Fat chips with feta at Gazi, Melbourne:
chosen by Nigella Lawson, food writer and broadcaster
If I tell you that the best thing I ate this year was in January, please don’t think that the rest of my eating year has been a disappointment: know that I would never allow that to be the case. I have a big thing about chips. Whenever I go out, I ask if the chips I see on the menu are hand-cut. I’m nearly always told they are; they invariably aren’t. That’s no good – I’m not interested if they’re triple-fried in goose fat if they’re not hand-cut. It’s all about the rough edges, you see.
Now, I have to say I didn’t oversee how they cut the chips at a restaurant called Gazi in Melbourne when I was there in January, but they taste like the real thing – but different. They’re fat chips that are halfway to potato wedges, fried in intensely garlicky oil and, once crisp and golden, tossed in a bowl with proper Greek dried oregano and crumbles of sharp feta. It’s impossible not to eat well in Melbourne (well, in Australia generally), but these chips were absolutely worth flying the 10,496.05 miles for.
Scallops with truffle puree at the Clove Club, London
Gregory Marchand, chef-patron, Frenchie, London
This was really fresh, really beautiful and really, really tasty. The scallops came with a dashi jelly, mandarin juice, chopped hazelnuts and a brown-butter dressing, with some raw chestnut mushrooms shaved on top. Everything in the meal was stunning – the duck with fermented red cabbage puree was another standout – but this was the dish with the biggest wow factor. I still remember the experience of eating it.
Cured pastırma fish at Ismet Baba, Istanbul
Marianna Leivaditaki, head chef, Morito Hackney Road, London
Earlier this year, a few of us from Morito went to Istanbul. We had some amazing food but the most interesting thing was a dish we ate at a fish restaurant in Uskudar, right next to the Bosphorus, called Ismet Baba. The dish is balık pastırması: swordfish cured with pastırma spices, so lots of fenugreek, chilli flakes, cumin and caraway. Even though I cure fish myself, I had never eaten it in this way before. Then, a few months later, I went to Crete and had a very similar dish. I couldn’t believe the coincidence. So I got to work and tried to replicate it – and I did it quite successfully. Now it’s on our seafood menu. I’ve turned it into a salad with capers, cherry tomatoes and some boiled baby potatoes, but in Turkey and Crete they just served it on its own with a little olive oil.
Squid bolognese at Koffmann’s, London
Tom Kitchin, chef-patron, The Kitchin, Edinburgh
I don’t know if it’s a nostalgic thing, because his restaurant is about to close, but the best thing this year was Pierre Koffmann’s squid bolognese. It’s a mindblowing dish. He’s taken the idea of spaghetti bolognese, but there’s no pasta involved. What you do is freeze the squid in a vacuum pack bag in one big block, then slice it very thinly on a meat slicer, which creates a kind of tagliatelle effect. The bolognese is the tentacles cooked in a rich tomato sauce. Some of the most ingenious things in life are the simplest. You can’t take it out of the man, he just keeps creating.
Jackfruit curry at Samakanda, Sri Lanka
Meera Sodha, food writer, author of Fresh India
In January, I went to Sri Lanka and stayed at a tropical plantation in the south called Samakanda. One evening some local chefs climbed the trees in the garden, harvested some coconuts and tender baby jackfruit and made a curry. I’d never eaten jackfruit before and I’d been staring at these spiky green fruit in the sky wondering what they’d taste like. They cooked the jackfruit in a clay pot over an open fire with onions, ginger, spices, coconut milk and a very sour ingredient called goraka. As you never just get one dish in Sri Lanka, we also had an aubergine and mustard pickle called brinjal moju, a cashew-nut curry, sambal and spiced rice, all washed down with an arak sour. But the jackfruit curry stood out: the sticky sweetness of the fruit was balanced by the sourness of the goraka, and together they cut through the creaminess of the coconut. It was a sensational dish.
Cured and smoked jowl at Pitt Cue, London
Sarit Packer, chef-patron, Honey & Co and Honey & Smoke, London
Itamar and I used to get takeaways from Pitt Cue’s little place off Carnaby Street but we wondered how it would translate to a big restaurant in the City. We thought they might go for something over-sleek but they haven’t – it’s not frou-frou and the food was really simple. They did this smoked jowl which was literally the piece of meat on a plate, with a lick of puree. It was proper proud cooking, as if to say, we know we can do this amazingly well so you don’t need anything else. And it was fun to see people being really creative with smoke.
