2021: the year of Biden’s inauguration, the COP26 conference, the Covid vaccine, the postponed Euro 2020 championships, empty supermarket shelves, the petrol shortage crisis and a Conservative government that remains unflushable despite their blunders and sleaze. On the food and drink front, 2021 was a similar rollercoaster of exciting new openings and sad closures. As is now a Palate tradition in December, it’s time to take stock of the year and look ahead. Over Martinis at Rules, J A Smith (JS) and Mike Daw (MD) exchanged notes on their highs and lows of 2021 as well as their hopes and predictions for 2022.
Just before we launch into the discussion, a quick word about Streetsmart. At Palate, like our readers no doubt, we’re lucky enough to be able to dine out and live in comfort. Others aren’t so lucky. The annual Streetsmart campaign, which runs in November and December each year, helps those who are rough sleeping or living in unsuitable accommodation through a very simple scheme: at participating restaurants throughout England, including some of our favourites like Andrew Edmunds, Sessions Arts Club, Cora Pearl and St John, a voluntary pound is added to your bill. This £1 donation helps to fund housing and shelter services, mental health advice and job support. With the lifting of the eviction ban it’s particularly relevant now. It’s a simple way of helping those less fortunate than ourselves and we support it. We hope you will too.
Palate’s best new restaurant of 2021
MD: There are quite a few contenders for this title, from the humble Mr Ji in Soho to Russell Norman’s new Trattoria Brutto in Clerkenwell – but for me there’s only one winner from 2021’s crop of new openings: Sessions Arts Club. It’s one of the best dining rooms in London right now. What Florence Knight and Jon Spiteiri have created is that rarified kind a restaurant: one which is worth the hype.
JS: I agree. Sessions is a stand-out winner and what a comeback for Florence Knight! They are in good company as they join Lorne, Cornerstone, Saint Jacques and Noble Rot Soho as previous winners of this title. I only hope they don’t rest on their laurels. Gaining such legendary status so quickly is one thing; maintaining it is just as hard, if not harder.
Other new impressive openings of the year
MD: Most of this year’s ‘new’ restaurants were good but they all had an element of ‘finding their feet’ when I visited. The Cadogan Arms stands out as a spot which has the potential to be great with some generally fab cooking despite being a little bit ‘Chelsea.’ I also had a delicious meal at the re-opened Colony Grill Room (being a former employee of The Beaumont I recused myself from reviewing it for Palate, but there is some very good food coming out of that kitchen).
JS: And The Beaumont’s bar Le Magritte is lovely too. Yes, for me this year was just as much about going back to old favourites like Parsons and Ciao Bella whilst new openings had to face all kinds of uncertainties. Sally Abé’s The Pem, for instance, impressed me but it was eerily quiet on my visit. However, Cin Cin seemed to hit the ground running with their first venture outside Brighton – a truly wonderful addition to Fitzrovia. A great place. I also loved José Pizarro’s new place at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Palate’s memorable experiences outside of London or at established restaurants
MD: I’ve got to give a shout-out to the very memorable yet completely humble Millers Fish and Chips in Haxby. The fish, the batter, the chips, it was all dream-like in its beigey goodness. It’s hardly a new spot but The Sportsman in Kent has to be up there as one of my meals of the year. I also want to give a special shout-out to a glorious feast I had at the Michelin-starred Adam’s Birmingham. Through my work I get to host some fabulous dinners, but to preserve the independence of Palate I’ll only ever review a place that I pay for out of my own pocket. That means there are some very special meals that don’t get written up in a full review – and Adam’s was one such meal. James Goodyear is the new Head Chef here and his time at Le Manoir and HIDE have made him a force to be reckoned with. Without wishing to sound like Senator Palpatine, we shall be watching his career with great interest.
JS: Ha ha, indeed. With slightly less prophetic vision, I got round to ticking off a ‘bucket list’ of established restaurants in the UK. The Angel at Hetton, The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, Littlefrench in Bristol, The Box Tree in Ilkley, Ox Club in Leeds, even delightfully retro Oslo Court. Meeting Theo Randall for an impromptu pasta tutorial was another personal highlight. I’m so glad you enjoyed The Sportsman. We first reviewed it in those halcyon pre-pandemic days and it’s good to see it still impresses. And finally the planets aligned to allow foreign travel again! It was rather emotional returning to some Parisian haunts again, as well as making some new discoveries.
Most outstanding dish of the year
JS: Ah, where do I start? The Ibérico pork with confit peppers by José Pizarro at The Royal Academy of Arts has to be up there. Or maybe a simple plate of green summer vegetables in vinaigrette at Café Deco – the Pictionary definition of less is more. Anna Tobias is working wonders there. Another close contender is the salt-aged fillet, beetroot pastrami, Jerusalem artichoke and confit yolk at The Angel at Hetton. But for some reason one dish stands out for me: the quail and foie gras croustillant with celeriac purée at Casse-Croûte in Bermondsey. I think it was the confluence of various factors – having been deprived of a French holiday in nearly two years, here I was sitting outside in August drinking plonk on a table with checked tablecloths and authentically sassy service, all of which enhanced the dish itself. And finally one other mention: it’s sometimes strange to think that the first quarter of this year was still in lockdown. During those dreary months I relied heavily on meal kits for some semblance of the restaurant experience at home. I’d call out Daniel Adams’ beef wellington with pomme purée and rainbow chard here, as that was an exceptional lockdown treat. He’s now cooking at The Fat Duck and going from strength to strength.
