A version of this article is also published by the Financial Times.
The bitter-sweet process of recalling the best meals of the year just drawing to a close begins with technology as I go through my year’s articles via the internet. Then I switch formats as I rifle through a stack of physical menus. And finally I come to rely on my emotions as I ask myself how and why certain meals made a more lasting impression on me than did others.
This year a common theme quickly developed that most of the best meals I enjoyed have been in cities, perhaps not surprisingly given that over half the world’s population now live in urban areas. But of course every restaurant is intimately connected to the countryside whose farms and vineyards supply them.
So here in a whizz around the world – with apologies to Australia, New Zealand and South America, where we plan to eat during early 2017 – are several, but not all, of my highlights.
First of all to Paris, the city which bequeathed restaurants and their menus to the world, but which has suffered more than most in 2016.
My year actually began and ended in the company of wine lover, modern-art collector and restaurateur Robert Vifian over meals at the restaurant Tan Dinh that his parents established after fleeing Vietnam in the 1970s. Both visits provided opportunities to ogle the cases of wines he has bought that occupy even the passageway that leads to the lavatories. Meals included particularly memorable parcels of roast goose, crab pancakes, and great red burgundies.
Two meals at the pinnacle of French inventive cooking were at the historic Ledoyen, now home to the highly creative chef Yannick Alleno, and 150 kilometres away to the east, at the family-run hotel and restaurant L’Assiette Champenois in Reims, where Arnaud Lallement cooks so elegantly.
This elegance was put into perspective by a meal at Restaurante Marinka in Bilbao, northern Spain. Past a crowded bar and at least a couple of televisions (not even showing football!) eleven of us sat down to dinner: plates of ham, of anchovies, a ‘lazy Spanish omelette’ in which the eggs were broken over crisp potatoes, cheese and an array of very sweet desserts, a combination that seems to guarantee a good night’s sleep.
Then to Asia on a trip that took us to Chengdu, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and, finally, to Bangkok. In each of these cities I managed to find, and to eat, what I was looking for.
It was spice and very hot food at XanuXanu in Chengdu, to which we were taken shortly after landing, passing street vendors selling crisp rabbit heads on skewers, a local delicacy. We were bowled over by the relatively straightforward servings of sweet and sour duck with chilli, cold noodles and the very first dish of mouth-numbing slices of chicken – with extra chillies!
Hong Kong provided culinary excitement at Ho Lee Fook in a basement that unites the talents of Taiwanese-born chef Jowett Yu alongside those of Canadian restaurateur Chris Black. A signature dish of roast Wagyu short ribs with a soy glaze fully justified its billing.
Shanghai provided delicate Chinese style over a meal at Le Sun Chine, a small hotel in the French Concession. A meal that began with two soups: crab soup with mushrooms followed by a sea cucumber in a thick fish soup with boiled shark’s stomach that may not be to everybody’s taste but I certainly enjoyed it.
This stopover paved the way for a brief stay in Tokyo, the most food-obsessed city in the world as the current furore over the moving of the Tsukiji fish market reveals. But I would return in a second, for the sea-urchin tempura at Tempura Yamanoue; the atmosphere, and the food, at Narukiyo; the elegance of the French-inspired cooking of Yujiro Takahashi at Le Sputnik; and Toshio Saito’s unforgettable sushi at Sushisho Saito.
Then it was on to Bangkok, whose citizens are quickly becoming as food obsessed as those in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. Here we were to enjoy two meals cooked by chef ThiTid Tassanakajohn, known as Chef Ton, the first at Le Du (‘season’ in Thai) and BaaGaDin (‘selling food from a picnic’). Anyone planning to go there over the holidays should note that the food here is as hot as it is in Chengdu.
Before turning to London, there were two other perhaps more surprising culinary treats. The first came at Forest Avenue in Dublin, a combination of John Wyer’s excellent cooking and the hospitality generated by his wife, Sandy Sabek. And the quality of the sourdough they bake themselves. This ingredient they also share with the cooking and approach of another couple, Sebastian Kauper and Nora Breyer, in their immaculate restaurant, Kaupers Kapellenhof in the village of Selzen, half an hour’s drive outside Mainz, Germany.
Even only a few days spent in the restaurant-obsessed city that is New York yields far more potential restaurants than almost any other. The dessert of ice cream, topped with olive oil, sea salt and white truffles at Lilia in Willamsburg that I reported on a fortnight ago, plus the ‘swish’ of Le Coucou. Then there is the newly renovated Union Square Café and Keith McNally’s Augustine; brunch at Sadelle's on West Broadway; as well as Claus Meyer’s Great Northern Food outpost of Nordic cuisine in Grand Central Station.
Finally, back home in London, the city that still ranks for me as the most exciting in terms of the range of its cooking, its appeal and the sheer adventurism of many of the menus and wine lists on offer.
But for me, 2016 was a particularly sad year, because in March Elena Salvoni passed away. Known with justification as the ‘queen of Soho’ for the warmth of her smile and her engaging personality, I had the pleasure of working alongside this remarkable woman during the 1980s. Subsequently, I have been introduced to Lisa Maitland, who shares the same physical attributes and runs just as elegantly the front of house at Yoshino, a small Japanese restaurant just off Piccadilly. The queen of London hospitality is dead; long live her successor.