Tomer Amedi, head chef at the Palomar, London
My wife made me a cake for my birthday in April. It’s called a petit-beurre cake, after the French biscuits (which are very popular in Israel), and it’s the most delicious thing in the universe. I used to have it when I was little. My wife knows it’s one of my kryptonites: she made me a whole tray and I ate half of it by myself. It’s basically a layer cake with vanilla cream and these biscuits, then you add shaved chocolate on top and then the biscuit becomes all mushy and nice. It’s simple, it’s trashy, but it’s so good.
Cochinita pibil in Yucatán, Mexico
René Redzepi, chef-patron, Noma, Copenhagen
This summer, I went to a tiny little Mayan village called Yaxuna in the Yucatán peninsula and had cochinita pibil. It’s a very traditional dish made with a little pig, usually wild, that they hunt and then marinate in the seed of the achiote tree mixed with sour orange juice. It’s then folded in banana leaves and cooked in a pit. We ate it in 35-degree heat with fresh tortillas, which Mayan women made on hot stones, accompanied by pickled onions, fresh coriander and habanero chillies (as a pale gringo, I could only have a few drops of the chilli marinade). The meat was moist and juicy and the acidity was just incredible. It was such a perfect mouthful – the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.
Bone-marrow arancini by Jacob Kenedy at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery
Bee Wilson, food writer and historian
At the Oxford Food Symposium, which I’m the chair of, we always have themed meals, and this year the theme was offal. A lot of people thought it was going to be dreadful, but Jacob Kenedy, chef-patron at Bocca di Lupo, put together a total feast – one of those meals I’ll remember all my life. The level of thought he put into it was just extraordinary. There was a lot of wordplay on the menu: it included ox-heart tomatoes, marrow-fat peas and kidney beans. He served red mullet livers, which he’d been stockpiling for months at the restaurant, with bruschetta and peas. He made coda alla vaccinara, or Roman oxtail stew, and an extremely spicy stew of innards called u morzeddhu. But the thing that really stood out for me was an arancino (stuffed rice ball). I’m not often a fan – I think they can be quite dry and disappointing compared to risotto – but this was a beautiful golden sphere, so saffrony, and when you opened it up it had bone marrow in the middle. It was so unctuous – sort of like having risotto Milanese with osso bucco all in one tiny, perfect element.
Black rice with squid ink at El Pirata of Mayfair, London
Fred Sirieix, general manager, Galvin at Windows, London
El Pirata of Mayfair is a lovely Spanish restaurant next to where I work. It’s a traditional, no-frills tapas place that’s been open for 22 years – if it were French it would be a bistro. The dish I love there is black rice with squid. They cook the rice in squid ink and a little bit of fish stock and it has a very delicate round flavour. I love the langoustine with tomato sauce, too, and breaded monkfish – oh, it’s delicious. And such good value. I said to the manager, “Are you mad?” He said, “Fred, people like these prices and we’re happy, too, we don’t need to put the prices up.” OK, fine by me. Oh, and the ham, I think it’s the best that you can find in London. Don’t take my word for it, go and try it out.
Pan-fried cep with celeriac puree and shaved truffle at Timberyard, Edinburgh
Gill Meller, Head chef at River Cottage and author of Gather
Timberyard is a family-owned restaurant – the father, mother, daughter and two sons are all involved and they were incredibly welcoming. One particular dish in the six-course lunch bowled me over. The chef had received a delivery of fresh ceps that morning. He’d taken a thick slice from the middle of the mushroom and pan-fried it on both sides with salt and pepper, then served it warm with a tiny bit of celeriac puree and shaved truffle. Every mouthful was exceptional, partly because the mushroom was so fresh and pristine. It was the simplest dish you could imagine, but the way it was executed was just perfect.
Watermelon in Beijing
Michael Zee, author of Symmetry Breakfast
In September, I went to stay with my sister who lives in Beijing. She was obsessed with watermelons, which are absolutely gargantuan in China – bigger than a beach ball. They’re so big, you need help in the supermarket to put it into the trolley, and we had to carry our one home in a pram. The heart of the watermelon is the best bit. It was such a different texture to anything I’ve ever experienced in the UK or America: the flesh was like sugar crystals. I just chopped it up and ate it by itself. It was so sugary and sweet, I couldn’t stop eating it.
Duck breast with blackcurrant at Birch, Bristol
Stephen Terry, chef-patron of the Hardwick, Abergavenny
The couple who run Birch, Sam Leach and Beccy Massey, are young and very passionate. They grow a lot of the produce themselves, make their own bread, do their own butchery. The food is very simple and the place is unpretentious, which appeals to me – they’re clearly putting their money into quality ingredients rather than fine china. We went in the springtime and every dish was a celebration of the season: we had some early rhubarb, we had snails. But the best thing was duck with blackcurrants and roasted carrots. It was the most amazingly cooked duck breast I’ve had in my life. I asked if he’d cooked it in a water bath and he said, no, just in the pan. It was beautiful.
