13 January 2014

2013: My Ten Dishes of the Year

It may well be the second week of January 2014, but I'm not quite done with 2013 yet. Continuing my tradition of looking back at the most memorable restaurant dishes I had over the year. I thought I'd give you the run down of the ten best things I ate in a restaurant in 2013. I planned to publish this last month but, you know, stuff happened to conspire otherwise. In fact, looking back at the year it was a pretty thin one for the blog. I had some cracking meals, but never got round to writing all the stuff I wanted to. So, New Year's resolution No. 1 is to try and post a bit more often.

Anyway, in reverse order the ten best things I ate in a restaurant in 2013 are: 

10. Boudin Noir – Le Chateaubriand, Paris

I ate at Iñaki Aizpitarte's neo-bistro twice in 2013 and had very mixed experiences on each visit. From the highs of the first meal, which left me mesmerised with the chaotic, raucous energy of the staff and the innovatively sublime cooking, to the lows of the sloppy, disinterested service of my second visit. But what I remember most was this fantastic dish of blood pudding served with choux de Pontoise (cabbage from Pontoise, some 28km northwest of Paris), pimentón (paprika), and tiny jewel-like follicles of grapefruit. The boudin had a soft, crème brûlée-like texture, while the cabbage added a touch of bitterness, accented by its charred edges. A lovely warm smoky note from the paprika, as well as fresh acidity from the grapefruit. An imaginative dish with beautifully balanced flavours.

9. Oxsvans (Oxtail) – Bastard, Malmö

If you were to create your ultimate neighbourhood restaurant – a place you could regularly pop into for simple hearty dishes without breaking the bank – then it would probably look like Malmö's restaurant Bastard. While Copenhagen may get all the accolades, Malmö, just 30 minutes away by train, is quietly getting on with setting up its own eclectic food scene focussed on bistro-style restaurants with simple modern European dishes made from local produce. It was here that on a cold and wet February night I was served this heart-warming dish of braised oxtails. It wasn't pretty, but my goodness it was just what the doctor ordered. A rich sticky mess of gelatinous oxtails served with tender snails, parsley root and gloriously earthy wild mushrooms. This is food for the soul – honest, unpretentious and absolutely delicious.

8. Salt Beef Bagel – Beigel Bake, London

I've been coming to Brick Lane Beigel Bake in London's East End for over 20 years for one reason only: their legendary salt beef bagels. It starts with the bagel, made onsite every night at this charming Jewish bakery. 7,000 of these soft chewy delights are made each day. It is sliced in two and smeared with a dab of nose-twitchingly hot English mustard. Next comes Jurassic sized chunks of salt beef, made from beef brisket simmered for hours with herbs, garlic and vegetable until it falls apart at the merest prod. This is sandwich perfection in my book, and it's a steal at just £3.70.

7. Coddled Egg – Dabbous, London

Perhaps the most well-known dish (certainly the most photographed) on Dabbous' menu, London's hottest new restaurant opening in 2012 is head chef Ollie Dabbous' coddled egg. Neatly nestled in a bowl of hay was a free-range egg, gently coddled with smoked butter and woodland mushrooms. It had that creamy, oozy texture that the best scrambled eggs should have that was lifted by the smoky richness of the butter and the earthy baritone note of wild mushrooms. It's hardly original, but the quality of its execution is what stands out here. Three ingredients, three bites, and three very loud cheers. 

6. Chicken Skin – Fauna, Oslo

2013 saw the return of ex-Michelin starred chef Björn Svensson at his slick new restaurant, Fauna. The highlight for me was this seemingly innocuous snack served before the main meal. Amuse bouches are a chef's calling card, allowing them free reign to distil their talents into one small bite of food that sets the tone for the rest of meal. After one bite of this dish, I knew we were in good hands. A shard of crisp chicken skin had been smeared with a layer of watercress emulsion and topped with fried kale flecked with almond paste and grated egg yolk. That something so small and seemingly innocuous could pack such a wallop of flavour was astonishing, silencing the table in unison. It was an intense burst of salty, savoury chicken – a little freshness from the watercress, a little bitter kick from the kale, and a rich creamy texture from the egg yolk. An explosive combination of flavours and textures that was simply heavenly.

5. Sea Buckthorn & Wild Marjoram – La Grenouillère, La Madeleine-sous-Montreuil

My meal at Alexandre Gauthier's fantastically eccentric Michelin-starred restaurant was one of the highlights of the year for me. At this old Picardy farmhouse, Gauthier is radically transforming the notion of French country cooking. There were many standout dishes, but one that I will never forget turned out to be one of the most beautiful and exciting desserts I've ever had. Tall batons of meringue were carefully placed in a base of sea buckthorn mousse and served with wild marjoram and a tart sea buckthorn purée. The effect was explosive; a riot of fresh sweet and sour flavours combined with soft and crunchy textures that the brain at first struggled to comprehend. Absolutely sublime!

