Another year draws to a close and yet again I'm left wondering where all the time has gone (probably spent in restaurants judging by this post I'm sure you're thinking). Anyway, I thought I'd continue my tradition of looking back at the most memorable restaurant dishes I had over the year. I've been really lucky enough to have indulged in some epic meals this year, the highlights of which have undoubtedly been experiencing the truly magical Fäviken for the first time, a return to Noma and The Ledbury, and of course Oslo's sublime Maaemo.
So, in reverse order here is a list of the ten best things I ate in a restaurant in 2012:
So, in reverse order here is a list of the ten best things I ate in a restaurant in 2012:
10. Asparagus – Le Louis XV, Monte-Carlo
There can be few restaurants on the planet that are as over-the-top as Alain Ducasse's legendary three Michelin-starred Le Louis XV. Fortunately, though, the food doesn't share this same sense of ostentatiousness. A perfect example of this was a simple dish of steamed asparagus. Presented with great fanfare on a gold tray, the waiter then proceeded to plate up the dish (on a gold-trimmed plate), dressing the immaculately trimmed asparagus with a fluffy emulsion of soft-boiled egg, shallots, vinegar, and olive oil. The quality of the asparagus and its cooking was just outstanding and the tangy sauce perfectly complemented the fat grassy stems. To help me eat them I was given some utterly ridiculous (gold-plated, naturellement) asparagus tongs – only in Monaco.
9. McFoie Burger – Tapaç24, Barcelona
Ex-el Bulli Michelin-starred chef Carles Abellán opened this casual tapas bar just off Barcelona's bustling Passeig de Gràcia in 2007. Here you can grab a cold beer and eat from a selection of traditional as well as modern tapas. The one dish that I still think about was this bonkers take on the classic American burger, whose name has somehow managed to avoid the wrath of the Golden Arches' lawyers. The beef patty, cooked rare and loosely packed, rendering it tartare-like was mixed with foie gras and encased in a thin, crisp brioche-like bun. As if that wasn't heavy enough on its own, a small side dish contained a quenelle of foie gras ganache. The flavours were mind blowing – über rich and silky smooth beef, melting foie gras and crisp bread. Sweet, soft bites of beefy goodness. Crazily decadent!
8. BFG – The Fat Duck, Bray
The only dessert on my list this year comes from The Fat Duck in Bray. I'm not a huge fan of chocolate desserts, so the fact that I adored this one probably says everything about it. Heston Blumenthal's version of the kitsch 1970's favourite of Black Forest Gateau is a hugely technical tour de force. Layer upon delicious layer of delights such as chocolate (cake, ganache, and aerated), kirsch cream and sour cherries were encased in a spray-painted chocolate coating giving it a suede-like finish. It was topped with a sour cherry with an edible stem made from vanilla. The gateau's richness was cut with some cherry gel and kirsch ice cream. A waiter provided the finishing touch in the form of a spritz of kirsch above our table. This was a crowd-pleasing, perfectly executed dessert with a nice boozy kick to boot.
7. Ox Tartare – Manfreds & Vin, Copenhagen
Manfreds is the more casual sibling to Christian Puglisi's Relæ, which is just across the road on Copenhagen's fashionable Jægersborggade in Nørrebro. This is gimmick-free, tasty Nordic food with a hint of Italy, a good list of natural wines to wash it down, and a shabby chic cosy interior. Their 4-course menu is a steal and is probably one of the best culinary bargains in the capital. The dish that really stole my heart, though, was this exquisite tartare that has become a firm Manfreds favourite. Small cubes of roughly cut ox meat had great depth of flavour with a soft and light texture. It was served with poached egg mayonnaise, mustard seeds, curls of crisp peppery watercress and crunchy crumbs of rye. A fantastic mix of textures and flavours and an utter joy to eat.
6. Mushroom & Quinoa – Mirazur, Menton
Perched on a sun-drenched hillside almost straddling the French/Italian border is the two Michelin-starred Mirazur with achingly gorgeous views over the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean. Here, Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco produces light, vibrant, modern food that makes the most of the local area's natural produce.
