Nick's annual survey of where he ate and what he learnt.
2022 has been an unusual year for everyone, but a seriously difficult one for anyone actually in the restaurant business or in the performing arts rather than a mere commentator like me.
During the first three months, when the situation as to restaurants opening was still unclear, I too had to be cautious, although in the end I struck lucky. I managed an interview with John Davey, who has made a living out of welcoming customers, including Prince Philip, Pelé, David Bowie and David Niven, into his place of work. I travelled to Abergavenny to interview Adam Sellar, an extraordinary bread-maker, over dinner at The Walnut Tree, pictured above in typically Welsh weather, and then I travelled all the way to Green Park to extol the virtues of Maison François and, in particular, its dessert trolley (a feature I do wish other restaurateurs would emulate).
One of the few advantages of growing older is the development of a memory bank, so my dinner at The Walnut Tree brought back very happy memories of all the meals I have enjoyed cooked by Shaun Hill, initially at Gidleigh Park in Devon and then at the Merchant House in Ludlow before taking over at The Walnut Tree. Sitting opposite him in the morning over coffee in Abergavenny I was given these two titbits: ‘we [chefs] are here to cook for you, and you are here to enjoy it’ and ‘I have always believed that it would be very silly not to cook what you, the chefs, like because how else can you tell whether it’s right or not?’ Pearls of culinary wisdom from a delightful, hard-working, 75-year-old chef.
There were similar insights at the end of my review of Locanda Locatelli on Portman Square. We went there one late spring evening fascinated by the news that this restaurant was celebrating its 20th birthday still in the extremely capable hands of Giorgio and Plaxy Locatelli.
How can this be, we wondered, as we walked into a virtually unchanged dining room that still works admirably well thanks to the thoughtful design of the late David Collins and his studio in an atmosphere that manages to convey the sensation that ‘we are in charge and all you the customer has to do is relax and enjoy yourself’. On the big things, the kitchen was spot-on: tortellini in brodo; a perfectly cooked calf's sweetbread with capers; and a strawberry soufflé, but so too were all the smaller touches: the grissini, the almond macaroon and the sommelier’s suggestion of a bottle of Mantoetto 2017 Barolo from Umberto Fracassi Ratti Mentone (£99).
Any restaurant that survives 20 years has to adapt, so perhaps it is best to leave this restaurant with a couple of comments from Plaxy: ‘We have noticed that people’s knowledge of ingredients and what they are eating has changed dramatically. People are much more aware. The changes are probably not huge – we try to make sure that the menu is appealing to everyone and that we always have a few vegan dishes on the menu – although veganism is not in Giorgio’s DNA… The customers have changed. Sadly, we have lost a lot of customers who became good friends, as in 20 years quite a few people have died. On the upside, quite a lot of children who grew up coming here are now coming here with their partners and friends so that’s a lovely circle.’
A similar experience was on offer at Les Trois Chevaux in New York, the most recent home for chef Angie Mar. After several years cooking at The Beatrice Inn, Mar has turned her obviously extremely talented hands to a very classical French style of cooking, a style that will appeal to many.
On a single sheet of paper were dishes that include a millefeuille, a pithivier, a ballotine and a mousseline while main courses included sweetbreads ‘en crepinette’, Dover sole bonne femme, foie gras and lobster. The menu ends with a dish for two, duck with Japanese cherries. The restaurant is expensive at $180 per person for the three courses, but Mar delivers a truly memorable experience.
The entire team at Lodi, which recently opened their interpretation of a classy Italian cafe in the Rockefeller Centre, did too. Looking very much the part, their crostino di tonno ($24) gets my vote for sandwich of 2022. I was impressed by the restraint on display, not only in their crème caramel but also in the restrained size of their coffees.
I enjoyed a similar combination – of an expensive restaurant that is the projection of one chef and a far less expensive and more informal cafe/restaurant – on the hugely popular holiday island of Mallorca during the August heatwave.
Tucked away in the village of Llubí, and opposite the supermarket, is Brut, the least likely name for a successful restaurant that I can think of. Its success is down to the vision, determination and cooking skills of its owner Eduardo Martínez Gil, born in Buenos Aires. Throughout an initial career in advertising. Gil dreamt of owning his own restaurant as a chef, and today he presides over a building that incorporates his own brewery, a place for 16 customers and a highly inventive team. Curtain up at 8.30 pm for the nightly performance.
In Palma, there is the less expensive but equally to admirable Cafe Es Pas De Sa Palla in the square of the same name. Their menu is excellent and well-priced (lunch was €47 for two) but this restaurant and three others (Bar de L’Escola in Palma, Cafe Palmanova in Calvia and Cafe Esment Inca in Inca) are all run by Esment, a foundation that works and trains young people with learning difficulties. It provides apprenticeships, jobs, accommodation and support for their families and much more. The vegetables are home-grown on the Esment farm near So Ferriol, while the bread, pastries and cakes come from their own bakery.
This brings me to the two most memorable meals of 2022, at The Sportsman in Seasalter, between Faversham and Whitstable in Kent, and at Troisgros in the small village of Ouches, outside Roanne, in eastern France.
Both restaurants share, alongside top-class cooking, extremely friendly service and an excellent wine list, one common factor. They are both located in a very special and particular location each fashioned by their current proprietor, slightly in their own image.
The Sportsman was a somewhat neglected Shepherd Neame pub when Stephen Harris first took it over in 1999. Today thanks to Stephen, his partner Emma and his brother, the restaurant serves a five-course menu (£80 and with options at each course) that is brimming with ideas and innovation but close to the windswept coast and beach, the perfect place to walk off any excess food or alcohol. The area is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 which introduced me to the phrase ‘pannage’, the practice of releasing pigs in a forest so that they can feed on the fallen nuts.
Troisgros dates back to 1930 when Jean-Baptiste, Michel Troisgros’ grandfather, first opened in Roanne in what is today their restaurant Le Central. Five years ago, Michel and his wife Marie-Pierre – alongside their two sons and daughter, reopened the hotel and restaurant just outside the village of Ouches, eight kilometres from Roanne. It is a space that has been created by thoughtful, sensitive professionals who have spent many, many years working in a building that was not specifically designed for hospitality. The restaurant has been designed for comfort; their menu to delivering culinary thrills.
To everybody who has made 2022, despite the challenges, another exciting year of eating out, my most grateful thanks.