Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review of the year

I love lists. Give me a Top Ten of Everything book and I'll be happily occupied for hours, or possibly even days. As I've reached the end of almost a full year's blogging I'm going to indulge myself with a review of the year starting off with a list of the best and worst meals I've eaten out, the best thing I've cooked and whatever other miscellaneous categories I happen to think of.

Firstly and in no particular order here's the list. What follows is a rambling and unwieldy commentary on the winners, those who came close and anything else I may choose to waffle on about. You may or more likely may not wish to read it.

Leaving aside the merits of my prose please do support the restaurants, cafés and pubs listed. They are all independents or part of very small chains, all of them are very good at what they do, and all of them deserve continued success in 2012.

The winners (and loser)

    Meal of the year

    Nothing else quite came close to the decadence and deliciousness of the breakfast at Hawksmoor. I'd never have guessed the best meal I'd eat all year would be breakfast, but what a breakfast. All the classic components were there, quality ingredients perfectly cooked. Add to that an introduction to the joys of bone marrow, plus two dishes illustrating how anything can be improved with the addition of meat, in the guise of short-rib bubble and squeak and trotter baked beans. I was worried the whole would overwhelm, but it didn't. It was amazing.

    Add to that excellent service and a complimentary doughnut that was the best I've ever eaten and I think we have a worthy champion.

    Coffee Shop of the year

    I only started drinking coffee again in 2011 after a gap of five years or so, so I'm not an aficionado by any stretch of the imagination. I'm hardly a lone voice shouting about Laynes Espresso though, plenty of others who probably know a lot more than me about coffee think it's great. The coffee is fantastic, the baked goods are excellent, service is always efficient and friendly, and apparently the tea is wonderful too though I've yet to try it.

    Lunch spot of the year

    I've never even been to the Sunshine Bakery. It's in Chapel Allerton and I rarely go there. Just about everything I've bought from them has been at The Source in Leeds market. For a few months earlier in the year they were regular fixtures in the market on a Thursday or Friday. Alas, this is no longer the case. Please come back. Pretty please.

    Their sausage rolls and sandwiches and massive buns (read cupcakes) are all lovely. I've not had better in Leeds. They also run a supper club at the Chapel Allerton base, which I'd love to go to in 2012. I just need a date. Form a queue ladies, you might get to see me spill gravy down my front.

    Fish and Chips of the year

    I'm not sure whether I've eaten more fish and chips in 2011 than usual, or whether writing it down has just made me realise how often I crave the classics. Whichever it is, I've eaten a lot of fish and chips.

    What I've also realised is that enjoying fish and chips is, perhaps more than any other food, about the time and the place as much as what you're actually eating. The food quality has to be there for starters, but the location, company, weather and time of year can all conspire to elevate it to the sublime.

    It is for these reasons that I enjoyed the best portion of fish and chips all year back in February, at the Chippie in Hawes. Every component of the food was great, a huge fillet of fish in crisp, dry batter, fried to order in beef dripping. Lovely chips and peas. Strong tea. And the occasion. An icy cold lunchtime, well below freezing, the stark beauty of the Dales in winter, a moderate hangover, a group of mates entering the warm fug of the café, taking a seat with a scalding brew and talking nonsense as we waited in anticipation of being fed. As I said, sublime.

    Second most memorable of the year, for completely different reasons, was my visit to Stein's in Padstow. I was very happy that the food didn't disappoint and I ate it in a classic fish and chip environment. A lovely summer evening, warm but not hot, sat alone leaning against a bollard aside the working harbour, gazing out across the estuary. A can of fizzy pop to accompany. Splendid.

    Honourable mentions also go to Fish& in Leeds and Frankie's Fish Bar in Manchester for serving very good fish and chips if not on such memorable occasions.

    Indian meal of the year

    As is usual I ate a lot of Indian food over the course of the year, but very little of it was particularly impressive. Strangely I haven't been to most of my stock 'good' curry houses this year, with no visits to either Akbar's or Mumtaz, and visits to Yorkshire's two highly regarded vegetarian Indian restaurants, Prashad and Hansa's will have to wait for another year.

    As a consequence neither of 2011's best Indian meals were eaten in Northern England. Best of the lot was this visit to the Wee Curry Shop in Glasgow which served to remind me that Indian vegetarian food is the best vegetarian food in the world. I really want to go to Prashad and Hansa's.

    Also very good was a trip to Delhi Grill in London, with their goat handi being the best meat curry I ate all year.

    And finally an honourable mention for Azram's Sheesh Mahal, the other of my stock 'good' curry houses that I did visit a couple of times. I didn't blog the second trip but we ordered some of the more unusual menu items and were pleasantly surprised. Consistently worth a visit, I've been going there for over thirteen years now.

