The best thing I ate in 2018

vegetable season at noma

vegetable season at noma restaurant, Denmark; photo:

Powered by article titled “The best thing I ate in 2018” was written by Interviews by Killian Fox, Holly O’Neill, Tim Lewis, for The Observer on Sunday 16th December 2018 11.00 UTC

The best chips in the Mani, Greece

Fay Maschler, restaurant critic, London Evening Standard

The Mani is the central peninsula of three that extend southwards in the Peloponnese on mainland Greece. One road basically takes you from Kardamyli near where I have a house to the deepest tip, Cape Tenaro (aka Cape Matapan), where in antiquity it was believed there was a hidden entrance to Hades. En route is the village of Nomitsi known for its cluster of Byzantine churches with their remarkably lucid frescoes but also, I discovered early this summer, the chips at a taverna run by the Xerovassilas family.

Greek potatoes are a wonder. In cooking they do everything you want a potato to do, and taste profoundly of a large landmass with a small population who have no need of intensive farming. Kalamata and its surrounds are justly famed for olive oil. When the two meet, as chips fried and stacked up with years of expertise, salted and sprinkled with rigani (Greek oregano) and served alongside simply grilled organic lamb and pork, there is an elemental straightforwardness that perfectly bears out Escoffier’s command: “Faites simple.” And as we worked our way through the golden pile in the evening warmth, on the TV hung in the trees England beat Tunisia in the World Cup.

Semi-germinated coconut, Seychelles

Andrew Wong, chef-owner, Kym’s

I had this on a beach in the Seychelles. When the mature coconut drops to the ground and sprouts, it gets a shoot that comes out of it. If you crack it open then you get something like coconut milk but it has a meringue texture. It’s a meringue/sponge that tastes like coconut water. My wife is from the Seychelles, and everyone on the island knows about it but takes it for granted. They kind of eat it, but more to show foreigners about the different textures of coconut. Every foreigner thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread. The coconuts you get abroad are so mature – all you get is water and they’re rock hard. Or, you get the young jelly stage. It’s very difficult to get that semi-germinated stage anywhere else. In the Seychelles there are loads of medicinal uses for it as well – they use it to cure migraines, rub it on bites. They call it coco-gem.

Spicy lamb mince curry from Tom Kerridge’s Lose Weight for Good

Sat Bains, chef-owner, Restaurant Sat Bains

Tom Kerridge sent me a copy of his book, and it has a recipe which has minced lamb, cauliflower and lentils all in one – like a keema. My wife cooked it, and it was incredible. Because of my heritage, Punjabi, I know keema really well, I know aloo gobi really well, I know dal really well. So it’s a combination of all three. You cook the mince with spices, some stock and cauliflower – and it’s puy lentils he uses, not red or yellow, but they thicken it – and you get this keema with the dal and the cauliflower already in it. It’s fulfilling, it’s spicy, it’s got this beautiful depth, and it’s evocative. I tasted it and I thought, “Oh my God” – I was like the critic in Ratatouille.

I’ve tasted keema all my life, and to have an English girl make it from an English chef’s cookbook is quite funny, but that to me is British cooking: it’s a magpie cuisine. The key is contrast; you have really cool crunchy strips of chicory, fennel, onion and cucumber – cold out the fridge – and you put it with yogurt and mint and coriander, and this warm spicy mince and you have it in a wrap. I’ve eaten in some of the best places in the world this year – I’ve just come back from New York, so I went to Blue Hill, I went to Per Se, I went to Eleven Madison, and I went to Noma this year as well – but this recipe blew my mind.

Aged rare-breed pork

Clare Smyth, chef-owner, Core

It was a Berkshire pig and it was aged for 55 days and it was just delicious. We had half an animal and we cooked it over fire. We cooked the bellies and chops over wood for our yearly barbecue with the team, and turned the other cuts into coppa and pancetta, and we made sausages. The quality was amazing – it’s from Robin and Andrew Mackay in the Lake District. They have a smallholding and deal with rare breeds, so they only have a certain amount, but when they’re ready they sell the animal rather than cuts. Then our suppliers age it for 55 days. It really is something special. Obviously, using the whole animal is so important. It’s how we should eat meat, not just for the sake of eating tonnes of it from any source. We just need to think a little bit more about what we’re eating.

