone and various other places doing this kind of thing rather well, and it would be worth a quick bite with friends and nothing more.

You'd be wrong. Manteca certainly has the template and heritage of a number of other modern Italian restaurants from Trullo to Artusi and many more besides, but manages to stand head and shoulders out from the crowd by virtue of being absolutely world-class at everything they do. Focaccia made fresh daily, their own house-cured salami, hand-made pastas and a wonderful way with game (mallard, pheasant and partridge have been spotted in recent weeks), this is, as I said at the time, the only Italian restaurant any Londoner will ever need.

Best outside the UK winner - Cascina della Taverna, Desenzano del Garda

I tried hard - very hard - to separate my giddy enthusiasm at being on holiday in one of the most food-obsessed parts of the Western hemisphere and being taken on a long drive out of town to a family-run restaurant where they cook everything on a giant solid-fuel range, from the sober reality of the dishes served up that night. Was I just high on local wine and happy to be part of this authentic, homely experience, or was the food genuinely that brilliant? In the end, I decided it was the latter. Choose the provenance and style of your steak (some very local, some from as far afield as Ireland or Poland), have them grill it over the wood fire, enjoy it with seasonal veg and perhaps a bit of horse carpaccio, which is generally the thing to do. It's very easy to enjoy yourself in this part of the world, but Cascina della Taverna offers that little extra bit of magic.

Best outside of London runner up - Catch at the Old Fish Market, Weymouth

Despite the obvious benefits of opening a fine-dining seafood restaurant within spitting distance of the fishing boats that supply it, it's strange how few places outside of the most touristy parts of Cornwall and Devon are brave enough to do so. Catch, based in an old warehouse in the pretty medieval harbour of Weymouth in Dorset, is proof that if your ingredients are world class, and there's enough talent in the kitchen to make the most of it, you'll create your own demand and put your town on the culinary map. An impressive little operation indeed.

Best outside of London and overall best of 2022 - The Bridge Arms, Canterbury

Of course, I was always going to enjoy the Bridge. From the same team that brought us the impeccable Fordwich Arms, itself a best restaurant winner back in 2019, they were hardly likely to drop the ball on this their latest project, wrapping up the visually arresting, intelligently constructed food they made a name with in a more family-friendly gastropubby package. But quite how brilliant the Bridge Arms turned out to be was a shock even if as I said, like me, you were more or less expecting to be wildly impressed.

In short, nothing that comes out of the Bridge Arms is less than perfect, whether its throwaway snacks like padron peppers or (a nod to the early Clove Club menus) nuggets of buttermilk fried chicken, to the elaborate techniques and geometrically-precise platings of the larger courses. I mean even the triple-cooked chips come lined up like a regimental drill. This is the kind of restaurant that wows you with style but grips you with substance, the modern lines of the presentation never promising more than the flavour of the top ingredients can deliver. I loved it, and I want to go back as soon as possible, and it's my favourite meal of 2022.

Despite the ongoing issues with, well let's face it, more or less bloody everything, there are nevertheless reasons to be optimistic about 2023. For a start, if restaurants were able to still innovate and impress given everything that's happened over the last twelve months, there's no reason to think they can't continue to do so in the future. Already my diary is filling up (sporadically, and slowly, but surely) with interesting bits and pieces, and there's a very exciting new place in Liverpool that's going to be one of my first reviews of the new year. In the meantime, thanks - again - for reading, and here's to hoping to many, many fine dinners over the next twelve months. Happy New Year.

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Bouchon Racine, Farringdon

Such is the cyclical nature of these things, trends in food or clothing or plenty of other areas besides will, given long enough, find themselves fading in and out of favour. There was a time, within living memory, when French cuisine was considered the gold standard of achievement in the restaurant world, when Michelin stars were handed out exclusively to places that could demonstrate their ability to construct a decent Tournedos Rossini, and taken back just as quickly if anything on the menu was found to be written in English. There may have been British chefs, and British waiters, and sometimes even British ingredients, but they cooked French food and that was that.

Gradually, beginning most noticeably in the 1980s but accelerating into the 90s and beyond, British cuisine, although very definitely birthed from the French techniques and traditions, began to discover its own identity, and very soon the bright, modern, light flourishes (Rogan et al) or the studied, seasonal rusticism (Henderson) of new wave British cooking all of a sudden made things like Tournedos Rossini look a bit, well, past it. Traditional French restaurant food wasn't suddenly bad, it just looked tired and old fashioned.

