As Loyd Grossman would have put it, we've spent the past year ruminating, cogitating and digesting to be able to come up with this year's award winners. The good news is that it was extremely difficult to narrow the field down to the few winners you see here, such is the quality and range of the food being served up by London's restaurants, pubs (gastro or otherwise) and street vendors. Without further ado, here are our 2011 best of the best.
Dinner by Heston was without doubt the biggest London opening of 2011 - instantly impossible to get a table at and blessed with great (some might say impossibly good) reviews to boot. Of course, there was one item on the menu that everyone wanted to try - Meat Fruit, a chicken liver parfait gussied up to look like the spitting image of a mandarin (which was also a neat reference in itself to the hotel hosting the restaurant). Given the extremely high expectations, it's even more impressive that it turned out to be everything we wished for; a visual triumph of trickery that also tasted as great as it looked.
If you're visiting Dinner, you can't leave without ordering one of these.
We first encountered Hawkmoor’s melting macaroni masterpiece on a tryout of their new beef tasting menu which they were preparing for the opening of Hawksmoor Guildhall. It’s the kind of dish that the words ‘comfort food’ were invented for - brought to the table in a casserole pot for you to serve yourself with a massive shin bone sticking up out of the pasta, emptied of its marrow during the long, slow cooking process.
Essentially it’s every bit as good as it sounds (and then some), which is why it managed to pip the Opera Tavern’s faultless foie gras sliders to the post. Best of all, with the publication of the new Hawksmoor cookbook, anyone can now replicate this dish at home.
Runner up: Meat (in all its forms)
2011 was the year London properly got in on the street food trend which has already gone down a storm in Los Angeles and New York. In crossing the Atlantic it brought with it some American influences - Big Apple Hot Dogs and Pitt Cue Co both obvious examples. But then, as is the way, London made its own enhancements with some great Banh Mi vans, Kimchi and steamed pork buns that (allegedly) could give a certain Manhattan spot a run for its money. With events like The Long Table and Tweet Up also pushing the street food agenda, you can expect this to be an even bigger trend in 2012.
Elsewhere in London, it was really only going to be about the meat; whether raw, in burgers or steaks. Steak tartar was everywhere, Twitter went a bit bonkers about burgers and steakhouses were popping up all over the shop.
With so much of this year’s eating about street food and burgers where what you eat is more than likely to be wrapped up in a napkin or served up in a cardboard box, we found the whole experience of eating at Danesfield out in Buckinghamshire, thoroughly restful. Adam Simmonds's restaurant is all about pared down, modern food in this full-on home counties setting and his attention to detail was best represented in an early summer dish of braised fillet of brill with wild leaf garlic pannacotta, peas, feves and morels.
It was, as you can see, as pretty as a picture, although our photography skills probably don't do it justice.
Honest burgers/MEAT Liquor
Runner up: Lucky Chip
If we're being truthful, this was a hard one to pick. We have had some astonishingly good burgers in the capital this year, often in a state of either inebriation or in the grips of a hellish hangover and they do tend to blur into one another. But it can only be a good thing that you no longer have to fork out the price of a flight to New York to get your hands on a really decent meat patty. Of the new bunch, we really found it hard to choose between MEAT Liquor and Honest Burgers in Brixton. Both were outstanding burgers, perfectly cooked with plenty of oozy fat, great cheese and lovely and pink in the middle so it seemed only fair to give them the award jointly. Coming up a very respectable second is the excellent Lucky Chip at Hackney's Netil Market - which is also well worth a look.
When the Zetter Townhouse opened up in April with Camille and Tony from 39 Colebrooke Row in charge, it instantly became Hot Dinners' office in the field. From the ‘mad globetrotting Edwardian aunt’ decor to Tony’s great cocktails (his Nettle Gimlet and Twinkles are among the best drinks in town) this place is note-perfect. And that’s before you factor in the bar snacks by Bruno Loubet. Loubet’s anchovy-stuffed deep-fried olives are horribly addictive and the grilled merguez sausages with harissa chickpeas are perfect stomach-lining food to ensure your evenings here don’t result in a painful morning the next day.
