A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Would it be possible, my FT editor asked, a man who is about to spend his first Christmas as a father, if my round-up of my best meals of 2018 were to touch on the theme of childhood?
Nothing would or could be easier, I replied. Childhood is when we first begin to revel in the pleasures cooking can induce, invariably by our mother's side, and it is at Christmas when families gather around family-size meals that this impression is at its strongest. Scratch any great chef, such as Heston Blumenthal or Clare Smyth, and they will respond that they first fell in love with the attractions of cooking as a child.
But it is to Jancis, the FT's wine correspondent, and the person I displaced in our family kitchen 30 years ago, that I owe the following analogy. When comparing the wines of France with those produced in the rest of the world, she holds her hand open in a large C. France still produces the best wines, she adds, but also the world's least good; the wines of the world fit conveniently in between. That is how I feel about what I have had the pleasure of eating this year.
Admittedly, travel has been relatively limited this year thanks to Jancis's work on the next edition of The World Atlas of Wine, with no visits to the southern hemisphere, to China, to Japan or even to the West Coast. And even a week in New York was somewhat disappointing in terms of restaurants, other than eating at The Modern and Nobu Downtown. But there were three trips to France that brought home to me the advantages that the French still possess in being the pioneers of restaurants.
It was in Paris almost a year ago that we took the lift, past the photos of such old customers as De Gaulle and JFK, to the sixth floor and the restaurant that has been for decades La Tour d'Argent in Paris. Some things have changed. André Terrail has taken the place of his late father; David Ridgway, their British-born sommelier, may have taken his long-overdue retirement; but some things certainly have not. The views across Paris such as that shown above right are spectacular, as is their wine list and in Phillipe Labbé they have at last a chef with a modern attitude – other than to vegetarians – with a well-priced €105 lunch menu.
Dinner at Guy Savoy involved another set of experiences and prices. With first courses from his à la carte menu almost as high as Labbé's lunch menu, and main courses even higher, there was no room for faltering here. Nor was there any. But what was obvious in addition was the sense of welcome on offer and the sense of generosity throughout the meal, two ingredients that are now vitally important in my assessment of any restaurant.
All of these factors come home chez the Troisgros in their new hotel and restaurant at Ouches, a few kilometres outside Roanne. There is here a sense of adventure in the kitchen that is matched by a sense of confidence in the restaurant. The perfect balance, one might say, but a balance that has taken 80 years to perfect.
This much sought-after balance between the front of house and the kitchen was obvious in several other restaurants around the world that gave me great pleasure this year.
The first was at Il Pozzo in Sant'Angelo in Colle outside Montalcino where, after a meal in which her tortelli stuffed with spinach and ricotta stole the show, we all clamoured to thank whoever was responsible. Out stepped the diminutive Paola Binarelli wearing a floppy white hat and a T-shirt that proclaimed, Keep Calm and Eat Bistecca. She insisted, 'I am not the chef here, I am the cook.' What a memorably modest approach.
Such humility was also on show at Osteria Le Panzanelle, opened in 2002 by Nada Michelassi, whose obvious charms continue to attract families from across the region for Sunday lunch that appear to be a backdrop for a Fellini film. The excellent pasta, meat dishes and well-priced wine list are extras, no pun intended.
This sense of equilibrium has a better chance of success in any restaurant that is small and compact although this is not necessarily the case.
Certainly, these two conditions do apply at Inver on the south-west coast of Scotland where Pam Brunton cooks so splendidly and her partner Rob Latimer runs their idiosyncratically, distinctively, decorated dining room. They apply in the more formal setting of Tokimeité, where Japanese chef Daisuke Hayashi works his culinary magic alongside his general manager, Matthew Gough, and in Margate, on the north coast of Kent, where Lee Coad, ex FT, runs Angela's, alongside his partner, Charlotte Forsdike, and chef, Rob Cooper. Finally, to Paris, and to Eels restaurant, where chef Adrien Ferrand and front of house, Félix Le Louarn have achieved the same rapport.
Size, however, need only be a hurdle to overcome. This point is proved by what chef Ollie Dabbous and his general manager, Matthew Mawtus, have achieved across three different floors at Hide opposite Green Park, backed by Yevgeny Chichvarkin's large fortune. While overlooking the whole of Barcelona, at Marea Alta, chef Enriqo Valenti and his Argentine front of house Pablo Sacerdotte, have achieved the same success.
This year sadly marked the death of four of the restaurant's greatest innovators: Anthony Bourdain, Jonathan Gold, Joël Robuchon and Myrtle Allen. They will be missed.