It's about time, then, isn't it, for unapologetically French food to make a comeback? Not the heavy, elaborate Escoffier-feasts of the past, not even perhaps Tournedos Rossini, but a style of French cooking that learns from the past while wrapping it up in the kind of experience that makes you want to spend all day there and eat everything on the menu twice. Which brings me on to Bouchon Racine.

First of all, yes I did want to eat everything on the menu twice - even the stuff as a very poor French speaker I initially had to google. But even before making a decision on starters and mains we knew we had to order a plate of Carlingford oysters, absolutely giant things with a clean, minerally taste. This is a great time of year to be eating oysters. They arrived with gordal olives and a deliriously good baguette with salted butter, the suppliers of which had been tapped from Racine's previous Kensington operation back in the day. But more on that side of things later.

Eventually, after much anguishing, I decided I wanted to start the lunch proper with snails, partly because I love snails but also because I can't remember the last time I saw them on a menu. They were fantastic plump, meaty little things in an extremely smooth and enjoyable garlic-butter sauce, sizzling and frothing away straight from the grill.

Other starters were equally brilliant - a steak tartare with a beautifully loose texture studded with capers and shallots...

...Bayonne ham with celeriac remoulade, the celeriac presented in neat little tubes like a vegetable-based bucatini...

...and what was perhaps, amongst some stiff competition, the most exciting and beautiful of the starters, eggs draped in a loose, light "mayonnaise" closer to a Hollandaise and topped with thick, salty cantabrian anchovies.

At this point, Bouchon Racine could have just chucked us the bill and turfed us out onto the street and we would have still considered it a journey worth making, but of course we had more eating to do. Apologies, though, to anyone hoping to see detail on four different main courses because none of us were willing to budge from the main course decision we'd all made as soon as we spotted it on the menu. So behold, four plates of rabbit in mustard sauce. And none of us had any regrets - rabbit with a golden, crisp skin but still boasting juicy flesh right down to the bone, wrapped in bacon (because yes please) and surrounded in a silky, buttery mustard-warmed sauce. Great stuff.

Oh, and creamed spinach with foie gras, because if there's one way of improving creamed spinach it's the addition of foie gras. Look at the colour of it too - like it could replenish your iron levels by just being in the same room.

Desserts were as unapologetically French as everything that had come before. Mont blanc was a giant - and I do mean giant - mound of cream and sweet meringue topped with a bitter walnut paste, which combined to great effect. Tarte vaudoise was a delicate little thing with a rich, buttery flavour that belied its straightforward appearance. And there was of course the famous Racine creme caramel (with added prune), all warm and wobbly and lovely.

The name Racine, though, may not mean much to a lot of you. It was all the way back in 2015 that Henry Harris' flagship operation closed its doors, taking with it a whole generation (or at least blogging generation) of happy memories and steak au poivre dinners, which despite its fans even then felt like the changing of the guard from the French tradition and the refocussing on thrusting young British gastropubs like the Harwood Arms or places like Lyle's which opened around the same time.

But what goes around comes around, and Racine is back, better than ever, and cooking the kind of food you'd wished never went away. Or maybe it never did, and blinded by the new and the fashionable the rotten little trend-chasers like me just never noticed it. Who cares. What matters that it's here now, and it's one of the most exciting and effortlessly enjoyable new (sort of) restaurants in London. Vive la France.


We turned up quite willing to pay in full, but good old Dave Strauss who's leading front of house gave us a little bloggers bonus on some items, so thanks v much to him for that.

Friday 16 December 2022

Caravel, Regent's Canal

It makes perfect sense that with London commercial property rents sky-high, wiley restaurateurs should look further afield and towards quirkier, more unusual spaces to set up shop. I have had mixed experiences dining on a boat (the London Shell Company: great fun; our office Xmas party on the Thames, diabolical) but it's probably important to point out that although Caravel is on a boat, it remains moored up next to nice clean toilets for the duration of the evening, so you get all the charm of a Regents Canal houseboat without having to sacrifice any of your basic comforts.

