I don’t think it will surprise anyone to hear that being a restaurant critic is an astonishingly good gig and, believe me, I’m entirely aware of how lucky I am. But there are a couple of ways I feel even more fortunate.
First, my fortnightly slot means I have to be choosy. I get half as many cracks at this as others, so I’m inclined to pick places I’m going to like. Second, I can’t help feeling that, even if we are approaching dark days for the industry, there can’t have been a better place or time to be reviewing restaurants than right here, right now.
Brat and St Leonards, which opened within weeks of each other, are flagship operations for extremely promising young chefs and immediately set the bar high. It was gratifying, if you favour the kind of cooking that I do, that both bore favourable comparison with St John’s, which, with every passing year and every new generation of chefs, seems to consolidate its position as the single most significant restaurant in our history.
Both restaurants led with “live fire” cooking . . . the big trend of the year, if you believe in that sort of thing. I don’t. I love fire-cooked food as much as the next Viking but I do wonder if there’s going to come a season, a couple of years down the line, when the skips of Shoreditch will be filled with wrought-iron frames, rusty griddles and staggeringly expensive extraction systems as young chefs swear eternal fealty to “gas . . . the wonder of the age”.
Even more of the spirit of St John was on show at the Rochelle Bar & Canteen’s outpost at the ICA, a kind of celebration of a fascinating “found” space with some rock-solid, elegance-in-simplicity cooking.
Nieves Barragán Mohacho had put in enough years turning Barrafina into a success that her first solo flight was surrounded by high expectations. I can’t remember a more flawless take-off nor a more impressive maiden flight than Sabor, which went from “start-up” through “phenomenon” to “beloved institution” in about a week.
It doesn’t seem that central London rents will be dropping any time soon, so I have a degree of sympathy for places such as Cornerstone, turning out an extraordinarily assured seafood-led menu in a venue on the inner rim of affordability at Hackney Wick. One of Michelin’s criteria, when it was still a motor-tourist’s guidebook, was whether a place was “worth a detour”. Cornerstone definitely is.
Bright, in a repurposed industrial building in London Fields, managed to combine itchingly cool credentials with the effortless charm of a Bondi caff. In case you’re wondering if this is all a triumph of style over substance, be aware these guys can really cook — try as I might, I can’t remember anyone putting fewer ingredients on a plate to more astonishing effect.
A mention should go to Parsons, a little fish restaurant that, like a trawlerman in glittery wellies, succeeds in being cute to the point of actually “adorable”, while managing some hugely muscular competence with very fresh seafood.
Are there useful conclusions to be drawn from my choices? Not many, I hope. I really dislike the idea of ascribing “trends” to anything as wonderfully antic and diverse as food. I suppose you could observe a distinct lack of tasting menus in there, extrapolate a tendency towards independent operations and a penchant for places where I can slide my capacious stomach against some sort of bar or counter. I think as UK diners become more relaxed and confident in our choices, we continue to move further and further away from stiff formality and general ponciness.
Finally, then, my favourite meal of the year? It was so close-run a choice that I’ve had to spend happy hours running eyelid-movies of the two experiences, recollecting each plate, each mouthful, with an obsessive’s zeal. It was very nearly The French House in Soho, where Neil Borthwick is running a room that should be measured, photographed and recorded in case, in some dystopian future, they ever need to build the perfect dining experience again.
But in the end, the romantic in me triumphs. It has to be Wilsons, a tiny restaurant run by a husband-and-wife team in Bristol, where they manage to combine so much skill, talent, true hospitality and, frankly, love into a few courses that they constitute an ideal.
It’s been a great year. I can’t wait for the next one.
For Nicholas Lander’s restaurants of the year, visit ft.com/lander2018
Tim Hayward is an FT contributing writer and winner of the Restaurant Writing Award at the Guild of Food Writers Awards 2018
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