MD: Once again there are quite a few candidates for this accolade. At Adam’s I enjoyed an exceptional bream dish which if memory serves was poached in a seaweed broth and served with mushrooms and sea purslane. Sampling some Michelin-starred signature dishes were also among my highlights, including The Sportsman’s slip sole and Hélène Darroze’s exceptional crab dish. But I think taking it by a hair is the lobster taco at KOL. It’s such an elegantly prepared plate, devilishly unassuming but delivered with wonderful execution, transcending a traditional ‘taco’ into an elevated thing of beauty.
JS: I need that lobster taco in my life.
Best bar or pub of the year
MD: There have been some delicious cocktail bars, pubs and general drinks dispensaries discovered this year. For me, post-lockdown, I’ve reconnected with a swathe of my “locals” in Brixton from Cattivo and Canova Hall for decent cocktails, The Wine Parlour for an exciting and very reasonably priced wine list, to the numerous pop-up joints in the Village / Market. And of course Pop Brixton (The Tap Room, Three Eight Four, Salon and Beers of the World to name but a few!). Rediscovering what’s on one’s doorstep has been one of the outstanding joys of recent months.
JS: Absolutely. As soon as lockdown lifted my local was the first place I went to. There’s something about that sense of community you get in your local pub and seeing fellow regulars again. Of course, I continued to patronise the likes of Rules, The Goring and The Egerton for their perfectly-made classic cocktails – all classy places that would soon bankrupt you if you went too regularly, of course. Three new(ish) and reasonably-priced bars made it to my regular roster this year: Bandra Bhai in Fitzrovia, Crossroads in Camden and Joe Allen where Russell Norman now oversees the bar. All brilliant and unpretentious.
MD: I think Norman’s “comeback” could be one of the best things to come out of 2021 – so glad to have him back on the scene.
Low points of the year
MD: There have been a few disappointments this year – despite hoping 2021 would be the glorious return for eating out, staffing levels have been hit hard by the twin shit-shows of Covid and Brexit. Additionally, one thing no-one in the industry is looking forward to in 2022 is the sleeping giant of the March rates freeze ending – a looming cost that could scupper many a plan of an up-and-coming restaurateur. As for restaurants, I recently visited the newly-opened Chelsea Pig, which disappointed on several levels. But when it comes to the lowest of the low, the worst meal of 2021, Ave Mario takes the title – the less said about that cathedral of crap the better.
JS: You took one for the team with Ave Mario, for that I think our readers are eternally grateful. You ate there so they don’t have to. There were no real clangers for me this year – in fact, it’s quite rare for a restaurant to be that shite – but I probably wouldn’t rush back to La Goccia. On a personal note I regret the closures of The Gilbert Scott and Tredwells, both places I got to know very well over the last decade but sadly their leases came to an end. I’ve heard The Gilbert Scott might re-open in 2022 but without Marcus Wareing behind it of course. And Chantelle Nicholson is opening Apricity in Mayfair in March.
What to look forward to in 2022
MD: There is a lot to look forward to next year, including Corbin and King’s new Manzi’s in Soho, the new Broadwick Hotel, which will have food supplied from Soho stalwart Randall & Aubin, and the luxury behemoth Peninsula London which will doubtless have a multitude of restaurants to savour. We’ve heard that Daniel Humm and Claridge’s are parting ways as the hotel denies Humm’s vegan-only vision in their main dining room – we can’t but wonder which top chef they will appoint next. Nothing seems to stop JKS, who have just won ‘small restaurant group of the year’ at the R200 restaurant awards, with the opening of the Arcade Food Hall – let’s hope that the location doesn’t prove problematic as that Centrepoint spot has claimed several concepts so far (Arcade Food Theatre, as it was previously known, and VIVI were both catastrophic flops and Din Tai Fung closed before it even opened). I’m also keen to hear more about the legend that is 3-Michelin starred Frantzen coming to London. They are due to open in Harrods, which indicates a confident financial backing, even if the Knightsbridge location leaves something to be desired.
JS: I’m very excited about Manzi’s, yes. Poor Corbin and King have had setback after setback, not to mention legal battles over The Wolseley. I understand they have a couple of other projects up their sleeves too. I’m intrigued about the new Arcade Food Hall but you brought back painful memories of VIVI for me there. As mentioned, Chantelle Nicholson will be launching her new restaurant Apricity in March 2022. We can also look forward to Nuno Mendes’ new Portuguese restaurant Lisboeta on Charlotte Street, Richard Corrigan’s new place in Camden and we can expect a huge new site for Blacklock, though I’m slightly less keen on the prospect of 3D-printed vegan steaks at Marco Pierre White’s new restaurant. All is to play for as the pandemic recedes but, as you say, crunch time will be around the Spring when some of these ambitious bubbles might burst. The only relief from the government seems to be introducing a new Code of Practice for rent disputes between commercial landlords and tenants, though of course that could still be very costly as it all it really does is provide for arbitration as the backstop rather than court action. There should hopefully be a timely clampdown on fake reviews following the government’s consultation on that hot topic. In the meantime, what else can we do but continue to support this great industry with our custom and constructive feedback?
MD: Hear, hear!
This conversation took place in late November 2021 and reflects our views at that time.
Cover photo licensed by Adobe. All other photos by J A Smith and Mike Daw.