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Fay Maschler's favourite restaurants of 2018

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 19/12/2018 Fay Maschler

Forgetting Brexit for a moment, can we please, and its grim implications for the restaurant business — not just in staffing but securing produce too — this year has been as lively as any.

Openings abound — see my top choices below — and shapes shift, with market halls becoming a casual and cheaper way of trying already successful operations.

Gentle vegans, like those who threatened to fatten up, kill and roast William Sitwell’s baby son (no mention of marinating, but they are vegans) are on the march. Disapproval of cultural appropriation is rendered a damp squib by imminent openings such as Co Co Ichibanya, where Japanese curry can be topped with cheese-filled hamburgers.

Even the young think restaurant noise is getting out of hand. I leave you with trending ingredients: lichen, dulse (seaweed) and calamansi (Filipino citrus) and an important plea: don’t be a no-show. It can be devastating. Happy New Year.

Parsons

a group of people sitting at a table in a room: (Daniel Hambury) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Daniel Hambury)

Ian Campbell and Will Palmer, owners of the wine bar and restaurant 10 Cases in Covent Garden and the life-saving wine delivery service The Drop — now with its own retail outlet in Drury Lane — run this seafood restaurant, with benefits such as steak tartare and the garlicky steak sandwich famously served to round off fish dinners at Cervejaria in Lisbon.

This knowingness applies cunningly throughout the menu, with propositions such as brown crab pissaladière, potted shrimp croquettes and lobster mash. The white-tiled room is small and usually crowded. Love thy neighbour. Good-value wines, plenty served by glass and carafe, are predictably another high point.

39 Endell St, WC2H 9BA, parsonslondon.co.uk, £70, read the review here.

Indian Accent

Pictures of a small ceramic mug of pumpkin and coconut chorba (soup) served with a diminutive blue cheese-filled naan hurtled around social media when chef Manish Mehrotra came back to London in January to open a branch of Indian Accent in Albemarle Street.

The New Delhi original was followed by one in New York and now a sleek, revamped Chor Bizarre (same ownership) showcases his uncannily sure touch in transfiguring Indian culinary traditions into a blossoming from recognisable roots.

Breads are superb and the take on Peking duck using ghee-roast lamb, roomali “handkerchief” roti and four chutneys is cheeky and cheering. Black pudding kulcha got a lot of snaps too.

16 Albemarle St, W1S 4HW, indianaccent.com, £60/£100 lunch/dinner, read the review here.

Sorella

a group of people sitting at a table: (Adrian Lourie ) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Adrian Lourie )

Dublin-born chef Robin Gill, who wowed Clapham and the rest of London by opening The Dairy in 2013, has moved sideways to what was previously The Manor and soon upwards to Darby’s at Embassy Gardens tower in Nine Elms.

On Gill’s CV is time spent at Don Alfonso 1890 on the Amalfi coast. It underpins the transformation of The Manor into Sorella (sister), which this year earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Gill aims to encapsulate “all we love about the Italian attitude to eating and drinking”, which now meet an in-house emphasis on curing, fermenting, bottling, pickling and potatoes. Skillful head chef Dean Parker ensures unerring product sourcing.

148 Clapham Manor St, SW4 6BX, sorellarestaurant.co.uk, £60, read the review here.

Sabor/Asador

a piece of cake on a plate: (Chris Terry) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Chris Terry)

Nieves Barragán Mohacho made her mark first at the Hart Brothers’ Fino and then Barrafina. A Basque upbringing informs her cooking in a scintillating manner. In what is now her own show — backed by the redoubtable Sethi siblings — and supported by manager José Etura, she struts her stuff in the bar and tapas bar on the ground floor while upstairs, from a wood-fired oven, pulls dramatically crisp suckling pig and fragrant lamb cutlets.

Pulpo á feira, octopus simmered with potatoes in Galician copper pots, is a great way into a meal at those shared tables, as is an empanada gallega, the pastry turnover oozing braised cuttlefish.

35-37 Heddon St, W1B 4BR, saborrestaurants.co.uk, £54/£70 Sabor/Asador, read the review here.

Hām

a plate of food on a table: (Daniel Hambury) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Daniel Hambury)

In West Hampstead, where almost every shopfront is a café or restaurant, independently owned Hām — apparently the old English word for home — with its Australian chef with past experience at The Ledbury, the Terroirs group and Salon in Brixton, and its estimable manager Alexandra Caciuc, stands out.

