2017 has been an incredibly hectic year for London restaurants, even by the frenetic standards of this city. Despite the closure of some much missed favourites, new restaurants have continued to open at a dizzying and surely unsustainable pace. Some of that has been driven by a modest influx of celebrity chefs from abroad – some of whom have been fawned upon by other reviewers in the most asinine, obsequiously nausea-inducing manner possible. Veganism and vegetarianism saw a surge in popularity in spite of, or perhaps because of the dawning realisation that that wellness fad is shallower than a dried-out paddling pool.
All this means that eating out in London has rarely been more exciting. This hive of activity also means that it’s more than difficult than ever to compile my annual round-up of the best dishes of the past year. The dishes that you really need to savour as soon as you can, if you haven’t already.
As in the past couple of years, I’m rounding up dishes that, as far as I can tell, are still available and still just as good as when I first reviewed them. This is more difficult than ever as more and more restaurants rightly put their focus on seasonal dishes and ingredients that aren’t available year round. It’s been worth the effort though – there have been some cracking dishes this year and I hope you enjoy eating them just as much as I have.
Xu, the highly anticipated follow-up to Bao, got a surprisingly lukewarm reception from some other reviewers upon opening. Most of those notably mixed early reviews were later and somewhat sheepishly superseded by revised opinions that largely matched my own comprehensive review. A small minority have not though, including one bizarre effort that includes a potted Simple English Wikipedia-style definition of ‘Taiwan’ in its introduction. And no, I’m not linking to it.
This neo-Taiwanese powerhouse has an embarrassment of riches to choose from. After much deliberation, the standout dish has to be the shou pa chicken. It’s such a consistently excellent chicken dish, it has not only helped reshape my previously derisive view of this meat but is also the standard by which I judge all other chicken dishes.
Hoppers, like XU, is part of the JKS restaurant empire that could quite easily dominate this annual round-up if I weren’t careful. Including three dishes from the second branch of Hoppers in this retrospective felt like a bit of cheat given the runaway success of the Soho original. I can’t help but heap praise upon their sumptuous lamb chops though – they’re easily the best I’ve eaten in London, west of Whitechapel.
No virginal visit to Hoppers would be complete without trying the vegetable kothu roti and the eponymous hoppers themselves. The former is a deceptively simple chopped bread and vegetable dish of uncommon deliciousness, while the latter is a superlative bread/pancake gifted to us mere mortals from a higher power.
If you’re inexplicably worried that I’m going soft in my carnivorous old age, then don’t be. Go to Darjeeling Express and have the slow-cooked goat. Unapologetically meaty, simply yet richly flavoured and exquisitely well-prepared with a sumptuous mouthfeel that’s a testament to everything that is so viscerally unique and enjoyable about meat. Thank you, goat. Thank you.
Including an amorphous, undistinguished looking bowl of soup in this retrospective may seem counterintuitive at first. But the double-boiled soup at Duddell’s is exactly the sort of dish that most people would never be able to prepare themselves and thus only ever be able to try at a restaurant. An expert blend of whelks, ham, chicken and vegetables simmered over hours to produce an exceptionally sophisticated level of umami that’s nonetheless light and delicate. There are many dishes available at Duddell’s. This is one of the best, by a very long way.
The Coal Rooms in Peckham is a deeply overhyped restaurant. But they do serve one dish that is, quite rightfully, worthy of acclaim – a bacon sandwich. It’s not just a bacon sandwich, but a deceptively luxuriant and fortifyingly filling bacon sandwich with few peers. It may be as much gammon as it is bacon, but it’s no less delicious for it. If you find yourself in Peckham at breakfast time, hunt this beast down. Devour it. And feel free to skip lunch.
Kricket is one of my favourite restaurants to have opened in the past year. Its menu of classily executed, elegantly sumptuous Indian dishes changes constantly, but two of my favourites have thus far remained constant fixtures. It’s hard to choose just one of its excellent breads, but the superlative buttery flakiness of the paratha means it has to grab top honours.
Desserts haven’t featured at all, thus far, in this retrospective but that omission ends now with Kricket’s misti doe. It may be ‘just’ a pistachio yoghurt at its core, but it has been refined and weaponised to a degree that’s scarcely believable.
If anyone ever doubts the scrumptiousness of Mexican food – the proper stuff, not the Tex-Mex atrocities found in the suburbs and the provinces – then take them to the revived Santo Remedio. Sit them down, order the octopus and then watch as their eyes light up at the deep, delicate and complex umami in the tentacle. If they still don’t see the light, then take them out back and end their crude, squalid existence as quietly as possible.
Quite a lot of Indian food has appeared in this retrospective which speaks volumes about the quiet confidence, skill and vigour on display in many of the capital’s spice-scented kitchens. The largely unheralded Kashmir in Putney can hold its own with the big boys thanks to deep and complex dishes such as the gushtaba. Neatly crafted meatballs came in a sauce of deep and uncommon complexity. If those last four words don’t neatly summarise London’s richly diverse and infinitely surprising restaurants as a whole, then I don’t know what does.
-The Picky Glutton