2018 has certainly been a turbulent year for food and drink, especially in the UK – with the ever-present spectre of Brexit, the UK has seen chains collapse, Jamie Oliver’s group in crisis and the high street in turmoil. Meanwhile, Lorne (our favourite new opening of 2017) was besieged by floods, Marcus and Gidleigh Park were downgraded to one Michelin star and we lost gastronomic legends Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon and Anthony Bourdain. But it hasn’t all been doom and gloom. Despite tough market conditions, the industry has remained tenacious with many new restaurants opening or at least weathering the storm. Michelin awarded Clare Smyth’s Core two stars (highly deserved in our view) and seems to be recognising changing tastes with new openings Sabor, Ikoyi, Leroy, Brat and Hide garlanded with stars too. We certainly do live in interesting times. Palate’s core team of writers convened again to take stock of the year and share their thoughts about 2019…
What was your most memorable drink of the year?
J A Smith (JS): A few cocktail submissions for me, all from the same bar. Fitz’s at the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel in Russell Square opened in April and this bar very quickly became a regular haunt of mine (and therefore exempt from Palate review – in modern dating parlance this would be in the “friendzone”). This year I’ve been very fond of their “Vesca Negroni,” the “Orlando” (an odd Daiquiri made with Beavertown beer), and perhaps my two favourites, the “Broken Window” and the “St Martins” (their mead supply permitting). It’s a bloody good bar, managed by Sean Fennelly (formerly of Milk and Honey). Meanwhile, The Gilbert Scott rebranded its bar “George’s” with a sensitive re-design by David Collins Studio. The ‘brand refresh’ has been successful and has only confirmed this bar’s unimpeachable status.
Jervan Khou (JK): I can’t wait to drink at Fitz’s… My best drink of the year was the spiced whisky Old Fashioned at Bar Benfiddich in Shinjuku, Tokyo. I reviewed this bar some time ago and proclaimed it my new home in Japan but I suspect the bartender Mr Kayama has yet to reveal all his tricks. He made this twist on the Old Fashioned in a dramatic manner, crushing some hand-picked spices in a wooden trough with a wheel made of stone. These mysterious spices, homemade bitters and Glenmorangie whisky made for a complex and layered Old Fashioned unlike any other.
Cristian Ley (CCL): In a league of its own, “Summer” at Gravetye Manor. I wrote a Palate Cleanser piece on it in a few months back. This quasi-cocktail, served up in a twee, Pooh-bear honeypot, includes Doorly’s rum, bee pollen syrup, lager and elderflower. You can taste each individual element and still there is an over-layer of the flavours coalescing – like a musical harmony. It’s not particularly seasonal at the moment but it’s worth the trip to Sussex in the balmy months of 2019.
Favourite new opening(s) of the year?
JS: 2018, at least in London, has been the year of the seafood restaurant. Cornerstone (pictured above), Parsons and Neptune are new openings that deserve equal first place! I’ve also been impressed by Coal Rooms, Lina Stores, Londrino and Sorella. All fabulous go-back-to places.
CCL: I back Neptune. Maybe we just had a good night but I remember the great service (which was so subtle and yet attentive), the kitsch surroundings and, of course, the sea fayre. I used to believe that good crayfish and other goodies in shells were a delight exclusive to the coast. Neptune proved itself a city competitor.
What was your favourite random discovery of the year, or a restaurant you wished you had discovered earlier?
JS: For its pure randomness, La Belle Maraichere in Brussels. I had a great time discussing Brexit with some Belgian pensioners whilst enjoying some fantastic fish dishes. I also finally got round to checking out Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch this summer and wished I had started going there earlier. Great place.
JK: While waiting for a late dinner reservation at a steakhouse in Ginza, I stumbled across an oyakodon (Chicken and Egg rice bowl) restaurant. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but the entrance was in a back alley, leading to a nondescript room with eight seats. It was a simple, one-man operation serving only one dish. It was the best chicken-and-egg rice bowl I have had the pleasure of eating, but it also reminds me that sometimes the simple and unpretentious experiences are the best.
