Lists are fun! Here are mine.
Note that these aren’t necessarily things that were opened/launched/published/forged from lava in 2011. Just things I experienced for the first time, or really came to appreciate last year.
Bristol Beer Factory Acer: There have been a lot of really delectable 4%-ish, hella hoppy golden ales released by British brewers in the past year, but this is my favorite, brewed with copious amounts of Sorachi Ace hops. Because of the weirdly complex nature of this Japanese varietal, and inevitable inconsistencies related to cask-conditioned beer, Acer is always a little bit different each time I have it – but it’s always bitingly bitter and thoroughly refreshing.
Mikkeller Nelson Sauvignon: I do hope we don’t see the last of this already rare brew, because it’s a jaw-dropper. Playing on the fruity aromatics of the Nelson Sauvin hop – so named because of its similarities to Sauvignon Blanc wines – Mikkeller has used champagne yeast and the wild fungus brettanomyces to produce even more vinous notes, then aged it in Austrian white wine barrels to drive the point home. The result is a real WTF of a beer that gleefully blurs the line between wine and beer. A few other beer geeks and I were left without words when we sampled it on a whim at BrewDog Camden.
BrewDog/Stone Bashah Highland Park and Black Raspberry Reserve: On paper, this collaboration between two of the most rambunctious breweries on the planet sounds like a train wreck, or at the very least, a “throw everything at the wall” type of ill-conceived experiment: a black IPA aged in whisky casks with copious amounts of berries. In actuality, it’s something far more than the sum of its parts, and unlike any other beer I’ve tasted, with fruity hops and delicate tartness harmonizing beautifully with the richer, more mellow flavors of dark malts and whisky.
BrewDog Mr. Squirrel: I love this beer – and not just because I helped brew it. The game boys at BrewDog helped me put together this completely bonkers strong dark lager, made with 100% Sorachi Ace hops, four varieties of miso, and toasted walnuts. It turned out pretty much exactly how I’d hoped: lushly pork-friendly and multilayered with a full-on proteinaceous body, intense nuttiness, and a jab of salt and fragrant hops.
De Struise Pannepot: In November I went to Belgium, and it rekindled my love for Belgian beer. Pilgrimages to the Cantillon brewery and Delirium Cafe were almost too awesome for words, and completely by chance I found Westvleteren XII on the menu of a cafe. But none of the beer experiences I had were quite as marvelous as Pannepot, an offering as close to the Platonic ideal of a quadrupel as I think I’m ever going to find. It made Westvleteren taste like Leffe by comparison. This is one serious Belgian beer from a serious Belgian brewery.
Honorable mention goes to my collaborative smoked chilli weizenbock with Black Isle, Highland Smog; De Struise’s massively, dangerously complex imperial stout, Black Albert; Camden‘s Inner City Green and Summer Wine‘s Elbow, both hugely hoppy quaffers at under 4%; and just about anything from The Kernel and Marble.
The food at Racine never ceases to amaze me. I first visited three years ago, by chance – Laura and I wandered in because we were in the area and it has the same name as my hometown. But as soon as the first course arrived, I was enraptured by their deceptively complex French cooking – I say deceptively because dishes like their rabbit with mustard sauce, grouse with Armagnac, and chocolate terrine are presented in a straightforward, unassuming manner, but now that I know a bit more about classical French cookery, it’s obvious that these are really difficult, consummately skillful feats of cookery. I had the pleasure of meeting chef patron Henry Harris on my last visit there, and I couldn’t resist asking him how he makes one of his signature dishes: warm garlic and saffron mousse with mussels. I asked not only because that dish is one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever tasted (and easily one of my top five London dishes of all time), but because its intricacies seemed almost impossible to unravel. He answered with a justifiably annoyed shake of the head, followed by a coy smile and an explanation that was disconcertingly simple: the fundamentals of the dish aren’t hard to follow, but they are very hard to execute. And that’s what makes Racine special: every dish takes talent and practice, and it shows. And what’s more, they’ve got the service and the ambiance nailed, too – it’s one of the rare places you can go for both a romantic date or a pre-museum lunch with your hollering baby nephew and still have a lovely time.
More towards my end of the Piccadilly line, I’ve finally found a Korean restaurant that serves tteokbokki, pajeon, and bibimbap that taste just how I remember them from my trips to Seoul and Busan: Dotori. And it isn’t just the flavors that are authentic – it’s the prices, too. For some reason, Korean food in London has always struck me as unusually expensive; I don’t mind paying good money for good food, and I appreciate the economics of running an east Asian restaurant in London are a teensy bit different from running one in east Asia. But when it comes to to Korean, I just couldn’t shake memories of amazing meals eaten from anonymous street stalls for less than a fifth of what I typically have to pay here for a lower quality product. Dotori’s barbecue and banchan are excellent, and excellent value, and it’s nice knowing they’re only four tube stops away – actually, it’s nice knowing they exist at all.
In a similar vein, I’m a huge fan of Asakusa, which shines like a lighthouse in a sea of overly stylized, sexed-up, overblown and overpriced Japanese restaurants. Asakusa is an izakaya, and a proper one – the carpets are a weird red color, the walls plastered with handwritten menus and faded Japanese beer posters, and the food fantastic. Fancy it ain’t – you won’t find a foie gras roll here. But what you will find are Japanese pub classics cooked perfectly, things like karaage, soft shell crab tempura, dengaku nasu and grilled chicken skin. Healthy? Who cares? This is a place to relax and enjoy yourself with friends and family and a big bottle of Asahi.
If I love Racine, Dotori, and Asakusa for their straightforward authenticity, I love Spuntino because it’s the complete antithesis of it. Spuntino is neither here nor there; on the surface, it’s a meticulous pastiche of a Lower East Side cafe/diner, but the menu reads more like a mashup of arty American and northern Italian with flashes of modern British. Chilli popcorn and a remixed PBJ dessert bookend meals that may consist of chickpeas with squid and ink alongside sliders made with spiced mackerel or bone marrow-studded beef, all washed down with black filter coffee or classic cocktails – or are they classic? Maybe not, but they feel like it. It goes without saying that the food is delicious, but more importantly, it’s joyful and creative, made with an obvious love for its sources of inspiration, but also a willful irreverence that few restaurants have the confidence to pull off.
The Sweet Fanboy Vindication Award goes to The Fat Duck.
The Style Over Substance (But the Substance is Pretty Damn Good) Award goes to Bob Bob Ricard.
The It’s Not Really a Restaurant, But It’s Still the Best Restaurant In Scotland Award goes to Yatai.
And the Better Than Tayyabs Award goes to Mirch Masala (try the fried fish – it’s the new lamb chop).
Favorite things to read!
I’ve written enough words now. Go read someone else’s!
Ideas in Food: Inspirational modernist cuisine from two of America’s most adventurous cooks.
The Fat Duck Cookbook: Dense, uncompromising, and endlessly useful.
Jonathan Gold: Still the best restaurant critic in the world. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Pulitzer Prize committee.
Cooking Issues: Advanced yet accessible experiments in food science.
Harold McGee on Food and Cooking: If you’ve ever asked yourself “why?” in the kitchen, this book probably has the answer.