December 2, 2011 10:00 pm

The delectable dozen: best restaurants of 2011

The strength of the creator’s personality seems to distinguish most appealing places

It has been a year of eating excitingly. But among memorable introductions there has been the odd, sad farewell.

Over the course of a fortnight, I managed to experience my first meal at Noma, Copenhagen, to taste René Redzepi’s extraordinary approach to nature’s bounty, followed by my final dinner at elBulli in Spain. Memories of this meal haunted me six months later when I cooked dinner for Ferran Adrià, its culinary genius, in our kitchen at home.

As I have been looking back over all the restaurants I reviewed this year, one aspect of the fascinating world of food came into focus. It did so, as the best things often do, from listening to my wife, the FT’s wine correspondent. She has long argued that a wine bottle, like nothing else you will find on a supermarket shelf, transports you directly to the region or village where it was made; and, in certain cases, to the individual who made it.

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In restaurants, too, the strength of the creator’s personality now seems to distinguish those places I find most appealing from the others. This will be a major consideration for restaurateurs as they choose which kind of restaurant to open and where.

As Danny Meyer in New York explained: “The challenge for me is to create somewhere that combines the excitement of going out … with the comfort factor of being welcomed and looked after as though you were in my own home.”

In London, Heston Blumenthal set the bar extremely high at the beginning of the year when he finally opened Dinner in the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge. Over the years several chefs have breathed new life into neglected British recipes, but here Blumenthal has achieved this within the setting of a bright hotel dining room devoid of stuffiness.

Lunch across the horseshoe-shaped counter at Zeb (Zuppe e Bollito) in Florence provided the opportunity to watch mother and son, Giuseppina and Alberto Navari, pace the interior, take orders, cook and open wine. The plates of ricotta-filled ravioli with a duck meat and orange sauce were equally exciting. Zeb is obviously far less expensive than Dinner, but shares the same eye for quality and the same disdain for pretension.

Memories of this Florentine meal return whenever I dive into Ducksoup on Dean Street in London. Here too, the bar, the few tables and the kitchen are in close proximity as, invariably, are its owners, Clare Lattin, Julian Biggs and Rory McCoy. The old record player and the even older collection of vinyl are, however, distinctly Soho, not Florence.

Jackson Boxer has also demonstrated with the Brunswick House Café , Vauxhall, how a combination of style and wit, architecture and antiques, as well as fairly priced good food, can compensate for a very small amount of working capital.

In southern and north-east Spain I met more committed characters. At La Carboná , once a sherry bodega, husband and wife Javier and Ana Garcia proudly serve what their talented son, Javier, is cooking. At Villa Más on the Costa Brava the exuberant chef Carlos Orta also showed his talents as compiler of an extraordinary list of burgundies and as a DJ (he played until 3am, we were staying very close by…).

What is so exciting about the new wave of Swedish cooking is not just exemplified by what Magnus Nilsson prepares from all that exists in the countryside and lakes around Fäviken , northern Sweden, or by what Mikael Jonsson is cooking at Hedone in Chiswick, west London. It is rather the commitment that seems to exist among Swedish chefs collectively to present their new style of cooking to the rest of the world.

This was most recently demonstrated when Bjorn Frantzé and Daniel Lindeberg left their renowned Stockholm restaurant for 24 hours to cook alongside Jonsson whom, until the morning of the lunch, they had never met.

In New York, the city’s dynamism was revealed at three very different occasions. The first was a two-family Sunday brunch at Red Rooster up in Harlem, where chef Marcus Samuelsson has created a restaurant that evokes history and a definite sense of place combined with excellent American food. The second was a two-family dinner at Prune , where the pleasure of Gabrielle Hamilton’s approach to cooking continued over the next few days as I read her enthralling autobiography, Blood, Bones & Butter. Finally, there was a memorable dinner at Daniel to celebrate a particular landmark in our family.

The most exceptional memories, however, still resonate from an overnight stay on Inis Méain off the north east coast of Ireland where Ruairi and Marie Thérèse de Blacam have opened a restaurant with five elegant bedrooms. As we waited in the bus for the 8.15am ferry, watching a fisherman unload scallops in the driving rain, a fellow traveller nervously asked Ruairi whether there are any days when the ferry doesn’t operate. “A few,” he replied. “But on those days you never want to leave the house!”

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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Top 12 of 2011

Dinner

www.dinnerbyheston.com

Zeb

www.zebgastronomia.com

Ducksoup

www.ducksoupsoho.co.uk

Brunswick House Café

http://brunswickhousecafe.co.uk

La Carboná

www.lacarbona.com

Villa Más

+34 972 82 25 26

Fäviken

www.faviken.com

Hedone

www.hedonerestaurant.com

Red Rooster

http://redroosterharlem.com

Prune

www.prunerestaurant.com

Daniel

www.danielnyc.com

Inis Méain

http://inismeain.com

FT Festive 50

For 50 brilliant recipes, including Ducksoup’s signature dish, potato and foie gras, go to www.ft.com/festive50

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