Aged rare-breed pork, chosen by Clare Smyth.
Aged rare-breed pork, chosen by Clare Smyth. Illustration: Vahram Muradyan for the Observer

Shou pa chicken, Xu, London

Sarit Packer, chef/co-owner, Honey & Co

I went to Xu for lunch with a friend in April and said: “Yeah, we’re not going to pig out, we’ll just have some dumplings.” But we ended up having the chicken. It’s roasted in a charcoal oven and comes in a clay pot. You think, oh chicken, it’s not going to be very interesting, but it was delicious, with ginger and spring onions and a very light sauce with aged white soy.

Doughnut filled with vegetable curry and egg, Japan

Prue Leith, judge, The Great British Bake Off

Since I’m just back from three weeks in Japan, you’d think my best mouthful would be one of the freshest sashimi or a bowl of ramen. In fact, it was a doughnut. Deep-fried with those spiky, crisp panko crumbs on the outside, then a layer of dough/bread, then semi-liquid spicy veg curry, and in the middle a whole egg with runny yolk. We bought it from a station stall in Fukuoka’s Hakata station before getting on the bullet train. I’d have liked to rave, as everyone does and should, about that whole experience: deep luxury, spotless everything, wonderful service, a great bento box prepped by renowned chefs. I guess the doughnut had spoiled my appetite, but it lingers in my memory in a way the bento box and the Michelin-starred sushi, doesn’t. It was divine on every level: crisp fried outside, soft doughnut-textured bread, mildly spicy but zingy curry, perfect “four-minute” egg. I’m determined to recreate it, maybe even for a Bake Off technical challenge.
Prue: My All-Time Favourite Recipes is out now (Bluebird)

Doughnut filled with vegetable curry and egg.
Doughnut filled with vegetable curry and egg. Illustration: Vahram Muradyan for the Observer

Club Sandwich at StreetXO, London

Nieves Barragán Mohacho, chef-director and co-founder, Sabor

There is a restaurant called DiverXO in Madrid, and the chef Dabiz Muñoz also has a restaurant called StreetXO and there is one in London. He pushes the Spanish with the Asian. And he has this sandwich – it’s like a bao. A crispy bao with suckling pig, fried quail’s egg, chilli mayo, which is divine. Now and then I go there just to eat this, because it is so good.

Grilled lamb at Mikla, Istanbul

Niklas Ekstedt, chef-owner, Ekstedt, Stockholm

I went to Turkey to research how they cook lamb: shawarma, doner … I wanted to make sure I knew everything about the kebab. They’ve been cooking lamb over open fire there for 1,000 years, so I figured if there’s someone who knows how to cook a lamb perfectly that would be Mehmet Gürs. I was not disappointed.

Mehmet is the head chef of Mikla, which is often called the best restaurant in Istanbul. He’s also got a Finnish-Swedish mother, and he’s fluent in Swedish, so he’s the best guy ever in Turkey for me. What I learned was how they use fat: the lamb fat is actually the most important thing in the shish kebab and the doner. Often they use tail fat from the lamb, cut that into pieces, and then add veal and lamb and chilli flakes, and cook that over an open fire. It’s insanely good.

Fried cheddar snack, Bright, Hackney

Marianna Leivaditaki, head chef, Morito Hackney Road

Bright is by the guys from P Franco [a wine bar in London’s Clapton]. I had the most amazing fried cheesy potatoey fritter thing – they just call it a cheddar fritter on their menu. You would not expect those flavours to come out very cheffy, but they have in the best possible way. I thought it was great that they were brave enough to say: “We’re going to do a cheesy fried ball but it’s going to be absolutely incredible.” It was like a croquette; really light and airy, and it tasted like a really good cheddar. What a snack! With a beer or a glass of wine, it was the perfect thing to start a meal. It’s so different to what I cook and what I eat: I eat super-healthy at home, I cook eastern Mediterranean – the flavours are completely different. This was an English snack – a really special, nice, salty treat.

Potatoes and trout roe, Core, London

Vivek Singh, executive chef and CEO, The Cinnamon Club

Clare Smyth does a beautiful dish with potatoes and trout roe. It’s the kind of thing you don’t really expect on a tasting menu, especially a really high-end one, but it was quite stunning. The potatoes must have been confited for hours, then she has this seaweedy, salty beurre blanc that really does taste of the sea, and then the trout roe. She’s playing with the caviar and potato experience but making it personal, paying homage to her Northern Irish roots.

