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The Best Food and Drink of 2016

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

Fried chicken waffle by Waffle On at Maltby Street Market

Yes, everyone keeps saying that 2016 has been the worst year ever.  But when it comes to food and drink, this year has been a cracker.  With more new restaurants and more foodie entrepreneurs than ever, there is no excuse to eat badly.  Here are the best things that I snaffled into my greedy face this year:

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen
I wanted to eat everything on Arabica Bar & Kitchen’s menu.  I’ve eaten a lot of samey mezze over the years, but these guys really know how to sex it up.  It’s easy to be bamboozled by choice; however, you should definitely include the chicken and pistachio shish in your order.  Forget all about those dry old shish kebabs you may have had the misfortune to eat in the past.  These little skewers are succulent, dripping with meat juices and are infused with the flavours of the Middle East.

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen

Kürtöskalács in Budapest
Yeah I have no idea how to pronounce it either.  But that won’t be a hinderance to you when you visit Budapest because you can find it everywhere.  It’s a chimney cake made from a doughnut style dough and rolled in sugar.  It’s served hot with various toppings, like nuts or desiccated coconut, but I chose good old fashioned cinnamon.  It was huge but worth every stomach-straining bite.

Fried chicken waffle from Waffle On
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to eating at Maltby Street market.  However, I can definitely recommend the fried chicken waffle with maple syrup butter from Waffle On.  Street food is generally naughty but this is really decadent.  The chicken is fried to perfection, and the combination of sweet and savoury flavours here is sheer bliss.

Rabbit risotto from Cafe Murano
Rabbit’s another one that is so often dry and dull.  And a perfect risotto sometimes feels like the holy grail. Not so when these things are in the hands of the chefs at Cafe Murano.  The risotto was creamy, topped off with chunks of juicy rabbit meat and a drizzle of stock.  It’s a wonderfully, sinfully rich dish that stood out on a menu that was full of wonderful dishes.

The Meihua Shan at Oriole
Many bars claim to be “speakeasies” but Oriole probably comes closest to the real deal.  For a start, it’s genuinely hard to find.  I walked past it a couple of times in increasing confusion.  But once you’re in, you’re truly through the looking glass.  Their incredible cocktail list – inspired by the golden age of exploration – helps to transport you to another era and another world.  Again, you can be bamboozled by choice (and some unusual ingredients), but the Meihua Shan is worth splashing the cash on.  Made with Hendricks gin, plum rosolio, juniper chou syrup, egg white and lemon, it manages to be both refreshing and creamy.  And, as with all the cocktails from the team behind Nightjar, it looked like a work of art.

Meihua Shan cocktail from Oriole

All of the cheese from La Latteria
La Latteria specialise in mozzarella, stracciatella and ricotta.  And they do this exceptionally well.  Scoffing down a plate of their ricotta felt incredibly naughty – it was that creamy.  Then I did the same with their stracciatella.  Seemingly simple produce that, when done well, tastes exquisite.  Find them at newbie food destination, Mercato Metropolitano.

Pork confit bao from BAO
Yes, this has become a bit of “a classic” but justifiably so.  Judging by Instagram, I think everyone in London has now eaten this but, if you haven’t, then brave the queue at the door of BAO.  This little squidgy mouthful is worth it.  As is the rest of the menu.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat
Goat is a much under-rated meat but, when it’s handled well, it’s delicious.  Gourmet Goat know exactly what they are doing and their goat kofte salad is delightful.  The meat is tender and flavoursome, and the salad is one of the tastiest I have eaten.  It was packed with beetroot, chickpeas, goat kurd and came with a punchy chilli “pistou” – and I gobbled the whole thing up in a matter of minutes.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat

Everything I ate at Rotorino
Admittedly, I’d had a few shandies before my friend and I decided to grab a bite here.  But everything I ate here was delicious.  So much so, that it managed to make an impression through the fog of gin that surrounded me – and one that has lasted.  My starter of marinated mackerel with pinenuts, almonds and breadcrumbs was fresh and zingy.  The roast chicken on toast (yes, toast!) that followed was one of the tastiest roast chooks I have eaten (although annoyingly a little under-cooked in places).  The buttermilk pannacotta with rhubarb for dessert was perfectly executed.  Can’t wait to go back.

Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses from Meza
It’s taken me 7 years to get around to going to Meza in my ‘hood of Tooting.  I now can’t believe that I have gone without their chicken livers for so long.  Melt-in-the-mouth with a sticky, sweet, tangy dressing and a great smack of Middle Eastern spices.  I think I might have to nip up the road and get some now….!

“Strawberries and Cream” from Fifteen 
This wasn’t a dish of strawberries and cream.  It was actually a cocktail, made for this year’s London Cocktail Week.  The list of ingredients was as long as my arm but the end result was simple and elegant.  It really did taste of strawberries and cream, reminiscent of those old fashioned boiled sweets.  And of course it looked as pretty as a picture.

Strawberries and Cream cocktail from Jamie Oliver's Fifteen

Slow cooked beef cheek pie from The Holly Bush
My second choice dish from the menu at The Holly Bush in Hampstead actually turned out to be the right decision after all.  This “proper” pie was fully encased in buttery shortcrust pastry and stuffed full of the most tender chunks of beef cheek I have ever eaten.  It came with a rich, dark gravy and every mouthful was a pleasure.  Comfort food at its best.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye
This dish.  My God.  Ricotta, sage, pumpkin all forming a perfect storm of flavour.  It was so delicious and so comforting to eat.  The cheese was rich and gooey, counterbalanced by the sweetness of the roast pumpkin.  Exactly the sort of thing you want to eat on a dark, chilly winter’s night on the Sussex marshes.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye

Disappointment of the year: Hatchetts
Hatchetts, a new arrival in 2016, had a limited, unimaginative menu that was very over priced for what they offered.  Weirdly, they had a “Christmas dinner” on their standard lunch menu when I visited.  I ordered it because the other three main courses available appealed to me far less than this one did (which is saying something).  It was average.  So was their chocolate fondant dessert.  The plates were stone cold and the restaurant was empty.  When you charge premium prices then you should deliver a premium experience.  This was just lazy and complacent.

