How I choose restaurants to review

Ferran Centelles at Granja Elena, Barcelona

For the first time, Nick answers the question most frequently put to him. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

This question seemed to arouse the most interest at a recent talk I gave to young hospitality professionals one evening before lockdown at Trade, the London hospo-aimed club set up by Xavier Rousset and Gearoid Devaney in the Soho basement with an alcohol licence until 3 am, which they were fortunate enough to take over.

The first part of my response came from having written this restaurant column in the Financial Times for over 30 years. As a result, readers and friends around the world have been made aware of my tastes and email me with suggestions.

Nobody responds more efficiently or more effectively than Ferran Centelles in Barcelona (pictured above over a well-wined table). He knows precisely what I like: restaurants with character and charm, traits that have ideally been ingrained in them over decades. The food will have to be good – for him and for me – and so will the wine list. But it is the overall appeal of the place that will delight me and, I hope, all my readers.

With Ferran, Jancis and one more, I went for a wonderful lunch at Granja Elena in the Zona Franca, of which an individual seafood raviolo was possibly the highlight. But the surprise came via a blackboard above the kitchen which listed 30 to 40 different sandwiches. These comprise their breakfast service and the following morning I returned at 8.30 for a toasted sobrasada, the spicy sausage made on the Balearic Islands, and cheese sandwich and a coffee. The lot came to €5.80. Not included in this, of course, was the people-watching, most unforgettably and unusually, a mother with her two children finishing their homework before school.

This is another aspect of a restaurant that I relish, the opportunity it gives me of looking into how a city, or a small neighbourhood, behaves, often in contrast to the manner in which those of us who live in London enjoy – or enjoyed – our lives.

Such was the attraction of Pilu at Freshwater just outside Sydney. First of all the easiest method of reaching this restaurant is by ferry from Circular Quay to Manly and then by taking a 139 bus. The bus stop is right by the restaurant and directly opposite the most glorious beach on which many Sydneysiders were doing what comes so naturally to them: sunbathing and surfing. You can see the ocean from the terrace, below.

Terrace at Pilu in Freshwater, Sydney

Here I was able to enjoy two memorable dishes. The first was spaghettoni with calamari and ‘nduja, the spicy Calabrian paste that revealed the chef Giovanni Pilu’s Italian upbringing. The second was my main course, a Moreton Bay bug, often referred to as a ‘slipper lobster’, thinly sliced and served, according to the menu, Catalan style, which meant refreshingly cool. These beauties get their name from the bay just north of Brisbane. They are a national delicacy.

In this I believe I share a common mission with many restaurant lovers and most who have the good fortune to share my profession – the ambition, the dream if you prefer, of eating ingredients in their local habitats, when they are in season.

Rhubarb, asparagus, and wild garlic across the United Kingdom in the season we have just sadly missed, for example. Or the clams and fish that are so prevalent in the fishing ports of north eastern Spain in the summer. Then there are raspberries, strawberries and, above all, apricots (my favourite fruit) throughout the northern hemisphere in late summer. Then comes autumn and game of every sort, followed by truffles, black and occasionally white.

I suffer, again like my fellow columnists, from a propensity to choose the more obscure dishes – tongue, brains, chicken’s feet, and any kind of offal – but I try to remember that my job is to eat on behalf of my readers. I am also aware that most readers, like myself, fall into the more adventurous category of restaurant goers – those who choose to eat what they are unlikely to cook at home rather than perhaps a better version of what they can cook for themselves.

So I will always choose to start with any soup on offer, the fishier the better. At Crabshakk in Glasgow, visited just before our personal lockdown, they had an impressive three soups to choose from. As a main course, I will always choose a dish that involves work for the kitchen I am trying out. And not just because I have a sweet tooth, I will invariably choose a dessert (a millefeuille stack of flaky pastry and cream is my test) over cheese, an ingredient that really does not tax the kitchen.

Above all, I will always remember the responsibility I owe to my readers. I have never forgotten that 25 years ago I wrote a very enthusiastic review of a restaurant in Céret near Perpignan. The restaurant was in the foothills of the Pyrenees and not that easy to get to.

On our return two years later, the chef thanked me and said that among the many visitors who had come had been a party of nine Japanese businessmen. When asked how they had heard of the restaurant, they each pulled out a copy of my review from their wallet.