The best dishes of the year that you haven’t tried yet
As another year – and another decade – come to an end, it’s tempting to feel a sense of melancholy. The country as a whole rushes headlong into what will almost certainly be a jingoistically embarrassing debacle, while countless cherished restaurants have shut their doors forever and will likely be joined by many more. While there’s certainly a lot to frown about, there’s also plenty to savour and celebrate. Despite all the closures and other challenges, the capital’s restaurants and other eateries continue to grow not only in skill and sophistication, but in heartwarming soul as this annual retrospective illustrates.
As with previous annual lookbacks, this little round-up doesn’t strictly cover the best restaurants from the past year – you can find those yourself easily enough by clicking or tapping on the ★★★★★ and ★★★★☆ category links on the homepage of this site. Instead, this article gathers together some of my favourite dishes from the 12 months – dishes that are still available and are, in my considered opinion, absolute must-haves. This year’s best dishes shows that London’s restaurants continue to offer an embarrassment of riches just waiting to be discovered. If you’re ever unsure of where to go and what to devour, then start here.
Pici at La Trattoria del Mercato, Mercato Metropolitano
The original Mercato Metropolitano in Southwark is full of mediocre street food stalls. La Trattoria del Mercato is one of the few that isn’t, dishing up well-crafted pasta dishes that shouldn’t be overlooked. La Trattoria’s pici is the dish that perhaps best encapsulates the stand as a whole – deceptively simple strings of firm pasta in a sauce brimming with layered, nuanced charm.
Almost everything at Paradise Soho
I could quite easily just link to my original review of Paradise Soho and leave it at that – the bevy of genre-defining dishes at this Sri Lankan restaurant is that bountiful. It’s impossible to pick just one dish from Paradise Soho to highlight, so I’ll cheat a little and shout about four of them. Paradise’s devilled prawns and squid curry smoulder with fiery heat that bolsters, rather than overwhelms the other flavours coursing through these superlative seafood dishes. The mutton rolls will ensure you never take these croquettes for granted ever again. Indeed, Paradise’s take on this Sri Lankan classic may well have made it impossible for me to enjoy all the other versions of this short eat available in London. And finally, Paradise’s consistently sensual and supple coconut sorbet is proof that Italy doesn’t have a monopoly on world-class ice creams and sorbets. Fire and ice, flavour and sass. Sounds like Paradise to me.
Laffa at Bubala
Bubala is another restaurant overflowing with dishes worth returning to time and time again. It may seem slightly strange to recommend bread above any of the other, far more on-trend dishes at this vegetarian and vegan restaurant. But Bubala’s soft yet elastically tearable laffa is an exemplar of the doughy arts. No matter what else you eat at Bubala, you must have it with the laffa – your meal would be incomplete without it.
Aubergine curry at Bong Bong’s Manila Kanteen
If this Filipino restaurant were located anywhere other than the ‘remote’ hinterlands of Bethnal Green, then I suspect Bong Bong’s Manila Kanteen would be receiving far more plaudits than it has done to date. It’d be tempting to overlook the aubergine curry in favour of flashier dishes such as the duck hearts, but that would be a grave mistake. The nuanced yet deeply musky character of this eggplant dish is not only an eye-opening delight, but shows we should clearly be paying a lot more attention to Filipino food than we have done to date.
Roti with daal at Normah’s Cafe
The assam pedas and laksa at this Malaysian restaurant in Bayswater have garnered all the attention and plaudits. But it’s the roti that I have torrid, fevered dreams about. The flaky, buttery tissuey moreishness of these carby sheafs is heightened by the perky daal served alongside it. Yes, I have a bread fixation and that’s a very good affliction to have.
Salt cod hash at Bar Douro
The proprietors of Bar Douro are due to add a second location alongside the London Bridge original and with good reason. The Portuguese food at this railway arch restaurant is rarely dull and often gutturally satisfying. The seemingly mundane salt cod hash was nothing of the sort, with crisp potato sheafs interleaved with a rhythmic medley of olives and meaty salt cod that tasted as if they were made for each other. Sod fish and chips, this is the seafood and potatoes dish for me.
Fried chicken at Mother Clucker, Flat Iron Square
It’s taken a long time for me to appreciate that there’s more to fried chicken in London than grease-stained regret in a takeaway box. Mother Clucker’s fried chicken has single handedly won me over to the cause of battered, deep-fried poultry. Their winsome chook won’t be news to seasoned fried chicken aficionados, but everyone else should sink their teeth into the simultaneously soft yet crunchy bite of the almost seamless batter. It’s easily the best thing you can order at Flat Iron Square by a country mile.
Jhol momos at Maya DD’s
Nepalese food has long had strongholds in the southeastern suburbs of London, but has often been rendered badly or haphazardly. Maya DD’s in Woolwich does this cuisine justice, serving up seemingly endless varieties of momos, breads the likes of which you’ve probably never seen, chaats galore and coils of offal too. Maya DD’s jhol momos are dumplings, but these are hulking bruiser dumplings you call in to sort out a sniffly cold that won’t bugger off. Hearty but never stodgy, citrusy tart with a sour warmth but never overwhelming. These are the dumplings-in-soup made for a chilly island in the north Atlantic.
Wild honey ice cream at Wild Honey
Wild Honey is that rare restaurant which closed its doors, seemingly forever, but opened again – springing back to life in far grander and more airy premises inside the Sofitel St James. It’s no surprise that their long-standing eponymous ice cream with honeycomb is a winner, even amidst a menu full of elegantly crafted delights. Accessible, yet with a highly accomplished mouthfeel and flavour – smooth then crunchy with an unmistakable sweetness. I can’t think of another dish that so perfectly encapsulates this restaurant’s ethos.
Beef, egg and rice at Bao Borough
One may think that the big secret about the Borough branch of Bao is that the queues here are far, far shorter than those at either the Fitzrovia or Soho locations – especially when compared to the oversubscribed latter. But the real secret about Bao Borough is that the eponymous baos aren’t the best things on the menu – that accolade belongs to the heftier meaty mains. Of this richly endowed clade, the strutting pride of the pack has to be the beef, egg and rice. This is no humble gyudon, but a radial arrangement of succulent medium-rare steak served with a plump egg yolk on a bed of rice. As if the richly characterful partnership of bovine and ovum wasn’t enough, the juices of both seep into the rice below, soaking it through with an unctuous friskiness. This may not be traditional Taiwanese food, yet it’s all the better for it.
Biang biang noodles at Master Wei
Word has spread about the superlative Shaanxi cooking at Holborn’s Master Wei. If you can get in without an arduous wait time, then the finest biang biang noodles in London await you. Triumphing over stiff competition, the refined mouthfeel of these rough hewn noodles and the multilayered sauce is a constant delight. Whether you’re a seasoned fan of regional Chinese cuisines or a novice just weaning yourself away from Anglicised Chinese food, Master Wei’s biang biang noodles are a godsend.
Chilled rice noodles at Murger Hanhan
Murger Hanhan rivals Master Wei in the Xi’an/Shaanxi cooking stakes. While its biang biang noodles aren’t quite as wondrous as its rival’s, its chilled rice noodles romp home. These chunky, supple and slippery noodles don’t just rely on their distinctive mouthfeel. They come dressed in a sauce ticklish with spicy warmth and sour tang. Its refreshing qualities are particularly welcome on a hot day, but this is an evergreen noodle dish worth eating any time of year.