Gerald Diffey, the dapper Englishman behind Brooks, the highly successful restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, returned to London recently to take his friends and family to discover the city’s latest restaurants.
At the end of his gastronomic tour, he made an astute observation. “I love this business and I hope I always will,” he told me. “But there is one expression that always annoys me and that is when people refer to ‘industry norms’. What makes the life of the restaurateur so attractive, in my opinion, is that it is still relatively easy for a determined individual to establish somewhere exciting that is in complete contravention of what are laid down as ‘industry norms.’”
As I look back on another year in which I have been fortunate to eat and drink so well, I realise that it is largely thanks to those individuals who have defied those norms.
In the Mission District of San Francisco, Heirloom Café proprietor Matt Straus turns the normal corkage policy of so many restaurateurs on its head. Come with a bottle that is 10 years or younger and the corkage charge is $25; but come with an older, more recherché bottle and the charge is just $10.
Thousands of miles away, our evening at La Pineta in Marina di Bibbona on the Tuscan coast was a thorough delight, from the stroll along the beach beforehand to Luciano Zazzeri’s panzanella with mackerel, cool capellini with mullet roe and his catholic wine list.
But what brought a smile to my face, and is lodged in my memory, is what happened at the end of dinner. Zazzeri, hitherto chef and restaurateur, suddenly became the cashier. In this unlikely role he created the opportunity for a final few words with customers who had spent the whole evening absorbed in their own conversations.
Looking back over my year of eating what also struck me is how much pleasure three very different restaurants – Goust, Le Sergent Recruteur and La Table des Anges – in Paris have given me. They underline my growing conviction that, having reached a low point, restaurants across the French capital are finally becoming more exciting.
La Table des Anges in the 9th arrondissement is the combination of the culinary skills of Yan Duranceau in the basement and the relaxed bonhomie of Jacques-Henri Strauss, as he surveys his dining room from behind the bar.
In the 2nd arrondissement, nothing, and certainly no customer, escapes the attention of Enrico Bernardo, chef-turned-sommelier-turned-restaurateur, as he zooms around the perfectly formed restaurant that is Goust.
And while it is more difficult to spot chef Antonin Bonnet at the far end of Le Sergent Recruteur’s kitchen on the Ile St-Louis, a restaurant underwritten by an anonymous backer, his culinary finesse is obvious on the plate.
Whatever sum Monsieur “X” has invested in this restaurant must far exceed what has been spent by five other determined individuals in three London restaurants and one in Singapore.
Liangming Qiu is the chef at the Lan Zhou La Mian Noodle Bar by Leicester Square Tube station, where bowls of steaming noodles with numerous toppings cost no more than £7.50. The seating is cramped, the service invariably swift and Qiu is undoubtedly the most diffident chef I have ever interviewed.
Some of these traits are shared by Andy Lim, the genial chef at Le Chasseur in Singapore, where the vast number of dishes on his menu are written on the restaurant’s walls, alongside their respective cholesterol counts.
Back in London, Andrew Wong has invested wisely by taking over the restaurant (now called A. Wong) that once belonged to his parents close to Victoria Station, where he is cooking some of the most distinctive Chinese food in town.
However, even he must doff his hat in terms of pounds invested to impact generated to Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, the husband-and-wife team behind the exceptional Middle Eastern food at Honey & Co, who transformed a former café for £30,000 into such a warm and exciting space. From such humble beginnings will appear their first cookbook in summer 2014 (see one of their recipes).
My contravention of the eating-out norm took place in the tavern of Gramercy Tavern in New York with a couple whose long friendship demanded, I believed, a particularly memorable wine. As I ordered a magnum of 2005 Nuits-St Georges, Clos de la Maréchale from J-F Mugnier for $465, my wife looked on in surprise while my friend’s wife whispered in my ear, “How did you know red burgundy is my favourite wine?”
Finally, my ideal day would encompass two sets of restaurateurs who, by incorporating their entire family into what they do, distinguish themselves not just by the warmth of their hospitality but also by proving that family life can survive the pressures of restaurant life.
So, after dinner, bed and breakfast at Ballymaloe House in County Cork, Ireland, in the care of the Allen family, I would like to fly to Girona in Spain for a late lunch prepared and served by the Roca brothers at El Celler de Can Roca. Such a flight does not currently exist – but I can always dream.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Top Restaurants of 2013
Brooks, Melbourne; www.brooksofmelbourne.com
Heirloom Café, San Francisco; www.heirloom-sf.com
La Pineta, Tuscany, Marina di Bibbona, Italy
Goust, Paris, 10 rue Volney 75002
Le Sergent Recruteur, Paris; www.lesergentrecruteur.fr
La Table des Anges, Paris; www.latabledesanges.fr
Lan Zhou La Mian Noodle Bar, London, 33 Cranbourn Street, WC2H 7AD
Le Chasseur, Singapore, 31 New Bridge Road
A.Wong, London; www.awong.co.uk
Honey & Co, London; www.honeyandco.co.uk
Gramercy Tavern, New York; www.gramercytavern.com
Ballymaloe House, Cork; www.ballymaloe.ie
El Celler de Can Roca, Girona; www.cellercanroca.com