I ate a lot over the course of 2016, but I barely scratched the surface of all the amazing restaurants and bars that are only in London  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions but I think, for 2017, I’m going to have just one: eat more.

If you have any recommendations for me then drop me a line.  I’d love to hear them.  Happy New Year!

The Plot Twist

The Plot Twist

Flaming cheese wheel at The Plot Twist

Beans on toast.  Steak and chips.  Wine and cheese.  All pretty familiar meal time combinations.  But Hungarian food together with Italian food?  Never heard of that one before!  While both of these cuisines rank pretty highly on my list of favourite foods, I’ve never eaten them in the same sitting.  There may well be a reason for that, which I shall come to later.  However, I found myself indulging in the staple food of both of these great nations thanks to The Plot Twist and their new pop-up restaurant in Holborn.  If comfort food is your thing then you need to hit these guys up because you won’t be disappointed.

The Plot Twist are actually a couple – both in business and in love.  Tamas is Hungarian and Agata is Italian, hence the cuisine mash-up.  They have run a few other foodie events around London, but they have now teamed up with two Italian chefs (The Cuoppo) and opened their first ever pop-up bar and kitchen.  If there was ever a time of year to open a restaurant focusing on solid, stick-to-your-ribs food it’s now.  The menu is fairly brief and comprises mainly of goulash and pasta, with a few lighter options to start.  We kicked off with the Hungarian-Italian charcuterie and cheese board.  This was a mixture of meats and cheeses from both countries, served with pickles and the most delicious little fried bread balls called zeppoline.  I had no idea what bits came from what country (apart from the bread and the pickles) but it was all tasty, standard charcuterie board fare.  I could have easily demolished a plate of the zeppoline alone – and, as they are a menu item in their own right, I would recommend you get stuck in.

Goulash soup in a bread bowl at The Plot Twist

Next up was goulash soup served in a bread bowl.  I visited Budapest earlier this year where I ate a lot of goulash soup, all of it excellent and therefore a very tough act to follow.  The version by The Plot Twist lacked some of the layers of flavour, and the dumpling to meat ratio was a bit skewed towards the dumplings.  I do love dumplings so this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.  However, there was the slight issue of the huge loaf of bread/soup bowl already vying for space in my stomach.  When I’m faced with fresh, crusty bread that is soaked in a rich, meaty sauce then, of course, I’m going to eat it.  It’s kind of a no-brainer.  Although it’s perhaps not too sensible when you’re munching your way through a carb-tastic feast of epic proportions.

Cheese and sausage pasta at The Plot Twist

Speaking of which, the next stage of this culinary odyssey did not disappoint – both in terms of taste and its ranking on the carb-o-meter.  It was tubetti pasta with potatoes (yes, potatoes!) and sausage from a flaming wheel of Parmesan cheese.  This bears repeating: a flaming wheel of Parmesan cheese.  Our chef literally flambéed a huge slab of cheese in front of us, which was then used to make the pasta sauce.  There are few things better than melted cheese, unless you’re talking about melted cheese with pasta.  And sausage.  This dish was rich.  Like, Bill Gates rich.  But the sausage had a lovely, slightly nutmeggy, flavour that really complemented the cheese and cut through some of the creaminess.  The whole thing was a fun spectacle and, like the goulash before, it was the perfect meal for a chilly November day.

No matter how full I am, I can always find room for pudding.  I was very excited that our dessert came from Hungary and, furthermore, was something I hadn’t even heard of.  Túró Rudi is a curd cheese cylinder wrapped in a thin layer of chocolate, which came served with a sticky cherry sauce. Hungarian puds are notoriously rich, but this was pleasingly light and very easy to eat.  This might have something to do with the fact that it’s not actually a pudding, in the strictest sense of the word, but was actually a chocolate bar that was popular in Hungary during the 1960s!  Of course, this version had been pimped up for us but I love the idea of retro chocolate.  It tasted pretty good too; just creamy enough with a welcome sweetness from the cherry sauce.  Maybe one day there will be a hipster pop-up specialising in retro desserts from around the world….?

Turo Rudi dessert at The Plot Twist

So, the reason why you don’t usually eat Hungarian and Italian food at the same time?  It’s heavy.  Really, really heavy.  With lots of carbs.  And it always tastes really good so you just keep on eating, even though you’re already painfully full.  Both of these countries have a reputation for delicious food that is cooked by people who really like to feed you, and The Plot Twist ticks all of these boxes.  The menu is simple but tasty; homely, hearty food that you could imagine eating alongside Tamas, Agata and their families.  Plus they offer an excellent wine list which, as both Italy and Hungary make amazing wine, is another very good reason to visit.   They are only around until 21st December so you need to get in there fast.  But maybe don’t eat for a few days first.

The Plot Twist x The Cuoppo, 51 Red Lion Street, WC1R 4PF
Many thanks to Tamas and Agata for inviting me to try their food.  All views are, as ever, my own.