A little further north, on the Euston Road, The Gilbert Scott is also doing great things. Bar manager Oliver Blackburn is responsible for the innovative cocktail list here.
A year or so ago you’d be hard-pressed to name a single decent place to eat in Covent Garden, now WC2 is littered with great places - with Catherine Street home to two of them, Opera Tavern and Mishkins. Russell Norman also opened Da Polpo over on Maiden Street, while Peter Gordon made Monmouth Street home to his second restaurant Kopapa.
With Richard Caring still working on the old Theatre Museum site (will it be Balthazar, who knows?) and Barrafina’s second site due to open on Drury Lane in early 2012, Covent Garden’s future as one of London's more interesting dining destinations is assured.
In many respects, we feel the "Is bread included?" section of our Test Drives to be a key part of the story - the effort a restaurant puts into the first things you're likely to eat there can often be a good litmus test of the rest of the enterprise.
And way, way out in front this year was Roganic. Their potato & buttermilk, pumpernickel and spelt & wholemeal rolls with home-made salted butter was easily the best we've had all year and we ended up kicking ourselves for not taking some home in a doggy bag when we left the restaurant. The presentation of the whipped butter smeared on a stone handpicked by chef Ben Spalding made it even better and it was salted to perfection. Of course there are a lot of reasons to go to Roganic, but they had us at the bread.
Every year, we find a new restaurant or two that we take to so much it moves from our 'one to try' list to our smallish but perfectly formed favourites list. This year the first (and best) to reach that status was Opera Tavern. From our first visit where we encountered the mini Iberico pork and foie gras sliders that caused a sensation when it first opened, to return visits to try the crispy pigs ears and Jamón Ibérico de Bellota that literally melted away in front of our eyes in the heat of the dining room we've loved pretty much everything we've eaten here. There's a real passion to what's going on the plate here and it won't hurt your wallet (too much).
We have also spent many an happy hour this in the Riding House Cafe, a place that has singlehandedly revitalised the area north of Oxford Circus and whose artichoke puree is to die for.
An instant hit the moment it opened, Duck Soup quickly became the place everyone wanted to squeeze into - on the Friday lunchtime Hot Dinners tried it, we were cheek by jowel with Bloomberg’s Richard Vines and chef Stevie Parle with Bar Chick scoffing in the window table and Wahaca’s Thomasina Miers passing us on the way in as we left.
A month or so later it hit the headlines again when chef Alexis Gauthier, taking advantage of diners' proximity to each other, live-tweeted his meal there whilst earwigging on the Telegraph and Independent’s critics who happened to be having lunch there at the same time.
Of course none of this would matter if the food didn't live up to expectations. Happily we found that it did - and was reasonably priced to boot.
When Yianni from The Meat Wagon announced that he was putting the van up on bricks and opening up a permanent restaurant, some must have wondered he’d be able to preserve the grungy street style that epitomised his burger revolution. MEATliquor may be just yards away from the middle-England retail strip of Oxford Street, but its interior is all Brooklyn biker bar. Apparently a team of graphic artists hung out here for a week creating the psychotropic artwork that adorns every surface here. God knows what they were on, but the result is a permanent restaurant every wandering street food vendor would give their best grilling plates to have.
At the opposite end of the design scale, David Collins unveiled the utterly beautiful Massimo while Russell Sage scored a coup at One New Change, giving character and buzz to Gordon Ramsay’s hanger-sized Bread St Kitchen.
Not enough attention is given in most people’s annual round-ups to the people who can really make or break a restaurant - the waiting staff. After all, you can have the best food in the world on your plate, but if you’ve had to wait ages for it or ask again and again for your wine to be left within your reach, then you’ll never come back. Our waitress at a memorably good Sunday lunch at Highgate’s Bull & Last was the perfect example of how great service can turn a good meal into a brilliant one. She worked our orders perfectly, was always on hand with knowledgable suggestions and advice on the menu and gave every impression that she was having a top time looking after us.