    Chinese meal of the year

    I was going to give this to my most recent meal at Red Chilli, but that seemed a little unfair on Hunan. I didn't take any photos of that meal and it was the second ever post on the blog, so all I can remember is what I actually wrote about it at the time. Lamb hotpot and green chilli stir-fried pork sound like wonderful dishes though, so let's assume the rating of nine was fair and they were.

    As for Red Chilli, it can be a little inconsistent particularly at the Leeds branch, but when it's on form as it was on this visit in October it rocks. Sichuan spicy salty numbing deliciousness.

    Middle Kingdom, BBQ Handmade Noodles King and Zen Delight were also all very good.

    Other Asian meal of the year

    Thai Aroy Dee has been a revelation. I've been there three times now, and I've been increasingly impressed with each visit. I wrote up the first two visits here and here, but went again the other day and had the best meal yet. To hammer home the point that it's really, really good here's a quick review of my third meal there.

    The first thing to note is that they've translated the Thai menu into English. It's still separate from the regular menu but is now bilingual and titled 'Thai Street Food menu'. We shared four dishes between two of us. Shrimp paste fried rice with all the trimmings was like the fried rice of my dreams. The trimmings comprised cashew nuts, sliced omelette, little chewy bits of what I think were pork and pork fat in a sweet soy sauce, dried shrimp, savagely hot birds-eye chillies and some other stuff I can't remember. All mixed up together it was a deeply savoury, fiercely hot, intensely satisfying melange of textures and tastes. Brilliant.

    Northeastern spicy beef salad was actually the least spicy dish of the meal, but beautifully seasoned. Mint, lime and shallots were to the fore, and the beef was full of flavour and very tender.

    Rice topped with spicy basil and pork stir-fry brought sweet anise notes of basil with lovely savoury little nuggets of meat.

    The final dish was the most adventurous of the lot. Raw prawns dressed in lime, fish sauce, chilli and garlic dressing. I'll admit to being slightly apprehensive about this one, having never eaten prawns completely raw before. It was simple but delicious, being little more than prawns doused in industrial quantities of the advertised ingredients, particularly garlic which was present in half-clove sized chunks. Sounds strange but it worked.

    Go to Thai Aroy Dee. Please. If this isn't the best Thai food in Leeds by a country mile I'll eat my hat. With a side order of raw prawns in fish sauce-lime-chilli-garlic dressing.

    Other standouts were Korean at Seoul Kimchi and Japanese at Fuji Hiro.

    Breakfast of the year

    See meal of the year.

    Given the overall winner is a special occasion breakfast, designed to impress and not to be eaten every day it seems a little unfair to compare it with the other contenders. Those that serve breakfasts that are cheap and filling, but that still do so in some style. Honourable mentions therefore go to the Koffee Pot in Manchester and to the Greedy Pig in Leeds. Excellent work people, you'd have both been victorious had I not visited Hawksmoor.

    Pub meal of the year

    I didn't think I'd eaten in many pubs this year until I started checking back through the blog to write this. As it turns out I've eaten in sixteen of them, and most were average at best. Where my pub meals differed from a lot of my dining out is that they were usually unplanned. If you're having a couple of beers with friends, if you're exploring a strange town or for a whole host of other reasons a pub remains the easiest and most obvious choice for a quick meal in this country.

    The trouble is unless you've planned ahead and sought out a good one, the majority are mediocre or worse. Standards have certainly improved in the UK, but we're still a long way from the day when you can walk into any old pub and expect a good meal.

    The Mark Addy was an exception to the general dross, it was a planned visit but everything we ate there lived up to expectations. The scallops and black pudding were particularly well rendered. They do get a black mark though for serving spam fritters that were made with something other than spam. Spam does NOT come in semi-circles, only in rectangles. We are not that easily fooled.

    Spanish meal of the year

    Did I mention that I like Spanish ham? The amazing stuff made from black leg pigs that spent their lives feasting on acorns which is possibly the best foodstuff on the planet. Oh yeah, sorry. I think I did.

    I've fallen in love with Spanish food. No other European cuisine has gripped me in this way, not Italian, not French. Unlike in 2010 I didn't visit Spain in 2011, but I did get the chance to eat in a few of the best tapas bars in this country.

    The Spanish food craze that's hit London in recent years doesn't really seem to have spread up North yet, with the notable exception of Liverpool. Go Liverpool. There are of course Tapas bars in Leeds and Manchester, but none has a menu that reads so well as the London and Liverpool places.