Spätzle at Rotstockhütte, Gimmelwald, Switzerland
Trine Hahnemann, food writer and cook
This summer I went hiking in the Swiss Alps. One day we walked for 12km, a lot of it uphill, and then came down into a valley where we found a little cafe that looked a bit like a shed. They made just a few dishes and one of them was homemade spätzle with cream, bacon and local cheese. I had it with a big glass of beer. Maybe it was the circumstances – I was really hungry from the long walk – but this dish was so good. It wasn’t a foodie thing at all: it felt like the world hadn’t touched this place for a long, long time. But it made me really happy.
Veal brain at Le Baratin, Paris
Dominique Ansel, owner, Dominique Ansel Bakery, London
It was in Paris this spring, at a small bistro called Le Baratin, that I had the best dish ever: veal brain, poached and seared, with lemon sauce and some small boiled potatoes. I love simple, home-cooked food and this was just spot on – unbelievably delicious and cooked to perfection. Le Baratin is a tiny place in Belleville, not fancy at all. There’s an open kitchen and you can see the chef [Raquel Carena] working away, with just one other cook, while her husband manages the bar and front of house. She makes the kind of food I want to eat every day. I’d like to go back very soon.
Pumpkin tortelli at Dal Pescatore, Canneto Sull’oglio, Italy
Massimo Bottura, chef-patron, Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy
None of the best things I ate this year involved luxury ingredients but they all had an emotional quality, which is very important to me. A few months ago I had a pumpkin tortelli at Dal Pescatore, not far from Modena, which reminded me of my youth and the flavours of my grandmother’s cooking. It is savoury, spicy and sweet, so you have this feeling that you’re almost eating a dessert at the pasta course. Maybe the pasta was more refined and the plate more elegant, but otherwise it was exactly like my grandmother made it. As soon as I tasted it, I was so emotionally touched, because it took me back to the memory of my youth. It was unbelievable: I almost cried.
Grilled starfruit in Sylhet, Bangladesh
Nadiya Hussain, food writer and broadcaster
My dad has a starfruit tree in his backyard in Bangladesh and when we were over there last month it was in season, which I was very excited about. My relatives were all laughing at me because they think starfruit is a nuisance – they don’t really eat them because they’re so tart, and when they become sweet they disintegrate very quickly. But it was such a treat to see them growing in abundance, and for the kids to pick them. They couldn’t see where the star was, but then we sliced one up and they saw it and were like, “Ah, that’s really cool.” I’d never cooked with starfruit before, but me and the kids dug a hole in my dad’s front garden (which he doesn’t know about because we filled it up afterwards) and took an old piece of metal mesh from my uncle’s building site and built a fire. Then we grilled the starfruit with cinnamon and sugar, and ate it with all the kids in the village. We were just making it up as we went along, using whatever we had in the cupboard, but it was so good. Grilled starfruit, I can tell you, is really delicious.
Roast Dexter ribeye
April Bloomfield, chef-patron, the Spotted Pig and the Breslin Bar & Dining Room, both New York
Few things blew my mind this year, but one that did was this lovely beef I had at my friend Charlie Hart’s farmhouse in Cornwall. He cooked us a Dexter ribeye roast with all the trimmings – lots of roast potatoes and vegetables – and it was all delicious, but the joint was the standout. Boy, was that thing beefy: the fat was the colour of good butter and the meat so tender and tasty. It was one of those moments where you have a connection with what you’re eating – it kind of grabs you, stops you in your tracks, and makes you go, “Whoa, that’s perfection!”
Fried reindeer moss sprayed with chocolate at Noma, Copenhagen
Sat Bains, chef-patron, Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham
Take a snapshot of “Nordic” cuisine right now, and people are still doing the kind of stuff René Redzepi was making five or six years ago. But what the guy himself is cooking these days, you can’t call it Nordic. It’s unique. This dessert blew my mind. I had it in August, when I was in town for the Mad festival, and, like all René’s food, it looks stunning. It comes on a bed of moss with slices of chocolate-covered dehydrated cep, which were amazing in their own right, but this lichen was something else: it’s deep-fried, sprayed with chocolate and flavoured with, at a guess, pine oil. The first thing that hits you is the texture – it’s like the most delicate Shredded Wheat imaginable – then all these flavours hit you all at once. It’s incredible. I went back six weeks later, just to have it again.