The second thing you notice about Caravel is the extremely reasonable prices on their a la carte. Starters are £9-£13, mains £18-£23 and desserts £8, the kind of budget you really only see a good distance from London, and even then increasingly rarely. Of course, all it meant in this instance is that we felt able to order way more food and booze than we needed, thus negating the value for money aspect slightly, but this being a birthday meal (mine), that was always likely to be the case.

How can you not over-order anyway when it's all this good? House pickles and bread & butter were exactly what was needed the pickles having a perfect balance of sweetness and sharpness, and the bread being soft and warm with a bright-white fluffy butter.

Potato rosti with sour cream and caviar were as good as they sound and a lot better than they look here, sorry. Caravel is candle-lit, which creates a lovely cosy atmosphere but also means I was unable to use my normal camera and had to resort to the iPhone 13's long exposure mode. Still, you get the idea. What's not to like about crunchy potato, sour cream and caviar?

A plate of coppa and salami was very welcome, as was this brightly coloured (at least in person it was) warm squid salad, which pickled tomatoes and lovely sweet pink fir potatoes all doused in a nice sharp herby dressing.

There really is no excuse for my photography so I'm just going to ignore the fact I've managed to get a piece of lemon in perfect focus while the main ingredient is a blurry mess. These were guinea fowl skewers - I promise - and were absolutely lovely, topped with dragoncello, a kind of salsa verde made with tarragon. I love tarragon, and I love guinea fowl, and the combination was unbeatable.

I don't mind the odd bit of international-fusion experimentation on an otherwise European menu, and Caravel's sesame prawn toast were great big chunky things, greaseless and very satisfying to eat. The chilli jam was good, too - presumably home made which is always appreciated.

To be perfectly honest I don't have much of a memory of eating these roasted carrots with goats curd - and given it's not the kind of thing I would normally order for myself, I probably didn't. Those little crispy bits look nice though don't they? Despite the terrible photo. Again.

Onglet came with pickled walnuts as advertised but also rocket instead of watercress, which wasn't. But there's not much of a difference and anyway the main draw here was the beef, cooked to a good rare (onglet should be served rare) and the pickled walnuts providing a very clever acidic counterbalance where in other circumstances something like chimmichurri or bearnaise would do the same.

Some of the same people who joined me on this dinner had also been lucky enough to share that wonderful lunch at Manteca a few months back, and so it's fair to say we had been a bit spoiled in the pasta department recently, this oxtail ragu pappardelle still held its head high thanks to nice firm pasta and an enjoyable, if fairly sweet, ragu.

Finally, roast hake with chickpeas and cavolo nero where hopefully despite my monstrosity of a photo you can just about make out a good crisp skin, bright-white nicely flaking flesh on the hake and, hiding at the back, a genuinely lovely saffron-spiked aioli.

With regards to the final bill, and if you think £403 for 5 people is a bit on the punchy side, take a bit of a closer look at the itemisation. Yes, not only did we double up on the onglet and the pappardelle but that's 5 cocktails and 1750ml of wine we managed to plough through and though I don't regret a bit of it (and can only assume my dining companions felt the same) it's probably more than possible to do an evening at Caravel for around £50pp if you're a bit more sensible. Which by my reckoning puts it in the lower end of the mid-budget joints in the capital.

We didn't end there of course. Caravel have launched a brand-new cocktail bar called Bruno's also on a vessel moored alongside, so we spent the rest of the evening in another trendy candlelit houseboat drinking Brandy Alexanders until presumably either it was closing time or they chucked us out for other non-specific reasons. The next morning, I found at the bottom of my bag a pretty little Bruno-branded brass coaster with my name lovingly engraved on it, which I'm almost certain I didn't thank them for enough at the time, so let me take this opportunity to correct that - thank you for my birthday coaster. And thank you, Caravel, for a wonderful dinner.


Monday 5 December 2022

The Union, Rye

Over the last, I don't know, ten or fifteen or so years - certainly since the expansion of the St John universe but also since places like Lyle's and the Sportsman and the Draper's Arms spread their wings - a kind of consensus has appeared on what constitutes a Modern British restaurant menu.

