A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Other than the sheer pleasure of the good food and wine that I have enjoyed during 2017, two other factors have emerged as I look back on the year.
The first, important for anyone who earns their living in sterling, is the rising cost for us of enjoying these pleasures outside the UK. The decline in the value of our currency is marked today against the euro, the American and Australian dollar, even the Israeli shekel. And whereas, principally because of competition from so many rival establishments, British restaurateurs have been forced to peg their prices for the time being, this situation cannot continue forever in the UK.
The second may be the stirrings of a far more pleasurable, worldwide phenomenon. Could there be a shift towards that most satisfying of restaurants, one run by a single family? This cosy phenomenon, once the norm in certain European countries, may now be making a comeback. Let us hope so.
Anyone who has the slightest interest in the very best French food and wine should save up and make the trip to Troisgros, now located 8 km to the west of Roanne in the tiny village of Ouches, eastern France. This restaurant with rooms (their less expensive bistro Le Central in the centre of Roanne is also well worth a visit) is a manifestation of the vision of Michel Troisgros (seen here picking herbs in his new garden), grandson of the man who first opened the restaurant here in the early 1930s, and his wife Marie-Pierre.
And yet it is the presence of their two sons César and Léo in the kitchen that gives their parents and any and every guest the greatest comfort. This is the parents’ vision, that despite the many entreaties from hoteliers to open Troisgros restaurants around the world, the world will have to continue to beat a path to this part of France, to be seduced and to leave happy.
Something similar, and of similar origin (Michel Troisgros’ mother was Italian) is happening in the hills above Carcassonne. Here, three years ago, the Antonini family moved lock, stock and barrel from Rome into what was then an isolated, windswept but potentially very exciting abandoned winery.
Fortunately, they are a talented family and with their designer father’s eye, the mother’s warmth, the son Edoardo’s dexterity with the herd of buffalo that he milks every morning to make their mozzarella, and his brother’s nascent skills in the kitchen, the Bourdasso name now stands as an outpost of Italian cooking and wine in a region where mass tourism has led to a decline in the local restaurants.
Two examples of the hospitality and level of cooking that can be delivered by a husband-and-wife team are exemplified by Andrew and Natalie Wong in their A Wong restaurant by Victoria station in London, offering what is for me the most exciting Chinese cooking in the UK, and American sommelier/front of house Laura Adrian and her chef/partner Braden Perkins, a combination that manifests itself in the delights of the Parisian bistro Ellsworth. Perkins serves up an intelligent €28 three-course menu at lunch and only a fool would try to disagree with Adrian’s wine selection.
Down Under in Sydney, Josh and Julie Niland’s rather more ambitious fish restaurant, Saint Peter, left me longing to discover their counterparts in Europe. He has a particularly sensitive approach to the cooking of the fish he serves exclusively, while she is an accomplished pastry chef.
Back in Europe, in the towns of Roses and Figueres in Catalunya, the hotels Almadraba Park and Hotel Empordà respectively are hotels and restaurants owned and managed by Jordi Sobirós and his father Jaume. Both are tall and distinguished and both share the same assiduous attitude towards looking after their clients to ensure that they have a great time. But the father takes his responsibilities one step further.
At the beginning of each service, having made sure his customers are comfortably seated, he takes off the jacket of his dark suit, dons a waiter’s apron and wears this self-created uniform in a role that he has created for himself. This is how he acts as an interpreter between his customers and his kitchen or as he puts it, ‘I am thinking for my customers.’
Further west in San Sebastián, I ate at two family-run restaurants, Ganbara in the city centre run by mother and son Amaya Ortuzar and Amaiur Martinez, and Portuexte, where Borja is taking over from his parents Javier and Ana Bereciartua. At the former I will long remember the sweetness of the grilled langoustines as well as their management of a seemingly chaotic crowd – because this place is so popular. At the latter it will be for the simplicity of a first course, cos lettuce topped with diced garlic, anchovies and olive oil, as well as for the professionalism of the female waiting staff, here and throughout this city.
Finally, to many miles further west on the Pacific coast of Baja California in Mexico and to the restaurant Manzanilla. This is the professional home of Bonito and Solange Molina, and their daughter Oliva, but it is mecca for anyone who is keen to enjoy the exceptional seafood from the deep, cold waters nearby. Oysters, abalone, totoaba … each was memorable although Solange did try to halt my compliments by saying ‘it is just the ocean’s bounty’.
But it is far more than that. In Solange’s case it was the empathy with which she served the food cooked so expertly by her husband. And, if I am right, and this has the beginnings of a worldwide family-business phenomenon, then we will all benefit.
Saint Peter www.saintpeter.com.au
A Wong www.awong.co.uk
Hotel Empordà www.hotelemporda.com
Almadraba Park www.almadrabapark.com