2013 flew by in a whirlwind. Food festivals, restaurant openings, a temporarily life-changing drunken injury - I didn't sit still for much of the year, except for that excruciating week with my ankle in a cast. Here are some highlights - it's not good to dwell on bad times - and some good food memories. So in no chronological order whatsoever....
I kicked off the year with one of the few 'fancy' meals, which was the tasting menu at Dabbous. This mashed potato with meaty jus and shavings of truffle was decadent and comforting, rich and luxurious. Plans are afoot for another site, though that is just what I've heard whispered.
A trip to The Ledbury revealed that my beloved front of house man (so beloved I never found out his name) had left, but the service did not suffer for it. Stalwart dishes like the scallop ceviche with horseradish snow and seaweed oil were as good as the first time I had it, way back in 2010.
I'm nothing if not a creature of habit, so when a special occasion arose I took the opportunity to get down to the grey, windy seaside and visit The Sportsman in Kent in April. My fourth visit in as many years, and I still love that slipsole (this time in seaweed butter). I defy anyone to go and not love the place.
It's a shame I was too lazy to write about it at the time, because we had a lovely meal at Drakes Restaurant in Ripley last August. Although the room was a little stifled and the service a little slow, the dishes were accomplished and beautiful, with clever combinations of flavours. The quail with sweetcorn was a particular favourite. I'm such a London-centric snob that I went in there thinking it wouldn't be as good as anything we get up town, but I was, happily, wrong. The full set of pictures is here.
This was the year I discovered my favourite Cantonese restaurant, Gold Mine in Queensway. I've visited three times now and friends, clients and family alike have all loved the meals there. Roast duck is lacquered, fatty and delicious, and the steamed egg custard is wobbly goodness. The service is patient and helpful, the bill usually averaging about £20 / head. Forget Chinatown.
Speaking of Chinese, my two favourite dim sum meals go to Bright Courtyard in Baker Street (top photo, of the HK style cheung fun) and Hutong up The Shard - the prawn and century egg roll pictured. Both rather posher than the usual, the dim sum is of a higher standard - closer attention to detail and fresh, exciting flavours, some a twist on the norm. I haven't tried A. Wong yet - a disastrous dinner there put me off, but seemingly a one-off as they have regularly been credited with some of the best dim sum in London. One for 2014.
Bao London exploded onto the street food scene, with their beautifully designed stall frontages that only graphic design student alumni can come up with, and properly good pork buns. Soft and pillowy, the steamed baos are home-made and the filling has great texture contrasts in the slow-cooked pork, crunchy pickled veg and crushed peanuts. When I first had one in April I declared them better than Momofuku's, and many baos later I stand by that sentiment. They also make incredible soy milk fried chicken. I'll be damned if they're not in permanent premises soon.
I've spoken about Silk Road before, so I'll round off my Chinese restaurants with keeping it brief. Silk Road is just as good as it was when I first visited in 2010. TEP noodles is my new favourite dish; the sweet tomato melding together with the softly scrambled egg and chewy noodles. I must have been at least once or twice a month since, and though some dishes are more fiery at times, it is just about the most consistently great restaurant I've been to. I've celebrated 3 of my birthdays there, so confident am I about it. Long may they continue.
Two of my favourite restaurants in Soho, both on Frith Street, did a kitchen swap for a few nights last June. I went along to Koya when they did their mash up with Barrafina, and the union was a fine thing. A seafood and tomato stew with udon noodles was perfect Spanish / Japanese fusion food.
This year Koya expanded next door to open Koya Bar. Perhaps it is less exciting and innovative as some of the Specials at the original Koya, but it serves the original menu efficiently and comfortably, letting it's older sister get on with being a bit kooky. What they have that Koya doesn't is a breakfast menu, featuring bacon and egg udon, curry udon and the 'kedgeree' - congee made with smoked haddock, topped with a hot spring egg. Open just a couple of months, I've already been for breakfast there twice.
I did a little bit of travelling this year, kicking off with a long weekend in Istanbul. We ate our way around the city, scoffing kebabs and lahmucun like there was no tomorrow. I wish someone would bring Kaymak to London - I fell in love with the clotted cream and honey, slathered on bread, for breakfast.
We also did some great eating in Seville and Cádiz, guided by the internet and a newly made friend. We ate all the cuts of pork at Cumbres Mayores in Cadiz, always accompanied by deep fried potatoes and a slice of tomato. Another contender for Best Dish 2013 was the innocent-looking potato salad at Bodeguita Romero (top); still slightly warm, creamy potatoes dressed in a grassy oil and sweet sherry vinegar. I drool at the memory. Operation Recreation will happen in 2014.
Despite trying chiparones (that's baby squid) in several different restaurants in Spain, nothing came close to the crunchy, tender sumac-dusted version from Morito in Exmouth Market.
We had a blinding summer, one with actual proper sunshine and no time was better spent than having lunch in the courtyard of Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. Miraculously, for a restaurant that only opens weekday lunchtimes, I made it there twice and feasted on crisp-skinned chicken with aioli, barbecued aioli with remoulade and the pictured rabbit and offal salad. Happy, sun-drenched memories.
Closer to home, my neighbourhood suddenly became the cool place to be for anything decent to eat. Andy Oliver spent a few Mondays with his Thai grill at Bar Story in Peckham. Previously of Nahm in Bangkok and London and currently of The Begging Bowl in Peckham, Andy's skill in Thai food is obvious. Sticky skewers of moo ping (pork) dipped in a fiesty sauce were hoovered up in minutes (my recipe is here, should you wish to try it out), while grilled pork neck and a whole slow-smoked duck made the meal I had there one of the most memorable.
I had several dinners and lunches at The Begging Bowl, as previously mentioned. Crispy salmon skin, salmon with pomelo and fresh, zingy herbs was a perfect light lunch with some sticky rice, and I also loved khanom jeen noodles with red chicken curry. I only wish they'd use Thai terminology on the menus; I like having a vague sense of what I'm eating in the native language. Quite a minor niggle, that.
Toast ED opened on Lordship Lane in East Dulwich, mere minutes from where I live. I've had boozy dinners there, lightly boozy lunches and have often gone to buy wine from their vats. The dishes are innovative and exciting, the menu constantly changing. Another steak tartare above, dotted with bone marrow and leaves of kale was a particular highlight, and they do amazing things with kale and tuna. I'm a lucky person to have it as a local.
Sandwich of the Year goes to Merchants Tavern, newly opened this year in Shoreditch. This Ogleshied and ham sandwich in thick cut, fluffy white bread was toasted until golden, its innards oozing. It is a serious thing.
Surprise of the year came from actually enjoying the salmon and melted mozzerella nigiri at SushiSamba. I know. I am still surprised.
And at home? I cooked a lot of kedgeree for brunch.
Gong Bao quails legs were made after a trip to The Ginger Pig in Lower Marsh saw me impulse-buying a bag of them. Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe is tip top - I usually replace peanuts with cashews, as I just like them better.
The one and only recipe I wrote this year that wasn't Asian was way back in March, with this steak and blue cheese salad. That's probably not going to change; I simply enjoy cooking Asian food at home more.
Khao Soi noodles was probably one of the best things I made this year. Egg noodles in a coconutty, spicy gravy with chicken, garnished with pickled things, crunchy things and spalshes of chilli and lime - what's not to like?
Bring on 2014. My prediction (or hope?) is pickles - lactic fermentation, sweet pickles, vinegar pickles, and beyond kimchi. What's yours?