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Palate’s Review of 2020 (And What To Look Forward To In 2021)

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“Each year that passes seems to have its own character – some leave us with a feeling of satisfaction, others are best forgotten,” said the Queen in her 2009 Christmas speech. I wonder how she will describe 2020. Though we can console ourselves slightly with the news of a Covid-19 vaccine and adults returning to the White House, this year has been a particularly extraordinary annus horribilis.

As painful as it might be to look back on this year of suffering and heartbreak, it sometimes helps to take stock of traumatic experiences and ask what we learnt. We also wonder if there’s anything to look forward to next year.

It’s easy to forget that the very start of this year was actually OK. Well, apart from the Brexit transition phase starting of course. On 31 January I enjoyed the remaining few minutes of full EU membership at The Delaunay, tucking into a schnitzel Holstein as the clock on the wall ticked towards isolationism, global embarrassment and self-inflicted ruin. Like the Titanic’s initial hours of pleasurable sailing, we had no inkling about the catastrophic and life-changing events around the corner. Concerns about a highly infectious virus outbreak in China had begun but it was only until northern Italy went into lockdown that people started to think ‘hmm, maybe we should be doing something about this’. We can argue until the cows come home about what should’ve been done but it’s fairly clear that Johnson’s government failed to act decisively or quickly enough.

Thus began the Great Bogroll Shortage; the panic buying and empty supermarket shelves around February/early March gave us our 30 day free trial of Brexit. Consumer confidence in hospitality plummeted, but without a government-imposed lockdown and the corollary of business interruption insurance, many restaurants had to carry on with reduced hours relying on loyal regulars and the hashtag “lunchgoeson” to drum up trade. But then the inevitable came in late March (arguably far too late), and with it the era of banana bread, Zoom calls, quarantinis and clapping for our carers.

Sadly, but all too predictably, the closures poured in. We said goodbye to Kym’s (which we adored), Hix, Clapham’s Counter Culture and The Dairy, Emilia (another one we loved), Sardine, the seemingly indomitable Ledbury and The Greenhouse, and even Soho’s legendary Crobar! That, for me, was when I realised we were in deep doo-doo. And so many more hit the buffers, or are very close to it.

But, believe it or not, there were brief moments of joy in this monumentally crap year…

 

Notable new openings of the year

Any restaurateur opening a new restaurant in 2020 must’ve had the courage of a lion tamer riding a unicycle on cheese wire over a lake of hungry piranhas. It was not a year for the risk-averse.

But some brave restaurateurs were undeterred by Covid and the spectre of Brexit. London saw wonderful openings in Mumbai-inspired Pali Hill, Creole-inspired Louie and Greek-inspired Ampeli, all adding to the capital’s rich and varied culinary landscape and providing an opportunity to try exotic cuisine where travel was made difficult or impossible. I particularly enjoyed Maison François, All’s Well and was very impressed by Trivet (yes, technically that opened in late 2019 but I didn’t get to go until February and you’ve got to take what you can from this year!).

It’s now a sort of Palate tradition to crown our ‘new restaurant of the year’; there may be a narrow field of new openings to choose from, but in joint first place we nominate Saint Jacques and Noble Rot Soho. Both of these beauties exemplify ‘restauration’: places where perfect strangers are treated like regulars, where the food is excellent, the wine wonderful and you’re distracted from Covidian anxieties. I hope they go on to have a successful 2021 and beyond. I hope all restaurants do, really.

Noble Rot Soho

 

Most memorable restaurant experiences of the year

Having limitations imposed on you focuses the mind on the things that really matter. Maybe one good thing to come from this year is a renewed love of our local pubs, restaurants and those go-to old favourites. London is blessed with these and I feel very lucky to have squeezed in some fantastic meals at old stalwarts Chez Bruce, The French House, Ciao Bella, Andrew Edmunds, Clarke’s and Otto’s – all as wonderful as ever, and mercifully still with us.

But there was one meal that stood out above them all, at least on a personal level. Dinner at Brasserie Zédel on 4 July 2020 will forever remain in my memory. I mean, where else do you go after four months of lockdown? Maybe it was seeing my friends again after national house arrest, or being greeted by Jeremy King himself, or the Martinis in the American Bar, or not having to wash up for the first time in months, or perhaps the moment when a bloke clinked his glass and made a speech to the whole room to thank the staff.  That was quite an emotional evening.

 

Dishes of the year

Oxtail and beef raviolo at Lorne

This is always tough but there have to be winners – because we say so. For us, this year’s stand-out savoury dish was Lorne’s oxtail and beef raviolo with stout onions, smoked bone marrow, bacon foam and focaccia crumb. Obscenely rich and decadent, this dish could be illegal in some countries. If it ever returns to the menu we can’t recommend it enough (be sure to order extra focaccia for moppage).

Our dessert of the year was the woodruff, estate honey and cherry sorbet at The Tudor Room, which sounded a little mysterious on paper but was a stunning piece of pastry work. One fellow diner was visibly moved by the experience.

And as we often break our own rules, we’re going to throw in a side dish too: the sweet potato and truffle dauphinois at Louie. Heaven.

 

The Staycation Express

For someone who likes to travel, 2020 was a special kind of torture. A first world problem I know, but I’m sure many reading had similar experiences of having to unravel trips, frantically check the insurance, cancel Airbnbs at short notice and so on. Instead of a trip to Amsterdam at Easter, where I had every restaurant intended for reviewing booked, I had to un-book the whole lot; the nearest thing to a holiday in lieu was a walk up and down the Regent’s Canal.

