Best meals of 2003
December and January are important months for the serious restaurant enthusiast. The former is the time to reflect on what and where have been the highlights of the year while the more tranquil days of January are surely the occasion to plan the forthcoming year's travels - around restaurants, of course.
Here are my highlights of 2003, an artificial but none the less delicious reconstruction of the year's individual best courses reconstructed into one ideal meal.
I would start close to home at E&O in Notting Hill Gate, currently a hugely successful outpost of Australian restaurateur Will Ricker's small empire. E&O stands for Eastern and Oriental and the menu's USP is that it brings together on two pages virtually everyone's favourite Asian dishes, whether from Thailand, China, Vietnam and Japan.
This is also a menu which lends itself very easily to sharing, an important criterion if you want to set the right mood for what is to follow. Plates of really plump dumplings, spareribs with meat on them, colourful sushi and crisp, salt chilli got our party talking and would see us through the long journey from Heathrow to Riga, Latvia.
My destination there is Vincent's restaurant in the centre of town for one of its signature dishes, celeriac and potato latkes with marinated eel and wasabi. This is a dish which, for me at least, worked on several levels. I love eel (and once ate at an eel-only restaurant in Kyoto, Japan) and was very impressed not just by this dish's flavours and freshness but also by its different textures: the firmness of the eel, the crunch of the latke and the heat of the wasabi.
For our main course we will be heading south from a country successfully rediscovering its culinary heritage after the Soviet era to Switzerland, a country which has successfully retained its cultural identity despite all the upheavals on its borders.
This year marked my first visit to the restaurant temple that is Kronenhalle in the heart of downtown Zurich and it was unforgettable. It does not really matter what you choose as your main course - as long as you arrive with a particularly good appetite - because it is all served with unswerving Swiss professionalism. But it is how it is served that is so remarkable.
The actual diningroom and the manner in which the waiting staff treat you seem not to have changed since its inception early last century. The waiters wear simple black-and-white uniforms, greet you as though they have known you for years and prepare the dishes to your final specification by your table, replenishing their famous rosti with alacrity.
But good as the food and service are, it is the art on Kronenhalle's walls which made the strongest impression. Original works by Picasso, Miro, Bonnard, Modigliani, Chagall and Matisse, bought by the restaurant's far-sighted original owner, cover the walls. As good, if not better, than any art gallery.
I would then hop across the Alps to a very different kind of restaurant but one that, I believe, has adopted just the correct approach to how it serves cheese, a course many chefs and restaurants over-complicate.
Antonio and Nadia Santini have spent the last 25 years transforming Dal Pescatore, set in the Parco dell'Oglio nature reserve between Mantua and Cremona, into one of Italy's most respected restaurants. So good were the antipasti, pasta and main course that I was fairly certain I could not face cheese.
But then out came something so elegant, tasty and yet so simple that I have copied this approach at home. Instead of choosing from a groaning cheese trolley, each of us received a square, glass dish covered in shavings of mature Parmesan which we nibbled at and conversed over for the next twenty minutes until, amazingly, we were ready for dessert. And, good as Nadia's desserts are, particularly her gelati, we would be heading north-west for the final course.
To La Pyramide, Vienne, in France's Rhône Valley. It was here before 1939 that the great chef Fernand Point revitalised French cooking and trained, amongst others, Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel and the Troisgros brothers. Later this hotel and restaurant sadly fell into neglect but it has now been lovingly restored by Patrick and Pascale Henriroux.
A dessert of the first of the summer's peaches served under a sultry sky and tall plane trees was wonderfully refreshing but even more remarkable were what came in small glass containers with the coffee. These were guimauves, small, feather light versions of a very fine Turkish delight which used to be made by the confiseurs of Lyons before the war whose recipe Henriroux has rediscovered and put to great effect.
Finally, to make sure that each course went with a swing, I would like the wine list and cellar from London's Ransome's Dock restaurant as my constant companion - along with my wife, of course.
E&O, London W11 (tel +44 (0)20 7229 5454)
Vincent's, Riga, Latvia (tel +371 733 2634)
Kronenhalle, Zurich, Switzerland (tel +41 (0)1 251 02 56)
Dal Pescatore, northern Italy (tel +39 0376 723001)
La Pyramide, Vienne, France (tel +33 4 74 53 01 96)
Ransome's Dock, London SW11 (tel +44 (0)20 7223 1611)