It’s easy to dismiss 2016 as the year that everything went wrong. Yes, absolutely the general world has seen some highs and some very low lows, but the food world has mostly gone from strength to strength.
New restaurant openings have been exciting and varied. We’ve seen even more meat places open and, in direct contrast, we’ve even had our very first Veggie Pret. Our love affair with Middle Eastern cuisine shows no signs of slowing and we’re just starting to get our teeth around Japanese food which goes deeper than sushi and ramen. We’ve seen our very first crisp & dip restaurant and even pizza has been revamped, bringing us specially prepared dough baked separately to its toppings. Necessary? Who knows. Exciting though for sure.
2016 certainly has been the year of experimenting and exploring the hidden depths of the culinary world. But just like the general world around it, food has seen its own fair share of lows and highs. Here are my very high highs – my top 19 London dishes of 2016.
Wishing you and yours a very happy and bright 2017, filled with plenty of delicious food and a mouth-watering array of great things to come.
1) Portobello mushroom, bagna cauda, raw turnip, rye – Paradise Garage
A savoury, veggie delight. Intense in a flavour that bordered on meaty, this was brown food done so well that finger licking at the end became absolutely imperative.
2) The bread selection – Noble Rot
Carb-aphobes begone. This bread selection is enough to be a main course and, in fact, perhaps better than the main courses on offer at many a fine-dining restaurant. With variations including soda bread and focaccia that tasted like it had been dunked in beef fat, be prepared to cry when the basket is empty.
3) Cornish Pollack with langoustine, gavi de gavi & wild garlic polenta – Petersham Nurseries
With a setting as beautiful as this restaurant has, it would be a tragedy if the food didn’t match up. Thankfully every course here was something special to look at and to eat. A huge slab of flaky fish was brought to life with the flavours and colours of the season, resulting in a springtime masterpiece, as artistic as it was delicious.
4) Longhorn beef, pomme dauphine, asparagus, black garlic, truffle, dandelion – Pidgin
I get asked a lot – an awful lot – for recommendations of where to eat. This year, without fail, my go to answer is Pidgin and that’s in no small part because of this dish. Perfectly rare beef was strewn atop seasonal delights. Pops and bursts of punchy asparagus and heady truffle made the whole thing come alive. I’ve yet to have one course at this place I didn’t love. If you haven’t been, it’s time to go. Now.
5) Morcilla & quail’s egg – Escocesa
The best things do indeed come in small packages if this little tapas winner is anything to go by. Rich and soft black pudding (the Spanish really do do it best) is topped with oozing yellow eggs. With a fiery red pepper paste underneath, once you’ve popped one, you will immediately want to order 25 or so more.
6) Kumamoto – Nanban
Back in May, I discovered my new favourite ramen in London and it was housed in Tim Anderson’s Brixton joint. Intensely porky, but not so rich the bowl would be victorious, this ramen had all the accoutrements to really make it sing – smoky garlic, pickled bamboo, salty seaweed and the full egg split runnily in half. The perfect bowl, come hell or high water.
7) Beef & dripping flatbread – Black Axe Mangal
Black Axe Mangal ain’t no place for the faint-hearted. With offal searing on the open flames and heavy metal roaring out of the speakers, you only go there with the intention to get a bit messy and a bit loud. This flatbread, served piping hot fresh off the fire, was like the quickest and greatest roast around. Forget the parsnips, grab a beer and a plastic foldable chair and say hello to Sunday lunch for the 21st century.
8) Gala pie – Galvin Hop
If the saying doesn’t already exist that anything can be improved by sticking an egg in it, it really should. This pie, with a perfectly flaky short pastry, was made up of god only knows what delicious and tender meat. But it was the egg and, in fact, the meaty jelly, that really took a simple slice to a whole new level of pie perfection.
9) Labneh, dukka, olive oil – Raw Duck
Erupting with flavours of the Middle East, this creamy, crunchy snack punched well above its starter weight. With a dizzying array of seeds, nuts and spices, there was only one thing for it – ask for more bread and keep dunking.
