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Best of 2011: Restaurant Dish of the Year

As you’d expect given the incredible foodie year I’ve had, I’ve eaten some truly sublime things in 2011. Here I run down the best dishes I’ve eaten overall, and the best dishes I’ve eaten in my home city of Manchester, during the last 12 months.

TOP 10 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (OVERALL)

The Waterside Inn view

The view from The Waterside Inn

  1. Warm Raspberry Soufflé [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

Out of everything I’ve eaten this year, this is the one I find myself day-dreaming about the most. My mouth moistens, my memory goes back to a perfect summer’s evening and I want more than anything to be sat in the dining room of The Waterside Inn, gazing out over a moonlit river and eating this faultless raspberry soufflé.

I’ve had many more profound eating experiences during 2011; revelations that changed my whole outlook on food. But this relatively simple dessert handily beat each of them in the most important category of all – taste.

I had often wondered what the fuss is with soufflés; this featherlight version, with the texture of a celestial cloud and the intense flavour of fresh English raspberries (aided by a tart raspberry coulis), explained it better than words ever could. A symphony of pleasures from the moment it arrived on the table to the last spoonful, no dish has ever given me greater joy – and I think it might be a long time before another gives as much again.

2.      Roast Foie Gras, Isle of Skye Sorrel, Gooseberry & Cardamom [Hibiscus, London – July]

3.      Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

4.      Seared Scallop, Pea Purée, Toasted Coconut and Morteau Sausage Emulsion [Hibiscus, London – July]

Done correctly, scallops can be remarkable little morsels – jewels of the sea – but I had no idea how good they could be until I had this dish, with a big, fat, hand-dived specimen at its centre. The accompaniments were impressively made and the whole dish was beautifully presented and cooked, but it was Mother Nature who made it sing through the creation of this exquisite central ingredient. So fresh and so sweet, it almost makes me scared to order scallops again in case they’re just not this good.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number ten on this list, here, via Nordic Nibbler. I think I might’ve actually been there on the same night as him as I had the first four dishes he had, as well as the same amuse bouche, pre-dessert and first dessert course.)

 5.      Roasted Challandais Duck with a Lemon and Thyme Jus, Potato and Garlic Mousseline [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

The Waterside Inn is all about the duck. They float down the Thames as you sit out on the terrace, pictures of them adorn the walls and menus, and the smell of them roasting permeates every inch of the restaurant (delightful when you’re waiting for your food, not so delightful when you wake up hungover in the morning).

I believe it hasn’t been off the menu since it opened well over three decades ago and I found out just why when I had the chance to try it: it’s a total classic. I loved the theatre of the whole duck being presented at the table then carved in front of us. I also loved the little puff pastry duck served alongside it. But, as you’d expect, the dish was really all about the duck itself, which was stunning.

It was supremely old-fashioned, and it looked it, but this is my sort of food. If I ate at The Waterside Inn ten more times, I don’t think there’d be a single occasion where I wouldn’t order the duck.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number nine on this list, here, via Food-E-Matters.)

6.      Porterhouse & Bone In Rib-Eye Steaks (150-day Corn Fed USDA Angus Beef), Hand Cut Chips [Goodman Mayfair, London – August]

7.      Baba like in Monte-Carlo [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

8.      Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards [Northcote Manor, Langho – August]

9.      Terrine of Foie Gras with Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets and Glazed with a Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves and a Violet Mustard-Flavoured Brioche Toast [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

 10.      Tartare of King Crab, Sweetcorn, Meadow Sweet & Smoke Kipper Consommé, Sea Herbs [Hibiscus, London – July]

This dish was my intro to two-star Michelin cooking and I could immediately see the difference between it and everything I’d had before at one-star level. “The Red Guide inspectors aren’t completely clueless,” I thought. It was an unusual dish, absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before or since, but it was such an awesome way to start a meal. A fascinating exploration of different tastes and textures, it was a real treat for the senses, and one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

TOP 5 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (MANCHESTER)

1.      Bone In Sirloin (Belted Galloway), Bone Marrow, Mushroom, Chips [Smoak, City Centre – October]

2.      Rib-Eye Steak, Chips, Humitas, Baby Gem salad, Tender Stem Broccoli and Peppercorn Sauce [Gaucho, City Centre – July]

Gaucho might not do the best steak in town anymore, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still do a bloody good job. Had an excellent meal there on my stag do, the highlight of which was a main course featuring humitas (a paste of sweetcorn, onions and goat’s cheese, boiled in a corn husk). I’ve never been a big fan of sweetcorn, but these were a revelation – a wonderful sweet accompaniment to the perfectly-cooked beef.

3.      Eccles Cakes with Double Cream [The Mark Addy, Salford – November]

When I got married earlier in the year, I had an Eccles cake mountain instead of a traditional wedding cake (below). It looked good, it tasted good; the guys from Slattery’s in Whitefield did a great job. But when I tasted the Eccles cakes at The Mark Addy a few months later, my first thought was: “Why the hell didn’t we get these guys to do our Eccles cakes instead?” Absolutely gorgeous and, as I said in the comments here, the best I’ve ever had.