Scallops at Fäviken, Sweden
Clare Smyth, chef
I went to Fäviken at the end of the summer and the whole dining experience was incredible. First, we sat at a log fire for aperitifs and snacks. Then we went upstairs and had a procession of courses – we probably ate 30 different things, though it didn’t feel like a heavy meal. Everything was good but there were a few standouts. One was the most amazing plump scallop that was cooked on a big wood fire in the middle of the kitchen. They remove the skirt, then pour the juice back into the shell and serve it on some juniper wood. It’s just a scallop – so simple – but it was the most succulent sweet thing. Towards the end, we went back down to the fire and they handed out a wonderful selection of sweets, petit fours, coffees and homemade drinks. Afterwards, we went out to a tipi to smoke cigars and drink cognac.
Whole peking duck at Park Chinois, London
Jay Rayner, Observer restaurant critic
The best all-round eating experience remains Riley’s Fish Shack in Tynemouth and, having come so late in the year, it’s unlikely to be beaten. But the best single food item has to be the whole peking duck at Alan Yau’s homage to the famed dinner-dance clubs of Shanghai, Park Chinois, just off London’s Berkeley Square. Is it cheap? God no. It’s £85, though that’s for two at least. But blimey, it’s good: crisp lacquered skin, the perfect thin layer of fat, sweet yielding meat. It’s been said that the Chinese are the best at roasting duck. And this is quite simply the very best of the best. It could be more expensive. For £280 they’ll bung on 50g of beluga caviar, but I really wouldn’t bother.
Gaeng ki lek (beef and cassia leaf curry) at Bo.lan, Bangkok
Andy Oliver, chef/co-owner, Som Saa, London
Before we opened the new Som Saa, the team went on a research trip to Thailand. For me, the meal at Bo.lan was the highlight of the entire visit, and this curry stood out even among all the other sublime dishes. It had sweetness from fresh coconut cream and this amazing artisan palm sugar that tastes a bit like a combination of butterscotch and honey, and that’s balanced by the slight bitterness of fresh cassia and the fragrance of fresh makrut lime leaf. The beef was pretty special stuff, too – aged rump grilled until it was all smoky. When you’re just off a flight from the UK and eat here, it smacks you square in the face – all those familiar Thai tastes and ingredients are turned up to 11, because they’re fresh from the market that morning.
Bakè is the kind of place that proves you shouldn’t judge on appearances. It’s behind a semi-deserted shopping centre on the outskirts of a quiet seaside town in Puglia – the only thing missing is tumbleweed – but you walk in and the place is packed: they had to bring in an extra table and move everyone around to make room for us. The owner’s a bit of a local celeb – he invented the pentolo pan, for cooking large amounts pasta – but he’s best known round these parts as a truffle hunter. It’s a short menu: three or four pastas, a few mostly fishy mains, and a selection of antipasti, of which this dish was one. It’s so simple: incredibly fresh cuttlefish sliced very thinly, then flash-fried and dressed with brilliant olive oil and summer truffles. The combination was staggering.
Reuben sandwich at Black Axe Mangal, London
Tim Siadatan, chef/co-owner, Padella and Trullo, both London
I’ve eaten at Black Axe Mangal a lot in the past year – well, it is just 20 metres down the road from Trullo. Everything Lee Tiernan and the BAM team cook is excellent, but their take on the Reuben is the best I’ve ever had. Everything in it – and I mean absolutely everything – is made in-house: the smoked pastrami, the brisket, the welsh rarebit mix for the cheese, the sauerkraut, the pickles and even the mustard. And it’s all served in a homemade flatbread with a side of homemade crisps. It’s totally awesome.
Nathan Outlaw’s lobster roasting juices
Tom Adams, chef-patron, Pitt Cue, London, and Coombeshead Farm, Lewannick, Cornwall
What with opening the new Pitt Cue and Coombeshead in 2016, I haven’t had many meals out this year. Even so, there have been many memorable morsels along the way, and perhaps the most satisfying came during a dinner we held at the farm with Nathan Outlaw. I hadn’t eaten much all day, and was running mostly on fumes and the occasional Malteser. After we sent out the main courses, there was a short respite before dessert, so I nipped out to the prep area, where we’d moved the spent roasting trays. Some of Nathan’s sweet, buttery, smoky lobster roasting juices were still in the trays, so I liberated a few slices of bread and took care of things. Roasting and resting juices are my holy grail, and these were some of the finest.