Two deserved runners-up were Fred Sirieix at Galvin at Windows whose work championing front of house for the industry is reflected in the way he runs his own dining room at the Park Lane Hilton and Dan who’s looked after us at every Young Turks event we’ve been to.
We can hardly believe we only tried the Young Turks food for the first time this year, when they had a guest spot at Nuno Mendes’ The Loft Project back in April. Since then, we’ve been to their Canary Wharf pop-up during the summer, missed their much-vaunted time at Franks in Peckham (we had to have a holiday sometime!), and loved every minute of a recent meal at the Ten Bells in Spitalfields. But it was our first dinner by them at the Loft Project that was the meal to beat for the year. Many (including them) came close, but that standout dinner remains the best food we ate in 2011. The raw beef with chickweed and oysters was such a perfect dish we can still remember exactly how wondrous it was writing this nine months later.
Their new spot at the 10 Bells shows how brilliant and inventive their cooking can be - and more importantly that they can sustain that over weeks rather than just days. Will 2012 be the year they finally open a permanent place? Here’s hoping.
And the personal favourites from the Hot Dinners writing team this year were as follows:
Catherine Hanly (Editor)
"One of the best meals I ate this year was at Manson, a spot down on the usual culinary hinterland of Fulham Road. Chef Alan Stewart's been poached from Launceston Place and he's brought elements of some of their best dishes with him. My game dinner there featured one of my favourite starters of the year, venison tartare mixed with shallots and beetroot from the restaurant's allotment and served up with celeriac puree, pickled girolles and shaved Kentish cobnuts. It's a crying shame that I live on the other side of town, otherwise I'd be in here all the time."
Gavin Hanly (Producer)
"It's all been about steak for me this year. Goodman, Hawksmoor and Cut have all impressed and shown that, finally, London can compete with the best in this field. I've been particularly impressed with the quality of the steak and cooking at Goodman and by the beef tasting menu at Hawksmoor. If you can gather the friends together to take in the meat fest at the latter (it requires a minimum of 10) you'll have a great time."
Helen Jones (Staff writer)
"For me, the best place I’ve been to in 2011 has to be Roganic. I loved it. Mainly because we’d been to L’Enclume a couple of years back and I think that, for a pop-up, they have done an utterly fantastic job of translating the sense of occasion, and the super-high standard of L’Enclume into a temporary offering. If I had the money I would eat there every week. Sadly, I’m likely to manage maybe once or twice during their run. The fact they allowed me to take a pot of their 3-year-old sourdough starter home with me as well made them my favourite of the year – that’s real customer engagement!"
Nicola Piggott (Staff writer)
"For new thrills this year, I've loved Spuntino - minus the crowds and the hassle. In fact, it might be one of my favourite afternoon spots to relax in - and not just because of that PB&J ice cream sandwich. Hate queuing there on a Friday though, so I avoid it after dark. For an old(er) favourite, I could eat dinner and lunch for weeks on end in Koya. Springy, thick Udon noodles are hard to find in London - and Koya's are the stuff dreams are made of. Not just a saying. I literally dream of their duck udon, sprinkled with batter and mixed in with an egg, about once a month."
Zeren Wilson (Staff writer)
"Unnerving consistency of food allied with exemplary service since opening eighteen months ago, Zucca continues to push forward, innovate, and deliver a menu of startlingly simple Italian classics. The wine list rivals anything in London (a big gong about to be awarded) for breadth and value, and stays true to its Italian roots - 100% Italian, right down to the sparklers. Pasta is a big draw, a current dish of Pappardelle with Pheasant Ragu as good as any I've had in town. The Veal Chop will always be on the menu, says chef/owner Sam Harris, and is already legendary. He's now importing his own olive oil, a Zucca Chianti is around the corner, and there are further plans for next year. A restaurant that rewards visit after visit, and rarely misses a beat. We all need a regular haunt like this."