It’s been one helluva rollercoaster year trying to recover from the consequences of you know what, but it has made me a lot more appreciative of the smaller things in life. Things like being able to sit inside in the warm and chat with old friends I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic days over a glass of wine and a nibble; the thrill of sitting at the chef’s table watching them at work; and the joy of navigating a blackboard menu with more than six friends, then deciding ‘fuck it’ order everything, twice.
Sure, bars and restaurants aren’t deemed ‘essential’, but they’re certainly a necessary part of the city’s cultural fabric, and without them life would be pretty miserable. Sadly, the hospitality industry is often shafted and forgotten about, but to all the hardworking head chefs, line cooks, kitchen porters, cleaners, producers, waiters and anyone else involved in getting food and drink on the table, I salute you for soldiering on. You all deserve a medal (or a raise and to work fewer hours).
Here I’m shining a light on some of my favourite dishes of 2021. The ones that have stayed with me and were an absolute balm to a troubling year.
Eating at Bibi was such an exciting journey. My visit felt like going on a research trip to India with chef-patron Chet Sharma. The nashpati bhel with pear granita is a dish full of clever contrasts and flavours: spicy, crunchy puffed rice that snaps, crackles and pops in your mouth, topped with a bracing icy pear granita that cools everything down. It’s yin and yang, fire and ice and pure mouth-numbing tingling brilliance.
42 North Audley St, W1K 6ZP
Where do I start with Café Cecilia’s chips? I was so captivated when eating these crunchy, fluffy, golden potato strips on my lunchtime trip to the restaurant that for a moment I forgot where I was. It’s a shame that they are only served with the onglet steak, because if these chips came on their own as a separate side I’d happily order two bowls for myself and spend an afternoon watching people wander along the canal outside – in a state of pure contentment.
32 Andrews Rd, E8 4RL
Planque is the place to go for the most genuine French fare you’ll get without having to hop on the Eurostar. The duck offal choux farci is a cylindrical thing of beauty. The incredibly tender and moist meat almost falls apart when cut into and it’s swaddled in a softly steamed cabbage wrap and coated in peppercorn butter sauce. If it was socially acceptable, I would’ve licked the plate clean. It’s been months now since I ate it and I’m still racking my brain trying to work out how chef Seb Myers managed to execute this. Quite simply, it is a perfect dish. Liberté, égalité, insanité.
322-324 Acton Mews, E8 4EA
Lighthaus Cafe has got the dessert game down. Its raspberry bakewell tart is all about the flaky almonds, gooey frangipane and a crisp pastry shell. But it was the scoop of silky smooth crème fraîche it came with that tied everything together and made it sing for me. The fine balance of thick cream, punchy raspberries, sugar and childlike delight makes this a nostalgic, crumbly and sweet dream.
11 Argall Ave, E10 7QE
What is a Gilda skewer, you ask? It’s one of the most famous Basque pintxos, consisting of an anchovy, an olive and a pickled guindilla chilli, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. On paper it might not sound like much, but altogether those components offer an intense, briny, salty and spicy explosion of flavours. It’s a powerful, well-balanced morsel that pairs beautifully with whatever you’re drinking, making it the ideal all-in-one bite to open up the appetite to get you ready for the meal ahead. Don’t try nibbling or deconstructing, it’s down the hatch in one for the full effect. Nick Bramham, head chef at Quality Wines, is an evil genius for creating the only bar snack in London truly worthy of your time.
88 Farringdon Rd, EC1R 3EA
Best alcoholic drink
My winner’s a twist on the classic gin gimlet that’s better than the original. Newly opened sustainable restaurant Warehouse uses foraged sea herbs in the Warehouse Gimlet and has managed to capture the essence of the ocean within a drink. It’s tangy, sweet and salty, with a subtle aroma of gin. Imagine a botanical wave that warms your tastebuds, leaving a lovely mouthfeel, and sets you up for the meal ahead of you.
6 Langley St, WC2H 9JA
Best non-alcoholic drink
Like most whose travel hopes and dreams were dashed this year, I had to cancel big holiday plans in 2021. I was supposed to go to Hong Kong to visit my extended family, many of whom I haven’t seen in more than three years. When I was given a pouch of Hoko milk tea by a friend, I took a sip and my homesickness was instantly cured. The company was founded by three Hong Kongers who share a love for lai cha: Hong Kong’s take on the classic British tea with milk and sugar. But this is not like your regular cuppa, it comes with a hefty caffeinated punch, a rich, full-bodied blend of different black teas and a silky, velvety smoothness.
Best baked good
I am not a morning person, but the one thing that will get me out of bed early? Morny Bakehouse’s lemon meringue pie wave. This modern viennoiserie, from the people behind Leyton’s darling Marmelo Kitchen, has been quietly pumping out some of the city’s finest bakes and pastries for a while now. The twice-baked, beautifully golden flaky pie crust topped with bright, zingy blobs of lemon curd and torched mini swiss meringue swirls looks like art. It is magical and will brighten even the darkest of days.
216b Francis Rd, E10 6PR
Best meal kit
Chef-founder of Decatur Tom Zahir Browne’s spicy shrimp boil is the king of meal kits and made all the lockdowns bearable. At one point, everyone was ordering them and they were harder to nab than Glastonbury tickets. The dish comes loaded with extra-large jumbo shrimp, potatoes, smoked andouille sausages and fresh corn, all swimming in a lip-tinglingly spicy broth. It’s seriously outstanding, soulful Southern cooking and a fun, communal way of eating with your hands. There’s also the option to upgrade and get a bit messy with extra seafood options such as Norwegian snow-crab clusters, Dorset clams and mussels. Bonus points for the fun baggie of spice mix for those who prefer to crank up the heat, and the carefully curated Spotify playlist to listen to while you eat.
I am not ashamed to say I have probably queued at Sonora Taquería more than I have seen my mother in the past year. I have eaten barbacoa beef rib and shin tacos precariously perched on bins in the freezing cold. I have bitten into crispy, crunchy and juicy carnitas and managed to get it all down my crisp white top. I have devoured countless meaty pork belly chicarróns on the grass while basking in the sun at London Fields. I am pretty sure my body is 95 percent taco now. I regret nothing. Trust me, get in line: it is worth the wait.
Netil Market, 13-23 Westgate St, E8 3RL.
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