CCL: For me, a stall in Borough Market that’s connected with Roast restaurant. It’s a little projection of the upstairs restaurant and serves the most incredible roast pork, with crisped skin and tangy, vibrant apple sauce. Its other offerings include rare roast beef and horseradish sandwiches, plus rotisserie chicken. I recall idling in the market with my little box of pork and potatoes (complete with wooden fork) as I cowered from the lashing November rain. A major discovery given my affection for roasted meats.
Most overrated or disappointing restaurant of the year?
JS: St Leonard’s. Our review says everything it needs to really. I get that it might have been a bad night for them, but even still… I just don’t get the hype.
JK: New York is a city of overpriced restaurants, but the most dreadful meal I had this year was at the Knife and Fork Inn in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Supposedly a traditional steakhouse that predated Prohibition, it looked as authentic as an amateur theatrical set trying to channel Boardwalk Empire. I ordered steak and lobster – a double whammy of mediocrity on a plate. The fillet of beef was dry, under-seasoned and medium, instead of the rare that I requested. The lobster thermidor did slightly better but was chewy and uninspiring. All it did was remind me of the excellent thermidor served on Singapore Airlines. This place can’t even compare to food on a plane.
CCL: You had the fortune of missing my 2018 clanger: The Clock House. To give a bit of background, the Drake couple had owned various restaurants and sort of carved up the group upon their divorce. Serina Drake owns and manages The Clock House, which is in the pretty village of Ripley. Having received its Michelin star in late 2017, I had hoped for much. The ordeal was deeply disappointing and at times frustrating. Portions were beyond “Michelin small” to the point of poor value and the wine list needed filling out by an expert. They had no sommelier and the do-all maitre d’ had the aura of a used car salesman. I can credit its décor but that’s about it. The bill should have arrived with a list of securitisation options. I dropped nearly £500 on a lacklustre meal for two and would never, ever go near it again.
Favourite non-restaurant dining experience
JS: When it comes to London pubs, this has been Henry Harris’ year. The Coach and The Hero of Maida are amazing gastropubs offering Franco-British food that is comforting, homely and familiar – the food equivalent of a hug.
JK: Frey’s Famous Pizzeria in Tokyo’s glamorous Roppongi district, one of the best Neapolitan pizzas outside of Naples. The classic margherita, marinara and Bianca were spot on, and cost ¥1000 (£6.50) each for lunch. I had pizza almost every week.
CCL: While almost a restaurant (can I get away with it?), The Bleeding Heart Tavern has received much of my lunchtime custom this year. It’s a food-orientated pub of Franco pedigree and very close to Farringdon station. The Tavern keeps some nice ales on pump while providing a restaurant-standard menu. A wide choice of dishes includes rotisserie suckling pig, Dorset crab on sourdough toast and battered haddock. I’ve knocked out most of their offerings over my many visits and vouch for quality across the piece. The service is immensely warm and presents an opportunity to parlez le francais, si tu veux.
Best dish of the year?
JS: This is always a hard one! If you’re going to put a gun to my head I’d say the cod with Café de Paris hollandaise sauce at Cornerstone. It’s a dish that sounds very simple, and indeed it looked so, but this really demonstrated Tom Brown’s mastery of fish cookery. And that Café de Paris hollandaise… oh my!
JK: First thing that springs to mind is the Matsusaka Wagyu sirloin at Dons de le Nature in Tokyo, from a heritage breed rarer than Kobe beef. It is first dry-aged for 30 days and grilled over Japanese bincho charcoal in a special oven. This overwhelmingly marbled cut of meat tasted like a solid piece of beurre noisette, and I was impressed by how a simple grilled steak had a perfect seared crust but was still medium rare – absolute perfection.
CCL: For me it’s a battle of the tartares: steak tartare at The Game Bird, and veal tartare at The Goring’s dining room. The tartare by The Game Bird (the restaurant within The Stafford, London) edges it. Thick, textured and well-seasoned, their tartare is served with lashings of egg emulsion and Worcester sauce. It’s an extravaganza in savoury ingredients and a joy every time I have it. I’m dreaming of that dish right now.
Best overall dining experience of the year?
JS: Some strong contenders here. Michael Wignall’s guest chef night at The Game Bird back in March was a stand out meal. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Wignall twice. He is a class act and I can’t wait to try his food at The Angel at Hetton. I would also submit Kokotxa in San Sebastián (see this month’s review).