But, at the risk of sounding like a Little Englander, international travel restrictions did at least allow an opportunity to appreciate what’s on our own ‘doorstep’ (so to speak). During that summer reprieve from lockdown I enjoyed visits to Midsummer House and Parker’s Tavern in Cambridge (where punting was still permitted), a sojourn to Richmond to review The Dysart and Bingham Riverhouse and a little trip to Egham’s Tudor Room. You know, 2020 wasn’t all bad.

There’s a lot to be said for our hotels too, many of which now offer day rooms or spaces for ‘workations.’ I popped into a couple and found tapping away on a laptop in a pleasant hotel lobby or bar does help break the monotony of working from home. No doubt this is a trend that will continue.

 

Home kit, take-away and delivery services of the year

At the beginning of the year I’m sure restaurants did not really envisage themselves “pivoting” into delis and providing DIY home kits or deliveries, but necessity is the mother of invention.

A delivery from Quality Chop House back in May

Some hospitality businesses were, by their nature, able to adapt very quickly; The Quality Chop House with its wine shop and grocery store was an early adopter in late March and a source of great comfort. Lorne, London Shell Co, Brunswick House, Tredwells To Go and so many more impressed – even Circolo Popolare’s lemon pie with its Morrissey quiff of meringue miraculously survived transit!

Some of the more high-end offerings waited until “Lockdown 2.0” with Michel Roux Jr’s Le Gavroche finally getting in on the action. I very much enjoyed deliveries from Aulis and Hide at Home which gave some semblance of that fine dining experience but home kits can never truly be the same as the real thing and you still have mountains of washing up to do. It gave me a newfound appreciation of how hard people work in hospitality. Maybe it did for other customers too.

But the ‘award’ goes to Dishpatch. Set up with remarkable speed, these impressive feast box specialists deliver food from the likes of Parsons, Chishuru, Andrew Edmunds, 10 Greek Street and Bubula every Friday, nationwide (excluding Northern Ireland). Their slogan says “Staying in. It’s the new going out.” They might be right.

 

Food entertainment highlights of the year

Lockdowns 1 and 2 created a restaurant-shaped hole in our lives. Although nowhere near close to the real thing, they could be experienced vicariously through books, podcasts, TV and film.  Netflix seemed to answer all our prayers by making Big Night – possibly the best foodie film of all time – finally available on its platform. I loved watching re-runs of Floyd on France in all its 80s glory, nodding to Keith’s essential truisms such as “ah, the humble sausage: the unsung hero of the gastronomic world.” Jay Rayner’s Out to Lunch podcast, which became In for Lunch, a new series of Gone Fishing and The Trip to Greece provided much entertainment. All are still available to consume at your leisure.

Lockdown was also a good time to brush up our own cooking skills. Back in May I wrote about the paucity of food education in the UK and the need for better culinary literacy (you can re-read that missive here). With wonderful timeliness, Nigella Lawson is back on our screens with Cook, Eat, Repeat livening up our Monday evenings in the approach to Christmas. Forget your sourdough starters kids, try making her sandwich loaf, toast it and don’t forget to butter it twice!

 

And what the hell does 2021 hold?

If only we could all be like Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit and work out an endgame on pure logic alone; logic, unfortunately, does not seem to be this government’s strong suit. What we do know is, even with a Covid19 vaccine, it will be a while before the ‘old normal’ resumes and that the Brexit Transition phase will come to an end at 11pm on New Year’s Eve. It’s hardly a rosy outlook.

But, if there’s anything to take away from 2020 it’s shown how resourceful the hospitality industry can be and how it steps up to challenges.

There seems to be little point in trying to predict any new culinary trends – let’s just get restaurants back on their feet and customers enjoying the pleasure of dining again first – but there are a few things we know we can look forward to in 2021.

Unsurprisingly, many restaurants that were slated for opening in the UK this year didn’t happen, such as Corbin and King’s epic new seafood restaurant Manzis, but their doors should finally open in 2021. They were at least able to resurrect Bellanger this year.

Very soon Authentique Epicerie (pictured above) will be opening a new bakery called The French Market in Whetstone as they continue to bring a much-needed dose of French cuisine to north London. Nearby, Norman’s has just opened at the time of writing – it looks like a traditional British ‘caff’ but with a sophisticated twist (their ham, egg and chips will make you drool).

The original Dishoom in Covent Garden is about to re-open and will be double the size.

Crudo is a new seafood restaurant, cocktail bar and fishmongers in Brick Lane which is bucking the trend and opening on 4 December. It will be run by Ivan Simeoli of Laboratorio Pizza and dishes will include sea bream ceviche, miso Cornish monkfish and small plates of rock oysters with sea-themed drinks.

Also re-opening in early December under new ownership is South African-themed Park Tavern in Southfields, serving barbecued meats on their wood fired braai. All food on site and take-aways or collections can be ordered through their app.

The Camden Town Brewery, which once offered very interesting tours, will apparently re-open with a restaurant on site.

The former Bow Street Magistrates Court will be converted into an outpost of New York’s NoMad Hotel and is one of London’s most anticipated openings.

Then there’s Eataly, a giant Italian emporium of pasta, cheese and wine that’s set to open in Broadgate in 2021 (all being well).

Hopefully, for those restaurants that survive and those able to open, there will be healthy customers to enjoy their restorative magic again – and if the tentative scientific evidence of the vaccine is correct, we should hopefully be past the worst of the pandemic by the summer.

 

This article was last updated on 1 December 2020.  All photographs by J A Smith.

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