Tuesday, 3 January 2012

My favourite restaurants of 2011...so hello 2012

This was supposed to be a 1st January post, but, just as quickly as 2011 slipped through my fingers, suddenly it is the 3rd January! While I’ll leave proper restaurant reviews to some far superior bloggers who detail every dish and even give scores, I thought I’d share my favourite places to go in and around London. They are all completely different which exactly mimics my utter failure to ever make a decision about anything - especially when faced with a menu.

Far from being nonchalant and picking what I know I'll like, for some inexplicable reason I trick myself by choosing the unusual option, only to be consumed with food envy when my neighbours plate arrives! However, I had fantastic meals at these six restaurants, the majority of which I have been to more than once (which makes these reviews ever fairer, no?).

London (pictured top column left to right)

1. Cambio de Tercio, 163 Old Brompton Road
Amazing food, amazing flavours, this restaurant produces Spanish food far away and above the usual seafood and chorizo. Tucked into a quiet spot on the Brompton Road, the interiors burst with citrus colours and the staff are so friendly that they feel like old friends when you leave, waving you off at the door. From memory, my sweetbreads with a poached quails eggs rolled in bread crumbs was divine and there was also a fois gras dish that I couldn't possibly explain but was absolutely delicious. Desert of sheep's milk ice cream, a creamy custard, salted caramel and candy floss was so unusual but pretty as a picture and again delicious.

2. Petersham Nurseries Café, Church Lane, Petersham Road, Richmond
Some people may be put off by the Satis House-style feel of this 'cafe' set in what is surely England's more glamorous (and expensive) garden centre. I myself love it as the atmosphere is relaxed, bohemian and it feels rather like you are in the middle of a jungle. Besides, the food is delicious - very simple with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients (if you have the Chef Skye Gyngell's book, you'll know it is divided into seasons not course). The last time I was there I had the set menu which had only one main option of guinea fowl with chickpeas. Not liking either bird nor pulse very much I chose it anyway and, of course, it was fabulous. The bird had been roasted in spices and fell off the bone whereas the chickpeas, often so bland and hard in salads, were cooked to an almost creamy consistency. Puddings of tarte tatin and a chocolate cake were also devoured between four of us.

3. Polpo, 41 Beak St (Soho)
At Polpo, the no-booking policy means you either have to scramble from work like a banshee to get there at six o'clock (all the tables are full by quarter past) or wait for a table in the stuffed but atmospheric bar area. Assuming I have a table or a seat at the bar, this Venetian-style restaurant always cheers me up with its enveloping atmosphere, quick service and unique plates of food. The food is mainly dark and rustic (much like Venice) and packed with flavour - dishes such as squid ink risotto, kale with anchovies and pork belly slow cooked with radicchio. I perfect finish is their affogato al café: a scoop of ice-cream drowned and melting in a shot of coffee.

Outside London (picture bottom column left to right)

1. Field & Fork, Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, West Sussex
This restaurant is like a breath of fresh air among Chichester's chains and uninspiring restaurants. Set in the excellent, contemporary Pallant House Gallery, the small interior of the restaurant pack an equally glamorous punch with clean-lined furniture, striking flower arrangements and floor to ceiling windows overlooking its landscaped courtyard complete with pleached trees, silver sculptures and further seating for those occasional balmy summer days. The food is based on seasonal produce from their own green house and local ingredients (shellfish from Chichester Harbour etc.). I love how the dishes are bursting with colour and inventiveness which is just the right side of creative - take for example the 'chestnut flour and roasted onion gnocchi with smoked pancetta, rocket and parmesan' (£6.50). Also remember to order the restaurant's breads while you're waiting - absolutely delicious.

n.b. Also recommended in West Sussex is the East Beach Café at Littlehampton which must be experienced on a sunny day. Perched on the pebbles in an odd shell-shaped modernist building, you are virtually on the sea. The menu is as fresh as the view and amazingly modern for a town that feels trapped in a time warp.

2. The Three Wishes, 78 Cheap St, Sherborne, Dorset
There weren't many options when myself and two friends were faced with a meal out in Sherborne on a wet and grey Summer evening. We could either go for the (more expensive, busy and smart) The Green or The Three Wishes. Being fairly empty and with a title that I am sure was a book I read when I was five, the latter seemed an odd choice but we decided to go with it - and I’m glad we did. We all had the set menu which, at £22.50 for three courses and a glass of wine was amazing value. The meal itself was just the kind of tried-and-tested food you want to eat on such an uninspiring evening - a buttery tomato tart with rocket to start, a chargrilled steak with tarragon sauce, mushrooms and chips, and the creamiest lemon posset imaginable.

3. The Fish House, Chilgrove, Chichester
This idyllic pub/restaurant/hotel sits in a glorious south downs valley and is one of my favourite place to have lunch after biking or walking.  The theme is subtle but clear - with lobster pots perched on top of the bay windows, fish embroidered fabrics and a huge fish tank seperating the kitchen from the dining room through which you watch the chefs at work. But far from being too jolly-rodger-garish it is also stylish with huge leather sofas beside the fire, pots of olive trees and a large bar area made of teak wood. While not cheap the food is generous, with starters of overflowing pints of juicy prawns, salmon and tuna sashimi and seafood platters. Make sure you leave room for the delicious trio of puddings if on the menu.

Other places I love…
Caracoli in Alresford (also in Guildford and Winchester)…for the best cappuccino
The Harlequin Café, Kilver Court, Shepton Mallet…for its quirky interior complete with Mulberry fabrics (it is owned by Mulberry founder Roger Saul) and delicious cakes/light lunches made with Sharpham Park spelt.
Al Vicolo, 1/5 Swan Lane, Guildford…for the most delicious, simple Sicilian food and friendly staff all hidden up an unassuming staircase on a busy shopping alleyway.
Numero Uno, 139 Northcote Road, London….for an authentic, old-fashioned Italian packed with character – it even had a dessert trolley, something I hadn’t seen for years, laden with the most incredible looking tiramisu’s, tarts and gateaux’s.
Côte, Farnham, Guildford and beyond…for being a chain that still manages to produce consistently great and excellent value French bistro food. It is expanding at an incredible rate and I just hope it doesn’t get too big for its boots. 
Menoo Eclectic Food, 25 Kensington Church St…for a less expensive (and dare I say it, more friendly) Ottolenghi-esque meal and the most delicious risotto balls.

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