JK: This is a tough one… I have had many good, moderately priced meals, which tends to mean sacrificing either ambience or service. At three-Michelin starred kaiseki restaurant Ishikawa, there was no such issue. Chef Ishikawa himself serves each guest at the kitchen counter, while his wife takes care of front-of-house and drinks orders. The food was hyper-seasonal, and I was impressed to discover that the rice he serves was grown by his friend in the country. At ¥22,000 (£150), it was also very good value for cooking and ingredient-sourcing of this calibre.
CCL: I’m always looking for the experience in the round – the place at which I feel comfortable, relaxed and sated. Having only just mentioned their steak tartare, I’m going to have to submit The Game Bird. That restaurant just suits me in every way. The tables and décor are sophisticated without undue decadence. There’s a polished touch to the service while their sommelier, Gino, is attentive and full of information. Time slows down and you can sit, wine glass in hand, and admire the surroundings. Against this backdrop, and with a vast menu of expertly executed favourites, The Game Bird is surely a diner’s paradise.
Any hopes or predictions for 2019?
JS: I think we will see more guest chef ‘residencies’ and pop-ups, and making these ticketed events rather than meals you would book in the normal way – this, in part, might help to solve the endemic ‘no show’ problems faced by restaurateurs at the moment (an issue I could rant about for ages). Vegetable-based food will also continue its move to the centre stage. We’ve seen it already with Bryn Williams at Somerset House, Roganic and also Tredwells’ hugely successful vegan and vegetarian nights. Whilst I love my meat, having seen Marcus Wareing cook a cauliflower steak on MasterChef a couple of weeks ago, I can be converted! I think it’s definitely a good thing – it provides more choice and it’s healthier too. Besides, when (or if) Brexit happens, British vegetables might be all we have to work with! We will see yet more turbulence in the market and more chains are likely to collapse. At least we have a few new openings next year to look forward to in the UK: Alex Rushmer is opening a new venture in Cambridge and Peter-Sanchez Inglesias will be running the flagship restaurant at The Standard in King’s Cross to name just a couple. Good luck to them – I wouldn’t want to be opening a restaurant in these Brexity times. But what can we do other than continue to be good customers?
JK: I’ve had a busy year, splitting my time between Tokyo and New York, and have only been in London briefly. If you appreciate Japanese cuisine, there is no city in the world that comes close to Tokyo. It’s still the only city where one can find good value at every single price point and is something that London should aspire towards. New York City is a completely different beast, with an internationally-oriented dining scene that seems to have peaked. New Yorkers dine out a lot more than Londoners and have come to expect a higher basic standard of food, but a corollary of the commodification of the dining experience is a dearth of local gems like Casa Tua in Camden and King’s Cross. It feels like there are so many restaurants designed for the social media “influencer” rather than the discerning diner.
Last year, I expressed concern about “bistronomy” and thankfully, the London dining scene is not yet heading in that direction; restaurants such as Parsons and Sorella are serving great food that isn’t derivative or generic. I do not want dining out to become an ordeal, and I hope that the London consumer would continue to be open to new and diverse cuisines, and most importantly, to enjoy food in and of itself.
CCL: At the risk of doom-mongery, there will be closures. The Brexit squeeze and a waning customer base will beset a number of eateries. Looking more positively, I think guest-cheffing will be even more of a thing. I’m a big fan. For example, it may not be easy to go and get the food of Simon Rogan or Michael Caines due to geography. However, their magical touches can come to you when they tie up with your favourite haunts. Instagram, as a marketing platform, has shown itself to be a useful source when it comes to guest appearances and special menu nights.
My further, unrelated observation is that Heckfield Place in Hampshire may find its way into the columns of the foodie press next year. The hotel’s restaurant has just welcomed our favourite sommelier, Louise Gordon, who departed Hartnett’s eponymous dining room at Lime Wood, also in Hampshire. Recruiting Louise conveys a particular dedication to wine and, if the eating compares with the drinking, Heckfield Place ought to achieve fame in the coming months. Road trip, anyone?
This article was written in December 2018 and expresses our views at that time.