Kouign amann, B Patisserie, San Francisco

April Lily Partridge, chef, The Ledbury

For the last year I’ve been working at Dan Barber’s restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, and I’ve had so many of the best bites of my life. The best stone fruit, the best butter, the best lamb (from milk-fed Katahdin sheep)… But I don’t want to look biased. And the absolute moment this year when I thought, “Holy Cow!” was at B Patisserie. It is a cafe run by Belinda Leong and it’s known for its kouign amann, a layered pastry made with incredible amounts of butter and sugar. I mean, of course it’s going to be delicious, right? But what makes B’s so phenomenal is how light it is. I’ve tried so many that are delicious but very heavy and hers was just mind-boggling: so crisp and so buttery. San Francisco was my last stop travelling before I returned home and sitting there, this amazing Motown music playing, eating that kouign amann was the perfect way to end my adventure.

Slow-cooked lamb tacos chosen by Romy Gill.
Slow-cooked lamb tacos chosen by Romy Gill.

Slow-cooked lamb tacos, South Philly Barbacoa, Philadelphia

Romy Gill, chef-owner, Romy’s Kitchen

The best tacos I’ve ever eaten. They keep what they do quite secret, but I did a pop-up there in October and I saw a little of what went on in their tiny kitchen. They start cooking the lamb at about 8pm, and the meat cooks all night until they serve their first customer at 5am. There’s a queue even at that time, of construction workers mainly, and it stays open until it sells out of food, usually around 3.30pm. South Philly Barbacoa is run by Cristina Martinez and her husband Ben Miller and – especially since it was on Netflix’s Chef’s Table – people come from all over the world because of her story of how she emigrated to the US years ago, crossing the desert at huge personal risk. When I was there, this is no lie, I met two guys who came from Canada just to eat there and then flew back.

Sea bream with agretti, The Ethicurean, Somerset

Andi Oliver, broadcaster and chef-owner, Andi’s

For an episode of The Food Programme on the autumnal equinox, I went to this incredible restaurant in Somerset. First I went for a walk around their walled gardens, which felt like something out of Narnia or The Secret Garden – it was so beautiful. Then I had a sea bream dish with agretti, or monk’s beard. I love greens and this is a cross between samphire, asparagus, dill fronds and Chinese broccoli – all my favourite things in the world. The bream was beautifully cooked with crisp skin and flaky flesh. Then they made a buttery sauce with mussels and cockles and ran the agretti through that. That piece of fish with that buttery sauce on the autumnal equinox … I was transported. There was basically no point talking to me for about 20 minutes. I loved it so much.

Shrimp and strawberries, Noma, Copenhagen

Rosio Sánchez, chef-owner, Hija di Sánchez

I had an unusual and surprising dish at Noma at the beginning of the year. It was shrimp and fermented strawberries in a broth made from green gooseberries, blackcurrant wood oil (from the branches) and mussel stock. It also had a “chicken skin” on top made from reduced chicken stock. I thought it was going to be weird, but it was super tasty. It worked because of the texture of the strawberries: they were extremely soft, and had no sweetness because they had been fermented – they were kind of salty. It was one of the first services at the restaurant featuring that menu, and it was my favourite dish that night – and still is for the year.

Monkfish, Wheelers Oyster Bar, Whitstable

Chantelle Nicholson, chef-owner, Tredwells

I cooked at Wheelers in the autumn, for the new food festival. It’s a tiny oyster bar that’s been running for years. I cooked with Stephen Harris from the Sportsman and Dan Smith from the Fordwich Arms. Dan did the main course and I did the pudding. For the starter, Stephen seared the monkfish on the outside, slow-cooked it for half an hour, took it off the bone, and served it with lemon juice, salt, cep powder and a cep and bergamot sauce. After he’d served his course, there were a few bits left over so we all just tucked in. Part of the pleasure was that I wasn’t expecting to try it.

Gejang (marinated raw crab), Wonjo Masan Halmae Agujjim, Seoul

Erchen Chang, co-founder, Bao and Xu

In May, my husband Shing and I went on holiday to South Korea. Friends recommended a traditional restaurant, which felt very local and no-frills. There were water tanks with crabs sunbathing outside the restaurant. The dish sounded simple, but it takes several rounds of marinating in a soy, sesame oil, ginger, garlic mixture and re-boiling until the crab is ready to be chilled and served. The flesh of the crab is jelly-like – both visually and in texture. I have always been obsessed with jelly and this was the first time that I tried the savoury kind. I loved that it was so sweet and umami at the same time. I put the hot rice into the shell and mixed it with the glistening orange roe, then sucked the legs so the cold crabmeat oozed out and met the marinade. The temperature was hot and cold, the dish sweet and salty. The whole meal was messy, with sauces dripping everywhere.