4. Goat Kid – Fäviken, Järpen

One of the most exciting restaurants around today is Magnus Nilsson's Fäviken, located in Sweden's remote Jämtland province, just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. In 2013 I made my second trip (pilgrimage?) to this stunning place. At Fäviken, the mantra is simple: produce is everything. And a clear example of this was a dish of local goat kid leg roasted over an open fire and served with dandelions and leftover toasted grains from Nilsson's home brewing project. I loved the combination of tastes – smoky tender goat, crisp acidity from the dandelion and a nutty crunch from the grains. A simple combination of flavours flawlessly executed in this wonderful dish.

3. "Sergio's Fish Soup 2013" – Oud Sluis, Sluis

Alas, Sergio Hermann's three Michelin-starred opus, Oud Sluis, is no more. It closed at the end of 2013 and Sergio has moved on to other projects. I was lucky enough to eat there before they closed for good and one of the many memorable dishes was this humble-sounding fish soup. This was a dish whose original recipe came from Sergio's grandfather. Brill, langoustines and Zealand flat oyster provided the sweet iodine taste of the sea, while an intense shellfish broth was poured over the top. This was perhaps my favourite dish of the evening – rich, heady and full of the sparkling flavours of the ocean; this was such a magnificent course.

2. Oosterschelde Lobster & Kerremelkstampers – In De Wulf, Dranouter

Another defining food moment for me in 2013 was a visit to Kobe Desramaults' restaurant In De Wulf, located in the fields of Flanders, site of the horrific trenches of World War I. Today, it's a place that feels as though time has stopped and it is here in Desramaults' childhood home that his Michelin-starred In De Wulf is located. The location makes for an intensely personal and intimate feel, more akin to eating at someone's house rather than a restaurant, which in many ways I suppose is the case. The menu here is guided by Desramaults' philosophy of being inspired by the land surrounding the restaurant, is a take on Flemmish cooking unlike any other.

The highlight of a jaw-droppingly good meal was this dish of succulent, barely cooked Oosterschelde lobster, served with creamy kerremelkstampers – a take on a traditional Belgian dish of mashed potatoes with buttermilk. It was a dish that brought the table to slack-jawed silence in its brilliance and is one of the best lobster dishes I've ever had.

And, finally, the best restaurant dish I ate in 2013 was ... (drum roll please) ...

1. Burnt Onions with Quail Egg – Maaemo, Oslo

It's probably no surprise to regular readers to see a Maaemo dish at the number one – indeed, my best dish of 2011 and 2012 was also from this restaurant. Since they opened just over three years ago, I've been amazed at how far they moved the game forward – an interpretation of Norwegian terroir unlike anything I've seen before. Head chef Esben Holmboe Bang has further refined his brand of ultra-clean Nordic flavours. Flavours that focus on letting the quality of the produce shine combined with a characteristic use of acidic and sweet undertones that seem to intensify these flavours further.

This style was illustrated well by this gorgeous dish, which formed the 'main' course of a 26-course tasting menu. Pickled onions, charred on the grill, surrounded a soft quail egg that had been poached in bone marrow and covered with a clear disc of vinegar gel, while precise dots of a dark and rich onion purée surrounded the plate. Small, potent leaves of wild oregano and garlic mustard brought explosive bursts of flavour with each bite. The real star of this dish was a 'sauce' of tapioca cooked in onion broth and mixed with small cubes of fenalår (Norwegian cured leg of lamb) that was completely intoxicating. Dense, warming and surprisingly meaty, given how little meat the dish actually contained. This is Norwegian food stripped back to its bare essentials and recomposed in a narrative you'd never dream possible.

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 2013?

Finally, here's wishing you all a (belated) Happy New Year!


  1. had a great time reading this list. You get around so much! I'm also thinking of making an upgrade to Canon S95 powershot. If I may dare to make a suggestion, in the entry about the Chicken Skin in Fauna, you mention "watercress", ""kale" and "eggyolk" twice which can get a bit repetitive when talking about the ingredients. Expressing the effect of their taste and texture while mentioning them just once, would make for crisper reading - this may mean skipping the full description of the dish at the outset. Looking forward to more posts from you...tc

  2. Wow. I went to look up "salt beef" in wiki...being an American, I'm only somewhat familiar with the English language. The photo is, of course, one of a salt beef bagel acquired on Brick Lane! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corned_beef Scroll down to the "19th century to present section" Who knows, maybe that's your photo!

  3. Wow wonderfull great places for eating,
    Greeting from Belgium "with a diner in Blue Sky Mons"

  4. What happened to you? Why don't you post something?

  5. Nice, thank you for a list like this! Always inspiring to see where to eat in different places! :)