    José was the best of the bunch by virtue of its ham and a very fine black pudding dish, but only by a small margin from Barrica and Salt House Tapas.

    Pub of the year

    This is the prize for the best pub to drink in, rather than eat in. It's about the whole package bar the food. The drinks, the ambience, the location, the crisps.

    Photo credit: Bregante

    The Marble Arch is just fantastic. The excellent Marble Brewery beers are always well kept and the pub itself is a work of art. The lofty tiled ceiling and walls with their blandishments to drink. Ale! Porter! Gin! The way the floor slopes down toward the solid, crafted bar.

    Photo credit: Good Pub Guide

    The aspect, alone on its corner plot in a post-industrial proto-regenerated wasteland. The location, perfect for commencement of a crawl back into town. In every way a very worthy winner.

    Over in Leeds my favourites are Mr Foley's and the Adelphi. Mr Foley's has the finest selection and most reasonably priced beer in town, excellent chips and football on the telly. The Adelphi is not quite so hot on drinks but has a wonderful historic multi-roomed interior and a great atmosphere.

    Holiday meal of the year

    2011 brought trips to Croatia, Cornwall, and Jordan and Israel. It was my first time visiting all of these, and I really enjoyed all of them. If I'm honest Cornwall was probably the highlight in terms of the actual places. Looking purely at the food it has to be Israel though.

    On the evidence of one week Israel is one of those countries where dining out well is the norm. Planning ahead isn't necessary as chances are wherever you go will be good.

    Best of the lot was a meal of a multitude of excellent salads, grilled hanger steak and perfect chips at Fortuna in Jerusalem. The cheeseburger at Kanibar in Haifa was also a highlight.

    Worst meal of the year

    Nothing has come close to the Crown in Rochester. The best meal of the year may have been eaten down South, but so was the worst.

    Managing to combine serving a badly made version of a foodstuff that shouldn't be served in a pub or restaurant in any circumstances, even if made properly (instant mash), with completely offhand and indifferent service, and relatively high prices to boot, The Crown was truly atrocious.

    I gave the same rating, in slightly tongue in cheek fashion, to the Sainsbury's Café in Sale, but for a better comparison of complete rubbishness look no further than the restaurant at the Westerwood Hotel in Scotland. An absolute rotter of a steak, small, wan and gristly served with barely edible chips for twenty quid.

    Best thing I've cooked this year

    Let's not end on the worst meal of the year, so what about the best of my home cooking?

    The best thing I cooked in 2011 was a humble damson crumble. It was a thrown together affair, nothing more than fruit, sugar, flour and butter. Sometimes that's all you need. The star of the show was those wonderful damsons. They were divine. Intensely fruity, but also dark and tannin rich. Almost chocolatey. Complimented by a rich, buttery crumble and served piping hot with a dollop of cold, thick cream. Utterly delicious.

    I didn't post the recipe because I haven't a clue on the quantities involved. It was guesswork that got lucky. It was along the lines of throw damsons in pan with a load of sugar, then heat up until the juice starts to run. Transfer into a baking dish then top with a crumble made from butter rubbed into sugar and flour. Bake in a medium oven for about half an hour.

    That's all folks! See you in 2012.


    Mr Noodles said...

    Lists? Who doesn't love 'em?! I've not had breakfast there, but I love Hawksmoor. If you ever get the chance order a 1kg+ prime rib to share.

    Of your other 'awards' I am particularly intrigued by Thai Aroy Dee, and you should feel proud in getting them to translate their special Thai special menu.

    Happy Eating in 2012!

    PS: If you're ever in Manchester, check out Glamorous (it's part of the Wing Yip complex on Oldham Road) for dim sum. They have trolley-service dim sum although I think this is only on Sundays and during busy periods like when I went between Xmas and New Year.

    Leigh said...

    Nice to see the MA on there. A lot of people simply miss out on the Marble Arch due to it's location, but now there's an excellent drinking quarter in that part of Manchester. Check out Port Street Beer House if you've not done so, inbetween the MA and the train station. The MA also has the best cheese board I'e ever had!

    Dave said...

    Thanks both for your comments.

    Mr Noodles - 1kg+ prime rib sounds like the steak of my dreams. I've been to the Wing Yip supermarket but not to Glamorous, will have to go at some point. Don't think I've had dim sum for about 2 years (last time was at the place under the Holiday Inn at North Greenwich).

    Leigh - I'm rather fond of the Manchester pub scene, probably prefer it to Leeds if I'm totally honest. I like to do a crawl starting at Marble Arch, then Angel, Bar Fringe, Crown & Kettle, Castle, PSBH or something like that!

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