10) Spicy salami pizza – Crate Brewery
Truth be told, this pizza could easily feature in my list every year. So thin and crispy, it’s bordering on dangerous for your gums and so cheesy and saucy, you’re guaranteed to burn your chin as it runs out of your mouth, Crate has nailed my perfect pizza. Enjoyed best by the water on a sweltering summer’s day, this is the only pizza in the world that can make me swoon.
11) Pork & veal stuffed tomatoes – Sardine
Who would have thought you could find one of the best dishes in London housed behind the petrol station and McDonald’s on Old Street? The combination of smooth meats (enhanced slightly with the addition of liver) and cherry-ripe tomato are balanced with the tang of the creme fraiche sauce. So good, I went home to recreate it myself almost immediately.
12) Seared scallops, pan fried squid, squid ink velouté, coriander, broad beans & radish – Salut
I feel pretty lucky to have one of the best restaurants in London right on my doorstep. This neighbourhood spot is tiny, cosy and exceedingly warm if you visit on a particularly boiling summer’s day. Perfect then to chow down on bright and vibrant seafood served with clever vegetable and herb extras and a particularly deep black squid broth. Don’t miss the wine at Salut. The team are experts and the selection is, it’s fair to say, incredibly hard to resist.
13) Whole deep fried seabass with roasted rice and isaan herbs – Som Saa
I said Pidgin was my most recommended restaurant of 2016, well Som Saa comes pretty close and is only slightly less as I visited later in the year. The flavours of all dishes served, but in particular this sea bass, make Som Saa the most exciting restaurant I’ve been to for some time. Go with people who are hungry, daring to try anything, not afraid of a bit (or a lot) of spice, and ready to suck a fish’s head on short notice. An absolute legend of a dish – and a restaurant.
14) Schnitzel – The Delauney
Who doesn’t love a bit of fried meat? It sounds so basic, but when done right, as is the case at The Delauney, a humble schnitzel can be transcended into something truly exquisite. Fried in butter and therefore nutty in flavour, the veal was tender, the coating crispy and the pickled cucumbers on the side a perfect way to cut through the richness. Plus the setting is so grand, you feel like you’ve been transformed somewhere like the Orient Express. Get dressed up and treat yourself to some fried meat. It’s pretty special.
15) Carabineros a la plancha – Maze
When you have incredible seafood, it’s a crime to do much more to it than eat it fresh out of the water. Maze recognises this and so serves its ginormous prawns in the shell, on the grill, with a bit of garlic butter and…that’s it. Suck the head for flavour, eat the shell if you’re so inclined. Whatever you do, revel in seafood at its prime.
16) Ensalada Sierra – Ceviche Old St
Black, red and pearl quinoa are joined by tomato, onion, limo chilli vinaigrette, broad beans and pomegranate. Utterly refreshing and zingy, this is a dish that will have you waking up in the middle of the night with cravings. Eat it alongside classic ceviche and feel good in the knowledge you’re doing your body and your tastebuds a favour.
17) Crab & chips – Beagle
As a Maryland girl, I find it difficult to resist anything from the king of the sea – the crab. This one was huge. I spent what felt like hours picking at it, dunking it in mayo and cracking while simultaneously covering myself in crab juice and shells. All in the name of a glorious crabby feast, which is my absolute favourite kind of feast after all.
18) Warm chestnut & oyster broth – Clove Club
Rarely does soup excite as much as this one does. Smooth and creamy, but with hidden levels of earthy nuttiness and fishy stock, it’s a juxtaposition between land and sea and a mighty rich and indulgent one at that.
19) The bill presenter – Perilla
Maybe it’s a cop-out but who cares? Seasonal clementines straight from Perilla’s neighbour, Newington Green Grocer, were the very sweetest way to receive a not-so-cheap bill I’ve ever encountered. I ate two of them, even after a five course meal.