Turquoise leather banquettes and a kitchen overlooking the dining room are two striking design features. Topical virtues — thoughtful buying, ingenuity with grains and vegetables — are all saluted. Weekend brunch is a big deal. Mind that pushchair.

238 West End Ln, NW6 1LG, hamwesthampstead.com, £60, read the review here.

Brat

a person cooking hot dogs on a grill: (Matt Writtle) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Matt Writtle)

Tomos Parry’s Shoreditch restaurant launched this spring on the first floor of a pub that once hosted strippers, above nu-Thai Smoking Goat, has already won various iterations of Restaurant of the Year. On reflection, it is mine too.

Softly-spoken Parry, who came to prominence as chef at Kitty Fisher’s, where he cooked over wood, is fuelled by the same power here, notably softly to grill and gild turbot — brat is a colloquial name for that flatfish.

Other produce including steak, duck and vegetables benefit from the process. Even toast becomes a minor work of art, especially when carrying smoked cod’s roe on its fingers.

4 Redchurch St, E1 6JL​, bratrestaurant.com, £65, read the review here.

Next Door

a plate of food with a slice of cake on a table: (Adrian Lourie) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Adrian Lourie)

A restaurant attached to a fishmonger’s — the sweetest way of utilising perishable stock — is an obviously prudent idea. Robin Moxon has seized on it for his East Dulwich branch and installed Paul Holmes as chef. The larger fish, ethically sourced in Devon and Cornwall, are served simply prepared to share. It is in the smaller plates that Holmes’s talent and invention shine out.

Cod tongues in batter atop a pile of mushy peas in a moat of curry sauce make sly reference to a chippie. Sliced, spiced, roasted celeriac layered with buffalo mozzarella, watercress, pickled shallots, honey and hazelnuts rewards the unimpeachable who even spurn fish.

151 Lordship Ln, SE22 8HX​, moxonsnextdoor.com, £60, read the review here.

Rovi

The energy of Yotam Ottolenghi must be fuelled by his multicoloured swap shop diet, and in this Fitzrovia restaurant manifestation he is fortunate in the presence of Neil Campbell, previously head chef at Bruno Loubet’s Grain Store, behind the coals.

Loubet’s ability to penetrate the soul of vegetables and grains lives on leading to temptation and redemption. A good example is celeriac shawarma — incidentally, also available at Noma — which banishes post-pub associations and is just blithely delicious. Ferments and chili add their kick to many assemblies. Low waste leads to customers paying for vegetable trimmings deep-fried in tempura batter. You can buy the napkins too.

59 Wells St, W1A 3AE, ottolenghi.co.uk/rovi, £68, read the review here.

Medlar

a plate of food on a table: (Adrian Lourie) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Adrian Lourie)

Sometimes it’s salient to go back and see how places you initially admired are faring. Opened in 2011 by chef Joe Mercer Nairne and manager David O’Connor, who both previously worked at Chez Bruce, this dignified Chelsea stalwart powers on introducing sage new ideas to the set-price menus while wisely hanging on to established favourites such as crab ravioli with samphire, brown shrimps, fondue of leeks and bisque sauce and rump of Belted Galloway with Café de Paris snails, stuffed Portobello, shallot purée and béarnaise. Consideration for customers includes a very reasonable £10 corkage at lunchtime for BYO.

438 King's Rd, SW10 0LJ, medlarrestaurant.co.uk, £50/£85, lunch/dinner, read the review here.

Masala Zone, Soho

After more than four decades in this job I have unsurprisingly made friends in the biz. It is on the whole a friendly industry with more than its fair share of characters. Camellia and Namita Panjabi share the same star signs as Beth and myself so we were destined to be sisters under the skin, obvs.

Creators of Chutney Mary, renewers of historic Veeraswamy, their diffusion line is the Masala Zone group. The aim to create and convey the sort of food Indians in India eat at home or in the street is particularly profoundly realised at this first venue in Soho.

New dishes are added all the time. Grass doesn’t grow under the feet of these sisters.

