I try not to be too obvious on this blog but what is the point of having a blog if you can’t make slightly hubristic end of year lists? Every food blogger does it, I like reading them so let’s not beat around the bush, read and marvel at what I’ve eaten this year. You might like the look of it, and decide that you’d like to eat there too (see it’s actually informative and not showy-off at all).
A companion blog on what I got up to cooking in 2016 can be found here.
Last years eating out list can be found here.
Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside
Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start… Way back in January, the Lake District was flooded but open for business. This gem in Ambleside had just been given a glowing review in The Guardian, Marina O’Loughlin give it a rare 10/10 for cooking that it fully deserved. We ate the tasting menu on one night and it was so good we booked immediately for the following night! Tell me when have you ever done that?
The star of the two meals was the humble cauliflower. A whole head blasted in goat butter so it was charred and crispy on the outside but yielding soft inside. Eaten with skyr and pine, the taste was incredible. LRK also specialise in extreme ageing beef. The piece we had had been aged 140 days and to my senses no longer tasted or ate like beef. It more resembled ham with a deep savoury tang. Interesting and delicious.
Sushi Iwa, Tokyo
For me the minimum requirement for a sushi restaurant is that they start with whole fish that is in season and prepare it from scratch. That’s why I have little time for sushi in the UK, and it’s certainly a waste of time in Birmingham. In my last trip to Tokyo I ate in a 7-seater sushi bar in Ginza, Sushi Iwa. It was pretty perfect in every way, the endless attention to detail at this level makes these tiny Ginza restaurants high temples of sushi.
Every piece of otsumami and sushi built upon the last. Each bite made you wonder how such simplicity can convey such depth of flavour. The meal ended with an extravagant hand roll of murasaki uni. Mr Iwa took a whole slab of uni and mixed it with a bowl of rice and daikon pickles. Then placed a massive scoop of it into a hand roll. So much umami in one bite, unforgettable.
Japan does great food at every price level. In Haneda airport, catching the plane home to Blighty there is a branch of well-regarded Rokurinsha ramen. Much to my delight as I’d planned to have one more bowl of ramen but ran out of normal holiday time. Seeing this at the airport was like scoring a golden goal.
Rokurinsha is famous for its tsukemen, dipping ramen with thick chewy noodles and a complex concentrated broth made of pork, chicken, niboshi (dried sardine), sababushi (dried mackerel) and katsuobushi (dried bonito). I order the additional prawn oil. The first bite blew me away. By the end of the bowl I was quite happy to proclaim it the best bowl of ramen I’d ever eaten. On the plane home I was thinking it may be the best bowl of noodles, any noodles, I’d ever eaten. Next time I’m in Tokyo the first thing I’m doing is going straight to their main branch.
Some say Elkano is the best seafood restaurant in Europe. After eating here I can understand this proposition. What Elkano does is what all great seafood restaurants in the world do; not fuck around with fish. Get fish in season as fresh as possible and prepare it in the way that maximises the freshness. In the Basque Country, this means kissing it with flames over charcoal and wood until the fish is perfect. Generous amounts of salt and a lick of Txacoli is all that’s needed. There’s nothing to hide here, the massive grill is on the outside of the restaurant and I stood watching the grill chef work his magic all day. Inside, the classic interior just oozes confidence. They know what they have here is their version of perfection. The red mullet and turbot I had that day could not be faulted.
La Cuchara de San Telmo, San Sebastian
If you’ve been to San Sebastian then you know about La Cuchara de San Telmo. A well established pintxo joint in the Old Town. If there’s an award for the best kitchen per square meter then this would be it. It is tiny, smaller than the kitchen in my house. But the scope of the menu and the number of covers they knock out every day makes this the best kitchen I’ve ever seen. La Cuchara is packed every night. Pressed suckling pig, seared blocks of foie as big as fists, meaty octopus tentacles crisped to perfection on the outside but so soft and sweet that you could feed it to a baby. Crispy pigs ears like I’ve never eaten before, and trust me I’ve had lots of pig ears! Best of all a morcilla dish with a combination which I rarely talk about because I want to claim it as my own…
Bao Fitz, London
I first met the team behind Bao when we went on a foodist holiday with them to Taiwan three years ago. This year they opened their second restaurant after the raging success of their debut offering in Soho. Bao Fitz is better, there’s more room to breathe and it shows in the food. Such an interesting fusion of Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese. The plates are simple and sophisticated yet inventive. Sweetcorn with aged beef fat, blushing pink duck hearts in chilli soy, raw langoustine with dulse and oyster leaf. They do it all with such charm and fun too.
It was a year we missed L’Enclume in Cartmel but made up for it in spades by going to Aulis. Originally their development kitchen table attached to L’Enclume it has migrated down to London to accompany Simon Rogan’s Fera in Claridges. What a dining experience. Behind the plush carpets of the grand hotel dining room and studious acolytes of the kitchen it felt like you’d arrived at a Hogwarts class room. Floor ceiling with cutting edge cooking apparatus in an intimate six-seater demonstration kitchen. Head development chef Marcus Norte, a rather fruity German fellow with a penchant for innuendo, lead us through Simon Rogan’s mind as a chef. Some things were familiar, the eel croquette and lovage puree was classic Rogan, even the guvnor himself turned up between service to chat and plate up a couple of dishes. Marcus ended by building a dessert with such intricacy that it went beyond the realms of food and into nearby Bond St amongst the high artisans of jewellery. My fellow food geeks and me were totally charmed by every aspect of the dining experience at Aulis.
Sabienglae, Ko Samui
Ko Samui is a small island in the south of Thailand. There are a lot of good seafood restaurants. Sabienglae is the best we ate on the island and the best seafood I’ve eaten in Thailand or maybe anywhere. Thai folk are addicted to flavour, dialling in the maximum sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter combinations in their dishes. But even in Thailand, cooks know not to mess around with fresh seafood. River prawns as big as small lobsters, gently grilled and split open to reveal their golden head fat. Dipping sauces so sour with lime juice counterpoints the sultry climate. A simple baby squid curry made with such fresh sweet aromatic coconut and lemongrass that I knew from the first bite that I would never be able to recreate at home in non-tropical UK. Eating such great seafood with the feel of warm sand between your toes just enhances the flavour of everything, or at least it enhances the memory of it.
A rather showy restaurant in the Central World Mall located in the futuristic looking Asian megacity section of Sukhumvit Rd. We wanted somewhere comfortable to get over the first night jet-lag flying to Bangkok. Paste was close to our hotel and its modern Thai menu looked interesting enough. We only tried a couple of dishes but what we ate was on par with Nahm and Bo.Lan. In particular a deeply aromatic crab curry smoked over coconut husks that is benchmarked as THE BEST CURRY EVER in my noggin.
My local restaurant and friend Brad Carter of Carters of Moseley has a Modern British style of cooking that is gently and intelligently evolving. There are things in any tasting menu that don’t match your own personal tastes. But then there are dishes that hit you right between the eyes. The seafood dishes in the last meal there were just those arrows into my food brain. A single mussel so fat and sweet like I’d never tasted a mussel before and red mullet fried to crispy perfection with a rich shellfish sauce and sticky black garlic puree. Best of all a piece of torched mackerel with dashi, sitting atop were squares of lardo and turnip. Which was which? One bite would be salty fatty lardo, the next juicy clean vegetal turnip, changing the sensation of the pristine cured fish. Genius! But then lardo does go with everything as my own experiments have found.