Farokh’s day job is at St John Bread & Wine in London, but on the side he runs these brilliant Persian and curry pop-ups – he’s done a couple for us up at Sticky, but I’m on-duty there, so only get a small taste. I had these brains in October, when he did a guest night at Black Axe Mangal in Highbury. He serves everything family-style, and you just dive into this amazing feast. These massala-spiced brains came with a wonderful tarragon mayo, and I must have eaten at least five of them all by myself – and I mean whole ones. We sometimes have brains on the menu at our places, but Farokh’s spicing takes them to another level.
Coffee ice-cream at Grom, Milan
Ruby Tandoh, food writer
In May, I went to Italy with my girlfriend for five weeks and we must have had two ice-creams a day while we were there. We went to a couple of off-the-beaten-track places that were highly recommended, with an old man crushing pistachios with his bare hands or whatever, and to be honest they were underwhelming. The best was at a chain called Grom. I know being into a chain is very anti-foodie, but it was really amazing ice-cream. The one I remember most clearly was the first one I had: coffee and pistachio in a branch in Milan. I couldn’t believe that a coffee ice-cream could taste like that – so dark and bitter but sweet as well. It was wonderful. In every town we went to after that, we’d go to Grom.
Lamb barbacoa at Rancho Seco, Malinalco, Mexico
Nieves Barragán Mohacho, head chef, Barrafina, London
In September, I went to Mexico for a week, and spent three days in Malinalco learning about barbacoa – and no, it’s not the same as barbecue. The guy smeared a glorious paste of herbs, spices and about 10 types of chilli all over half a lamb, then laid it on a rack over a big pot filled with chickpeas, carrots, tomatoes, onions, herbs, spices, chillies and water, so the fat would drip through. He covered the meat with agave leaves, put the pot in a hole filled with smouldering charcoal, covered everything with hay and left it. The next day, about 16 hours later, we had the soup from the pot, then the lamb with tacos and … Oh my god! Even though I was full, I just couldn’t stop eating. It was my idea of heaven. And the guy still refused to tell me what was in his paste.
Anchovy cicchetti at All’Arco, Venice
Angela Hartnett, chef-patron, Murano, Cafe Murano and Merchants Tavern, London
A few months ago, Russell Norman (Polpo) took a bunch of us over to Venice for a few days. We went to All’Arco the morning after a lovely, but very long, night on the town. It’s a bacaro near the Rialto, and while the others were chatting away over yet more drinks, I sat quietly at the bar and got stuck into the cicchetti. My memory’s a little hazy, for obvious reasons, but three stood out: one topped with sea bass ceviche with oil and chilli, another with fontina, prosciutto and swiss chard, and these little squares of bread spread with glorious butter and topped with a single salted anchovy. That’s all there was to it, but it was just the best.
Soba noodles dipped in duck broth at Kanei, Kyoto
Erchen Chang, chef/co-owner, Bao, London
Kanei is in an unassuming house in a quiet residential neighbourhood. We were lucky, because we got to the front of the long queue just before they shut the doors – there are only 16 or so seats on the tatami, so it’s pretty cosy. The four schoolboys next to us all seemed to know what they wanted and ordered straightaway, while this old guy sat behind us told me he’d been eating here for 10 years. We had cold soba noodles with a rich, hot duck broth with three slices of pink duck breast floating in it. You dip the super-bouncy soba in the broth, and slurp. This dish was so simple, yet every part of it hit the spot and was so elegant. OFM
Steamed flower crab, Tasting Court, Hong Kongcorrect
Fuchsia Dunlop, cook and writer of Land Of Fish And Rice
My dish of the year was steamed flower crab with golden chicken oil and Shaoxing wine, served on a rippled bed of smooth rice pasta. It was part of an exquisite Cantonese feast arranged by friends. Every dish was prepared with consummate artistry, among them lion’s head meatballs and a perfect rendition of an old classic, braised pomelo skin with dried shrimp eggs. I think it’s the best Cantonese meal I’ve ever had, and the steamed crab was the highlight. Unforgettable.
Chicken rice, Wee Nam Kee, Singapore
Claus Meyer, Food writer and co-founder, Noma
Last winter, during a trip to Singapore, I had the best chicken in my life. The chicken itself was a 2kg free-range chicken of the very best quality. It was poached for 30 minutes in a gigantic pot full of chicken stock that I suspect had been cooking for decades and had been passed on from chef to chef, just like a sourdough is passed on from one generation to another. After 30 minutes, the chicken was taken out of the stock and put straight into water with ice to seal the melted fats and juices under the skin. The chicken was then kept at room temperature. The rice itself was cooked in chicken fat and then in chicken stock, and served with a black thick soy-like sauce and a chilli sauce made from freshly pounded chillis, ginger juice, garlic, lime juice, sesame oil and sugar. When the chicken melted in my mouth, tears came to my eyes.
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