9 Marshall St, W1F 7ER, masalazone.com/locations/soho, £45, read the review here.

Coal Office

Coal Office was the first restaurant to open in the King’s Cross Coal Drops Yard development. Chef/entrepreneur Assaf Granit from Jerusalem, who with the Paskin siblings opened Palomar and The Barbary, is instigator of the food and mood, the latter benefiting significantly from the presence of general manager Thasanee Robinson.

The dividing line between preparation and eating is deliberately nebulous with bread-making machines and the like invading dining space. Grains, seeds, pulses, vegetables, fungi, chilies, yoghurt and, to a lesser extent fish and meat, jive together bringing peace, for a mealtime anyway, to the Middle East.

2 Bagley Walk, N1C 4PQ, coaloffice.com, £64, read the review here.

Kym’s

a room filled with furniture and a fireplace: (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)

This Chinese restaurant in Bloomberg Arcade is from chef Andrew Wong, celebrated for his delectable, astonishing, occasionally subversive dim sum at A Wong in Victoria. The new venture, backed by White Rabbit Fund, focuses on Cantonese roast meats, a sophisticated tradition dating back thousands of years. Three Treasure is a plate of crispy pork belly, lacquered soy chicken (amazing) and Iberico pork char sui. The crackling on the belly is a thing of wonder.

Order also wild mushroom steamed buns; silken tofu with 100-year old egg; Sichuanese spiced aubergine; Xian City lamb burger; shrimp bao bao — and anything else that takes your fancy.

19 Bloomberg Arcade, EC4N 8AR, kymsrestaurant.com, £65, read the review here

Caractère

Formerly Bumpkin, the new inhabitants are anything but. Emily Roux is daughter of Michel Roux Jr, nowadays chef-patron of Le Gavroche. Her husband Diego Ferrari was for three years head chef there. Their combined talents in hospitality have come to Notting Hill, to alight not far from The Ledbury.

The menu is divided by traits (their word) namely Curious, Subtle, Delicate, Robust, Strong and Greedy. Overthinking — also apparent in the table furniture — can be forgiven when dishes like celeriac “cacio e pepe” and Acquarello risotto flavoured with almond praline and scribbled with reduced port black crumble are delivered. Spendy.

209 Westbourne Park Rd, W11 1EA, caractererestaurant.com, £85, read the review here.

Two Lights

I am using Chase Levecky’s Shoreditch restaurant, close to The Clove Club, where he was head chef and backed by that enterprise, to corral a certain type of intuitive, modern, rollicking, woke establishment that has proliferated this year. Bright, Leroy, Cornerstone and St Leonards, all new for 2018, spring to mind. The vibe is young, the wine often natural, the noise lethal. Even young people I know complain that they can’t hear their mobile phones.

“Modern American” means dishes like crab on beef fat chips; a katsu sandwich (sine qua non), this one filled with sardine; grouse sausage with coco beans and figs. Some of the sweetest front-of-house in town.

28-30 Kingsland Rd, E2 8DA, twolights.restaurant, £75, read the review here.

The French House

A snug dining room above a traditional unspoiled pub is a lovesome thing. Here Neil Borthwick follows in the honorable footsteps of Margot and Fergus Henderson and later on Florence Knight. Neil’s passion is for French bourgeois cooking brushed up and beautified by his experience working for Michel Bras in Laguiole.

His short menu changes in part with each service and is embellished with what seem like last-minute enthusiasms. Main course casseroles can be accompanied by aligot — mashed potato made elastic with cheese — and it would be as foolish to omit this as to ask for a pint downstairs (only halves served).

49 Dean St, W1D 5BG, frenchhousesoho.com, £48, read the review here.

Oslo Court

A favourite of my late husband Reg Gadney, this venerable restaurant on the ground floor of an apartment block in St John’s Wood is where I went with Reg’s daughter Amy after we had collected his ashes. Amy chose duck Montmorency with cherry sauce that Reg claimed was only also ever done at The Connaught.

Classic dishes mercifully not meddled with are the backbone of this establishment owned by the Sanchez family currently in charge since 1982. New Yorker staffer Adam Gopnik once correctly observed that “a lot of what tastes like good food is actually good service”. That is right. It is a joy.

Charlbert St, NW8 7EN, oslocourtrestaurant.co.uk, £55/£75, lunch/dinner, read the review here.

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