Eccles cakes wedding cake, Slattery's

My Eccles cake wedding cake, or as Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier described it: "Brilliant croque en bouche a l'Anglaise."

4.      Pigeon, Bury Black Pudding, Belly Pork, Apple [The Lime Tree, West Didsbury – November]

5.      Chicken with Garlic [Kyotoya, Withington – November]

Food #3: Duck foie gras

Foie gras is something I’d been desperate to taste for years. Like caviar and truffles, I think it’s well established as a must-try luxury food item – something an ordinary person can’t afford to eat regularly, but would probably be excited to eat if given the opportunity.

For some people, the controversial methods used in foie gras production (below) are enough to put them off.

In my case, it probably makes it even more appealing. It’s not that I revel in cruelty towards animals (and I should stress that this is perceived cruelty; the video does some debunking of the cruelty allegations), I’m just of the opinion that they wouldn’t bother with this production method (or be allowed to) if the end product wasn’t wonderful.

And I’m not about to walk away from the chance to taste something ‘wonderful’ just because it was made by forcing grain down a bird’s throat.

It was two-star Michelin restaurant Hibiscus in London that presented me with this chance at the end of July, rolling out a dish of roasted duck foie gras half-way through a ten-course tasting menu. The title of ‘best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life’ had already changed hands twice that night, so it was going to have to go some way to impress.*

And boy did it ever. Richer than a Russian oligarch, smoother than a Cuban cigar and with more bottle than a crate of potcheen, it was (and remains) by far and away the most flavourful thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.**

I was really surprised by how strongly the duck flavour came through. I’m not sure what I expected it to taste like, but extremely ducky wasn’t it. It tasted like they’d made a concentrate of duck breast and fat, one with a flavour ten times more powerful than that of your standard duck, and infused it into a block of clarified butter.***

I felt like I could get gout just by smelling it. And as it passed my lips, thoughts turned to the likelihood of type 2 diabetes. But as I chewed for the first time and the foie gras melted on my tongue, thoughts of anything that wasn’t directly linked to the tastegasm I was experiencing just evaporated away.

It was monumentally brilliant.

I was too distracted by what was happening in my mouth to remember how to speak, so when my wife asked me whether I was enjoying the food, my answer was simply a moan of pleasure. She apologised and said she didn’t realise I was having a bit of a moment. “Would you and the foie gras like to get a room?” she asked.

But I just ignored her. You see, the only thing that mattered in that moment was not that it was the first night of our honeymoon; the beginning of a lifetime of marital bliss. It was me stuffing my face with a fatty duck organ.

I find it very hard to express just what a revelation this dish was to me. I had no idea food could be so big and deep and powerful in flavour. It awakened parts of my tastebuds I never knew existed.

For my wife it was too much. After loving the first couple of bites, the richness began to take its toll and she stopped enjoying it.

But on me it seemed to have the opposite effect; it made it rather addictive. My stomach, my bowels, my entire digestive system began to beg for mercy, but my tastebuds were saying: “Keep shovelling this down your gob. I don’t care if your eyeballs bleed dripping and your veins turn to suet, you will keep on eating this until there is no more left.”

When finally it was all gone, I felt like I could weep. Tears of sorrow that the love I’d had was lost; tears of joy that I’d been able to love at all.

(I’m probably going a bit over the top again, but whatever, it’s my blog.)

Later on in the evening, on the table next to mine, I noticed an Australian bloke who looked like Marcus Brigstocke eating the same dish. Asked what he thought of it by a waiter, he described it as being merely “alright”.

It’s that kind of attitude that lost them the Ashes.

I didn’t think anything was going to top the foie gras during the rest of the meal, and alas nothing that followed came remotely close. Over the course of the week, as we went to a couple of three-star places and a magnificent steakhouse, a few dishes emerged that just about pipped it.

Unfortunately, the only other duck foie gras I had on the trip, at Alain Ducasse, paled in comparison. That version was seared and had a much more subtle flavour. It was still very good and indeed my wife much preferred it in this more toned-down form, but it failed to blow my socks off like the foie gras at Hibiscus.****

This was exactly the kind of experience I was after when I made The List of foods to try before I die. Hopefully there’ll be many more just like it.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation

NEXT UP: Porterhouse steak (although part of me wishes I could put ‘rook’)

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*Reigning champion, Big Fat Scallop, had seemed remarkably confident as the rookie ingredient made its way down to the ring. He’d ripped the belt from the claws of Raw Crab earlier in the evening and already made an impressive first defence, tapping out Marginally Overcooked John Dory in a matter of seconds. But the hulking bruiser was no match for Engorged Duck Liver, who had a move set he’d never seen before. Realising his charge didn’t stand a chance against such a relentless assault, Scallop’s trainer, the Welk, threw in the towel after two minutes.

