Restaurant reviewers, quite understandably, do not receive any sympathy for their lifestyle, however altruistic I may argue is my wining and dining. But one experience in 2001 did prove that my job has its dangers.
During my first trip to India last year, I promised myself and my family that despite the ubiquity and attractiveness of the street food, I would suppress all professional interest and concentrate instead on the more sanitised but still authentic Indian food that is available to Westerners in the five-star hotels.
And yet, despite sticking strictly to this promise, I managed to return with giardia, a nasty stomach parasite that fortunately, once correctly diagnosed, can be defeated with a strong dose of antibiotics (and no alcohol for a week!). It was caused not by anything I ate, but by succumbing on the last night to an uncharacteristic pre-dinner cocktail, also in a five-star hotel, which contained ice made from impure water. Had I, like my oenophiliac wife, stuck to wine, bottled in the country of origin, I would have avoided some four days of intestinal misery.
My highs of 2001 were in retrospect as basic as this low point: the best food was consumed whilst sitting on a medieval Italian doorstep; the main courses in what I consider to be London's most exciting and original new restaurant cost around £5; and I believe that those places most likely to please in the coming year will be those which combine the roles of a neighbourhood restaurant/café with a retail food outlet and a delivery service to your office or home.
Nothing has tasted quite so wonderful as the porchetta (suckling pig) sandwich I bought from Il Buongustaio di Scapecchi Luca (Via Cesalpino 6, tel 0575 403683) one bright autumn day in the centre of Arezzo in northern Italy. It was not just the generous serving of the meat, crackling, stuffing and bread which made this meal so good or so memorable but the cafe's proximity to the awe-inspiring frescoes of Piero della Francesca which we had just visited in the basilica of San Francesca across the cobbled square. Simple food and inspirational art are an unbeatable combination.
En route back to Florence airport the following day I was taken to somewhere equally simple, satisfying and memorable: the Bar dell'Orso (The Bear's Bar) just beneath the medieval walled city of Monteriggioni, ten kilometres north of Siena (tel 0577 305074). To this small wooden shack, with an even smaller verandah, over 750 people, predominantly local Italians, come every day for their trays of salami, hams, cheeses, salads and breads. The bar's charm lies in the fact that its owners have matched what they can serve so well to precisely what its transient customers are looking for.
David Azouri is the London restaurateur who most effectively achieved this last year. Azouri, a newcomer to the business, gambled that the much-maligned kebab was long overdue for a respectable makeover so he staked a million pounds on a major transformation of 2-6 Station Parade, in Willesden, north London (tel 020 8208 9292).
The result is Shish which I am delighted to report seems to be justifying Azouri's risk. The restaurant delivers a wide range of healthy kebabs - a far better medium for fish, for example, than the ubiquitous pizza base - in an environment which allows close and open contact with the chefs. The main courses are further enhanced with the pulses, salads and grains that form the basis of the cooking of the Levant.
Whilst Shish remains for the moment of greatest benefit to those living in north London (although there are plans for other outposts including Shish kiosks), what has been the most significant phenomenon in London restaurants in 2001 is likely to become increasingly commonplace across the capital and other major cities in 2002: the one-stop restaurant/café/foodshop and takeaway.
These are not new. Philip Contini has been setting high standards at his hybrid, Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh (tel 0131 556 6066) as has Sally Clarke in her mini-emporium in Kensington Church Street, Notting Hill, London W8 (tel 020 7221 9225) and Geraldine Leventis at Raoul's Café in Maida Vale, W9 (tel 020 7289 7313) and these are of course derivatives of the likes of Zabar's in New York.
But today their example is now being widely copied by others. Most high profile are Carluccio's Caffès, of which there are now five around central London with plans and finance for more later this year (www.carluccios.com). Last month another headline-grabbing Italian chef, Aldo Zilli, opened his first Zilli Café at 14-16 Brewer Street in Soho (tel 0207 437 4867 www.zillialdo.com) which serves a huge number of his native Abruzzo specialities from 08.00-22.00 whilst round the corner Anthony Issroff runs the equally exciting Mange with branches in Newburgh Street, Soho, London W1 (tel 020 7434 3830), and Greycoat Place (tel 020 7222 0992) in Victoria, SW1.
What differentiates these cafés from the numerous sandwich and coffee chains is that these have their own kitchens - they are in effect mini-restaurants more attune to the way we now work and live than restaurants proper. And as we become increasingly discriminating, these new hybrids are experiencing a boom in business as their customers want restaurant quality food with the added flexibility and attraction of enjoying the food at home at lower, ex VAT, prices.
If insider trading were not as harmful for my professional career as a cocktail in India was for my health, this is the type of restaurant I would be investing in during 2002.