Bone marrow and anchovy flat bread, Black Axe Mangal, London

James Knappett, head chef, Kitchen Table

Lee Tiernan’s menu at Black Axe is filled with familiar Turkish comfort dishes, but with a twist. The nutty, buttery nature of the bone marrow with that salty anchovy kick, all topped off with a pickled red onion salad – it really makes for a mouth-wateringly good dish. Kudos to them, I just want to go back for more.

Sliced sea bass in a soup of pickled mustard, Yipin China, London

Plaxy Locatelli, partner, Locanda Locatelli

My husband Giorgio has been away quite a lot this year doing Italy’s MasterChef, and he came home and said: “I’ve really got to eat Chinese food.” So I had a look online and Yipin in Islington came up; Jay Rayner reviewed it years ago and it’s been there forever. It’s a caff really, run by this very sweet family who are always there. They do the most incredible fish soup. It’s so simple: just sea bass, rice noodles, herbs and spices, but it has this extraordinary, complex depth of flavour. We just sat in silence eating it. It comes in this enormous bowl so we shared that with some greens and felt very virtuous.

Whole crab with six oysters, chosen by Nathan Outlaw.
Whole crab with six oysters, chosen by Nathan Outlaw.

Whole crab with six oysters, The Cow, Notting Hill

Nathan Outlaw, chef-owner, Restaurant Nathan Outlaw

I went to the Cow a couple of months ago and had a whole crab with half a dozen Mersea oysters. As a chef who cooks with seafood all the time, I sometimes don’t appreciate the ceremony of just sitting there and cracking open a whole crab. It was a hen crab and the brown meat was such good quality. I had it with lemon, bread and mayonnaise. I’m quite particular with oysters: I eat the first two with nothing on them, then I’ll have two with shallot vinegar, and the final two with just a bit of lemon. I think I only had two pints of Guinness but it may have been three. It may have been four.

Rhubarb tart, Pasticceria Marnin, Locarno

Kitty Travers, owner, La Grotta Ices

I had a funny weekend in Italy in February where I couldn’t find anything to eat. I’d gone to visit a lakeside town famous for growing rare types of citrus fruit, which I like to collect to make into nougat. The place was dead other than for a group of elderly Germans squelching round under umbrellas following an “orange trail” that led to pots of homemade jam and amateur painting and photography exhibitions featuring the colour orange.

I spent two days eating crisps and then by the Sunday morning, famished and freezing, decided to drive to Switzerland to look for food. I found a bakery with steamed-up windows. It was called Pasticceria Marnin and when I pushed my way in, smelled warm and of eggs. I bought a slice of rhubarb tart and a cup of very hot black coffee at the bar. The tart was excellent – made with quite green garden rhubarb that was barely cooked through, set in a runny sweet cream base with a crunchy crust. I have never tasted cream like it. I have thought about it a lot since and like to think it might have been made with the fabled mountain cream: crème Gruyère. It saved the weekend.

Carabineros prawns, Restaurante Feitoria, Lisbon

Nuno Mendes, executive chef, Chiltern Firehouse

In September, I had the great pleasure of eating at Feitoria, João Rodriguez’s restaurant in Lisbon. What stood out was this dish of carabineros, the large red prawns you find in the Algarve. They’re from 200m below sea level so they’re incredibly sweet, the meat’s very red – it’s a product we’re really proud of in Portugal. João roasts the heads on the grill and puts them through an old-school duck press to extract all the juices, and serves the juices along with the lightly warmed prawns. It’s so simple, but so good, and showcases the whole product.

Doughnuts, Cleethorpes seafront

Ruby Tandoh, food writer

There’s a train route that runs from the Lincolnshire coast, through Sheffield and across the northern edge of the Peak District into Manchester. When I lived in Sheffield, I got this train all the time. If I were to ask you where on that long train line I had the best food I’d eaten all year, you probably wouldn’t guess a quiet stick-of-rock-and-a-couple-of-quid-for-the-arcades seaside town perched on the southern edge of the Humber estuary. Not somewhere swish in Manchester or in Sheffield’s lively street food scene. No, it was Cleethorpes, and it was doughnuts.

I’m from Southend-on-Sea, so I already have a soft spot for slightly tatty seaside resorts but these doughnuts were something else. Maybe it was the old-fashioned charm of the shop itself, right on the beach under a little awning. Maybe the magic was in the heat of the doughnuts against the chill of that not-quite-summer-yet sea breeze. Perhaps it was the fact that my fingers were left glistening with sugar and my lips greasy with every mouthful. It definitely helped that they were £1.50 for five. Whatever the secret ingredient was, those sweet, cakey, golden, lopsided little doughnuts left me beaming, and, I’ll admit, bloated, the whole way home. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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