**Easy now…

***Incidentally, the bread at Hibiscus, in combination with a vivid yellow butter, was out of this world.

**** I think it says a lot that I barely remember what else was on the plate at Hibiscus, but my most vivid memory of the dish at Alain Ducasse is not the foie gras, but the magnificent duck blood sauce that was served with it.

A return to Northcote Manor

Northcote Manor in Langho, Lancashire holds a very special place in my heart. Two and a half years ago I went there for my first ever Michelin-starred eating experience and had an incredible time. Not least because I proposed to my now wife and she said yes (well, obviously).

Everything about our stay there, as part of a one-night gourmet break package, was perfect. The food was excellent*, the wine impeccable**, the service faultless***, our room immaculate****. All our fears about it being an oppressive, stuffy joint, with staff straight out of the Ferris Bueller school of table-waiting (below) came to nothing. I’ve only ever felt more welcome at the homes of family and friends (and not even all of them, to be honest!)

Our big worry had been my wife’s dairy allergy. We’d eaten at some good restaurants before and all had made really half-arsed attempts to cater for it. They’d take items off her plate but provide no substitute. They’d forget and give her sauces that clearly contained cream. Desserts were always just a pitiful pile of fruit, with a bit of meringue if she was lucky.

Such a lack of effort can ruin a meal and it has ruined several. Even places like Michael Caines at Abode and The French Restaurant at the Midland Hotel – two of Manchester’s top restaurants – have done poor jobs of catering for her. You basically have to remind the staff before every course and you’re made to feel as though you’re being immensely difficult. You’re that pain in the arse customer they wish hadn’t walked in through the door.

But at Northcote, we needn’t have worried. In fact, they handled it better than I ever could’ve imagined.

I’d mentioned the allergy when I made the booking, a good five months or so before we went. Given that length of time and past experiences, I was fully prepared to have to bring it up again as soon as we sat down to eat. And I was fully prepared to spend pudding time feeling sorry for her as I tucked into something amazing and she got lumbered with yet another bowl of raspberries.

But the only time it came up was right at the very start, as we supped Champagne in the lounge before the meal. We were asked which of us had the food sensitivity and they then handed her a specially prepared menu. Here she wasn’t a problem customer – she was a VIP.

Our starters were exactly the same, but she had a completely different fish course that was (almost) as good as mine. The main required a small substitution, but little enough to make no difference.

And her dessert – rhubarb soufflé with rhubarb granite and apple foam – blew mine away.

I probably just imagined it, but it felt almost as if the pastry chef was so thrilled by the challenge of creating a dish without cream in it that he/she decided to do something spectacular. I was very jealous. It’s still the best pudding she’s ever had.

In retrospect, what was even more amazing was that they even came up with stuff just for her in the pre-meal nibbles. That didn’t happen at two-star Hibiscus when we were there the other week. At three-star Alain Ducasse they did it, but there were a good few minutes in between mine arriving and hers, during which time I wouldn’t be surprised if the words “shit, she can’t eat any of the normal stuff, sort something out ASAP” were uttered.

From a food perspective, I’ve had a few better meals since. But nothing has quite lived up to the overall experience of that first trip to Northcote – which is why I’m very much looking forward to going back next Sunday!

I’ve been pimping the restaurant out to anyone who’ll listen since we went there. “You have to go,” I’ll say. “It’s a dead easy train journey from Manchester and you’ll have a fabulous time.”

A friend of my mum’s took the advice and loved it. Several of my own friends have stuck it on their wishlists and plan to take the trip. And now it’s my parents turn to go and they’re taking us along for the ride!

I’m probably more excited for them and my brother than I am for myself. I really hope they love it as much as we did and have as good a time.

I’ll update on how we get on next week.

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*I’ve still got signed copies of the menus, which I intend to frame and put up on the wall at some point. I ate three things there that no doubt would’ve made The List had it been drawn up before we went:

 

1.       Duck ham – interesting, but not much more

2.       Flavoured foam – way better than I expected given how critics often slate it for being a pointless gimmick. It added a flavour and texture to the dish that I don’t think could’ve been achieved with a standard dollop of sauce.

3.       Roe deer – until a few weeks ago, the best thing I’d ever tasted

 

**We ordered matching wines. The quality of the pairings improved throughout the meal, starting off as merely good and rising to sublime. Better than the lot though was the £14 half bottle of Merlot we had in our room afterwards, which was recommended by the sommelier. Still the best wine I’ve had that didn’t run into three figures.

 ***I’ve had fantastic service in some three-star places, but Northcote that night was still a cut above anything else I’ve come across. What set it apart was that the staff weren’t just trying to do a good job, they really seemed to care about giving us a great evening. When we left with big smiles on our faces we got genuine smiles back, as if they took great pleasure in helping to make us so happy.

 ****As good as a five-star hotel, but with the added bonus of board games. The Dorchester is the best place I’ve ever stayed by a mile, but even they didn’t have Scrabble like Northcote.

 

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this post below:

#2 A return to Northcote Manor reprise

#3 A return to Northcote Manor (reprise – part 2)

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