There will be a short list of tasteful snacks, usually involving anchovies or olives but also sometimes things like a house recipe Scotch Egg. There will be oysters - there should always be oysters - presented either with a zingy house dressing or just lemon and tabasco, shucked to order and presented on a metal tray filled with crushed ice. There will be a home made (or at the very least very locally-made) sourdough alongside a butter fused with something interesting like bone marrow or marmite. There will be a selection of strictly seasonal dishes of various shapes and sizes, comprising sustainable seafood, game (should the time of year allow) and one or two shareable large plates of steak or fish. There will also be dessert, usually one recognisable English classic (sticky toffee or bread and butter pudding) alongside whatever else the kitchen can dream up. There will be attentive, friendly service and you will pay 12.5% for it. You will go home happy.

The Union in Rye doesn't need to be anywhere near as good as it is. It's in Rye, for a start, a chocolate-box-pretty medieval town on a hill overlooking Romney Marsh and thronging with footfall both local and international all year round. They could be serving supermarket pizza and stubbies of Heineken and still be making a killing. Instead, I'm happy to report, they've settled on a Modern British menu of supreme taste and invention, served at prices that would be extremely reasonable anywhere up and down the country, never mind a low-beamed 15th century former inn in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

We started with cocktails (well of course we did), a pineapple pisco sour and something called Welcome to the Garden involving vermouth, vodka and fruit. Both were perfect. The wine list is heavily English, in fact not just English but heavily Sussex and Kent, listing bottles from the local producers Tillingham, Oxney and Gusbourne. We were pointed towards Ham Street Field Blend 21, a wine which uses a printout of the vineyard's soil sample as its label which was a nice touch. It was seriously drinkable and only 10% ABV which was probably just as well.

Oysters arrived first, great big Colchester rocks in fantastic condition, carefully shucked to retain plenty of nice saline liquor. There being half a dozen we each had one au naturelle, one with lemon and one with their house jalapeno relish, and both agreed the chilli hot, vinegar-spiked jalapeno relish was the best.

One of only one or two things that weren't perfect about the Union was the way they served their sourdough. It was toasted, which is a bit of a shame as if the original bread was in good enough condition I'd rather have it like that, and if it wasn't, then I don't want it at all. The onion butter was nice though.

Salsify crisps with seaweed powder were as moreish as they sound, dainty little ribbons of crunchy fried salsify rolled in a salty, vegetal seasoning. I seem to remember polishing off the leftover powder with my fingers.

House pickles were of a fine quality and variety. We particularly enjoyed the little florets of cauliflower dyed with beetroot, and the sticks of sweet celeriac.

Onto the larger plates, and a sliced fillet of venison draped in lardo (because I mean, why not) came with one of those lovely sticky, stocky sauces, this one spiked with myrtle berry. And no, I don't know what myrtle berries are either but they tasted fruity and sweet and pleasantly seasonal.

Then for the crowning glory of the savoury courses, a giant, gleaming "tranche" of halibut - think porterhouse steak, but from the sea - which was a good a bit of fish I can remember eating in a very long time indeed. With none of the mushiness or formlessness of some examples of this kind of thing (I've been served mushy halibut in some otherwise pretty fancy places), this example broke apart in clean, defined chunks - not flaked as such like cod, but perhaps closer to the dense, satisfying texture of perfectly cooked Dover Sole. And if that wasn't enough - and believe me this bit of fish would have been more than enough by itself - it was served with a completely giddying cod bisque, thick and sweet and rich, which I ended up drinking out of the little jug when I thought nobody was watching. Maybe I got away with it, maybe I didn't. To be honest, I don't care, it was worth it.

Dessert was never going to be anything other than tarte tatin, and very nice it was too. I admit to have been slightly spoiled on the TT front by the basically perfect version made at Galvin Bar and Grill at the Kimpton Fitzroy, but this was still incredibly enjoyable, and the whisky cream it came with added a lovely alcoholic kick.

In many ways, as I started off saying, the Union fits into the mold of many modern British restaurants that have - delightfully and rightfully - spread out across the country in the last few years. This means you sit down knowing more or less what you're going to order, how to order and - broadly - what it's going to cost. But of course that's just the start. To fulfil the potential of the template you have to know exactly what you're doing in the kitchen, and have a front of house capable of delivering it all smartly and efficiently. And the Union have all of that in spades. Add in the jaw-dropping setting of a medieval building in the centre of Rye and you end up with a completely unbeatable formula. Prepare to be smitten.


I was invited to the Union and didn't see a bill. However, totting up the above would have come to about £170 including service, about right for the amount of booze and food we had.