Towards the end of lunch with Jesus Adorno, the genial face of Mayfair’s Le Caprice for over 30 years, he lent across the table and said in a voice even softer than usual, ‘Nick, you know, I’ve come to the conclusion that in the restaurant business today, it has never been more challenging for the restaurateur and nor has there ever been a better time to be a customer.’
The factors behind the first part of Adorno’s analysis are many: rising rents and food costs; a mounting array of red tape and legislation, including the new EU legislation that will come into force in the UK on 14 December as a result of which all waiting staff will be obliged to know every single ingredient in every dish including that day’s specials; and an increasingly knowledgeable, well-informed and discriminating clientele.
And yet for those without a celebrity surname seeking to reserve a table at any glamorous restaurant at 7.30 pm or 8 pm, the growing number of good restaurants does not seem to make life any easier. The observation I quoted from an insightful Englishwoman living in New York that ‘getting a restaurant reservation today seems to have become this city’s latest blood sport’ is ever more pertinent.
However, in looking through the list of restaurants I have been fortunate enough to eat in during my 25th year writing this column, I have come to the conclusion that although I know just which notebooks will remind me of all that we ate and drank, it is not those kinds of memories that most immediately spring to mind. Instead, it is a single, colourful image of each of one these places that seems to be indelibly printed somewhere on my hard drive.
These are very varied even in the same country. Take France, for example. Sunday lunch with fellow FT writer Simon Kuper and his wife at Fish La Boissonnerie on the Left Bank was great fun but the strongest memory was seeing, as we left, Ollie Clarke, its young British chef, sitting down at 3.30 pm with his two sous chefs to write that night’s dinner menu.
One of those chefs, Romain Roudeau, was to supply another strong image several months later after he had moved on to occupy the one-man kiosk that is the small kitchen at the back ofJuveniles that he now runs with his partner, Margot Johnston.
Bertrand Bluy and Arnaud Donckele are two other proud Frenchmen albeit at the helm of two very different restaurants: Bluy oversees the sparkling Bistroy Les Papilles between the bar and his customers in Paris while Donckele runs the pass of his kitchen in St Tropez that increasingly seeks its inspiration from the produce of the surrounding Var département.
Across the border in Spain, it was the combination of Nature and its ingredients that left their mark. The jingle of cow bells as the sun set on the Pyrenees before a dinner expertly cooked by Oriol Rovira at Els Casals, his family hotel and farm, outside Sagas; the naturally cool cellars under the Fonda Sala restaurant in the heart of Olost, a 30-minute drive away, that have allowed the Sala family to compile such an alluring wine list over the past 50 years; and the waves relentlessly crashing on to the rocky coast just below the El Burgado fish restaurant in northern Tenerife.
History took the place of Nature in Italy, most notably but not surprisingly in Florence, although in two very different forms. Sitting, eating and watching the young teams behind the different food stalls serving families on the first floor of theMercato Centrale, built over 100 years ago but only this year re-opened to the public, was almost as enjoyable as enjoying the Tuscan food on offer. And nothing I hope will ever change atTrattoria Sostanza, close to the River Arno, where for many years now the chefs have cooked in a glassed-in kitchen at the end of a narrow dining room whose walls are plastered with Italian sporting heroes.
The history on show over a Sunday dinner at La Ruota above the town of Moneglia on the Ligurian coast just north of the Cinque Terre was more personal. It is rare to meet a restaurateur, in this case also the chef, who tells you that he was actually born in the restaurant that he now runs with great aplomb. And here the view was equally impressive, too, as the sun considerately set over the Mediterranean, lighting up the hills beyond.
With one exception – our lunch at the Hive Beach Café in Bridport, Dorset, where the waves crashing on the beach outside resembled Pacific rollers because of the storms last February – my most memorable meals around the United Kingdom were the result of strong, clear-sighted individuals.
The fun, and fish menu, that architect John Macleod has created within the narrow confines of Crabshakk, Glasgow; the technical dexterity of chef Mark Greenaway in Edinburgh; to the north and south of Abergavenny in Wales, there is the welcoming food and hospitality extended by Matt and Lisa Tebbutt at The Foxhunter, Nantyderry, not too far from the wit and culinary wisdom dispensed by Shaun and Anja Hill at The Walnut Tree Inn, Llanddewi Skirrid.
This essential team spirit was also on show across London in varying forms. A return visit to the Chiltern Firehouse illustrated the winning combination of Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes and Romain Audrière, his French sommelier, while the opening of the Israeli-inspired Palomar in Soho showed just what pleasure ‘schmooze’ and vibrant Mediterranean cooking can deliver.
As an admirer of Japanese food, I was delighted by my experiences of watching Takashi and Hitomi Takagi working together at their Shiori restaurant, which seats only 16, and the even smaller, but even more costly, The Araki, recently opened by Mitsuhiro and Yoko Araki.
My own trip to Asia led to a series of different restaurants run by very different but equally determined individuals. The classic Cantonese food now served at Duddell’s in Central, the latest from restaurateur Paulo Pong, contrasts with the spicier Teochew food served at Chao Shan Cuisine in Singapore, where customers and staff are overseen by the indefatigable Nancy Seah. Shanghai provided an even starker contrast between the lines of hardworking chefs in their immaculate whites making endless quantities of delicious dumplings at a branch of the remarkableDin Tai Fung and a table at the family-run Jesse, still apparently the most sought-after reservation in that burgeoning city.
But the strongest image of all resonates from a restaurant where reservations are neither made nor taken; where the young chef’s duties involve running round the tables after her baby son; and where our lunch of cucumber salad with chillies, dumplings, and chicken with mushrooms and rice cost £20.50 for eight. The added charm of the Shandong Savoury Wheaten Food Restaurant is that it is in downtown Shangri-La in the Yunnan province of China with the snow-capped Himalayas leading to Tibet in the distance.