One of the best courses of my lunch there was this warm dish of quinoa risotto that was served with morels, parsley brioche, different preparations of potatoes (roast, fried, crisp), parsley foam, peas, potato-parmesan cream and wild herbs. The flavours of this dish were unbelievable, being earthy and intense and full of umami goodness with a touch of freshness from the herbs, while the mushrooms were almost meat-like in their richness. This was one of the real highlights of the meal and was as comforting as a great big hug.
5. Grilled Salad – Roganic, London
Simon Rogan's London outpost, Roganic, offers a little taste of his Michelin-starred L'Enclume in the Lake District. His cooking is packed with bold flavours but remains restrained and elegant. But it's just a salad, right? Wrong! This dish completely took me by surprise at its sheer inventiveness and concentration of flavours. Salad leaves had been grilled to different degrees, with some having blackened smoky edges, others being slightly wilted, while some still had a crisp fresh bounce. The leaves were dressed with truffle custard, garlic oil, cheese foam, and cobnut crisps. Wonderfully balanced and full of complex flavours and contrasts between the soft custard, acrid burnt leaves, and crisp nuts – it was incredible.
4. Saddle of Roe Buck Deer – The Ledbury, London
Aussie chef Brett Graham's Ledbury is hands down my favourite restaurant in London and surely is deserving of a third Michelin star. A meal there never disappoints, with Graham's old school kitchen producing faultless plates of modern food that bow to no trends or fads. Graham is undoubtedly a master of game, and this dish of saddle of Berkshire roe buck deer showcased just how good he is. Tender roast venison (no sous vide fanciness here) was paired with venison sausage, beetroot, a nugget of bone marrow, cherries, cherry blossom and endives. Such a divine balance of flavours – the mild gamey meat went so well with the fruity juiciness of the cherries, the beetroot brought some earthy oomph, while the endives added a touch of welcome bitter freshness. This was game cooking at its best.
3. Sea Urchin – Noma, Copenhagen
Here, at the "World's Best Restaurant," I had one of the best dishes of the year. Pristine raw Norwegian sea urchins sat on a thin sliver of toast and were covered with a wafer thin, glassy shard made from duck stock. The crisp toast gave way to the soft and creamy urchins, which had such a delicate briny sweetness, like a savoury custard made from very essence of the ocean. There was a gentle hint of umami acidity from the addition of “lactic fermented sep water”, while the delicate duck topping added some rich salty savouriness. The star of this dish was, of course, the sea urchins, which had been caught the day before by Scotsman Roddie Sloan who dives for them in the icy waters off Nordskot in the Arctic Circle. What an extraordinary bite of food this was!
2. Scallop "i skalet ur elder" – Fäviken, Järpen
Magnus Nilsson's Fäviken is one of the most exciting restaurants I've been to. This scallop dish is one of his most iconic and perhaps the most representative of his style of cooking. Pristine scallops from Hitra on the west coast of Norway have been steamed in their shells over burning juniper branches, the meat is then separated and the cooking juices are poured back into the shell.
A deceptively simple dish, but the devil is in the details and timing is everything, with the scallops needing to be served no later than 90 seconds after being cooked. "Eat the scallop, then drink the broth," instructs Nilsson. Needless to say, its taste is something that will remain in a little corner of my mind for a very long time indeed. The enormous scallop took a good four bites to finish and was as fresh and as sweet as could be. This was as close to culinary perfection as you can get. Simply stunning!
And, finally, the best restaurant dish I ate in 2012 was ... (drum roll please) ...
1. Oysters – Maaemo, Oslo
Oslo's two Michelin-starred Maaemo is quite simply one of the best restaurants I've ever been to and for this exercise I struggled to limit myself to choosing just one dish from this amazing place. One of the many highlights of a meal at Maaemo is this extraordinary dish of oysters. This was also my number one dish in 2011, and this year I was lucky enough to experience it again. Nothing I ate in 2012 could top it and it's an experience I'll never grow tired of. I'm still amazed by its ability to stun everyone around the table into silence every single time.
Oysters from Bømlo are served as a creamy, voluptuous emulsion blanketed by a thin disc of oyster jelly, while a light mussel and dill cream sauce is spooned over the top. Its taste is haunting: ethereal and fresh, a multi-layered burst of an ozone-rich ocean breeze on a warm windy day, the very soul of the sea. It really doesn't get better than this.
So, those are my top ten restaurant dishes of the year. What have been the standout dishes of the year for you? What is your top-ten food list of 2012?
Finally, here's wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!